Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be,
Note: This story has grown from a small drabble and grown and grown! Betaed and edited by LT. In later chapters this story contains some references regarding the Catholic Church. These are not intended to offend, but are the views of fictional characters in a work of fiction.
Nathan looked up as his patient began to stir. Crossing the room swiftly, he placed his face in JD’s eye line as confused hazel eyes tried to focus.
“Hello again,” he greeted softly.
Eyes still blinking owlishly at him, JD tried to work out what was going on “What… where am I?”
“Four Corners,” Nathan told him patiently.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Nathan, I’m your friend. Do you remember what happened? Can you tell me where the others are?”
JD showed no sign that he’d heard, let alone understood what Nathan had said. “How’d I get here?” he asked.
“Milagro brought you home. What happened?”
Even if JD could have remembered, he couldn’t respond as he was already unconscious again.
“He still doesn’t remember anything?” Vin asked from the doorway, where he had been watching the exchange.
“No, but it’s early yet.”
“Any idea when he’ll wake up, we need t’ find out what happened.”
“He took one hell of a blow to the head, and lost a lot of blood. It’s amazing he’s even still alive,” Nathan reminded.
“I know, I just hate waiting, not knowing what’s going on.”
JD had joined Chris, Buck, Ezra and Josiah to escort four prisoners back to Texas, where they were wanted for murder, rustling and horse theft. These men were the remains of the O’Hare gang. There had been eight of them when they rode into Four Corners, but only four had survived their encounter with The Seven. These men were all going back to Texas to face a hangman’s noose, so they had nothing to lose. For this reason, Chris had insisted that five of them escort the men and that they take extreme precautions.
The men were handcuffed in pairs, and rather then ride, they would travel on a buckboard. Since sitting with ones back to these desperate and ruthless men was ill advised, the buckboard would have no driver. Instead, someone would ride up beside the team of horses and lead them. Initially, Chris envisaged all of them taking a turn at this, but in practise only Beau and Cardinal proved to be sufficiently docile and patient for this task. That meant only Buck and Josiah would be up front by the team pulling the buckboard while the others rode to either side, with one eating dust behind the buckboard. They took turns, swapping positions to get relief from the choking dust. They were not carrying much in the way of supplies as their route had been planned so as to spend each of their five nights on the road, in a town, leaving their prisoners in the local jail.
Taking five days to reach Fort Reed and allowing three days rest before setting out for home, the whole trip shouldn’t have taken more than thirteen days, but just a week after they left, Milagro turned up outside the livery, with an unconscious, bloodied JD on his back. The youngster’s only injury was a long ragged gash to the left side of his skull, but going by the state of his clothing and deathly parlour, he had lost a lot of blood before it had finally stopped bleeding.
Nathan had washed the wound as well as he could, even shaving away some of JD’s longish hair to make it easier to keep clean. Almost four inches long and crescent shaped with a large loose flap of skin, this was a wound that needed to be closed, but was, in Nathan’s estimation, at least three days old and the edges had begun to heal. Only fresh open wounds would heal when stitched together so Nathan had been forced, with infinite care, to cut away the healing flesh and expose new, bleeding wounds.
“I know it doesn’t make sense,” he told Vin as he worked, “but it’s the only way I know to close the wound properly.”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to prove nothing to me, I trust ya,” Vin had assured. “So does JD.”
Now three days later, his head still swathed in white bandages, JD had only been conscious and able to talk twice and both times he was disorientated and unable to tell them what had happened. Vin had wanted to backtrack the other four as soon as they found JD, but Nathan had been against it.
“Like I told you, that wound is at least three days old, maybe older, that puts them inTexas. You can’t go to Texas,” he had insisted.
“Might have too,” Vin had pointed out.
“Yeah, you might, but let’s at least try and find out what’s going on first.”
Nathan sent out wires to the sheriff at every town their friends were due to stop at. All but one reported that the men from Four Corners had passed through with their prisoners and the Fort Reed Jail reported a successful prisoner transfer. The only town where they had apparently not stopped or been seen was Hollow Creek, which was the fourth town on their route. It was conceivable that they had been ahead of schedule and just pushed on to the jail. Other then this anomaly, it all looked as if, for some reason, JD had been sent back and had an accident, while the others continued with the mission. With their duty discharged the others were free to return how and when they wanted, that there was no word from or about them proved nothing. The trouble was it didn’t feel right to Vin. Something deep within him nagged at his gut, telling him something was wrong, very wrong. With no information from the other towns, all they had was JD and he hadn’t been able to tell them anything, at least not yet.
JD had been excited about their mission, transporting such dangerous men, just the five of them. True, he was also apprehensive and a little scared. He had worked hard to ensure he didn’t let any of these emotions show, though it went with out saying that Buck probably knew how he was feeling. He knew why Vin and Nathan had been chosen to stay behind, and that if they had been going any place but Texas, he’d have been left behind and Vin would be on the mission. Still, his chest filled with the trust Chris had shown in him. It had all gone smoothly, just as Chris had planned it, until they had passed though the third town on their route, the small and uninspiring town of Coyote Crossing. That was where it all went wrong! In the cool of the early morning, just five miles out of town, they were ambushed. It was something they couldn’t have planned for, something they couldn’t have anticipated. The O’Hare gang was so named because at its core were the brothers Ronan and Peter O’Hare, Peter’s sons Patrick and Dermot and his nephew Michael McNeal. Peter, Dermot and Michael had survived, along with ‘Whitey’ Neilson. However, the thing they hadn’t suspected, could not have known about, was that a month before he was captured, Michael had wired his five brothers and two brother-in-laws back in Boston. He’d told them to leave the slums of the Southside and join him out West, where the pickings were good and the living easy. There was no way they could have known that the very town he’d told his family to meet him in, was one of their chosen overnight stops.
They rode into a trap. Outnumbered and unprepared, the gun battle, such as it was, was short. True, Chris managed to kill one of the McNeals but with four rifles on the bluff above them and no cover, in the end, there was nothing they could do but surrender.
Michael had been for killing them instantly, but Peter O’Hare overruled him.
“What are you talking about?” Michael asked, his gun still inches from Chris’head. “He killed my brother!”
“So he did, he killed my brother too, but what I’m talking about is having a price on my head for the rest of my life and a way to get rid of that,” Peter told him firmly
His three fellow prisoners stared at him. “How?” his son finally asked.
“Son, what is the description on your wanted poster?”
Dermot frowned but dutifully repeated it. “Tall, thick dark hair, blue eyes.”
Peter smiled and pointed at Buck.
“What?” Buck andDermot exclaimed.
“He looks nothing like me,”Buck protested.
“He doesn’t have to, you just have to look like the description. I’m tall, heavier, with greying hair and blue eyes – sound familiar?” Peter looked over at Josiah. “Whitey over there is very slim with light hair and Michael is shorter, stockier, with red hair and pale eyes.”
“That man has to be at least 50 pounds heavier than me and my hair is not red, it’s auburn,” Ezra protested indignantly.
“It doesn’t matter, those descriptions are over two years old. He lost weight, my son grew a moustache, Whitey started wearing a hat, so his hair didn’t bleach, my hair got greyer.” O’Hare turned to the new arrivals from Boston. “All you have to do is pretend to be them, hand them over to the prison and pick up the reward money.”
“Us?” Matt McNeal sputtered.
“Well, we don’t want those four men shouting that we’ve replaced them, with us standing there looking like them – do we? And let’s not forget, the four of us are worth $3100.” Peter smiled at his nephew. “And since whoever goes into the prison is taking all the risk, they can keep it, all of it.”
“Dad!?” his son spluttered in protest.
“Hush boy, we’ll be getting a new start. Hey, we’ll be dead, we can choose who we want to be, that is reward enough.”
Chris’ anger was almost a visible thing radiating off him. “And what the hell do you think is gonna happen when we tell them who we are?”
Peter looked almost pitying. “In Fort Reed Prison? Nothing, no one will believe you. Oh, and one more thing gentleman, remember, we’re just as valuable dead. The only reason we’re taking you in alive is it’s hot and I hate the small of death.”
The four of them were dragged way, leaving JD alone with the two O’Hares.
“What about him?” Dermot asked, pointing at JD.
“We don’t need him,” Peter said coldly. “Make it look like an accident and put his horse with him.”
“He’s a nice horse, worth a fair bit,” the younger O’Hare commented.
“I know, but if he’s meant to have been thrown and died out here alone, we can’t show up someplace with his horse in tow – can we? If you don’t tie it down, the damn thing it‘ll just follow us. Leave it here, it’ll either die or get free, but by then we’ll be long gone.”
Outnumbered two to one, unarmed, with the two Irish men between him and his horse, there was nothing JD could do but stand there and hope an opening presented it’s self. The way Dermot looked down at him made JD’s blood run cold. It was true he was almost as tall as Buck and yet when Buck looked down at him, it only ever felt good, friendly, supportive, even brotherly. O’Hare just looked like a predatory bully.
“That’s a fine horse you got there boy,” he commented, looking over at Milagro. “Bet he’s got some spirit.”
JD wisely didn’t say anything, just stood there, trying not to let his fear show.
“Shame you can’t control such a fine horse, isn’t it?” Dermot asked. “When he threw you, you hit your head, such a shame, so young.”
Then with lightening speed and without another word, he slammed the rock JD hadn’t even seen he was carrying, down on to the side of JD’s head.
Although he managed to raise his arm in self defence, the rock still struck him hard enough that he dropped to the ground in a boneless heap. Dermot then carefully and coolly placed the rock under JD’s head before securing Milagro’s rein under his arm.
Handcuffed in a pairs, just as their former captives had been, the four men from Four Corners were forced to ride on the buckboard all day and night. O’Hare had decreed it would be too risky to head into Hollow Creek and, since there was a full moon, they would ride on through the night and arrive at Fort Reed just before noon the next day. Chris and the others were given no food and only the minimum of water the entire trip. They also were not allowed to sleep for the whole trip. This was all part of O’Hare’s plan, that having them hit, kicked and shoved over at every opportunity, he hoped that when they reached the prison they would look the part, as desperate criminals. Which they did, but O’Hare wasn’t done yet. They reached the outskirts of Reed by noon, but then O’Hare had them stop and camp until it was dark. That way, they would not reach the prison until the wee small hours of the morning.
They protested, of course. Ezra very eloquently pointed out that while he might bear a superficial similarity to the description of Michael McNeal, there was no way anyone could take him for Boston Irish. Unfortunately, the night clerk wasn’t clever enough or brave enough to do more than his job as he saw it; book in prisoners and issue papers to the men who delivered them. If there were any problems, the warden could sort it out in the morning. So he turned his back on the four men loudly protesting their innocence and told the guard to take them away.
