Note: I borrowed... okay, stole, a line from Kurt Russell's Wyatt Earp character in "Tombstone." It does belong to the writers of that script and movie, so it's not mine.
"Judge," JD greeted as the renown Circuit Court Judge, Oren Travis, stepped off the morning stage and stretched, working the kinks out of his back and legs from sitting for hours on the hard wooden bench seat.
"JD," the older gentleman acknowledged, before turning and raising his hands to accept the small luggage bag from the coach driver who handed it down from atop the stage.
"We didn't know you were coming."
"I didn't either, till yesterday," Travis commented, turning around to face the young man again. "Need you to get the men together. They all around this morning?" At JD's nod, he continued, "Good. Any prisoners?" When the young man answered with a shake of his head and a quiet "No", Travis added, "We'll meet at the jail in fifteen minutes then. I'll stop by and let Mary know I'm here."
As the Judge walked away, carpet bag in hand, heading toward the Clarion News office, where his daughter-in-law, Mary Travis lived and worked, the young Bostonian, Dunne, strode to the saloon, purpose in his step, to relay Travis' message to his fellow peacekeepers.
Fifteen minutes later the seven peacekeepers and Judge Travis greeted each other in the jail house.
"Well now, might we assume this is not just a social call on our little municipality?" Ezra asked, opening up the floor for conversation. The stylish-dressed gambler, Standish, was seated as was the ex-preacher, Josiah Sanchez and the healer Nathan Jackson. Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington and Dunne were spread around the room, attention directed at the Judge who sat behind the sheriff's desk.
"It's not," Travis clipped off, the look on his face and the sternness in his voice attested to the fact that whatever their meeting was about, it was of a serious nature.
"Got a situation I need to tell you about. I'll give you what I know and it'll be up to each of you as to what you want to do about it." Plucking glasses for reading out of his coat pocket, Travis quickly perused a telegram he had on the desk in front of him.
Some silent awkward moments followed when nervous bodies shifted and a few throats were cleared. Tanner, tracker and ex-bounty hunter, slid a look over at Larabee and their eyes met in mutual intrigue. Usually Travis informed them of what they were going to do, not leaving any doubt that his orders were to be followed. This time it was up to them. Interest was piqued, but also wariness set in.
Travis finished reading whatever it was that had held his attention. Peering at the men over the tops of his reading glasses, he looked like a teacher with a room full of students.
"Ever hear of Silvermint?" He waited patiently until he saw some signs of recognition from a couple of the men. It didn't surprise him in the least that Standish would recognize the town's name.
"I believe there's a settlement by that name northeast of here that used to have a rather large and quite productive silver mine adjacent to it," the gambler said in an almost dreamy-like voice, obviously lost in thought, right thumb twirling the large silver band on his ring finger. "Although, I've heard," he added, clearing his throat and coming back to the present, noticing he was the focus of attention, "that the mine had gone bust a few years ago after it's major vein played out."
"Your information is correct, however, the mine was bought and is still worked by a family named," Travis looked down at his paper, "Culpepper... "
"Culpepper? Did you just say, Culpepper?" Buck asked incredulously, butting in as he straightened up from where he was leaning against a cell. He looked from Travis to Larabee, whose jaw had visibly hardened, and back to Travis again.
"I take it you've heard of them then."
"You might say that," Buck acknowledged the Judge with a nod of his head and a slight upturn of his lips which was nowhere near a smile.
Travis didn't miss the look Wilmington had given to the gunslinger dressed in black. He glanced at Chris, waiting for some explanation.
"It's a personal matter," Larabee spoke, his voice quiet but tinged with a dangerous tone. The man was nearly a legend with his fast gun. Anyone with a lick of sense wouldn't cross him. His eyes met the Judges' for a moment, passing along the information that the subject needed to be dropped.
And Travis did just that. But it gave him pause to worry. They didn't need any distractions right now.
The jailhouse room remained quiet while Travis told the men of the situation in Silvermint; how the Culpepper mining company demanded an explosive to excavate the silver mine, and how that each day their demand was not met, a resident of the town would be put in chains and made to work in the mine. Man, woman or child, it didn't matter. To date, seven of the town's residents were being held as working slaves.
"Well hell, we can get some dynamite, load it in a wagon and take it there. Shouldn't be too tough," Buck stated, looking around the room at the head nods, knowing his comrades were all of the same mind. Unspoken, of course, was what the seven could do about the Culpepper Mining Company. Wilmington might have been a sheriff at one time, but now days, the only rules he was under were his own. Keeping the peace or righting a wrong meant doing whatever was necessary, in his book anyway, and he knew the rest of the men felt the same.
"It's more complicated then that," Travis told them.
"How complicated can it be for a mining company to get dynamite?" Nathan asked, anger evident in his voice. He had no patience for those who held others captive. It went against everything he stood for, and like the others, couldn't comprehend what was so hard about this situation.
"It's not dynamite they asked for."
"What then?" JD asked. "What else is there?"
"Oh good lord," Ezra breathed aloud, eyes rolling around in their sockets.
Dunne turned and looked at his friends; Nathan was shaking his head, mouth turned down into a disgusted frown, Josiah lips were pursed and his big fingers were tapping repeatedly on the arms of the chair. Buck's head was rolling around on his shoulders like it had come loose, Chris... well, Chris just looked indifferent, no emotion, and Vin was looking down, fingering and studying the knot in his stampede string.
"So what's this nitro?" Why's... "
"Nothin' you wanna mess with, kid," Buck interrupted. His voice sounded soft but there was a distinct firmness to it.
"Nitroglycerin," Ezra explained, "is probably one of the most unstable components on the face of this earth. Volatile. No one with their faculties in order would mess with it."
"Hell, you sneeze and the stuff can blow up. No wonder nobody's stepped forward. I'll just tell you no right now and save you a speech, Judge."
"Maybe there's another way," Nathan came back at Buck's dismissal. "I ain't turnin' no blind eye ta innocent people bein' made slaves. No sir."
"We can always make it look like we've got the stuff, you know, pull the wool over their eyes, so to speak," was Josiah's voiced idea.
"The nitro's already enroute," Travis informed. "It's only a few days out of Silvermint. They are aware of it."
"So what's the problem?" Buck voiced the question that was on all their minds.
"Driver quit." Travis tapped the message he had before him. "His partner was seriously wounded trying to remove a cracked bottle. Doesn't want any more... " he stopped talking when a light knock was heard at the door.
Ezra answered it, took a piece of paper from a young boy, dug in his vest pocket for a coin, closed the door and handed the message to Travis.
A silent oath escaped the Judge's mouth. "Driver's partner died and now he's quit. Wagon is now at an abandoned farm just outside the town of Torrent." Travis let out a deep sigh while removing his glasses. "I don't know what to tell you men. People's lives are at stake but yet... I don't know." He shook his head. It was a suicide mission, he knew that. "Now you know why this is on a volunteer basis."
"I say we just sneak on over there and teach 'em a few manners," Buck said, thinking the idea sounded even more appealing now that he'd voiced it out loud.
"They've got guards out, someone even trailed the wagon. Knew every move. Be putting the whole town at risk," Travis pointed out, noting the deflated looks. "I'll be leaving in the morning. If... if anyone decides to take this on, come and talk to me, otherwise, I'll send some wires, maybe the Army will get involved."
"It'll take days for them to get here," Nathan mumbled out loud, "if they take it on."
"Might be the only choice we have," Oren stated as he pushed his chair away from the desk and stood up. "Gentlemen," he said, then left.
"Well, that pretty much sealed it for me, that fella gettin' killed," Buck announced to JD as the men piled out of the jail, splintering off into different directions. No one had said a word after the Judge left, each man keeping his thoughts contained. "Best you just forget about it too," he added, seeing the concentration on his young friend's face.
"I don't know, Buck. Seems like someone should go and help those people."
"Did you not just hear what the Judge said? A man died, JD. From handling the stuff. Can't do those people any good if you are dead. I say there has to be another way."
"Looks like Chris and Vin are going," JD's attention was diverted as both men turned to watch Larabee and Tanner shake hands with Travis, then head into Potter's mercantile.
"Yeah, well... " and there was more he was going to voice, something akin to if your friends rode off a cliff, would you do it too, but he kept his mouth shut. "The others are headed into the saloon. Why don't we go and see what they are thinkin'." Buck wanted JD to think the situation over instead of making a rash decision and was pleased when Dunne started off toward the saloon.
"Hey, JD. How 'bout I buy you a whiskey?" Or two, or three, thought Buck, his intention to get the young man so drunk he'd forget about the Judge's visit. But his hopes were dashed as Dunne settled for his usual mug of milk.
"What do you guys think about this nitro bit?" JD asked as he and Buck joined Nathan, Josiah and Ezra at their table.
"Hate hearing 'bout folks bein' held for slave labor," Nathan answered after taking a swig of beer. "Think I may take the Judge up on the offer."
"Vin and Chris are going to do it," JD added. "And I'm thinking about it too." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Buck frown into his beer. "Come on, Buck. You know that mining company is owned by Ella Gaines and maybe Chris can find her again."
"We don't know if she still owns it or not, or even if she's around, JD and first we'd have to GET there with that nitro and I gotta tell you, I'd rather take my chances head to head with a dozen gunmen."
"I concur, Mr. Wilmington. I for one," Ezra stated as he flipped up cards for his Solitary game, "am willing to forego this expedition. Being on a wagon train and a trail drive* were occupational hazards. This, I consider suicide."
"Josiah? What about you?" Dunne asked, wiping away the last remnants of milk from his lip with his shirtsleeve.
Sanchez pursed his lips and toyed with his beer glass before answering. "Guess if it's my time to go, it won't matter if it's from a bullet or being blown to kingdom come." He cocked his head and let out a sigh, thinking about the irony in that last bit.
"Does that mean you are going then?"
"Yep. That means I'm going," Josiah answered the young man. "Might as well inform the Judge and get ready."