JD tried to focus on whatever it was he could see. It was moving slightly and seemed to be a pale green grey colour. Eventually things came into focus, he was looking at a roof and hanging from it was a bundle of dried leaves. So what, he wondered, was the significance of that? There was a sound, somewhere to the side, and he tried to move his head to see whatever it was, only for the movement to provoke a blinding pain to erupt from the side of his head. The pain was so overwhelming and so sudden he couldn’t suppress a cry of pain, though it came out as a low moan.
“JD?” Almost instantly, Nathan moved so the youngster could see his face. “Hey there, just rest easy, don’t try to move.” The familiar voice was reassuring and almost soothing. “I’m gonna get you something to drink, okay?”
“Thanks,” JD managed in a horse whisper.
The water came laced with laudanum, which made it taste bitter but was clearly needed. The laudanum would quickly send JD back to sleep, so it was vital to get some information from him fast.
“JD can you tell me what happened to you?” Nathan asked.
JD looked at him, pain and confusion etched on his young face. “I don’t remember,” he croaked.
“What is the last thing you do remember, before here?”
A frown etched his brow which elicited a little gasp of pain.
“I’m sorry JD, I know it hurts but it’s important.”
“We were in a saloon and I was drinking… sas … sarsaparilla because Chris said no drinking.”
“Anything else?” Nathan could see by the drooping lids that JD wouldn’t be awake to talk to for long. “Were the others there? You said Chris told you not to drink, what about the others?”
“Ez is mad, he wants his whisky and Buck wants to know if he can still spend the night with the saloon girl, the one with the green feathers.”
“What about Josiah?”
“He agrees with Chris.”
“Where was the saloon?” Nathan pressed.
“I… I… can’t remember, it was called Red something.” He looked at Nathan, unfocused eyes pleading with him, begging him for more information. “The others?” he finally asked.
“We haven’t heard from them, Milagro brought you home.”
It was heartbreaking to see the look on JD’s face as he processed this information. “We have to find them.” He made an attempt to get up, only getting his head off the pillow before another wave of pain hit him and he fell back on to the pillow.
“Just lie there, rest, we’ll find them,” Nathan assured as JD’s eyes closed.
“A saloon called Red something, ain’t much to go on,” Vin commented from the doorway. “He asleep?”
Nathan looked over his shoulder and nodded.
“Reckon he’ll ever remember any more?”
“Figured, got kicked in the head once, never did remember any of that day. Guess I’m going to Texas.”
Nathan stood up, looking Vin in the eye. “You can’t risk it.”
“Can’t not, you gotta stay here and look after JD, ‘sides, no offence but there’s plenty of places in Texas no one ‘d give you the time of day, let alone answer questions.”
“No offence taken. You’re right, I just don’t like the idea of you going there.”
“Ain’t exactly thrilled myself, maybe it’s about time I used one of them things Ezra is always on about.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“I think that is a very good idea.”
Chris, Buck, Josiah and Ezra were placed in a temporary holding cell for the rest of the night. They had tried to persuade the incompetent clerk that they were not who their captors said they were, but the dimwit wouldn’t listen. They had thus resigned themselves to waiting until morning and their meeting with the Warden.
“You know, I can’t see the Warden doing anything, under the circumstances,” Ezra commented. “We may have to wait until our trial.”
“Trial?” Buck asked incredulously.
“Or we just ask the Warden to wire the judge and have him come down here and vouch for us,” Chris suggested dryly.
“Oh now that is a plan!” Buck announced. “Then I can find the bastard who…” He never finished his statement, now that the immediate danger of being killed by their captors was over, the full weight of what had happened to JD hit him. “Ah hell kid,” he sighed. He had been standing, now he sank down against the wall. “I’m gonna kill that son of a bitch, him and his father, slowly, very slowly.”
“I’ll hold him down for you,” Josiah offered darkly.
“Does he mean it?” Ezra asked Chris softly.
“Mean what?” Chris responded, equally softly.
“About killing them slowly?”
“Oh yeah, he means it,” Chris assured darkly. “Don’t let the Buck you see fool you, underneath ‘good ‘ol Buck’ that man’s as hard as iron, ruthless too, if he has to be. Hurt anyone Buck considers family and you will pay, painfully.”
Chris, also resigned to spending the rest of the night, at the very least in the dark cell, sat down on the basic cot, one of only two the four of them were meant to share.
“About two months after I was married I made Sarah cry. I had been stupid, selfish and thoughtless. Buck marched up to me, dragged me into the barn, told me what an ungrateful idiot I was, then he made sure I couldn’t say anything to upset her again for at least a month by braking my jaw.”
“Best any man ever had.”
The bar keep of the Red Horse Saloon in Coyote Crossing barely looked up from his glass cleaning, when the first customer of the day came in.
“Where can I get some food around here?” the new customer drawled.
“Here, if you’re a mind, or across the road at the boarding house, though she’s most likely stopped serving ‘till noon.”
“Ham and eggs?”
Finally, the bar keep looked up at his customer. He was young, with short cropped hair under a straw Stetson. He had a cropped goatee beard with a young but tough face. He wore black trousers and what looked like a fine linen shirt with mother of pearl buttons, and a bootlace tie with a carved bone bolo under a red brocade waistcoat. He looked like a prosperous man, sure he was a little dusty and saddle worn, but this guy was no drifter. He wore his gun on his left hip, which might have indicated he was a lefty, but the hilt was pointing out, not back, indicating that that he drew it right handed across his body. Not unheard off, but still unusual.
“You want bread with that?” the barkeep asked.
“Hot buttered toast?” his new customer asked hopefully.
“Sure, why not. Coffee?”
“Oh yeah, make it strong.”
“Ain’t that the only way to drink it?”
The saloon owner knew better than to ask the man his name, he just headed into the kitchen to order up the man’s breakfast. Half an hour later he was clearing away an empty plate and refilling the man’s coffee mug.
“Friend of mine came though here a few days back, I was wondering if you might have seen him. I’m not sure how many days ahead of me he is.”
“Lotta people pass though Coyote Crossing, what’s this feller look like?”
“Kinda tall, big moustache, big hat, ladies seem to like him. Might have been with some friends.” Somehow people always remembered Buck.
The saloon owner looked at the man a new, he could well be a lawman, a US Marshall or Ranger even. It made good business sense to be in the good books of such men.
“Would one of these men be kinda skinny, dressed in black, don’t talk much?”
The stranger nodded. “Sounds about right.”
“They were here with three other men, must be more than a week back. I remember them ‘cause not one of them ordered a real drink, just drank coffee, except for the young one, he had a sarsaparilla. Your friend spent the night with Nancy.”
“Did you see them leave?”
“No, so it must have been early, I heard they were escorting some prisoners.”
The stranger rose and tossed some money on the table, more than enough to pay for his meal. “Thanks,” he said, tipping his hat before he headed out into the morning sunshine.
Vin followed the trail to Hollow Creek, where indeed the local sheriff had not seen the men from Four Corners or their prisoners. So he was forced to spend the night, restock his supplies, take a bath and get a shave, before heading out the next day for Reed.
It was an imposing building, built five miles out from the town in a desolate valley. The prison had originally been a military fort, what had probably been a timber curtain wall had been replaced by stone, with armed guards clearly visible patrolling the top of it. A collection of wooden buildings, mostly stables and corrals, were clustered to the north side of the walls, where they got the most shade. The wind sent clouds of dust swirling around the building, enveloping it in a haze. Even as he dismounted and hitched Peso to the rail outside the main gate, he could smell the mass of humanity held within.
Inside it didn’t look as if much had changed other than the construction of a thick timber wall separating two buildings either side of the gate and the rest of the compound. One of these buildings was a guard house and the other administration. Vin was shown to a seat on the veranda of this building to wait, but it didn’t take long for him to be shown into the office of the Warden, who introduced himself as Jeremiah Keegan, for which Vin was grateful since he couldn’t read the fancy script on the office door.
“How can I help you, Mr Turner?” he asked.
“Friends of mine were meant to deliver four prisoners here. We ain’t heard from them for almost two weeks now, gettin’ kinda worried,” Vin explained.
“I’ll bet. Lotta prisoners are delivered here, what were their names?”
Vin listed the prisoners for him. The Warden dutifully noted the names and then consulted a large log book.
“Oh yeah, they arrived on the 10th, executed on the 12th.”
“Executed, wasn’t that a mite fast for a trial?”
“They’d been tried already, all that was needed was to carry out the sentence of the court. I don’t see no reason to keep men here eating food the good honest people of Texas paid for when they should be dancing at the end of a rope.”
Vin knew all too well, that some Texas towns were known to try men who were on the run and pass sentence without them knowing anything about it.
“Say’s here,” the Warden continued, “they were worth over $3000, maybe your friends are still celebrating?”
“Those four were desperate, even tried to tell me I’d got the wrong men, said they were the law men and their prisoners had got the drop on them.”
Vin’s heart went cold.
“Really?” he asked, trying to stay calm.
“Sure, but I checked the descriptions, they matched, didn’t look anything like your friends.” He shook his head. “I hate it when men can’t face up to their fate.”
Vin’s mind was racing. He tried to bring the O’Hare gang to mind and when he did, he had to work hard not to let anything show.
“Mr Turner, is there anything else I can help you with?”
“I am rather busy and as I said, I don’t know where your friends went after they left here.”
“Oh sure, thanks for your time,” Vin muttered as, in a state of shock, he turned and left as fast as he could.
Vin Tanner, or rather Kevin Turner as he was calling himself, walked out of the prison into the sun like a dead man walking. Could it really be true? Could the O’Neal’s have got the drop on the others, was it the O’Neal’s who tried to kill JD? Were his friends really hung with no one believing them as they protested their innocence? All he knew was, he needed proof.
Leading Peso into the stables, he headed to the sound of a blacksmith’s forge.
“Mind if I water my horse?” he asked, forcing a smile on his face.
The blacksmith, a stocky man with bulging muscles, looked up and wiped his brow. “Help your self.”
Vin tied Peso where he could drink freely and walked into the forge and out of the glare of the sun.
“Warm work,” he commented.
“It is that,” the blacksmith agreed, handing Vin a canteen.
From the look of it, he was working on leg irons.
Vin took a long grateful pull on the canteen. “Can I ask you something I’ve always been curious about?”
“What happens to the possessions of the men who get executed?”