"I'm gonna do the same," Nathan said, standing up and leaving with his friend.
"So everyone is going except you two," JD pointed briefly at Standish and Wilmington.
"It appears that way."
"If you're smart you won't go either. This is no game, JD."
"I know that, Buck. I know it's dangerous."
"Damn right it is. You should be thinking of your future. Casey even." Buck was grasping at anything to try and get his young friend to change his thoughts. But knowing JD, and he did know the kid, once his mind was made up, it rarely got changed.
"I could walk out of here right now and get run over by a wagon or shot even. I think Josiah's right. If it's suppose to happen, it will."
"Doesn't mean you have ta help it along," Buck was speaking low, but his tone was demanding. "I think... "
"You're not the boss of me, Buck," JD whispered harshly. "I'm going," and he punctuated those words by slamming his empty glass down on the table. Pushing away from the table, he left, not looking back.
"That went well," Ezra drawled, then picked up his cards. Couldn't even win at Solitaire, his mind kept wandering in different directions. "Seems once again our little party is split in it's endeavors." He stood up to leave, noticing Buck wasn't paying any attention. "Least there are a couple of us that have our sanity intact." He stared at Wilmington. "Think I'll go on up to the roof and throw myself off," to which he got a wave of a hand and a "see ya later". Sighing, he left the ladies' man to stew in his thoughts.
+ + + + + + +
Next morning there were five horses saddled and ready outside the saloon. While Judge Travis talked and shook hands with four of the men, Buck was still working on the fifth, JD Dunne, trying to get him to change his mind about going. Wilmington figured getting blown to itty-bitty pieces was one damn good reason not to volunteer, but the young man was adamant. Nothing the ladies' man said could sway JD's mind, not last night, not now.
Ezra watched it all play out, arms draped over the opened bat-wing saloon doors. Not even the sight of his comrades marching straight into probable death could change his mind. Besides, the town was still a concern of theirs and he and Buck were needed to stay and protect it. Least that was his reasoning and he was sticking to it. The men had worked it all out amongst themselves last night. No hard feelings about staying or going. Well, besides JD and Buck. It was still an issue with them.
"Just tell Casey I said goodbye and I'll see her when I get back."
Buck snorted, but said he would, then shook hands with his young friend. "Be careful," he told him, the sternness in his voice no match for the gentle concern in his eyes.
JD grinned at him as he pulled himself into the saddle and gathered up his reins. "Always am, Buck," he answered confidently.
"Yeah, right," the ladies' man answered with a forced smile and stepped away from the horse. He hopped onto the sidewalk and leaned against a support post, aware of Ezra coming to stand next to him. "Watch your backsides!" Buck called out as the men turned their horses noses to the west and rode out.
"Why do I feel like a rat that just abandoned ship?" Buck asked, squinting at the retreating backs of his friends.
"It's called self-preservation, my friend. Some are more keenly aware of it than others," Ezra told him, while taking his pocket watch out and spit-cleaning it's glass face with his thumb. He hated to admit it but his mind was automatically ticking off the amount of time it'd take Chris and the others to reach Torrent and get on their way with the nitro. He wasn't going to be worth a damn at cards the next few days and it galled him. Cards, gambling, pulling cons, those things were his passion, NOT playing lawman. His conscious needed to shut-up. He sighed, pocketing the watch.
They stood for awhile longer and watched the stage rumble into town, rocking to a stop about mid-way down Main Street and disgorging a few passengers. Buck heard Ezra's quiet "harrumph", denoting the absence of anyone even remotely resembling a saloon patron.
"Might just be pretty quiet around here for a few days," Buck remarked, not sure if he was really happy about that or not.
"Time for you to get better acquainted with your paramours then," Ezra spoke, his eyes following Oren Travis and Mary as they walked to the stage. Somehow even though he couldn't see Wilmington's face, he knew it bore a smile at what he'd said.
Following a brief hug from Mary, the Judge was ensconced in the stage and it was on it's way out of town. Ezra mused at how the Circuit Court Judge's wave was so much like the man himself; curt and with no wasted movement. Mary approached them, arms crossed over her chest, a look of worry creasing her pretty features.
"Oren'll be back in a couple of days. He's worried about that shipment getting to Silvermint. So am I, to tell you the truth," she looked at the two men before her.
"Well, now, don't you worry none, Mary. It couldn't be in better hands. If anyone can get it there, it's Chris and the others." Buck gave her a smile that he hoped relayed more of what he said than of how he felt.
The pretty blonde pressed her lips together and gave Wilmington and Standish a nod and a brief smile, then excused herself and headed back across the street to her business.
"Breakfast, Mr. Wilmington?"
"Sounds like a great idea to me. You buyin'?"
"Not in your lifetime. Besides you still owe me for... " the conversation was lost as the bat-wing doors to the saloon squeaked noisily back and forth when the men entered.
+ + + + + + +
His patience finally snapped. "Would you please stop that infernal drumming!" Ezra huffed out, the card in his hand stilling in mid turn. Ever since Wilmington had joined him at his table an hour ago, he'd been like a jack-in-the-box; up and down, over to the bar and back, asking questions, then answering them himself. Now he was sitting-- barely, perched on the tip end of a chair seat, chin resting in one palm, the fingers on the other hand beating out an annoying stucco as they drummed again and again on the wooden table.
"I'm just trying to get this straight in my mind is all," the busy fingers laid flat for a few brief minutes.
"Yes," Ezra started patiently, "Carbon Pass, steep both ways, LaMont's Stream, low this time of the year, but an extremely rocky bed, yes, and the storms up that way two weeks ago might have knocked trees in the roadway... but these things..."
"And it's warm... unseasonably warm. No. Hot. Yeah, unseasonably hot. And that stuff can go off when it's too hot... gotta keep it cooled down, ain't that right? Wonder if they know that. They should know that, right? I mean, who doesn't know that? JD. JD wouldn't know that. How could he know that? I mean, look where's he's from." The fingers picked up it's cadence once again. "What if Chris..."
"That's it!" Ezra threw his cards into the middle of the table, leaned back in his chair and leveled a glare at the motor-mouth sitting across from him. "Mr. Wilmington... Buck," he took a deep breath to control himself, "why don't you just go and do what you really want to do instead of sitting here and second guessing yourself?" and driving me insane, he wanted to add.
"What? And leave you here by yourself?" Buck feigned unbelief at the suggestion.
"Well, look around," Ezra told him, waving a hand in a semi-circle around himself, "it's as quiet as one of Mr. Sanchez's services. And you being on tenterhooks is making me weary."
Wilmington's eyebrows scrunched and "Huh?" came out of his mouth.
"And you're not?"
"Yes, but now we both can't go riding off now can we? One of us should stay and be vigilant. I propose that it be me. It's as simple as that."
"Uh huh." Buck nodded in agreement. "Well, so much for that self-preservation bit, I guess." Standing up, he slapped the gambler on the shoulder as he went by and mumbled, "Be seein' ya."
Standish picked up the discarded deck and arranged them back into order. "And the rat swims back to the ship," he mumbled.
"I heard that!" Wilmington called out before exiting the building.
Ezra rolled his eyes, blew out a sigh and shuffled the deck.
+ + + + + + +
"Hey! I need another card here!" A fist rapped on the table snapping the gambler back into focus.
"I said, I need another card here. You quit 'fore ya got ta me."
Ezra didn't miss the way the word "said" was drawn out as if the man sitting to his right thought he was talking to an imbecile.
"You dress like a dandy but ya sure don't play like one," a man with a protruding forehead announced. He and his fist-rapping buddy snickered and tossed their antes into the middle of the table. They were making a killing off the red-coated so-called gambler.
Standish had a come-back but kept his mouth sealed. He had to admit, his mind wasn't entirely on the game at hand. Or the game before this one, or the one before that... face it, he told himself, he was a rat treading water, wondering which way to swim.
It was the table to his back left that was to blame for his absence of mind on the card games. Instead of focusing on the matters at hand, he kept straining to hear the conversations that were going on in back of him, catching bits and pieces of like how crazy Larabee and the others were to deliver the deadly nitro... Ezra guessed they'd have to talk to the telegraph operator again about his messenger boys keeping their mouths shut... or the stories of how great the explosive worked on clearing mountainsides or mines, and tales of horror on what it could do to flesh and bone. One last comment though, had Standish folding early, and taking his leave amidst guffaws and name calling. Good thing for them he'd been preoccupied or he'd a cleaned the cretins clear down to their drawers. Perhaps another time. That thought caused a knowing smirk to cross his lips as he left the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
"Rider comin' up fast," Nathan announced as the sound of a horse galloping came within earshot of everyone and put them on alert. Whoever it was, was riding hard, definitely in a hurry.
"It's Ezra!" Vin shouted down from his vantage point up high on a hill of boulders. He could just make out Standish's mount in the pinkish hues of early sunrise.
The six men were off the main road, back under some low hanging trees and up against a small cliff, of sorts. A place picked out by Tanner that he considered safe for them and the nitro wagon. If anyone wanted to reach them, they'd have to come through the front door, so to speak.
The morning silence was shattered when a gunshot sounded and it's echo seemed to bounce off every tree and rock for miles. Larabee spun his Colt a couple times before smoothly re-holstering it. His stance was that of a man in full confidence.
Ezra reigned his horse to a skidding stop and wheeled the big animal around, ready to do battle with whomever took a shot at him. When no bullets came his way, he took time to study his surroundings. When his eyes adjusted to the dimness of morning he could pick out men standing underneath a copse of huge oaks just off the road where he'd passed. He'd recognize the man with that flat-brimmed hat anywhere. He spurred his horse forward.
"Ezra! Where you headed?" Larabee called out to him, white teeth flashing in a grin.
"Why, to find you, of course," Standish answered, nodding to the rest of the men as he dismounted. He saw Tanner on guard up high and knew it was the tracker that'd picked him out... probably from a mile away, he mused. The full moon had been a perfect time last evening to head post haste to his destination, although he'd figured them to be further along than they were.
"Coffee's on," Josiah told him, tossing out what was left in a cup, swiping it across his pants leg in a crude attempt at cleaning it, then pouring in new brew.
"Ahoy, Matey," Wilmington whispered to him conspiratorily, taking his horse's reins. Ezra smirked at him before walking to the fire and taking the proffered coffee cup.
"Who's watching the town?"
"Virgil, Yosemite and a few others I managed to scrounge up," Ezra told Nathan, turning to get his first glimpse of the nitro-toting wagon.
"What made you change your mind?"
Ezra took a sip of the strong, black brew before answering Jackson, giving the healer a chance to take a jab at him. "Conscience botherin' you?"
Grimacing at the coffee taste, Ezra answered, "Wasn't anything going on in town, and well, yes, after Mr. Wilmington conceeded, I felt a bit... out of place, as it were." Danged if he was going to add that bit of conversation he'd overheard about how easy it'd be to rid the territory of the peacekeepers with just one well-placed shot. It'd made him shudder to think of the consequences of that. He'd just as soon be here with them, watching their backs or even going up in a cloud of smoke with the rest of them than sitting back in town all safe and secure with a deck of cards in his hands. He was
"Meaning no one of interest got off the stage," Nathan said more to the rest of the group than to Ezra. He tried to keep a smile from his face. Standish liked people to believe he didn't care, but it was a ruse. Nathan had seen it more than once. Oh, the man put up a good front, but they all knew him better than he knew himself at times. Wasn't that the way it was with most people?
"This the wagon, then," Ezra stated, changing the subject and removing himself from the circle of men, away from any more conscience-prodding questions.
What he was looking at seemed to be an undertaker's hearse wagon with the windows removed, but top left intact. Suspended about two foot from the top and held into place by no less than a dozen pieces of rope, one in each corner, three on each side, and one front and back, was a large rectangular box. The box Ezra guessed was about 36 x 24 and was approximately six inches high. The tops of little bottles could be seen, standing straight like soldiers in rows. Standish noted that each bottle was swathed in a thick piece of cotton as well as each side being cushioned with the soft white stuff also. Twenty three bottles he quickly assessed. Had been twenty four to start. He tried to suppress a shudder... and failed. Felt it all the way to his toes.
"Lot of power there," Josiah noted somberly.
"Slow goin', too," Nathan added. "Took a long time just to go a few miles. Gonna be a long haul."
"We take it slow and easy, we'll be okay," Buck said, coming to stand with the rest. Wilmington always seemed to be the eternal optimist, however "slow" and "easy" were words that contradicted the big man in many ways. Only when he was working on wooing a contradictory woman could he be construed as going "slow" and "easy".
"Yes, well," Ezra took a deep breath and drained the coffee cup. "I imagine the particulars of how this is to be done has been worked out."
The soft but commanding voice of Larabee answered, "Two drivers; one to handle the reins and one brake, the other to watch the nitro and handle the second brake. Two walkers up front when the trail is rough. One rider behind, one up front and one scout rider. Evens it out better now that you are here."
Standish nodded, secretly pleased that his decision to come was being validated and that he would indeed make a difference in their perilous journey. Anything to insure more safety, he figured. The thought of losing any one of these men was something he didn't relish.
"Be light enough ta leave when the horses are hitched up," Tanner said, materializing beside Larabee, from out of nowhere.
"Let's get this show on the road then," JD's young voice piped up and Buck mumbled something under his breath.
+ + + + + + +
Wilmington and Dunne took their turns at driving the wagon. Since the road was fairly easy at this point, Buck had allowed his young friend to take up the reins while he watched the gentle swaying box of nitro with an eagle eye. The town's undisputed ladies' man knew that futher down the road it would become rougher and more dangerous and perhaps JD could be put further out of harm's way when the drivers rotated, although Buck knew if the stuff were to blow, nothing within a few thousand feet would be left untouched. As much as he would have liked, he knew he couldn't protect JD totally. And the stubborn Bostonian wouldn't allow it anyway.
They didn't need walkers at this point, however, Ezra was riding in front of the wagon and periodically dismounted and tossed larger rocks by the wayside, trying to insure a smoother trail for the wagon.
The day wore on as did the trail. Drivers were switched every couple of hours because as they'd found out the day before, muscles tensed up in the back, neck and arms unbeknownst to the driver. The stiffness wasn't felt until duty was relieved and the man realized just how tight he'd become. Nathan had told them it was more than likely nerves, their body tensing up in it's alertness to a dangerous situation. It made for some sore muscles, sitting on a hard bench, holding a team of horses in check. Taking a break every couple of hours helped and yet allowed the men to remain alert because of changing to a different job. Larabee had made the rotation such that drivers would next be walkers in order to stretch the kinks out.
The relatively smooth road started giving way to a more rocky one as LaMont's Stream lay dead ahead. Springtime made for tough crossings because the stream was mountain fed and could become quite wild after the winter thaw. Now, in the hot months, it wasn't hard to cross, but there were boulders and large rocks laying helter skelter in the bed. About a mile before reaching the stream, Nathan and Josiah were walking in front of the wagon, moving larger rocks out of the way. If one of relative size was moved, then dirt had to be shoveled in the crevice it made in order to smooth it out for the wagon wheel. It was tedious work, but necessary. The closer to the river bed they came, the worse it got.
Vin had been out scouting and now rode to the wagon where the men conferred for awhile.
"Anything?" Larabee asked, rolling his shoulders and stretching his hands. He'd been the driver for the past hour. Ezra was sitting alongside him.
"Rough all the way down," Vin told the men, wrists crossed over the saddle horn. "Mite shallower down a ways though," he jerked his head to the left, indicating where he'd just returned from.
"Alright," Chris said. Nodding to Sanchez and Jackson, the two men started up the team by talking to them and gently pulling on their head gear. It had been decided this was the way to begin rolling because it was a lot smoother than the jump start the horses gave at times when anxious to get moving. Nobody liked watching the nitro box swing too much.
Half an hour later, the entourage sat before the stream and discussed the situation. The water was only about knee high, clear as a bell, but rocky as all get-out. Not anything they could do about that. Tanner had said it was the same up and down the line. They'd just have to go slow. Chris would still drive, however, Ezra and Vin would be in the back of the wagon holding the nitro box to keep it from overly swinging and perhaps toppling out a bottle. Standish had checked to make sure all 23 bottles were as snug as they could be and then insisted that Tanner recheck his work. There was no margin for error here at all.
Larabee had the men check the wheels and all the gear and horse rigging before they began to cross. Every morning they did the same thing; checked the gear, the wagon, the bottles, the horses... if something was going to happen, it wouldn't be on account of their sloppiness.
To the older men, the checking was just plain good sense, self preservation, but to JD it was a marvel. He knew them all as very capable men, the most capable he'd ever met in fact and yet, when it came to something as dangerous as this, they all checked and double-checked each other's work. It was done matter-of-fact almost and no one thought anything of it. The first day when he'd been asked to recheck the team of horses' feet after Vin had just done it, he mentioned it to Josiah who told him, "We're all human," and walked away. He didn't completely understand it then, but he did now and was thankful even more for the expertise each man had and their willingness to work as a team.
LaMont's Stream or River, as it was called when the banks were full, was about 150 feet wide during the dry months, little more in the spring, and it's banks wouldn't be hard to negotiate since they were gently sloped.
First at hand was making clear passageways to and from the water, and with six men doing the clearing, it didn't take long. The seventh was left with the wagon. At no time while the team was hitched to the wagon was it left alone. Horses could be spooked either by wild animals, snakes or an unannounced rider, so one man was always with them to keep watch and calm them if need be.
Larabee watched from the wagon bench seat as his men cleared the pathway they'd be taking. After that was completed, JD took the men's horses across the stream and left them to graze on the other side. Six of them would be walking, watching for danger spots in the stream bed and that was best done on foot not up higher from horseback.
Vin and Ezra took their spots at the back of the wagon, they didn't have much room to settle, front, back, sides or top. Undertakers wagons were for those in a prone position. They told Chris when they were ready to roll.
Buck and Josiah guided the team into the water, taking it slow. The horses tossed their heads and snorted, wanting to fight those that held them, but with three strong men holding them in check they remained obedient. Someone at the other end had done a good job of picking out a strong yet gentle team and the peacekeepers were thankful for it.
JD and Nathan kept their eyes to the stream bottom, testing stones, watching out for big rocks that the wheels would have to go around. They were the lead, so to speak, and Josiah, Buck and Chris would maneuver wherever they were told to go.
It was an extremely bumpy ride, every wheel rolling, then dipping as they went over a rock, then down until they came back up on the next one. Vin and Ezra were taking a beating all the way from their knees, which they sat on, to their shoulders and backs, working at keeping the nitro box from swinging too much. Since there were no enclosed sides to the wagon, the two didn't have anything to brace themselves against the constant bumping, only having to steady themselves with pure strength and muscle making it one tough job.
It was close to the approaching bank when near-disaster struck. The right driver-side wheel slipped off a rock and dropped into a hole sending that front side of the wagon into a tilt. Larabee was sitting in the middle of the bench seat, fortunately, and could brace his foot and leg against the inside box and stay seated. He wouldn't be able to hold the position long though. He strained with everything he had to keep the powerful horses pure instinct to just pull them up and out from happening. Chris knew if they did that, chances were they wouldn't stop until reaching the shore.
Ezra wasn't quite as lucky though. The sudden drop caused him to lose his balance and hold on the nitro box. He was thrown in a downward position, backside of his left ribcage coming into contact with the side board of the wagon box. It was by sheer might and fast reflexes that kept him from toppling out. The hard edge of the wooden side coupled with the pressure of his own weight was definitely going to leave it's mark as he felt an instant stab of pain. Standish put it out of his mind though as his sense of self-preservation kicked in. Immediately righting himself, he grabbed hold of his side of the nitro-box, eyes meeting Tanner's over the bottles, letting him know he was back in control.