“Well, most of them don’t have much, but any horses come here. If no one claims them, we either keep them or sell them.”
“Get any good ones lately?”
The man smiled. “Yeah, four, well I say good, two of them are real nice, big, sweet natured, fit, the other two.” He shook his head. “There is this chestnut who’s been spoiled if you ask me and a black that is just pain ornery.”
“I might be in the market for a new horse, mind if I take a look?”
It got worse! There in the corral stood Pony, Chaucer, Cardinal and Beau. Friendly as ever, Beau came over to greet him.
“Yup, that one is the best of the bunch,” the blacksmith confirmed, “won’t be selling him cheaply.”
Vin rode up the valley side, dismounting when he reached the top. As his legs hit the ground, they buckled under him. He been forced to leave, his mind no longer able to think straight. He needed space to contemplate what had happened. His stomach churned, as he sat there in the dust looking down at that hateful place. Unbidden, he pondered on the fear and helplessness his friends must have felt as they were dragged to the scaffold to face a death that was not theirs. True, they all faced death on a regular basis, true none of them expected to live to be old men, but not like that, never like that. He made no attempt to stop the tears as they fell. How could that man, in his office with the fancy writing on the door, be so stupid? The unbelievable injustice of the whole thing overwhelmed Vin. Yet even as it did, he couldn’t help but think of the friends he’d left behind. How was he going to tell them?
After two hours sitting there, his emotions were better under control. Before he told anyone anything, he needed proof, incontrovertible proof. Mounting, he turned toward the town.
After three days on the road, Orin Travis couldn’t have been more grateful to arrive, even if it was in the distinctly unappealing town of Reed. Dusting himself off and retrieving his bag, he looked around, located the rather optimistically named ‘Grand Hotel’ and headed for it. He fervently hoped for a cool drink. The beer was welcome if not cool. He was half way through it when someone sat down opposite.
“Judge,” he said by way of introduction.
Travis looked up. “Do I know you?” he asked, taking in the smart looking young man in front of him, with his short hair and neat beard.
“I hope so, I sent you a wire.”
Orin took in the man before him more carefully. “Vin?”
“What on earth are you doing here?!” Travis asked in a hushed voice.
“We need to talk, in private; I have a room, number six.” Vin didn’t wait for an answer; he just stood and headed back toward the stairs.
Five minutes later, Travis joined him in his room.
“I have to say I applaud your disguise. I assume you have taken a different name?”
“Kevin Turner, that way if someone calls me Vin it won’t give me way. Judge, maybe I should have told you something about myself…” Vin began hesitantly.
“That you’re wanted for murder in Texas?”
Orin smiled. “Son, I knew a week after I hired you, I also know that that warrant was signed by Judge McKenzie Cameron. When I worked as a district attorney in Kansas City he was a junior partner in a local law firm. He was an incompetent, slip shod lawyer then and he still is. Sometimes, when there is no real evidence, a good judge has to work on the balance of probability before pursuing a case. Cameron is not, nor will he ever be, a good judge. Now, what has happened that you’d risk coming here of all places and need me?”
By the time Vin had finished telling him what seemed to have happened, Travis looked twenty years older.
“If this is true, someone will pay. Mark my words, this will not be left to stand.”
“If it’s true.”
Orin looked into Vin’s clear blue eyes. “You’re not sure?”
“My head says yes, but deep down I don’t feel it.” Vin fixed Travis with his sky blue eyes. “My father, my adopted father, Grey Eagle, he taught me that we are all connected, and the closer you are to someone, the stronger the connection and the more you feel the pain when it’s cut. I’d just don’t feel that pain.”
Instinctively Orin wanted to dismiss this as heathen superstition, but then he looked at the man before him, a good man, an honest man, a man who has risked everything to find his missing friends.
“Very well, let me get a room and a meal. Then I’ll go and visit this prison.”
Vin rode with him until the prison was in sight, then peeled off and headed back up the valley side to his previous vantage point.
Orin had no problem with prisons per say, as far as he was concerned everyone he’d sentenced to incarceration or death deserved it. Prison was not meant to be easy, it was meant to be hard, uncomfortable and unpleasant, unpleasant enough to deter anyone from reoffending. That said, prisons owed a duty of care to the men they held, sufficient food, a bed, a dry roof over their head, adequate heat in the winter, shade from the worse of the summer sun, care when they were sick or hurt. The food didn’t need to be tasty or interesting, the beds didn’t need to be soft, but it did need to be eatable and the bed did need to be there. As he left his horse in the shade close to the forge, he noted the four horses Vin had seen, were still there.
Orin was escorted inside to the warden’s office. He knocked twice and then walked in. The man he found there to see did not move to shake hands with the judge.
“Judge Travis?” the warden greeted him, clearly puzzled by this visitor.
“Yes, you must be Warden Keegen?”
“Judge Travis, it’s my understanding that you’re a Territorial Judge?”
“Yes, north of here. I find myself in the area and would like to tour your prison.”
Keegan looked at him. “Why?” he asked bluntly.
Keegan sat back in his chair and studied the man before him, not a young man, a man who had lived, seen things, a wily old fox if ever there was one.
“I’m sorry, it’s just not convenient at the moment and since you have no jurisdiction, I can’t go disrupting things just to satisfy your curiosity.” He stood up. “Perhaps if you are in this area again some time?”
“Well perhaps or I could just send a wire to my old friend Richard.” Orin smiled as he picked up his hat.
“Richard Coke, he worked for me, back inVirginia, before he was called to the bar.”
Keegan went pale. “Governor Coke?”
“I always knew he’d go far.”
“Yes well, for a friend of the Governor, I’m sure we can make an exception.”
“Imagine that,” Orin muttered under his breath as he followed the man out of his office.
The tour was short, and in truth, there wasn’t much to see. The old barracks were pretty much as the army had left them, though they now had bars on the windows and locks on the doors. The bunk beds were packed in more tightly than Orin had seen in any army barracks, but not as close as some prisons he’d seen. There were barrels of water with dippers in each room and the men didn’t look starved or exceptionally sickly. There was a cook house next to the guard house and he assumed they connected. At the far end of the compound were four strap iron cells, placed up against the south wall they were in almost permanent shade. Measuring about four foot by six by six, they were an adequate size. Orin had once seen cells with a floor plan no more than three by four. One man was in solitary. He too had a pail of water and a dipper within reach. Beside these was a small building that had probably once been the fort’s punishment block and now housed the condemned cells.
“I insist the men have access to water,” Keegan told him. “I was a prisoner of the Yankees; I remember what is it to be thirsty.”
Travis had to admit, as prisons went, it was one of the better ones he’d seen.
“I have to compliment you, Warden; you’re doing a fine job here. Tell me, where are the gallows?”
“Outside, I’ll show you.”
The prison’s entrance was in the east wall, but Keegan led Travis to the south wall. Next to the strap cells stood a building which had probably once been the fort’s punishment block.
“These are the condemned cells,” Keegen explained.
The warden now took Travis out though the main gate and to the right and around the building to the south side. There stood a sun bleached scaffold, big enough to hang to two men, where two of his men condemned to watch their friends die before it was their turn, he wondered? God, he hoped not.
“What happens if no one claims the bodies?” Orin asked.
“This way,” came the confident reply.
They continued on to the west wall. Here, Travis was shown neat rows of simple crosses, each one had a small wooden plaque nailed to it, a name and a date apparently branded into it.
“That was my idea,” Keegen offered when he saw Travis looking at them. “It’s quicker than carving and lasts longer than paint, not that anyone cares what happened to them.”
Suddenly, Travis was having the same feeling Vin had had, something didn’t feel right. Why was it necessary to save time, the men in the prison had nothing but time? Why did he want their names to survive if no one cared? Walking along the rows, he found the four newest graves, the names were what he was expecting to see, the mounds of earth just as they should be, but who was in the graves? That was the question. At the end of the row was an elderly man, sitting under a sickly looking tree.
“Who’s that?” Orin asked.
“Duke, he’s a lifer, he digs the graves and sets up the crosses. We let him sit out here, what’s the harm?” Keegan explained.
On instinct, Orin wandered over to the man, noting that while he was old, he was still wearing leg irons. They didn’t trust him that much.
“Afternoon,” he began.
Duke just nodded.
Duke nodded again.
“You dig all the graves?”
“You bury them last four?”
“So who got their boots, I know you don’t bury them.”
Duke looked past him to the Warden. Orin moved casually so he was blocking the Warden’s view.
“Them four, I took their boots off, the guards took them,” Duke confessed.
“Must have been a shock when you found that wooden foot, in those fancy boots. That feller walked just fine, you’d never know his foot was blown off in the war.”
Duke looked at him, it was clear he was trying to decide what to say, admit there was no wooden foot or lie. In the end, he did something Orin hadn’t expected. He told the truth.
“Ain’t no bodies in them graves,” he whispered. “They was sent to Hell.”
Orin wanted to ask what that meant, but Keegan moved closer, so he was forced to let it go.
There some things you need to survive in Hell, and the most important thing is to able to understand what the devil is saying and apparently he speaks Spanish and Buck didn’t, at least not enough to understand the devil and his minions. Josiah did, obviously. Chris could get by in Spanish, he used to sell horses in Mexico after all. Ezra’s Spanish wasn’t as good as his French, but he seemed to have a natural ability to pick up the language and was improving fast. Buck could order a beer or a tequila, he could order food, sort off. As for women, well, that was a universal language in which he was fluent. Understanding what some sadistic bastard with a heavy stick and a short temper was shouting at him in the dark, dank depths of a silver mine, that was beyond him.
Whatever this one wanted him to do, he either wasn’t doing it or wasn’t doing it fast enough or was meant to stop doing it. Right at that moment, he was swinging his pick as hard and as fast as he could, but the guard was still ranting at him. Finally, the long stick swung down on the pick handle, wrenching it out of his hand, causing him considerably pain in the process.
“Damn it, if you wanted me to stop, all ya had to do was say something I can understand!” Buck fumed, which got him a rap with the stick on the side of the leg.
“Ah shit,” Buck exclaimed again.
Only as he painful straightened up as much as he could in the low tunnel, did he notice the familiar rumbling sound of one of the trucks approaching. Rudimental wooden rails ran up to each of the mines’s working areas. On these rails, heavy wooden trucks were pushed by men, their wrists chained to the truck they pushed. Chris looked up at his old friend. They said nothing, but their eyes spoke volumes. ‘We will get out of here, some how, we aren’t dead.’ It was what they said silently every time they saw each other.
The guard was shouting again.