Chris' constant, urgent "whoa, whoa, easy" to the horses was the only sound that could be heard before a splashing noise joined in.
Immediately when the wagon tilted, Josiah grabbed Nathan to take the horses and he made his way back to the wagon. At times like this, he was immensely thankful for the physical strength God had given him.
Buck wanted to yell at JD to just get the hell away, get to the shore and run, but the young man was already on his way back, following in Sanchez's wake.
"Hold on, Chris, I'm comin'," Josiah called, getting back to the sunken wheel.
"I can't hold on much longer," Chris told him, arm and leg muscles straining to keep him in control and on the wagon. Wilmington and Jackson were doing their best to keep the horses in check also. The animals were impatient, wanting to just pull, not having a clue that what they were carrying was so potentially volatile and lethal.
"We get this wheel out, the other is going to follow right along. JD," Josiah talked quietly and quickly to the young man beside him, "find a rock, any rock and push it into the hole before the back wheel gets here. We'll try and give you as much time as we can, but it's gotta be done fast, son, and you gotta get out of the way." The ex-preacher knew it was a gamble and that it was dangerous, especially for JD. He was sure Buck would have his head later, but for now, it was either that, or take their chances at another wheel drop. And Josiah just didn't like those odds.
"I'll do it," came the confident remark, the young man's arms already submerged in the water, searching for a sizeable rock that he could handle and yet get into the hole fast to help minimize the drop.
"Ready!" Josiah gave the call after Dunne found what he was looking for and got into place right near the wheel, focusing only on what he was to do.
The timing was right; one wheel came out, took a half rotation, and JD got his rock in place barely getting his fingers and head out of the way by the time the next wheel came along. There was a bump, and the wheel dropped some but not near as much as it had the first time. Ezra and Vin were ready this time, the nitro box staying pretty much still.
"Whoo!" Buck exclaimed a few minutes later, releasing his death grip on the horse he'd been guiding. He took his hat off, ran his hands through his hair and sucked in a big gulp of air and let it out in a whoosh! One by one the men joined him on the nice, flat, smooth, meadow area just beyond the bank. They had made it.
"Now that was near perfect!" he hooted as the other men stretched, rubbed at sore muscles and breathed deeply for the first time in nearly a half hour. To a man, they felt like they'd been in a battle and came out the victor... barely. It could have ended so easily right there in the middle of LaMont's Stream. And to a man, they were tired. Physically and mentally.
"We take a rest, eat somethin', then head out again," Chris told them. "Got a lot of daylight left. Might as well use it." Turning his attention to Vin and Ezra he asked, "You two alright?" When the wagon tilted, he'd heard a lot of commotion in the back but had no time to check it out. So he was asking now.
"Ezra might be a little worse for wear," Vin tattled, which promptly got Jackson's attention and from there a lively conversation took place between the healer and the gambler. Tanner and Larabee shared a look and a grin, then dug in their saddle bags to find something to eat.
"You alright?" Buck asked JD, in a quiet concerned voice. JD answered him with a face-splitting smile.
"What are you grinnin' about? You like this huh? What did you think you were doin', runnin' back to the wagon? You could have gotten yourself killed you know?" Wilmington fired off the questions, Dunne's smiling face egging him on. "And what is that?" he pointed to the young man's right hand. "Is that blood? What were you doing? Don't make me ask Josiah now," he threatened when JD held up his hand, looking at his scraped knuckles. He hadn't noticed them until now, until Buck brought it up. JD considered them to be a badge of courage.
"Nice work out there, son," Sanchez clapped Dunne on the shoulder as he walked by with an armload of sticks for firewood.
Wilmington cocked his head and an eyebrow rose in question. He was curious as to what JD had done. He'd been on the opposite side of the tilted wagon busy with holding the team and couldn't see. Never occurred to him that he might not want to know.
"Just doin' my job, Buck," JD answered, wiping the back of his bloody knuckles on his pant legs. Little blood on the hands, little on the pants, yeah, he looked like he was in the thick of things.
"Let's go have Nathan take a look."
"Humor me, kid. Now let's go." He gave JD a playful push in the direction of where Nathan was. Maybe Jackson would shed some light on what JD had been doing. They took their place in line behind Standish.
+ + + + + + +
The men were back on the road after finishing their quick meal of coffee, bread and jerky. Buck and Josiah were driving the wagon, Ezra and Vin walked in front, Nathan rode in front of the walkers and Larabee scouted ahead. JD brought up the rear on horseback. Even though the wagon and wheels had been checked over before they took off, Chris had put JD behind to keep watch on the wheels to make sure they were rolling smoothly.
JD sat his horse and watched the wheels go round and round. His thoughts were on the gunslinger in black--Chris Larabee. Was there anything the man hadn't thought of? He made sure everything was checked and rechecked, that there was plenty of water for keeping the nitro cooled down, enough bullets and weaponry for a small army, and he made sure the men rotated in order to keep fresh. Larabee was such a leader of men... like a natural. He gave orders and the others followed them. Oh that's not to say there weren't other opinions and ideas given, there were, but Chris just seemed to be the undisputed leader of the men and the town. JD had never asked, but he knew every one of the men had been in the war. If he had to guess, he'd bet Larabee had been some kind of a commanding officer. He just seemed to wear that kind of responsibility like that long black duster of his; it was a part of him that seemed to fit perfectly.
His thoughts were interrupted when the wagon in front of him slowed to a stop. Riding to the front he saw the man his thoughts had been on was back from scouting and he didn't look very happy.
"What is it? What's going on?" JD asked of the two men on the driver's seat.
"Not sure yet," came Buck's answer, "but ol' Chris don't look none too happy."
Tanner and Larabee were in a conversation, pointing and gesturing, shaking their heads.
Ezra mounted his horse and rode the short distance back to the wagon. "Apparently," he began, when seeing the questioning looks, "there's a tree blocking the path up ahead. From the storm last week," he added, knowing that the question of possible sabotage was on the men's minds.
"Can we go around?" Josiah wanted to know.
"Doesn't sound like it. Road narrows and it's too steep for the wagon to skirt a path adjacent. Mr. Tanner is thinking on an alternate route."
Nathan joined them after a few minutes.
"What's the verdict?" Buck asked, thinking maybe he should get down and stretch for a bit.
"Chris says it starts ta get hilly up aways. Tree uprooted from the hillside. Even if we could figure a way around, might be more down the line." He gave his head a shake, "Vin don't recall any other way to go that would be easier, this bein' the only passable road, that is."
"You guys ever wonder why Chris is the leader?"
JD's question didn't get an answer. What it did get, was four men looking at him like he'd just grown another head.
"What?" Buck pinned him with a look.
"Nothin'. I mean, I was just thinkin' and..."
"Well, quit that and pay attention," Wilmington told him, watching Larabee and Tanner ride up.
"Got a situation," Larabee told them in his no-nonsense kind of way. It was followed with "We got some work to do." An understatement for sure.
+ + + + + + +
When the wagon finally rolled to a stop again it was in front of a huge old oak tree that like Nathan had reported, was completely blocking the road. To the right was a hillside from where the tree had been violently pulled from the ground, it's root-ball looming like gnarly, ghost-like fingers rising from an underground grave. Then to the left of the road, the hillside continued it's downward slant. Broken branches and limbs scattered the area, making it tough for man or beast to make any headway. It was possible to go around the tree on the downhill side on horseback, but not for a wagon. Especially not this wagon.
Ropes were taken from the wagon bed, the team was unhitched and Chris and Vin took the sturdy animals to the other side of the tree. The trek took awhile since the oak was a mammoth and it's top end was strung out quite a ways down the hill. Josiah, Nathan and Buck worked their way over the tree and got the ropes tied down and ready to go. JD and Ezra worked on the wagon side, clearing a pathway of debris, even using their horses at times to pull away the larger branches.
It took the men well over an hour, men and beasts working together, just to get the massive oak moved out of the way enough to get the wagon through. Then there was more debris to clear away on the other side before they were finally on their way once more. The day was pretty well spent at this point. Vin scouted ahead for a campsite, Larabee wanting to call an end to the day as soon as possible. They were all tired and sore and when a man got overly tired, he became sloppy and in this situation they had no room for mistakes.
The hillside turned into more of a mountainside and then into a cliff wall. Tanner called a halt near the base of Carbon Hill, aptly named because the steep climb going one way was basically a carbon copy of the steep decline the other way. Not huge, just steep. Treacherous. Up at the top there was a small summit that could be used for a resting spot before heading downward.
"Oh boy," Buck breathed out from his seat on the wagon, looking at the hill before him. "Anybody besides me think this is really a bad idea?"
From the moment Travis uttered the word 'nitro', Standish thought to himself.
"Might be a little late now, wouldn't you say?" Josiah deadpanned, sitting beside the ladies' man.
"Can't turn back," Nathan said, to one one in particular. "Over that hill yonder, we'll be close to Silvermint."
"Yes, well, it's getting over that 'hill yonder' as you call it, that could be our untimely demise," Ezra drawled, arms resting on the saddle horn.
"It's not so much the goin' up that worries me, it's the goin' down," Buck said, taking his hat off and wiping his sweaty brow with the sleeve of his shirt. "I feel like dirt with clothes on." He gave a hearty sneeze. Jackets had been shed earlier while working at the tree and were never reclaimed.
"An apt description, Mr. Wilmington," the Southerner agreed, removing his hat and wiping the sweat from his forehead and hatband with a pristine white handkerchief.
"Anybody put more water on the nitro?" Chris asked, riding Pony into the discussion of his men and back out again, not expecting an answer, but, expecting somebody to move on the idea. Larabee was going to check their backtrail, in case anyone was following them.
Chatter had stopped when the gunslinger passed by and bodies swung into action, getting supplies ready for supper and bedding down. And yes, someone did water the nitro box, soaking the cotton around the bottles. Tanner had gone further ahead, checking out the pass and looking for anyone who might be watching them. So far none of them had seen anyone dogging their trail, ahead or behind. Not a soul was out there besides them and their volatile load.
+ + + + + + +
A slight shake of the head. "Seem strange to you?"
"A mite. If they're out there, they're doin' a good job of keepin' hid."
"What do you think they're talking about?" JD asked Buck, chin pointing to Tanner and Larabee, the men untacking their horses while talking.
"Probably wonderin' why we ain't seen anybody while we been out here."
"You think that's bad?" JD wanted to know. He hadn't given that a thought.
"Seein' as how Judge Travis told us in that note that the wagon had been watched before, it does make one wonder," Josiah said, as he walked by with a pot and some unopened can goods.
"Perhaps after the one driver was fatally injured, it might have discouraged the mine owners from being anywhere in the vicinity. Just a thought, of course," Standish added, his arms full of bed rolls. Smart thinking.
Discussion that evening over supper and coffee was about the fact that no one had been following or watching them and also how they were going to handle Carbon Pass. Although they didn't come to any conclusion on the former subject, they had their plans made up about the latter.
When JD drifted off to sleep that night, he wondered when he'd become as observant as these men he rode with. His answer would come in the morning.
+ + + + + + +
He looked once then looked again. Something wasn't quite right. Climbing onto the wagon bed, he intently studied the box holding the nitro. Then he took his finger and ever so carefully ran it over one spot. Looking then at the bottles all lined up, and peering at them closely, his eyes opened wide at what he spotted.
"Hey fellas," JD called, drawing everyone's attention. "I think we got a problem."
+ + + + + + +
"I can do this, Chris. I'm younger, reflexes are better." JD was fighting a losing battle and he knew it by the intense look in Larabee's eyes. Buck's response made it final.
"Get down outta there right now!" the big man nearly bellowed. "Be careful!" were his next words of warning.
Dunne let out a sigh and rolled his eyes.
Chris eyed the gully that ran hortizontally along the roadside opposite the cliff wall. It was like a big dried-up riverbed, probably ran wild with water in heavy rains but now had nothing in it but boulders and tumbleweeds. He'd have to take the glass bottle down there and leave it... eventually it'd all leak out into the soil and be washed away. No harm done. He looked up in time to see Standish take his jacket off and climb into the wagon.
"What do you think you're doing?" The growl in his voice only gave the gambler cause to pause for a second before continuing.
"Get the hell outta there!" Buck demanded, squelching the idea of going and pulling the idiot bodily out of the wagon.
"I'll do this," Vin said, putting a restraining hand on the gambler's forearm. "I'm the one with a bounty on my head."
Standish stared at the long-haired man. "And your point would be?" he asked.
"Oh this is just stupid!" Buck yelled out, stomping around, weaving in and out of his friends, hands busy slapping air. "Get outta that damn wagon until we can think of something!"
"Ezra," Nathan said, "Buck is right. Just come on out and let us think of another way outta this." As much as he and Standish vexed each other, he certainly didn't want the man going up in a cloud of vapor.
"Well, gentlemen, the only other 'way' out, is to quit. And since the idea of bondage and slavery leaves a repugnant taste in all our mouths, I propose we get this over with so that we can be on our merry way, and I use that term lightly, believe me. However," he added after a pause, "if anyone comes up with a viable solution, I'm willing to listen."
A couple of silent minutes ticked by, as minds whirled, trying to come up with an alternate idea.
"It's still going to take two to do this," Chris finally broke the quiet, his statement ending any debate on the situation.
"I concur, Mr. Larabee. I will take the bottle out, pass it to you, then I will proceed to take it down the hillside into the gully."
"This is just nuts!" Wilmington voiced his final opinion. No one paid attention, although they were in complete agreement.
"Alright," the gunman agreed. "Two of you stay and hold the horses, the rest get away from here."
Nobody made a move. It was like their boots were mired in muck. How could they make a decision on who stayed and who went? They couldn't. Wouldn't. It was as simple as that. If one stayed, they were all going to stay. Well, Buck tried to shoo JD away, but the young man wouldn't have anything to do with it.
"Make up your minds!" came Larabee's command, his voice aggravated. "We need ta get back on the road." Putting a positive spin on a bad situation was the only way Chris knew to keep spirits up. And predictably, the men held onto that and moved into action.
JD walked to the side of the wagon before moving to the front by the horses.
"It's the one just to the right of the yellow spot."
"Thank you, Mr. Dunne." Ezra wanted to add that he could see that for himself, but knew JD was only trying to be helpful, and he'd recognized a slight tremor in the young man's voice. Standish was also aware of Vin stationing himself alongside Larabee and reaching up to steady the nitro box. Ezra's lips lifted a little. Strong, silent and steady... that was Vin Tanner in a nutshell. Chris knew it too for he never uttered a rebuke.
The gambler spied the leaking bottle, waggled his fingers a few seconds in a show of loosening them, then slowly and carefully pulled the vial and the cotton surrounding it, from it's spot. He then passed it to the outside of the carriage into the capable hands of their leader and proceeded to back out of the wagon.
Chris held onto the bottle with utmost care, not taking his eyes from it. "You sure about this?" he asked before handing the nitro over.
Ezra's eyes never lifted from his precious cargo as he reached to take it. "As I'll ever be," came the glib answer.
Once over by the edge of the gully, Standish became aware of another body that hadn't moved out of harm's way. Josiah.
"Josiah, I am quite capable of----"
"Never said you weren't. Let's walk."
Knowing it'd be futile to argue, Ezra started down the gully's embankment, aware of the big man's presence beside him. He admitted to himself that it was a source of comfort especially when he could feel Sanchez's hand grip his elbow a time or two when his boots slid a little on the loose dirt.
"Stop a minute."
The whispered command halted the gambler in his tracks. He flicked his eyes to watch Sanchez bend down and remove a large rock that more than likely would have made him stumble.
"Thank you, Josiah."
"Just doin' my job, is all."
"Your job? And what might that be?"
"Makin' sure you don't blow yourself up."
"Let me guess. Would this have anything to do with Maude?" Josiah's silence was his answer. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Ezra grinned.
"She is a leech, you know."
"Even leeches have a purpose in God's kingdom. Stop."
Once again Ezra heeded his guardian's word, allowing the big man to rid his path of some unseen debris.
"Almost there," Josiah mentioned when standing back up again. "Few more feet and we'll be at the bottom."
When they reached the spot deemed safe for depositing the glass vial, Standish instructed Josiah to dig a small hole off to his right side, which the ex-preacher did, then moved back into position. Ezra carefully laid the nitro into the hole, Josiah steadying him, then he and the big man took a couple of steps to their left, not wanting to accidently knock any dirt onto the volatile substance.
"Shall we walk or run up the hill?" Josiah asked. He knew what he wanted to do.
"Oh, I think we should remain dignified."
"I was afraid you were going to stay that."
Hands grabbed for the men as they neared the top. Then there were hoots of joy, back-slapping and hand shakes.
"Let's get moving," Larabee said, keeping them on track.
"JD." Buck said, tapping the young man on the shoulder. "You can breathe now."
"Oh yeah, right," he agreed, sucking in air and following behind, listening to Buck tease Josiah.
"Just what was that two-step thing you and Ezra were doing down there?"
+ + + + + + +
At Larabee's insistance, JD and Nathan had found four good sized rocks and loaded them into the wagon bed amidst blankets and extra supplies to keep them from sliding around. "Brakes," Chris had called them, adding, "just in case." Dunne grinned to himself and shook his head. Buck had warned him before about hero worship, but it was hard not to be impressed. Oh, he understood people were human and made mistakes, he knew that all too well, but it still didn't mean you couldn't be amazed by the way a person did their job. He just needed to be a little more discreet in his admiration is all.
Vin drove, Larabee sat along side. Only one was needed to man the nitro box, and it was JD's turn, much to Wilmington's dismay. But the bigger men, Buck, Nathan and Josiah were needed to walk alongside the team, making sure the horses kept a steady pace up the hill. They also worked at keeping the roadway clear. Ezra, the only one mounted for this leg of the journey, kept watch after securing the men's mounts up on the summit.
The uphill climb went off without a hitch and seven men breathed a sigh of relief when they came to the landing. There was a bit of discussion on how to go down the hill, by far the most dangerous portion of the trip, or so they thought... now. Actually, each step of the way was difficult, for they never knew what hour could be their last, but heading down a steep slope with a wagon full of nitro was going to be a tough challenge.
They talked about and finally pitched the idea of walking the wagon down themselves without the use of horses. Once Nathan showed how their boots could slip and slide, it was decided the horses would stay hitched. Two riders would be on either side of the team able to help slow the animals if need be. Josiah and Nathan volunteered. Wilmington would man the wagon, Larabee beside him. Ezra would be in charge of the nitro box once again, while Vin patroled the front and JD with the remaining horses would bring up the rear.
The Seven armed themselves heavily because the closer they got to Silvermint the more wary they became. Getting the nitro there was, yes, a big part, but then it had to be delivered to the Culpepper Mining Company and the people who were taken hostage, released. The whole situation reeked of trouble and as experienced men of the west, they needed to be ready for what came.
A few more directives from Larabee and they were set to leave their safe perch on top of Carbon Hill.
+ + + + + + +
"Whoa, whoa. Easy, easy," Wilmington's constant encouragement to the team of horses kept his mind busy on the task at hand. Larabee kept an alert eye out for any trouble, shifting his attention to the men on horse as well as the ones near him in the wagon. He had a bad feeling... Tanner shared it and the tracker rode now with his long rifle resting in front of him on the pommel.
Chris sensed a change as soon as he saw Vin turn his mount's nose to the left, stop and lift his carbine. Maybe it was the quick reflection of a glare off something, but the hair on the back of his neck stood up and the next instant the men were thrown into utter chaos.