“He says…” Chris began.
“Yeah, I know,” Buck gave him the best smile he could manage, which was mostly hidden under his moustache.
The guard shouted something Buck had heard often. What ever the guard shouted, he knew what was going to happen, and Chris didn’t bother to translate it. A group of three more prisoners had followed the guard into his work area. Ezra looked at his two friends, he did his best to smile, but it wasn’t easy. He was afraid if the guards saw his gold tooth, one of them would try to knock it out, or just plain hold him down and pull it out, so his normal smile was replaced by a tight lipped mockery of a smile that made him look nervous. For once, his face told the truth. Ezra and the other two men were the pick up crew, they collected the rocks Buck and his pick had pried free and placed them in the truck. While they did this, Buck got a few precious moments of rest. If he was lucky and the guards hadn’t drunk it all, he got some water from the canteen too.
Ezra tried, he really did, the consequences of frailer were not pleasant, a beating at the very least, but the truth was he just didn’t do menial labour. While his three comrades were used to chopping wood, fixing fences, caring for stock, carpentry and any number of other manual jobs that provided them with hard calluses. His hands were soft and pampered. He wasn’t joking when he told them it was necessary to maintain tactile sensitivity. It was hard enough to deal effectively with callused hands, but double dealing, dealing from the bottom of the deck, stacking the deck, card swapping and slight of hand were impossible. His hands were the tools of his trade and they were not up to manhandling rocks all day, every day. His gloves had been taken from him back in Texas, his attempts to bandage his hands had failed, the wrappings tattered and useless in less than three hours. Now it was his hands that were in tatters, blistered raw he could barely carry his food bowl let alone lift rocks. Day in, day out, he and his fellow members of the pick up gang shuffled from work station to work face station, loading the trucks. As stoic as he normally was, as he moved to pick up the first rock, he let out a strangled cry of pain and the rock fell back to the ground.
Instantly, the gang guard raised his stick, intending to bring it down on the back of Ezra’s legs, but a strong arm shot out and grabbed it.
Buck had had enough, the others told him to shut up and take it, patience was the key to escape, staying fit was essential, but he’d had enough.
“God damn it!” he bellowed as the guard tried to pull the stick free while shouting an alarm to the other guards. “Silencio!” Maybe he was picking up the lingo after all. “Look, you inbred half wit! He can’t work, it don’t matter how much you shout or hit him, he can’t do it!”
Guards were arriving, but Buck held on to the stick.
“Tell him what I said,” Buck angrily instructed Chris.
“Buck don’t do this,” Ezra pleaded.
“Chris, you know me, now do it!” Buck glared at Larabee.
Chris knew that look, he had passed the point of no return. Buck’s temper had broken free from the walls of pure steel he normally kept it locked behind, and now a man would have more luck stopping a run away train with a lasso than stopping Buck. He translated, leaving out the bit about inbreeding and lack of wits.
“Just let him rest for a few days, give him some gloves and he’ll work,” Buck continued, trying now to sound reasonable.
By now, the other guards, including one whom Chris had already noted seemed to have more brains than most of the others, had gathered around the prisoners. They didn’t know any of guard’s names, so they had given them names, to keep track of them, work out who was on duty when, who was smart, who was dumb, who kept watch properly, who was lax etc. This guy they called ‘Smarts’ and he said something Chris didn’t catch. Then, the original guard, who they called ‘Loud Mouth’ protested, saying the it was his right to discipline Buck. ‘Smarts’ told him he had a better plan. Chris didn’t like the sound of that; he needed to calm things down some how.
“Buck, let go of the stick.”
Wilmington didn’t move.
“Buck, let, go, now,” Chris persisted.
Their eyes met. Chris gave a slight nod and finally Buck let go and took a step back.
“You tell me what they say,” he instructed his friend.
So Chris told him. “‘Smarts’ says if you want Ezra to rest so badly that’s fine, so long as you do all his work as well as your own.”
Ezra tried to protest, but Buck ignored him.
“Okay then, but he has to let Ezra rest ‘till he heals. Chris, you make him swear it, make him swear it to God or the Madonna, the devil or his mom, but you make him swear it,” Buck instructed his friend, all the time fixing ‘Smarts’ with his a glare that could have burned right though the man’s skull.
There was an exchange in Spanish then Chris nodded and spoke to Buck.
“He swears before all present and God, that so long as you do his work, Ezra can rest.”
Buck was about to say‘Si’ before Chris cut in again. “Buck think about this, think about what you’re taking on.”
“Please listen to him,” Ezra pleaded. “I don’t need…”
“Si, tell him yes,” Buck stated emphatically.
Ezra continued to protest but the other guards present dragged him off as‘Loud Mouth’ pointed to the pile of rocks Buck had just pulled from the rock wall, while ‘Smarts’ watched with a smile of pure evil.
JD’s road to recovery was slow. To begin with, he seemed to spend most of the time in some state between unconsciousness and sleep, only waking for a few minutes at a time. Though he seemed to know Nathan and where he was, there was little time to do more than give him something to drink before he was out of it again. Slowly though, his periods of wakefulness became longer, and, with this, came the pain. If he had thought being stabbed and shot were painful, the pain in his head was unbearable. Nathan offered him Laudanum, which he wanted to refuse. He remembered Anderson, and he knew for sure he never wanted to end up like that, but this pain was just too much. When he’d been shot, it hurt, it hurt a lot, but once Nathan stitched him up, so long as he didn’t move much, he could live with the pain. There was just no escaping this pain in his head, no position he could lie in that made it hurt less, so he took the medicine, gratefully.
With all this and the drug in his system, it took a while for JD to work out that other than Nathan, who seemed to be ever present, he had had no visitors, at least not from one of the Seven. Casey came, worried sick. Nettie came, shooing Nathan away to get some food and a rest. Inez came, clucking over him like a mother hen, but none of his friends, not even Buck visited and that just wasn’t. What, he wondered, had happened? Had he done something wrong? Were they in trouble? Were they dead!?
“Nathan?” he began, as he pushed himself up in the bed, ready to try some of Inez’s chicken soup, the only thing he could face since even the thought of most food made him nauseous.
“Now you be careful,” Nathan warned.
“Where are the others?”
“I don’t need you burning your tongue with everything else.” Nathan put the tray down.
“Do you think you can manage the bread?”
“Are they dead?”
Nathan stood up straight and looked down at JD. They had told him more than once that the others were missing, but he never seemed to remember the next time he woke. For some reason this time felt different. For a long time he said nothing, all the time JD looking up at him with an expression that made it clear his blood was running cold with fear.
“We don’t know, we haven’t heard from them, not since before you came back. Vin’s gone after them.”
JD sat there, trying to force his way past the persistent, ever present pain, to process what he’d just been told. They weren’t dead, at least no bodies had been found. They were just missing. All he had been able to remember after passing though Coyote Crossing, was riding, heading home. He still had no idea how he came to be hurt, how he came to be on Milagro and why he was heading home. Nathan had said he would probably never remember, but he kept trying even though it made his headache worse. The only thing he was sure of was that Vin would find them; Vin was the best tracker JD had ever seen.
“Wait,” he suddenly exclaimed. “Vin can’t go to Texas, they’ll hang him!”
“Only if they catch him.”
“Vin’ll be okay, besides Mary said the Judge wired to say he was joining Vin in Reed. They’ll find them.”
JD took a moment to make himself believe this. All this stimulation was making his head hurt, the pain began to break free from the medication, and he let out a moan of pain and clutched his head.
“Come on and rest, I’ll heat the soup up later. All we can do is trust them, trust the Judge and Vin. They’ll all be back.”
The prisoners of the Las Minas de Plata del Diablo, the Devil’s Silver Mine, usually called it Hell or Infierno. Most of them were Mexicans, but there were a good number of Americans as well, all sentenced to hang at Fort Reed Prison. On the day of their execution, just like the men from Four Corners, they were marched out of the condemned cells in the dead of night, through the small gate in the wall that lead to the scaffold, only to fine a secure wagon and half a dozen Mexican guards. After spending four days in this wagon, only permitted to leave it once a day to attend a call of nature, the men, up to six at a time, arrived in Hell, where they were told they would spend the rest of their lives. Hell was a mine; located in a remote valley the branched off half way up the wall of a bigger valley, what geologists call a ‘hanging valley’. The delivery wagon arrived in the lower valley and then the prisoners were marched, for the best part of two hours, up the winding mule trail to the upper valley.
Into the north side of this upper valley, called The Valley of Ghosts in the Sky, several adit tunnels radiated out under the surrounding mountains, each with their own spider network of tunnels, burrowing ever deeper, following the veins of silver. From them spewed the tracks on which the ore trucks ran, all of them leading to the stamping mill, where a row of four huge hammers pounded the rocks down almost to dust. This was then sent down an open shoot, to a wagon waiting below in the main valley. From there, it presumably went to some kind of smelting plant. Josiah said from what he knew of silver mining, that the ore they were bring out was very high grade, that they could mine it with simple horizontal tunnels, with no need for any winding gear or pumping. This made the ore even more profitable.
“And by using slave labour, they have cut down on their biggest overhead, labour, which way out here in this God forsaken place would have been considerable.” Ezra had continued. “There are what –two or three guards per tunnel? A few guards in the compound and the mill plus the Overseer?”
As with all the guards, they didn’t know the name of their nemesis, the sadistic boss of Hell, the Devil’s right hand man. The Mexican prisoners called him El Jefe, while the Americans called him ‘The Overseer’ and he was monstrous. However, he was not ‘El Diablo’ himself, for that title was reserved for the mine owner, whoever that was.
“And since we are all ‘dead’ no one will ever come looking for us,” Chris finished.
“Except Vin and Nathan.” They all turned to look at Buck. “They’ll keep looking.”
“Yeah, they will,” Chris finally agreed.
“Amen,” Josiah added.
“I will endeavour to have faith in your faith in human nature,” was the best Ezra could manage, as he sat there, winding what as left of his shirt sleeve around his hands.
The prisoners were housed in a compound at the end of a small dead end canyon in the south wall of the valley. The open end of this canyon was blocked off by a high stockade fence, with just one small gate in it. Guards were posted on top of this, where they could watch over the whole compound night and day. In this compound, the prisoners were housed in adobe huts. Each hut was meant to house six men, but how many men lived in each hut depended on the power and strength of the men who had claimed it. This was a population of men who, for the most part, were murderers, thieves and rapists, men who had been a few hours from hanging before they found themselves on the road to Hell. Inside their compound there was no law but might. The strong prayed upon the weak. If you weren’t strong enough to keep hold of something, food, a candle, good boots, a bed, you lost to stronger men.