An unseen force lifted Tanner from his horse; he went down hard on his back and side but kept hold of the rifle. Righting himself and laying prone, he sent bullets back into the area where he'd first seen a flash of light.
Another shot nearly took the big man, Josiah from his horse, but he fought to stay aboard and help with the team which was beginning to get spooked. More shots pinged in and around the horses and wagon, some sailing harmlessly into the mountainside sending out puffs of dirt and shards of rock.
JD had jumped from his horse and grabbed rifles, sending his own volley back across the gully. His hat went flying and he felt the pain like a burn cut across the top of his head. Laying flat then, he pumped shot after shot at their assailants, trying to keep his attention there instead of on what was happening at the wagon. He'd heard Larabee bark an order and Standish had come flying out of the back, grabbing for the big rocks, dashing around the wagon and placing them in front of the wheels.
The team of horses danced and brought their front legs up. Metal pieces jangled and leather creaked as they strained at their harnesses, trying to fight those that held them back. Eyes wild and manes tossing, they were tough to control and wouldn't give up until they were free to run.
The noise of a gun battle rang out against the cliff walls, echoing deep and loud, encompassing all. Another bullet hit it's mark and Josiah lost his hold and went down heavily, rolling out of harm's way.
Buck lost control of the reins when a bullet grazed his left hand. His automatic response to the surprised pain was to jerk away; the left horse reared and pulled the leather from his grasp.
Then Nathan took a hit, losing his precious grip on the team as he grappled for the horn and reins, trying to stay mounted.
"I can't hold 'em!" Buck yelled as Larabee jumped from the box beside him onto the tongue of the wagon, putting life and limb in peril against the raw power of thousands of pounds of horseflesh in motion and undid the pin holding the team to the wagon. Instantly, the horses took off at a dead run, the gunslinger's quick agility saving him from being dragged off with them.
"Get into the gully!" Chris commanded, over and over, his pistol-holding hand waving in forward motion to his men, hoping they'd either see or hear what he wanted them to do. And how could they? The din of bullets was deafening and the haze of gun smoke nearly made a man choke. He squinted and saw Tanner take another hit as his friend slid down the embankment to the gully, their only place for cover, their only chance to survive the onslaught.
Larabee glanced around as he fired. Buck and JD were scrunched over, running for the ravine, Josiah and Nathan just disappeared over the edge and Ezra... where was he? A blur of red dashed by him and he faintly heard a "Let's move!" and then they were sliding, rolling, twisting downward to the bottom.
And, as sudden as the gunfight had started, it ended. Just like that. Quiet.
A deafening silence. Almost unnatural.
In the sanctuary of the gully, the only sounds heard were the hard breathing of men in combat and the muted metal clicks of bullets being chambered. No one dared move. Ears and eyes strained, as fingers worked, for the slightest snapped twig, rolled rock or flash of color.
Hearts pounded, from exertion, from the rush, from anticipation.
Nothing. Not even a bird chirp.
The seven waited. And watched.
Larabee looked to his right and saw Tanner close his eyes and lay his head back. There was a lot of blood on Vin. Too much, he thought. He looked to his left, searching for Nathan and saw him wrapping his own arm quickly and efficently, knowing his services would be needed.
One side of JD's hair was plastered with blood, the sticky stuff running down the side of his face and plopping slowly onto his shoulder.
Buck was hit, Josiah took at least two bullets and he and Ezra were unfazed, basically. For one insane moment he wondered how a man dressed in a red jacket that stuck out like a beacon, didn't get shot. Shaking off his thoughts, he moved over near Vin, wanting to be sure the man was still breathing. He'd yell for Nathan, but the healer was already doing his best trying to stuff holes in the other men.
Minutes ticked by and still no noise of approaching horses or men. No assault came. It seemed their attackers had left. Just picked up and vamoosed. Maybe.
Nothing. Not even an eye flutter.
"Vin!" This time a little louder. A little more panicked.
One eye opened. "I'm still here. Just restin' is all." He coughed and a soft moan escaped. "Where's Nathan?"
"Patchin' up Josiah and JD." He used both their kerchiefs to help stem some of the blood flow.
"We all still breathin'?"
"Yeah. Think you got it the worst, though."
"Saw it comin' too late. Knew somethin' weren't right. Shoulda--"
"Not your fault, Vin. We did pretty good... considering."
"Coulda blown the wagon."
Chris didn't answer but his thoughts were of the same. Why not just shoot the wagon? If it was the peacekeepers they were after... could have gotten rid of the whole lot with one well-placed shot.
"How's he doin'?" Nathan interrupted his thoughts, the healer's hands already searching and probing. "Sure could use my bag." He didn't realize he'd voiced those words out loud until Larabee told him he'd go and retrieve it.
"You stay with Vin. I'll go." Standish appeared at Chris' shoulder and before he could argue, the conman was already on his way back up the gully.
"Man's got a death wish," Nathan mumbled then soothed Tanner when the man hissed in pain. "You're lucky. Bullets went clean through."
"Yeah, I feel lucky all right," Vin ground out, jaw set against the onslaught of pain as Larabee and Jackson struggled to get his jacket and shirt off.
Nathan gave the update on the others as he worked; most were flesh wounds, Buck sustained a deep cut on his hand, Josiah had been hit twice, one bullet embedding into a leg, the other took a glancing blow off the big man's knife and burned a crease along some ribs. JD was of some concern because of the head wound, it wasn't bad, just looked like it because of all the blood but he'd have to be watched. Wilmington was handling that. The healer finished by saying his own injury was nothing serious, just a small cut along his arm.
"Now if that fool up there," Jackson's head nodded to where Standish had gone, "don't get hisself blown up or shot, we should be okay. Can't believe they didn't just shoot the wagon."
"Done that, then they wouldn't have the nitro," Buck interjected, he and JD coming over to where the three men were, Dunne's bandage around his head standing out like a white flag. "Let us bring it all this way, then take us out. Good plan." He grinned when seeing the dapper-dressed dandy take a unceremonious header down the hill.
"Nice trip?" Josiah asked Ezra, limping over to the others and sitting down heavily with a moan and a sigh. "How's Vin?"
"Lucky," Vin mumbled, watching Nathan dig in his medical bag, knowing what he was looking for. He closed his eyes and laid his head back. Lucky, my ass. He held tight onto the hand that grabbed his and took one last look into Larabee's intense eyes before the pain hit him like a hot poker, the carbolic acid cleaning his wounds and igniting a temper that wanted to kill something. He lay passively still for a few minutes, regaining control.
"Damn! I hate that stuff," Buck said quietly, his body shuddered, knowing his turn was coming.
"Ezra, you hit?" JD asked, motioning to the gambler's hand which had blood on it. He'd spotted a red smear when the conman handed him his bowler hat he'd retrieved on his trip to get Nathan's supplies.
"Only a slight graze, I assure you," Ezra answered when heads swiveled his way. "The tear in my flesh hardly compares with the damage to my attire." He wiped the bloodied hand on his pants and sighed heavily.
"Does appear to be a little airy back there," Sanchez said with a straight face, seeing how Standish's coat was split from stem to stern in the back. He tried to chuckle, when Ezra gave a grunt of disgust, but it came out more like a groan. The leg with the bullet pained him some.
"What a sorry lot we are," Buck lamented, looking at each man. Not one was left unbloodied, well, except for maybe Larabee, but it was hard to tell with all that black he wore.
"There is something seemingly wrong with this picture," Ezra stated, wiping again at the seeping blood. "What a waste of ammunition. Why not just blow the wagon? Odds would have been better to get us all that way."
"Simple," came Buck's answer as he reiterated what he'd said before. "They let us do the dirty work, kill us off, then take the wagon," a head nod punctuated the truth he felt of his notion.
"Don't have ta face us that way. Knew damn well we'd fight 'em once we got to their town. Keep those people as slaves this way too," Nathan said, eyes on his work, but disgust in his voice.
"Yes, but on a hill? Why not wait until we were at the bottom before trying to massacre us?"
"Land flattens out some. Less cover for them," Josiah informed the gambler. Made sense to him, sort of.
"Yeah, but they didn't kill us. Not even close," JD announced confidently, eyes flicking to Tanner, hoping his friend wouldn't make a liar out of him. "I mean, look, they didn't even hit Chris," he added, then felt bad after the words left his mouth. "I didn't---" He figured he'd shut up. The head wound must have addled his brain. He waited for but never received admonishment for his outburst... not even from Wilmington.
It turned silent again.
"Okay." This from Buck who was doing some heavy thinking. "So if they didn't want ta shoot the wagon for fear of blowing up the nitro, then why take the chance of spooking the horses so that they'd take off at a dead run and probably blow us all to hell and back anyway? I ain't gettin' something here," he flung out his arms but winced at the pain it caused his injured hand.
"What if it was a ruse?"
"If what was?"
"This whole thing. This bringing the nitro, if it is indeed, nitro, to Silvermint, in particular, to the Culpepper Mining Company."
"The nitro's a ru... a con?" Silence. "You sayin' you think maybe the nitro's not nitro at all?" More silence. "Then if the mining company's not after the nitro, then what do they want?"
"Me," Larabee's word came on the heels of Josiah's. Listening to Buck and Ezra's back and forth banter, it all suddenly became glaringly clear. Crystal clear.
"Set-up," came the raspy voice of their tracker.
"Thought you was out," Nathan said.
"Playin' possum. Like holdin' Chris' hand," Tanner's lips turned up at the corners and he saw the gunslinger's eyes crinkle just a bit.
Nathan smiled and patted his shoulder. "You're gonna be fine, just need some rest. Josiah? You're..." before he could finish, a shot rang out and those who weren't laying down, were now, guns drawn, ready to fight.
"What the---? You fool! Wilmington yelled at Standish as the man returned to them, rifle in hand. "What if that had been the real stuff in that wagon?
"My apologies, Mr. Wilmington. I thought you were present when we ascertained that this whole thing was just a ruse to get us here."