Chris and the others were strong enough to keep one hut to themselves and keep all their possessions, such as they were, but they had to be ever vigilant.
The huts were basic, there were no means of heating them during the cold dessert nights, no doors or shutters on the open windows. Each hut got one cheap candle a week and sacks of dry corn husks on plain dirt floors for beds. At the far end of the canyon, a natural spring oozed out of the rock about twenty feet up and then dripped down to fall like a small waterfall from and an overhanging rock. From there, it formed a stream that then ran down the middle of the compound and out under the stockade. The men collected their drinking and cooking water from this waterfall and washed under it.
The only fire in the whole place was in the cook house, though cook hut would have been more accurate, since one didn’t need much space to make tortillas and cook beans and sweet corn, which was all they ever got to eat, twice a day, every day. Closest to the stockade was the latrine, built over the stream. It was a source of great satisfaction to the prisoners that the stench of their excrement daily assaulted the guards on duty.
Twenty three days after they had arrived, eighteen days since Buck had started working two jobs, another shift ended as the sun began to set and the mine’s forced workforce shuffled out of the tunnels to wait patiently for their chains to be removed and then shuffled on toward their compound. As always, the prisoners were too tired to contemplate anything except eating and sleeping. Buck was so exhausted he barely made it to the hut the four of them shared before he collapsed onto the pallet that served as his bed. To compound matters, he as now limping heavily, not that any of the guards cared or cut him any slack.
The day before, he’s swung his trusty pick at the rock and missed, a result of exhaustion, dehydration, the cramped conditions and the poor light. With its full weight, the pick swung down toward is left shin. By sheer luck, it didn’t actually hit his shin, but glanced of it. The result was a large V shaped wound under a flap of skin and extensive bruising. The guards, who saw Buck as a trouble maker, wouldn’t let him rest or even stop to clean and bind it. When he made it back to their hut, his trouser leg and sock were soaked in blood and his boot was full of it. What was left of Ezra’s shirt was used to bind the wound. Once the wound was washed out with fresh spring water, it was bound with what was left of Ezra’s shirt, leaving Standish with just his waistcoat on his back. They had no soap or disinfectant like Nathan used to clean the wound and no way to stitch it, it was the best they could do. The three friends hoped to God it wouldn’t get infected..
While his hands were still healing, Ezra had been put to work by the cook, picking rocks out of the dried pinto beans. Now his hands were better, The Overseer had set him to work making new adobe bricks. He protested that he was fit to go back to his old job, but to no avail. The sadist told him his hands were still too soft, and would get damaged again as soon as he went back to the mine.
“Mud suits you better,” he told Ezra.
And with those words, the sadist had condemned two friends to a world of pain. Buck’s was physical, Ezra’s emotional and his pain was far greater. Everyday, he watched as the unremitting work with no rest, whittled away a little more of Buck. Every day, there was a little less personality, a little less optimism, a little less fight and it was all his fault, because he was weak because he gave in to pain and to his body. His mother had tried to teach him never to give in to pain or discomfort. She didn’t permit him to cry when he was injured, or to take to his bed when he was sick. He wanted to please her, he desperately wanted her approval, but these were the lessons he found the most difficult and most often failed to learn. Clearly, he had once more failed to learn the lesson and someone was suffering because of his failure.
While Buck slept, the others met up to get their food. Josiah didn’t work in the mine; he had been put to work in the stamp mill. With several other men, he fed the lumps of ore under four huge pounding hammers, powered by a human treadmill.
Not only was the food plain, tasteless and repetitious, it was meagre and they had all lost weight. Clearly their lord and master wasn’t worried about his workforce starving to death, no doubt there was a plentiful supply of condemned men that no one would miss. They collected their own rations and Buck’s, as ever, Ezra kept back half of his tortilla ration for Buck, who they would be forced to rouse so he could eat.
As the last of the light faded and their tiny hut was plunged into darkness, Buck had fallen asleep again inside, as the others sat outside in the moonlight, saving their precious candle for when they really needed it.
“We need to make a move soon or Buck’s not going to last,” Chris said softly.
Wilmington’s leg continued to ooze blood, though it didn’t seem to be infected, the pain and loss of blood were taking a heavy toll. Overworked and underfed, his body had no fuel to repair itself and no reserves to draw on. They needed to get out while he was still able to walk.
It was imperative that they whisper. There were spies everywhere, men who would sell even the smallest scrap of gossip or sedition for an easier job, for an hour’s less work, for a scrap of meat.
The sadists who ran this hell hole were not fools. While working all the men were shackled, some like Buck and Ezra, while they were in the mine, wore leg irons. Others, like Chris and Josiah were chained to their work station. These chains were removed at the end of the day.
They had quickly concluded that there was no escaping while they were chained. Their escape had to be made either during their walk to and from the prisoner compound, at night or on a Sunday, when work didn’t start until mid morning. Those who cared about it, used this time to wash their clothes and groups of four men at a time were allowed out of the compound so that the cook could shave them under the watchful eye of the guards, the only time he was permitted a sharp blade.
While Ezra would have given anything to be back in the mine, relieving Buck of his double work burden, his position, spending his day in the prisoner compound, unchained as he made bricks, allowed him time to observe and plan. He reported that there was just no way to climb out of the canyon, the sides were just too steep, there were over hangs and higher up where they seemed to be less steep, they were unstable.
“The mud I am forced to wallow in daily falls down into here from above, showers of it come down daily, to climb up there would be suicide,” he concluded. “However, I have observed some weaknesses,” he continued with a rare smile. “As we know, there are two guards on the stockade from the morning until we, or rather you, leave for work. Once you are gone, Miguel and I are left to be watched by ‘Peg Leg’.”
The cook was an older man called Miguel, a convicted murderer.‘Peg Leg’ was their name for the guard who watched the two of them during the day. He did have both his legs, but he limped badly on the one.
“In the evening two different guards are on duty.”
“‘Long ‘Tash’ and ‘Shorty’,” Josiah confirmed.
“Right and they do their job, but I have observed that on Friday nights, once this place is quiet.” Ezra was the only one of them who had sufficient energy to stay up and watch the guards on the moonlight nights. “They are replaced by just one guard, ‘Peg Leg’, and he often disappears for at hours at a time. I don’t know where he goes, but I would surmise that he’s sleeping and given how often he sips from that flask of his in the day, he’s quite probably intoxicated.”
“We still need to get up and over the fence,” Chris pointed out.
“I’ve been working on that, give me a few more days.”
“Let’s say Ezra’s plan works, what then, once we’re over the wall?” Josiah asked. “The stables are beyond the guards hut’s and we don’t know the layout or where they keep the tack. I don’t see any way to get horses past the guards.”
“All true, and I have a plan,” Chris responded.
Orin had to agree with Vin, something was wrong. It didn’t mean the men were alive, but he wasn’t convinced they’d been hung either. Unfortunately, he had to return to the territory to hear a murder case.
“All I can suggests is that you keep watch on this place and see what happens. There is a hanging scheduled for the day after tomorrow. We don’t know what might happen. Then there is the grave digger, Duke, he knows more than he’s saying.”
Vin nodded. “Reckon I’ll be camping out here for a while then, gonna need some supplies.”
“I’ll get you some stuff.”
“What about the horses?” Vin asked. He knew his friends would want them back, want them safe, even if the four of them were dead.
“I’ll purchased them, then get them delivered to the livery in town.”
“Give me the money, I’ll buy them. I already told the blacksmith I might be in the market for a horse. Maybe I can find a local ranch to board them for a while?”
“That at least would save me some money in livery fees.”
Nathan came in to find JD sitting up. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“You said Vin called the Judge toFort Reed?”
“Yeah I did, two days ago.”
JD frowned. “Oh, was it that long ago, I though it was this morning.”
“No, it wasn’t, so you just lie back down.”
JD shook his head. “We have to go there and help him.”
“No, we have to wait. It’s a four day ride, for all we know they are on their way back already, or moved on to someplace else. Besides, you are in no state to ride anyplace. Put you on a horse right now, you’d fall off before we reached the swimming hole.”
Nathan just looked at him then he had a thought. Before JD could move, Nathan had his trousers and boots. “I’ll just hang on to these, for now.”
“Nathan!” JD protested, then winced as the pain in his head reacted to his own raised voice. “Oh damn,” he all but whimpered.
“Come on now, lie down.” Nathan was once again in healer mode, as he helped the younger man to rest. “JD, Vin will find them, but if you hadn’t managed to get back to us, we’d never have known something was wrong, and let’s not forget, if you’d died, then Buck would have no one to fuss over and that would kill him too. I am not about to lose even one friend, let alone two.”
JD nodded. “I think I remembered something,” he admitted.
“I woke up on the ground, there was blood all over me and Milagro was looking down at me.”
“I think I threw up.”
“And I remember thinking I have to get help, for the others. I have to get someone to help them.”
Nathan smiled. “And you did. I don’t know how, because a lot of people wouldn’t have made it back here, wouldn’t have lived with that injury. By our reckoning, you rode for at least two days, maybe more.”
“I just wanted to help them, but I can’t remember from what.”
A look passed over Nathan’s face. He tried to hide it, but he wasn’t that good a liar.
“What is it? Nathan, what haven’t you told me?”
Nathan tried to bush it off and talk about something else. “Nathan, tell me now!” JD demanded, which just made his head hurt more, but he didn’t care.
“Travis wired that they think the O’Hare’s got the drop on them, had them locked up in the prison.”
JD was already trying to get of the bed again.
“Quit that, if that’s what happened the Judge will vouch for them and they’ll be back in no time – right?”
JD didn’t move but his eyes widened. “I remember that. They didn’t need me, so he hit me, with a rock.” His voice was soft as if he was remembering some far of and distant memory. “It had to look like an accident.”
“Well they failed, you survived, you beat them.”
“But the others?”
“They’ll get them out. You know the Judge, he won’t let anything happen to them.”
Finally, JD nodded his acceptance. Waiting was the hardest thing, but there really wasn’t anything they could do for now.
Vin waited for the heat of the noonday sun to drive everyone into the shade at Fort Reed. From his chosen vantage point he could see Duke. He’d worked steadily to dig a grave in the hard sun baked ground, but it wasn’t particularly deep. Working his way on foot, silently Vin made his way to a point behind the old man sitting under the tree, but hidden from the guards on the prison wall, who occasional looked down on the elderly convict.
“Don’t look around,” he called softly.
The slight stiffening of the shoulders told him the old man had heard him.
“I need some information, okay?”
Duke gave the subtlest of head nods.
“Them last four graves, you told the Judge there was no one in them, that they went to Hell, that right?”
“Are they dead?”
Duke shrugged his shoulders.
“You don’t know. So they weren’t hung?”
He shook his head.
“Do you know where Hell is?”
Duke moved his finger and pointed down. Was he saying Hell was the underworld or something else? Vin took a guess. “Hell is in Mexico?”
“Do you know where?”
A shake of the head.
He wanted to ask him about the shallow grave the old man had dug but by now the sun was dropping and the prison was coming back to life. “Thanks,” he whispered, and dropped back.
Returning to his vantage point, he made sure everything he needed, including the money and gold eagles the Judge had given him, just in case he needed to bribe someone, were safely packed away. He waited for the‘hanging’ Duke had been preparing for. Thankfully there was a good moon, and he was a light sleeper. The clanking rumble of the wagon woke him. It was hard to see, but clearly a wagon had drawn up on the south side of the prison. A finger of light appeared when the door to the condemned cells was opened. A shuffling figure appeared with another man. He was pushed toward the wagon and mounted the steep steps. In less then fifteen minutes, the wagon was leaving again and the prison returned to darkness save for a few dim lamps inside the walls.
Less than five minutes after that, Vin was mounted and following the wagon. On a moonlight night it was easy to follow the wagon unobserved and work out where it was going. A wagon that heavy only had limited options crossing the Rio Grande and travelling the road they were on, only one. Circling around the slow wagon Vin made sure he was well ahead and out of site before he rejoined the road. He then spurred Peso on as fast as he could safely go in the moonlight. Thankfully, this was an area of the border he knew well and he’d travelled this road many times.
On reaching the small border town of San Felipe just before dawn, he managed to wake up the telegraph operator and persuade him, with the help of one of the Judge’s silver dollars, to take a message down.
“I can’t stay until you can get through this morning, but I know the operator in Four Corners, Herbert opens up eight in the morning, every morning,” he explained, “Can you send the message then?”
The man looked at him. Vin added another dollar to the regular fee.
“Be happy to Sir,” the man announced, with a toothless grin.
HEADING TO MEX BY SHALLOW BEND CROSSING– STOP – BELIEVE THEY ARE ALIVE – STOP
Nathan read it again then ran up to JD and read it to him.
“Didn’t I tell you to have faith?” he reminded.
“You did,” JD admitted. “What do you think they’re doing in Mexico
“Don’t know, but at least they’re not dead.”
Following the prison wagon was perhaps the easiest tracking job Vin had ever had. It was slow, loud and left huge ruts even in hard ground. He was able to track it at a safe distance and was able to drop back far enough to make camp with a fire and still be up and on their trail before they were on the move again. It stopped in two medium size towns in Mexico and picked up three more prisoners, always at night. In the first town it stopped beside what appeared to be a prison, the second time it stopped outside the town and waited for almost an hour until two men on horses appeared leading a donkey, with a bound man slung over its back.
Not long after this, the wagon left the regular trail and headed off, following a set of wagon ruts that were barely visible. Now his tracking skills were more tested but not overly and he got the feeling his journey was close to its end.
Once Chris had a full truck of oar, he had to push it out of the mine and down to the stamp mill, wait while Josiah and the others unloaded it, then take the empty truck to the other end of the mill where it was filled with the pulverised rock. Finally, he took this to a hopper at the head of the wooden chute, that ran down to the floor of the main valley. One of the guards at the stamp mill was trying to learn English. He spoke to the American prisoners in English and wanted them to correct him if he made mistakes. Chris and Josiah called him‘Chatty’. Through him, they had learned that when it was time to send the pulverised ore down the chute, a huge wagon, pulled by sixteen mules was waiting below it. The wagon always arrived on a Friday afternoon, was filled up but then, waited the night before setting off. The mules were left at the bottom with just one man to watch them, while the drivers rested up with the guards.
“Ezra, how close are you to getting us over the wall?” Chris asked the next night.
“The mud I so skilfully craft into brick,” he began sarcastically. “Is taken from banks of it that accumulate at the end and sides of the canyon.”
“We know that,” Chris pointed out.
“Of course, but have you noticed that I have been removing it so as to make rudimental steps, to the eastern wall, where, some fifteen feet above the canyon floor there is a small ledge that leads all the way to the fence.”
The other two turned to look at the eastern wall of the canyon, but it was too dark to see what he was talking about.
“What about the others, won’t they be able to follow us?” Chris asked.
While the other prisoners’ lives were as grim as theirs, they had all been sentenced to hang. They were dangerous men, with nothing to lose and as bad as a life of unremitting labour and in all probability slow starvation was, Chris had no desire to release them so they could pray upon innocent people again.
“The steps have been there for all to see for almost a week now. Have any of you noticed them?” They did not respond. “Exactly, neither has anyone else. My trade relies on people not seeing what is right in front of them.” He smiled another genuine gold tooth grin.
“You are one sneaky son of a bitch,” Buck commented groggily, as he limped out to join them.
“Thank you, I take that as a compliment.”
Ezra moved so that Buck could ease himself down onto the small mud block wall Ezra had built for them to sit on outside their hut.
“Was meant to be one Hoss. So.” Buck sighed as he took the weight off his bad leg, “when do we make our move?”
“As soon as that ore wagon gets here. By my reckoning, it should be this Friday,” Chris told them.
Two more days they waited, two days in which Buck grew visibly weaker and Josiah’s cough, which had been just occasional and annoying, became persistent and worrisome. Two days in which the sun, beating down on Ezra’s upper arms, which normally never saw the sun, became red raw and blistered. Two days in which Chris fought daily the urge to just mount the steps and leave, preferably killing as many of the guards that got in his way as possible as he went. But he didn’t! He waited and watched.
Then it was Friday. He was pushing his truck to the hopper when he was told to wait. A guard with a brawny prisoner called Paco, wearing leg irons stood beside the hopper, the guard undid the leg irons and said something Chris couldn’t catch to Paco, who climbed up onto the hopper and took hold of the rope attached to the hatch door at the end of a small chute. Using his evident upper body strength, Paco pulled on the rope, the hatch door lifted and the pulverised rock began to tumble down the slide, making a great rumbling sound as it fell. Chris, stood their, chained to his truck, and watched it slide and tumble down into the wagon below, which he could just see on the valley floor below.
Tired as they were, only Buck slept that night, the others waited, waited for the only sound to be insects and the wind. They waited for the guard to change. Sure enough‘Long ‘Tash’ and ‘Shorty’ disappeared and ‘Peg Leg’ arrived.
“He’s early,” Ezra commented softly.
“Mule drivers probably brought supplies,” Chris speculated.
Sure enough, after less than an hour by Ezra’s reckoning, ‘Peg Leg’ vanished.
“Right, get Buck up, time to get moving, we need all the night we can get,” Chris commanded.
Ezra’s steps worked like a charm. Chris and Ezra moved up to the ledge and edged along it. They needed to neutralise ‘Peg Leg’ if his tequila hadn’t done the job for them. The last bit was tricky, here the ledge was at its narrowest and had been damaged where the stockade had been put in, making it fragile and crumbling, but they made it. There was no one on the parapet. They made their way to the ladder and looked over, there was no one there. Chris descended cautiously, then looked up at Ezra.
“Get down here with the others, he’s out cold down here.”
Every time the gate was opened, it made a hideous sound, so Ezra had managed to get hold of a small earthenware jar and put a little corn oil from the cook hut in to it. The two of them used this to oil the bolts and hinges. Getting the key for the padlock from‘Peg Leg’ assuming he even had it, was always going to be difficult and risky, too risky. Buck had managed to get a scrap of wire from the glass guard on one of the lamps in the mine and pass it to Chris. From this, Ezra had fashioned a lock pick, which he now put to good use.
The newly oiled gate opened silently, letting Buck and Josiah out. With the gate bolted and locked again, they began to make their way toward the mule trail. They were half way there when someone came up the trail.
They couldn’t see who it was or what he was doing, other then he was leading what looked like a donkey with some panniers on its back. Who ever he was he stopped, looked at them, and began to shout, all while pulling his gun and firing at them.
“This way!” Josiah shouted as he grabbed Buck’s sleeve and began to drag him toward the stamp mill.
Chris and Ezra followed instantly, trusting that Sanchez had a plan.
The north side of the valley, where the mill was located, was in deep shadow, hiding them from their enemies but also making navigation difficult.
“Get to the head of the slide,” Josiah told Chris. “All of you.”
They did as instructed, waiting there anxiously, listening to the sound of the alarm being raised. It seemed to take forever for Josiah to return, but was in all probability only a minute or two at most. When he did come rejoin them, he had four shovels in his hands.
“I’ve seen this done, and it’s our only hope,” he started. “You sit on the blade, put the handle between your legs, hold on to the shaft and use it like a sled.”
The others just stared at him.
“Trust me, it’ll get us to the bottom much faster than anything else. I’ll go first, do as I do. Chris follow me so we can help Buck.”
“I can do it, I’m not a cripple!” Buck protested.
“Buck, shut up and do as Josiah tells you!” Chris snapped. “We’re doing this. Ezra you bring up the rear, don’t get left behind.”
“Have no fear, I have no desire to remain in his location one second longer than necessary.”
It was mad and terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time, Chris concluded. As much as he could see anything, he could make out Josiah’s large form some way ahead of him, hurtling to what? They had just assumed the wagon would still be there, to ‘catch’ them. If it wasn’t, it was going to be one hell of a drop at the end. Of course logically, it would be there, fully loaded it had to weight tons. Why move it if you didn’t have to? Some how all these thoughts, which were surprisingly detailed and organised, ran though his head in mere fractions of seconds as he raced down the nearly vertical slide. He could feel the friction heating the spade blade below him, occasionally his boots would catch on the wood, jarring him and reminding him to lift his legs higher. Then there was a moment of silence and stillness before he landed with a thud and a cloud of dust in the wagon.
“Oh shit!” he gasped.
“Never mind that, get out the way! Buck’s coming,” Josiah shouted as he pulled him out of the way.
Buck wasn’t looking forward to this. Ordinarily, in daylight, with no one trying to kill him, he reckoned this was the kind of thing he’d enjoy. He could see JD being up for it. Then he remembered that JD was dead, but he had no time to dwell on that, and he wouldn’t have until the bastards that killed the lad were under his knife. His leg throbbed as he sad down on the blade, he was only able to use his good right leg to brace himself and stop from sliding right away.