Buck stared at him. "Yeah, well, we didn't ascertain it for sure," Buck came back at Standish, drawing out the word ascertain, putting a lot of emphasis on the first syllable. "You could have least warned us. Nearly gave me a heart attack."
"Been the least of your worries had it been real nitro," Josiah added, giving the conman a dark glance. Nathan was there then, cutting up the pant-leg to get at his wound. Did he always have to get shot in the same leg?
"So what do we do now?" JD asked the obvious.
"We go to plan B," Buck answered him.
"We got a plan B?
"There's always a plan B. Ain't that right, Chris?" Wilmington looked over at his friend. "So what's plan B?"
"I have a hunch I know who's behind this." Larabee said, jaw hardening, voice softened to that point of dangerous. "I'll do this on my own, it's me---"
"The hell you will," Buck vehemently told him. "You ain't goin' this alone."
Before Larabee could answer, the men heard a horse nicker. Eyes looked around, ears strained to hear more. Nothing. Just a horse's noises.
"No rider," Vin breathed softly.
"Ezra!" Chris whispered and motioned with his head for him to follow.
A few minutes later, Standish returned. Alone. "Well, we found the horses," he told everyone, obviously happy at that fact.
"Doing a little reconnaissance work," Ezra held up a hand as if to ward off Wilmington's accusing glare and questions. "He said he'd return as soon as possible. 'Plan B', he called it." Hearing Tanner emit a low painful-sounding groan, he knew it was one born of the heart more than of the injuries.
"It'll be dark soon. He knows what he's doing," Josiah's voice of reason sliced through everyone's thoughts. Then he downed a big swig of whiskey to dull the pain of what was coming.
+ + + + + + +
He'd been in town a little over an hour and found his intended victim. Every business had it's weakness and he was an expert at finding it. Under the guise of darkness, he'd make his move, get some answers and leave his calling card.
+ + + + + + +
The little spectacled accountant didn't know what hit him. One minute he was walking and whistling down the boardwalk, headed to the safety of his home and the next he was being violently tossed down a back alley. He stumbled and fell to his knees, dirtying his hands and impeccable suit. Looking back over his shoulder, his eyes grew wide, and his mouth gaped open. The long, dark, billowing coat of his attacker obscured any form of light from the street. Words were swallowed and he put up a puny hand in defense. Surely Lucifer himself was coming to send him his eternal punishment.
The lean figure dressed in black melded into the darkness and all the little man saw coming at him was the light skin of hands as they grabbed his lapels and shoved him further back into the alley and up against a building so hard his lungs felt like they popped. His legs folded like a piece of paper and he slid down the rough siding, scraping his backbone on the way down. He never took his eyes off the assailant. He feared for his life. The dark menace squatted down next to him.
"Tell me who you work for?" the voice hissed.
His whole body shook, the words finally stuttered out, "Ja... Jason Culpepper."
"He, he's the main one, but there, there's three cousins who help him in the business... all Culpeppers. Culpepper Mining."
"That's it. I swear it." He cowered when the man grabbed him by the front of his jacket, pulling him closer.
"A woman? Is there a woman involved?"
"No, no, not that I know of... wait, wait," he pleaded when feeling this devil-man tighten his powerful grip. "There is a silent partner. I... it could be a woman. Yes, yes, wait, I think, I think it is. I'm almost sure of it now that I think on it, yes." Babbling. He was babbling. "Jason... Mr. Culpepper mentioned he was having a house guest this week. Had me order fresh flowers. That would probably be for a woman, right?" The light hands let go of him. He dared a nervous laugh, pleased he could give this 'whoever' something he wanted... and maybe his life would now be spared.
"Where does this 'Jason' live?"
"The ah... the big gray house at the end of Main Street." For some idiotic reason in the inky darkness, he pointed the way. "Ca... can't miss it." A moment of bravery came over him. "Look, look, I'm sure if there is some kind of a problem, Mr. Culpepper would be happy to--"
"Oh, there's a problem alright."
The little man shrank back at the deathly but oh-so confident tone. He was roughly grabbed again and pulled upright, standing tippy-toed, his face brought to within inches of his aggressor's. His eyes automatically shut and his head shrank into the collar of his suit jacket. He figured it was now time to die. Instead though, the devil-man gave him an order.
"You tell your bosses I'm comin'. You tell them I'm comin' and hell's comin' with me! You got that? Hell's comin' with me!" Larabee shoved the accountant back so hard he heard the man's glasses hit the building.
"Wait. Wait. Who are you? How will they know..." He heard the growled, "they'll know" and jumped when something bounced off his chest. He bent down and groped for the object in the dirt and finally found a chain. Holding it up, he could feel it was some kind of a locket. He opened his mouth to ask another question, but his attacker was gone, melting into the black of the night.
"I'll... I'll tell them," he spoke weakly, into the darkened alley, although knowing he was completely alone.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee rode hard, pushing himself and Pony in the dead of night, to get back to his men. With every mile his anger grew hotter at what they'd been put through. By the time he got back to camp, no amount of vengeance he could think of would ease the burning in his guts. Nor the remorse he felt at getting his men involved and their subsequent injuries. What he needed was a good stiff drink. He guessed he must have looked the part because first thing Buck did after seeing him was hand him a bottle. He chugged the little that was left, hoping none of the wounded needed it.
"Well?" Buck asked after Chris gave the whiskey bottle a toss. It made a clinking noise somewhere off in the darkness beyond their campfire.
"She's there," was all he had to say.
"So it was all just a big lie to get us here then," JD stated, unbelief in his voice. "Even Judge Travis was duped."
"Well, now I don't think I'd be saying that to his face if I were you, son, but I'd have to say I agree with you. Yessiree. Duped." Josiah obviously wasn't feeling much pain by the size of the grin on his face, Larabee noted.
Nathan shook his head. "So no one was taken to work in the mines then either."
"Guess they knew all the right buttons to push to get us involved," Ezra added, disgusted. He made a somewhat lucrative living off of duping people but didn't relish being duped himself. Kinda made him want to get even.
Chris took a deep breath then squatted down by the fire, taking a sip from a coffee cup that Nathan handed him. He looked over at Vin first before speaking. "You all know how bad I want to put and end to Culpepper Mining and with... Ella," he nearly choked on the name, "but I can't ask any of you to do anymore."
"Then don't ask. We'll volunteer. Hell, we're good at that!" Buck could make things seem so easy at times. "You know I'm in. I've got a vested interest in this too, you know." He knew Chris knew what he meant.
"Just try and keep me away," JD said. "Might have gotten my hair parted, but there ain't nothing wrong with my hands. I'm in." He'd started in this, he was going to finish.
"I should think some form of restitution for my jacket is in order." Ezra slapped more dust from his pants, then grinned at Larabee. "Count me in."
Sanchez waved his hand at them. "Give me a number too. I might be out, but I'm not down. Wait." He thought a minute, then mumbled quietly something about "that didn't sound right."
"It'll wear off by morning," Nathan whispered, white teeth gleaming in the darkness.
Larabee got up and moved over to his best friend, kneeling beside him. "Vin," he said softly, emotions welling inside. He hated the thought of leaving Tanner behind, hated even more telling him to stay behind. He knew Vin wouldn't like it but he'd been hit the hardest and Chris couldn't... wouldn't ask any more from him.
"Don't count me out, cowboy," Vin told him, sensing Larabee would tell him to wait for their return. "Let's finish this." He met Chris' eyes for an intense moment, relaying all he needed in that look until he saw the accepted head nod. He wouldn't be left behind.
"A good night's sleep and we'll all be better for it," was Nathan's way of saying he was going and letting Larabee know he felt Vin and Josiah would be alright. Couldn't keep any these men down once they made up their minds to do something. Jackson had learned that lesson early on.
"Alright then," Chris confirmed. "We'll leave before dawn."
+ + + + + + +
Early morning crept in like a silent panther. Darkness would soon give way to the brilliance of dawn on the horizon.
Around the campfire while coffee cups were tipped, Larabee drew a map of the town in the dirt and told his men what he wanted done. If any of the Culpeppers were still in town, after the puny accountant gave them his message, then they'd be dealt with accordingly. Chris doubted they would be though. Men like that didn't care to get their hands dirty, instead they hired henchmen like those that ambushed them the day before.
What they wanted were papers, bills of sale, anything with any information on what had happened in the last week that would be important to bring back and give to Travis. What they'd hope for would be charges against the company for fraud, endangerment of law enforcement personnel and whatever else they could come up with that would put a crimp or even better... an end, to Culpepper Mining.
As for Ella Gaines, Larabee had plans for her.
+ + + + + + +
The horizon sported a vivid blood-red color, signaling the sun's rising as seven men entered town from different directions. Culpepper's men were waiting for them, but this time the gun battle would be different. The first shot was fired from an ambusher the minute light was ushered into the new day. Larabee and his men scattered, always keeping an eye out for one another but yet working at whittling the odds down.
Vin headed straight for a hotel that overlooked the main street and kicked open a room door, chasing out a man and a screaming woman. The deadly look on his face, rifle in hand, sawed-off in it's holster and six gun tucked into his belt meant he was a man on a mission expecting no resistance. Settling in at the window, he surveyed the surroundings. His reloading time would be slowed on account of his injuries so he'd concentrate on making every shot count.
While a battle raged down the streets and alleyways, Ezra broke into the accountant's office from the rear to look for any incriminating evidence he could find against the mining company.
Even though the peacekeepers didn't have the element of surprise, Culpepper's men were hardly a match for them. This time, the seven's attention was drawn to only one thing and this time, there was nothing to distract them from taking the men down who'd tried to kill them before.
Once Larabee saw that his men had the upper hand, he made his way to the big three-storied clapboard house at the end of Main Street. He was never aware that a pair of eyes followed his every move and that when Chris entered the residence, his shadow did the same.