“Are you ready?” Ezra asked.
“As I’ll ever be.”
“Remember to keep your legs up and hold onto the handle.”
“No kidding.” With that Buck pulled the handle toward him and lifted his legs. In an instant he was moving. It was terrifying, not the speed, not the raising heat, not the not knowing when you’d arrive. It was his own weakness that scared him. Even as he began to pick up speed, he could feel his hands slipping on the spade handle, his left leg kept dropping, catching the wood and sending jarring pain up the leg that made it even harder to hold on. He thought he could see something below him and then it all went wrong. His fingers lost their last tenuous grip on the wood and he fell back, his left leg clipped the side of the slide and he began to spin to the side. Had he not been so close to the end, he’d have spun out altogether and rolled uncontrollably down the cliff face to who knew what end. As it was, he arrived in the wagon sideways in a boneless heap where strong hands took hold of him.
“You get him out of the way!” Chris called.
They pulled Buck out of the way so Ezra wouldn’t land on him.
Moments later Standish landed, cursing and protesting that he was never doing that again.
“Later Ezra, we need to move!” Chris shouted to him as he and Josiah picked up the semi conscious Buck and began to get down from the wagon.
“Where is the guard?” Standish asked worriedly.
“We haven’t seen him.” Josiah told him.
“That doesn’t mean he isn’t here,” Ezra persisted.
“Just move it Ezra!” Chris snapped.
They made it all the way to the mule line but they needed time, these were not riding mules, they had heavy bridles with very long reins. It would take time to get them ready. Working as fast as they could while keeping an eye out for the guards that had to be coming, they began to get ready.
The guard who had been on duty with the mules had either been asleep or answering natures call, because when he arrived they were half way though getting the mules ready. Shouting in Spanish, the panic in his voice all too evident. His gun, a long barrelled pistol waved dangerously as he commanded them to stop and put their hands up.
“Now what do we do?” Ezra asked.
The shot came out of nowhere, and the guard dropped, a single neat hole in his forehead.
“Hey fellers, ‘ja miss me?” Vin drawled from somewhere behind them as Peso came out of the shadows and into the weak moonlight.
“Told you they wouldn’t stop looking” Buck gasped out from the ground.
“What took you?” Chris commented.
“This place ain’t easy to find, Cowboy.”
“When you two are quite finished, can I point out that we still have a problem. Even if we can get on to these creatures, the guards are coming and they have horses. We have mules! They will overtake us.”
“He’s right,” Josiah agreed.
**And that is if Buck can stay in the saddle,** Chris silently added. “Working on it!” he told them out loud. “Pull back, to those rocks.” He pointed to some large dark forms just to the right of the mule line. “Vin you got some matches?”
Tanner fished into his pocket and then tossed a simple metal box to Chris.
“Thanks. You lot stay here and deal with anyone who comes.”
With that he grabbed the dead man’s gun and disappeared.
“Wonderful,” Ezra commented sarcastically, “Where is he going, what are we meant to do now?”
“He’s got a plan,” Buck assured him.
“Have faith,” Josiah reminded.
“Or stop talking and get the rest of them mules ready to ride, before more guards make it down here,” Vin prompted.
Chris, his dark clothing helping to camouflage him in the deep shadows, made it back to the chute. He didn’t see anyway other to do this, and just hoped he still had enough energy to do it. Using the wooden sides of the chute like a rope, he began to climb the near vertical slope. He was gambling that the guards would never believe anyone could climb up the steep slope, and if they did bother to look down, he’d be hidden in the shadows. The urgency of the situation was all too clear, he could already hear the shouts of the guards above him, worried that they might make him out in the shadows he tried to move more quickly. Moving quickly while trying to climb a near vertical slope of loose unstable rock was a mistake and after he’d fallen three times, tearing his knees to tatters, he accepted that he’d have to slow down or risk never making it. Horses, he could hear horses and the unmistakable voice of The Overseer shouting orders. He breathed a sigh of relief, he was close to the top.
As he pulled himself up the last few feet, he took a moment to catch his breath and take in what he could see. Several guards were running toward the head of the mule trail, the horses he’d heard had presumably already passed him. That was a mistake, he was counting on them making mistakes in their panic. The trail was too steep for a horse to descend at anything faster then a trot. The time it had taken to get the horses saddled was wasted, they could have run down faster.
Keeping low, Chris ran toward the stamp mill. It was dark inside, only a little moonlight made it past the small windows. Inside, the building was the mine’s store room. Although apparently padlocked, the wood securing the hasp was dry and brittle and succumbed easily to a few blows from the hilt of his gun. He found two large cans of lamp oil and a candle. Dragging them to the base of the hammer assembly, he dowsed the wood with the oil, set the candle in the middle, wedged down between planks until it was only a fraction of an inch above the oil soaked wood. Now all he had to do was light it. The candle would burn down to the oil soaked wood in less than a minute and then, the place would go up like a fourth of July firework.
Leaving it burning, he scurried across the valley to the prisoner compound. By now there were guards everywhere, including on the parapet of the stockade fence. Inside he could hear the prisoners. They were shouting at the guards, asking what was going on. The guards were shouting back, telling them to keep back. They even fired a few warning shots, which helped to disguise the shot Chris fired right below them to blast the lock hasp from the wood and open the gate. As much as he hated to let these desperate men go, he needed a diversion, he needed a big diversion to occupy the guards. As he stepped back into the shadows, the prisoners surged forward toward the open door. The guards above them began to fire, but there were a lot of prisoners and they didn’t have the time or the bullets to stop them before they were dragged down from the fence and killed.
Just then the stamp mill erupted in flames causing more confusion and more distraction. As he had expected they would, as he was counting on them doing, the prisoners acted like a mob, and immediately set about their revenge on the men, buildings and machines of the Las Minas de Plata del Diablo.
The first guards to respond to the alarm were now arriving at the bottom of the mule trail, two on horseback, and one on foot. Guns drawn, they pulled up at the base of the trail and looked around franticly, trying to work out what had happened.
From their vantage point, Ezra could make out that the man in the lead was Buck’s nemesis, ‘Smarts’.
“Kill him,” he hissed to Vin.
Tanner put his rifle to his shoulder and, trusting that Ezra would not ask him to do this with out good reason, did as he had been asked. As before, the man dropped instantly with a neat hole in his head.
“Unless either of you two want the same, you’ll drop the guns now,” Tanner told them in his near perfect Spanish.
For a second it looked like they would hesitate, but then the guns dropped.
“Thanks, now kick them over here,” he instructed.
As soon as the guns were out of reach, Josiah collected them while Ezra retrieved their horses. Above, they could hear the chaos that Chris had instigated. Now all they could do now was wait for Larabee to return.
Transport was the key to their escape and Chris knew it. Joining in the general melee, he grabbed a guard as he rode past and clubbed him down with the pistol, and grabbed the horse. Mounting, he headed for the mule trail.
He almost made it too. Just as he neared the top of the trail, he found his way was blocked by a man on the ground with a rife, The Overseer. The gun wasn’t pointed at Chris, but held across the man’s chest, Chris’s pistol was pushed into his waistband.
“I might have known it was you,” The Overseer snarled. “I should have had the lot of you executed right away. I always knew you lot were going to be trouble.
“Step aside,” Chris instructed. “It’s over.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” He moved the rifle a fraction and in that fraction, Chris had pulled his gun, fired and dropped him.
Chris moved his horse so that he was looking down at the man, who was gasping out his last breath, eyes staring up at Chris in disbelief.
“I told you, it’s over.” With that he wheeled the horse away and was gone.
When Chris reached them, the remaining two guards had been secured to the ore wagon with some of the harness and his friends were waiting to leave.
“Have fun up there?” Vin asked, alluding to the orange glow of flames and the sounds or gunfire and shouting coming from above them.
“The guards are somewhat occupied, I assume?” Ezra continued.
“You could say that. Time to leave.”
With saddled horses now at their disposal, the need to ride bareback on no doubt uncooperative mules had passed. Buck had regained some strength and, with Vin’s help, mounted the sturdiest horse they had. Since there were five of them and only four horses, someone was going to have to double up. Chris gave his horse to Josiah and mounted up behind Buck.
“Might be better for you to ride with Vin, you two being so scrawny and all,” Buck suggested.
“Think I’m gonna ride that ornery, glue bait, mule of his,” Chris replied.
“Hey!” Vin protested.
“Guess not,” Buck conceded.
They all knew Chris was riding with Buck to help him stay in the saddle, but no one was going to mention it, the man had his pride.
It felt as if the events of the night had taken hours, when in fact, it had all happened in less than an hour, which meant dawn was still a long way off. Vin led them out of the valley and then around what seemed to be a large bluff. Chris tried remember the topography of the area from their ride in the prison wagon, but couldn’t, in all honesty, bring it to mind. By his reckoning, they had been going for about two hours before they began to climb. Another two hours after that, the ground levelled out. By now, Buck was sound asleep, head bent forward to his chest. Chris had his arms wrapped around his old friend, keeping him upright, and holding the reins, though in truth, he was just letting the horse follow Peso.
Now, with a little encouragement, he managed to get his mount to draw level with Vin. “You know where we are?” he asked Tanner.
“Hope so, I tried to get it straight in my head on the way in and, if I’ve got it right, by dawn we should reach a spring. We need some water for both us and the horses. In case you hadn’t notice, we left in a hurry and so the only canteen we have is mine, that’s one between the five of us. By the look of it, Buck is gonna need almost all of it. What happened to him anyway?”
“Tell you later. That Nathan’s gun you’re wearing?”
“Not that many men carry a mare’s leg, reckoned it might give me away.”
As they rode, Chris craned his head to looked over his shoulder, relieved not to sense anyone behind them. A long way behind them, an orange glow was clearly visible over the dark looming mass of the hills they had rounded.
“Looks good don’t it?” Vin prompted.
“Oh yeah.” Chris grinned at him, his teeth clearly visible in the darkness.
Vin was right on the money, not that Chris doubted him. If anyone could see a place once and then find it again in the dark, it was Vin. As the sun rose, it revealed that they were high up on some kind of ridge. Below them, a wide flat valley was spread out, a thin trail of green marked where a river meandered down it. Vin signalled them to stop by a small collection of green bushes and lush looking grass.
“Reckon you guys need some rest,” Vin announced. “You might have to dig a bit for the water, but its here. I’m gonna check the back trail.” He tossed his bed roll and canteen down. “I’ll be back.”