No candles or lamps were lit in the huge place. Deserted, Christ thought as the sounds of his steps echoed from one hallway to another. Ella had probably slipped through his fingers once again. He was disgusted with himself. He should have come the night before when he was in town. Finished it. Finished her.
Making his way through the house, he nearly shot a man coming out of the kitchen. His hands were in the air, showing he was unarmed. A house servant, no doubt. No one was in the house, he told Larabee, the owner and his cousins had vacated the place late last night, except for the woman guest named Ella Gaines. She was in the library room, waiting for him, if his name was Chris Larabee. Expecting him, Chris thought. The servant took a few moments to tell the gunman that Silvermint would be better off without the Culpeppers and that Larabee and his men could expect no trouble from the townspeople. Chris nodded at that then told him to take what he needed and leave; there wouldn't be a place for him to come back to when he was finished.
Larabee took a deep breath before entering the room. For a split second he thought about just opening the door and firing. No eye contact, no words... just the sound of his gun going off and her body hitting the floor. Do it and get out. But that's not what he did, although he did keep his ivory-handled colt gripped in his hand. He had nothing but wicked words in his heart that he wanted to spew at her like fire from one of those pencil drawn story dragons he'd seen. He wanted to hurt, to destroy her, maybe even shoot her, if he could just pull the trigger-- this time.
And there she was when he opened the door. Waiting. For him. She stood behind a sturdy, masculine-looking, mahogany desk. There were only two lit lamps in the room leaving it fairly dark, but he could make out that she was wearing riding clothes... even the cape he'd last seen her in as she fled away from him, taking with her another piece of his already wretched soul. He wasn't going to let her take any more.
"Chris," his name dripped like honey from her mouth. "I knew you'd come." She held his locket out in front of her. "I took the liberty of adding my picture to the locket, seeing as how you've come for me. Oh Chris, just think, it'll be the way we've always wanted it to be. Just you and me."
Larabee finally stepped in closer, holstering his gun. He told himself he wasn't going to do this, was going to stay away from her, but found himself pulled forward, like on a puppet's string... wanting to put his hands around her neck and squeezing until he'd finally shut her up about "them", physically wanting to put an end to her and all that she'd cost him.
"There is no us, Ella and there never will be," Chris' voice was low, dangerous, each word enunciated. She would do well to heed the anger, but the woman was oblivious to anything except for the prize that stood in front of her. She smiled when he took the locket from her, but that look changed when he tore her picture from it. Her mouth opened and panic fleeted across her features.
"Listen, Chris. I know we've got some things between--"
"Things?" Chris hissed at her. "Things? Don't you mean people, Ella? People like... my wife and son!" He could hardly control his rage. Eyes narrowed, he shoved the locket, Sarah's locket, now devoid of Ella's picture into the pocket of his black duster.
How much like death he looked, Ella thought. All in black and eyes that threw sparks. Volatile, he was. Lethal. It made her want him all the more. But he was angry... her one and only was angry with her. She'd have to fix it.
"This is the second time you've tried to kill my men," Larabee laid his palms flat on the desk, eyes boring into hers, "and I don't like it. You're gonna hang, Ella. And I'm gonna be the one who pulls the lever." They looked at one another for an intense moment. "You're not getting away this time," he finished with before turning away from her, his intentions to have someone bring a couple of horses. He was going to escort her back to Four Corners himself.
"Deep down I know you love me, Chris," her voice pleaded. "And I know now that there is truly only one way we can be together. To share our love. Forever." As she talked, Ella slid open the top desk drawer and pulled out a small pistol. "It's how it was meant to be, Chris, my love," she said, pulling back the hammer with her thumb, needing both hands to steady the weapon. "You and me... and eternity." Her finger slowly began to wrap tight on the trigger.
Larabee stopped in his tracks, hearing the click of the hammer. He hadn't listened to any of her rantings, his mind bent on one thing only, but this sound got his attention. He saw a shadow at the door and realized too late he should have listened to his instincts; kept his distance and not turned his back on her. His heart nearly stopped at the sound of a gunshot. She missed! he thought, turning quickly, gun in hand, to see if she was taking aim again. What he saw was a look of surprise on her face as she looked at him, then down at the spreading red stain on her chest. She glanced at him once more then her body thudded to the floor in a lifeless heap, the revolver still clutched in her hand.
Chris turned to the door and watched the shadow he'd seen materialize into the form of Vin Tanner. Undoubtedly his friend had followed him to the house and Larabee was thankful for it. Thankful for all the men at his back. He saw Vin look at him almost apologetically, and Chris shook his head at him once. He didn't want Tanner feeling guilty for taking the life of that woman... that piece of garbage. Didn't want Vin feeling like he'd taken that kill away from him either. It was done. That's all that mattered. His gun, Vin's gun. Didn't matter.
"Everyone alright?" was the only thing Chris wanted to know. He didn't have to say the words for Vin to know he was thankful... for more than one reason.
"Right as rain," came the strong, raspy answer. It had a duel meaning.
Walking out of the Culpepper house together, they nearly ran into the hurried Wilmington and Dunne. One look from Chris and Buck knew it was over. Larabee looked ahead and saw Nathan and a limping Sanchez coming to join them. Further down the street, on the boardwalk, Standish leaned against a post, saddle bag draped over his shoulder.
When he caught Larabee looking his way, Ezra gave the leather pouch a couple of pats signaling he'd found what he was looking for.
"Burn it," came Chris' command as he walked away from the house.
"Burn it?" JD echoed, glancing up and around at the what he'd call a mansion.
"You heard the man," Buck told him. "Bound to be some kerosene around here somewhere." He gave a look to Tanner, eyes questioning.
"In the library room," came the answer along with a pointing motion of the head. Buck would make sure the kid stayed clear of that room.
+ + + + + + +
"Boy, free food and drinks. This is great!" JD enthused as the men sat themselves down in the saloon, the establishment opening early to "celebrate", the owner had called it. The Culpeppers had left, Jason Culpepper's home was fast burning down to cinders and floating ashes, and with the promise of bringing the mine owners to justice, the town decided to reward their new-found heroes. Even Ezra had reaped the bounty, procuring a new jacket to replace his torn one.
"Might just make a person want ta hang around," Buck agreed, lips spread wide under his moustache, eyes waggling at some pretty gals hanging around the bar.
"I concur, Mr. Wilmington. Now that we've successfully removed the cretins from this backwat..., ahhh, nice little burg," he smoothly corrected and smiled when a generous plate of food was set before him, "it might prove to be a profitable venture to remain," he quickly finished after the barkeep left. "They obviously will need someone to oversee the running of the mine." He held his hands out as if they should see the obvious.
"Which you think you could do?" Nathan asked, eyes and voice full of skepticism.
"Gentlemen," the gamble leaned forward, eyes sparking as his mind worked. "Need I remind you, pardon the pun, but there is a mint to be made here in Silvermint." He grinned at his words, gold tooth flashing.
Jackson shook his head. "You can count me out. Further I get away from here the better. Maybe head on over to the Seminole village, check on folks there." Check on Rain. A smile ghosted across his features.
"Think I might just go along," Josiah mused. "I could use a little spiritual healing," he broke out into a face-eating grin.
"Reckon I need a little piece and quiet," he answered Larabee, grimacing as he brought a coffee cup up to his lips.
"I could use a little of that myself," Chris said and saw Tanner give him a nod of agreement. They'd ride together.
"Well, I guess if everyone is going in different directions, that leaves you and me, kid, to take those papers back to Four Corners and hand 'em to the Judge."
"But I thought you wanted to hang around. You know, meet some new friends," JD grinned at the ladies' man.
"Yeah, well, you know, with these injuries I got," he stretched and groaned, "might be the best ta let an old friend take care of me."
Buck pursed his lips. "That would be one, yeah." He chuckled as the rest of the table did the same.
A little while later, seven men milled around outside the saloon. Six horses stood saddled and ready. Nathan and Josiah were riding to Rain's village, Chris and Vin were off to find some solitude in the wilds, and Buck and JD were heading back to Four Corners "taking the shortcut this time" Wilmington had stated. Ezra was going to stay in town a few more days, taking advantage of all the amenities a "town hero" could garner... and "perhaps make some shrewd business transactions," he'd told them.
Jackson was giving some last minute instructions to his injured friends, making sure they were careful, changed bandages, etc.
"Funny ain't it," JD whispered to Buck, "how Chris is the only one who never got hurt." He couldn't get over that fact. All those bullets flying around...
Waiting until they were both mounted, Wilmington whispered back, "Well, you know, you never shoot the prized bull."
Dunne gave him a look that said he clearly didn't understand that answer and Buck shrugged his shoulders at him. "You'll figure it out once that head of yours heals," he grinned at the white wrap peeking out from under JD's bowler hat. "Casey is gonna love that," he added, drawing out the word love, causing the young man to roll his eyes.
Two rough-looking men rode up, dismounted and started into the saloon. The one in back stopped and grinned at Standish. Like they had some private joke between them. "You again. You comin' or goin', fancy pants?" the man asked almost hooting when the gambler answered in the affirmative.
"Friends of yours, Ezra?" Josiah asked.
"Coming. Yes... most assuredly. Please, after you," he waved his hand at the stranger to enter the saloon, then tipped his hat to his friends who were now all on their horses. "Gentlemen," he stated, then gave a satisfied smirk as he followed in along behind, bat wing doors swinging merrily in his wake.
Chris looked around at his friends and they all nodded to each other a parting farewell. When they healed and when it was time, they'd all head back to the one place they called home.
+ + + + + + +
Hours later, a few miles out of town, in a seemingly abandoned wagon, left on a hillside, a drop of yellow liquid finally soaked through a wad of cotton. It dripped through a crack in the floorboard and hit the hard-packed ground underneath. The ensuing blast obliterated the carriage and caused a massive landslide tossing boulders like pebbles from a catapult down into the opposite gully. The ground shook for miles around.
Back in Silvermint, a certain gambler paled noticeably and his heart skipped a beat.