“You got any food in there?” Josiah asked as he dismounted and prepared to help Chris get Buck of the horse.
“Oh, yeah.” Vin fished in his saddle bags and pulled out a small flour sack. “All I got, sorry.”
Buck didn’t wake as they lowered him down onto Vin’s bed roll. A quick examination of his leg showed it was still oozing blood and showing signs of inflammation, thought it didn’t look badly infected, at least not yet.
“He’s running a fever,” Josiah commented.
“I know, he has been ever since we set out. One of us better start digging for this water,” Chris told him.
“That will be me,” Ezra stated. “After all, I am now an expert at digging in mud.”
Maybe it was Ezra’s tone, maybe it was because he was tired and worried and still angry, but Chris took this as Ezra implying that he was being unfairly singled out, and told him so.
Ezra, who was just as tired, and worried, and angry, managed to say calm.
“I offered not only because I am, not that I am proud of it, now skilled at digging out mud, but also because I want to help all of you as best I can. Mr Larabee, I am fully aware that I had the best of it, thanks to Buck, something I will never be able to repay him for. Mr Sanchez, you have a persistent and increasingly debilitating. Mr. Larabee, in case you hadn’t noticed, your knees are somewhat damaged.”
In truth, Chris hadn’t noticed. He glanced down to see that, indeed, the material of his trousers, what was left of it, was soaked in blood, torn and bloody skin all to visible under it. He took a moment to consider what Ezra had said, and to overcome the instinct to snap at Standish. “You’re right, I’m sorry,” he finally said.
“Ezra, your shoulders are burnt and you suffered badly that first week, don’t think we haven’t noticed that,” Josiah told him softly.
“None the less, it remains true that I am best suited to excavate the water.” Ezra looked down at Buck, taking in the unhealthy flush to his cheeks, sharply contrasted against by his pale parlour. “It is the least I can do. Perhaps you gentlemen could see to the horses and investigate the food. I have to admit I am more than a little hungry.”
The water Ezra excavated was a little‘earthy’ tasting, but it was cool and plentiful and, for that, they were very grateful. Vin’s food bag provided jerky, dried apple rings, slightly stale gorditas, and some shriveled dark red objects that Ezra discovered where dried tomatoes, along with a bag of sugar, which they gratefully dipped their fingers into again and again like children left alone in the kitchen. Through all this Buck slept on, so they were carful to save him a generous share of this bounty.
Vin called out to announce his return an hour later.
“All clear?” Chris asked as the tracker swung down from his horse.
“Yup, reckon they’ve got better things to do.”
“With The Overseer and ‘Smarts’ dead there will be no one left with even a modicum of intelligence,” Ezra pointed out.
“What’s your plan?” Josiah asked Vin.
“Get you across the boarder. I crossed at Shallow Bend Creek, following that damn wagon it took days to get to you. If we go cross country, we could make it in less than two days.”
Chris nodded in agreement. “I don’t want to go back by way of Fort Reed, not without the Judge. Presidio is almost as close, there should be a telegraph office there.”
“Good thinking,” Vin agreed. “Then we can head for the Bar-D ranch.”
Now Chris was confused. “Where?”
“It’s a horse ranch about a day’s ride south of Fort Reed. It’s where I boarded your horses, after the judge bought them from the prison”
“Chaucer is safe?” Ezra asked urgently.
“It is a shame we can’t say the same for young JD,” Josiah commented sadly.
Ezra’s elation died as soon as it had arrived. “Indeed,” he agreed.
“JD?” Vin asked. “You think…Oh shit, I didn’t… JD’s alive.”
Chris, Ezra and Josiah turned to him. “He’s alive?” Chris asked.
“Don’t know how, Nathan reckons someone tried to bash his brains in with a rock, but that kid’s tough. Somehow he made it back home. Of course he can’t remember what happened, but he’s doing good. Sorry, I should have said, didn’t know you thought he was dead.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ezra assured “We’re just grateful for the news.”
“Amen,” Josiah agreed.
“Thanks,” Chris added with a smile. Then he moved over to Buck. “Hey, Big Dog, time to wake up.” With a care and tenderness few ever saw from Chris Larabee, he gently tapped Buck’s cheek. Wilmington moaned and tried to pull away. “Oh no you don’t, I have news for you.”
Eyes that took too long to focus and were dull and blood shot looked up at him and frowned. “Time to move?” he asked.
“Yeah, but first Vin needs to tell you something.”
Vin moved to the other side of Buck, who was now pushing himself up on his elbows. “What?” he asked bluntly.
Buck stared at Vin for a long time. “You better not be joking.”
“I swear it, he was in a bad way, but he’s getting better now.”
“On my honour.”
“Well alright!” Suddenly Buck didn’t look so ill and pushed himself up. “Let’s ride!”
Despite his enthusiasm, Buck took a lot longer to get moving than the others. For one thing, he needed to eat and drink first. This delay gave Ezra a moment to actually look at Vin.
“Why Mr Tanner, I hadn’t had the time to fully appreciate your improved grooming and sartorial choices.”
Vin looked at him. “Huh?”
“He likes the new hair and clothes,” Chris translated.
“Well, since they seem to be my clothes, this is hardly surprising,” Ezra observed.
“Needed them in a hurry, hope you don’t mind?”
“Not at all.”
“Pants are Chris’.”
Larabee glanced down at Tanner’s legs, lifted an eyebrow and went back to tightening his cinch.
“I would be more than happy to assist you to purchase a new wardrobe once we get home,” Ezra offered brightly.
“Ez, the moment I’m out of Texas, I’m shaving this damn fuzz of m’ face! Then, when I get home, you can have these back, I’ll even pay to get them washed, an’ I don’t aim to get my hair cut this side of Christmas, next year!”
Buck laughed as Ezra stood there open mouthed and Vin swung up into Peso. “Well you tried,” he commented, patting Ezra on the shoulder.”
“I am totally unappreciated,” Ezra lamented.
Fully fit, on their own horses, and taking the direct route, they probably could have made the river crossing in less than two days. As it was, with only four horses between the five of them, and Buck’s health deteriorating, it took almost three. The need to replenish their food and water supplies was the biggest delay. Water proved easier to find than food. Had they not they met a band of Mescalero Indians, with whom they were able to trade cartridges for food, they would have been further delayed while Vin went hunting or they took a detour to the nearest town.
As they finally approached the river, the sun was about to set.
“You know, the mine guards could have ridden straight here, and be waiting for us,” Josiah pointed out as they neared the crossing.
“Yeah they could have, but they didn’t,” Chris stated confidently.
“How do you know this?” Ezra asked.
“I just feel it.”
“So you can take that as gospel,” Buck confirmed.
They considered waiting for a full daylight, but in the end, they all wanted to get back into the good ol’ USA without delay.
Crossing the Rio Grande is never easy, even at recognised and well used crossing places. The swift under currents and unpredictable ground, including dangerous quicksand, could catch out even experienced men. Shallow Bend was well named, a gentle bend in the river where the water was never more than three feet deep, over a firm, and relatively flat river bed. This safe corridor was no more than eight feet wide, just wide enough for a wagon to cross. It ran diagonally across the bend, with the shallowest water on the Mexican side. Either side of this narrow crossing were unseen fast flowing currents, undertows, and pockets of quicksand.
Chris and Vin considered that asking a horse who they still didn’t really know to make this crossing, especially with two man on board, was just too risky when one of those men was sick and injured. Chris dismounted, leaving Buck in the saddle, clinging on to the saddle horn with white knuckled determination.
Their plan was for Chris to lead the horse on Buck’s left, while one of the others rode beside him on the right.
Josiah went first; his horse paused to stamp the water then crossed. Ezra would wait on the far bank while Chris and Vin took Buck across. Peso might have the manners of a two year old, but he was reliable and honest, he trusted Vin and would do as he was told.
As they prepared to set out, Chris looked up at Buck. “You hold on Big Dog, don’t want you taking a dunking,”
Then he grabbed the reins and they began to wade into the river.
Buck’s leg hurt, it throbbed and itched and burned all at the same time, his head hurt, his back hurt, in fact pretty much everything hurt. The constant rocking motion of the horse was torture but there was no alternative so he just stat there, he wasn’t going to complain. All he wanted was to get home. JD was alive; the boy had to have a skull of pure iron, which probably explained why he was so hard headed and stubborn. Buck would get home; check that the kid really was okay and then hunt down and kill the O’Hare’s and all the damn relatives, plus Neilson, but the O’Hare’s first. When that was done, and only then, would he let himself rest. If, in the mean time, he had to let Chris lead the horse across the river, so be it, his pride could take that much of a beating. Besides, not that he’d ever admit it, but having Chris ride behind him and now beside him, was a comfort. He knew he was fading in and out at times and he trusted Chris to keep him in the saddle.
Their concerns about the horse proved to be well founded. At first, she refused to enter the water, but after a long drink and a spell of splashing she walked in beside Peso willingly enough. Every now and again she’d pause and look about then walk on. They were about two thirds of the way across and entering the deepest, fastest flowing water, when she began to toss her head, but she kept walking. In the end, what happened wasn’t her fault, not entirely. Peso, annoyed with her fussing, turned to give her a nip on the neck. This made the mare side step out of his way. The sudden movement caught Chris by surprise and he momentarily lost his balance. Instinctively, he hung onto the reins to keep himself upright. The mare objected to this sudden tug on her mouth and swung back in the other direction, sending her rump into Peso, who – typically – reacted by trying to kick her. An equine spat ensued, and this caused Chris to completely loose his balance and his grip on the reins. He fell back into the water and was immediately taken by the strong current.
To the horrified men waiting on either bank, this chain reaction of events took just seconds. To the men in the river, it seemed to last a life time. Vin was battling to bring Peso back to the safe water; while Chris was being swept away faster then it seemed possible by such a benign looking river.
Buck responded on pure instinct. With only one rein in his hand, he managed to pull the mare’s head around far enough to stop her and, leaning forward, he grabbed the other rein by the bit. Once had both reins, he didn’t hesitate to head into the fast water of the uncharted river after Chris. Josiah turned to track Chris from the opposite bank. Remembering Vin’s warning about quicksand along the banks, Ezra headed into the river, at the crossing place.
Having fidgeted all the time she was crossing the river, Buck now needed his horse to obey and she didn’t fail him, charging head long into the water with out hesitation. Clearly she was not unlike Milagro, who always liked to crossed water at high speed. In no time, Buck had her beside Chris, who was trying to get his feet back under him.
“Here!” Buck shouted, leaning low from the side of the saddle and holding out his hand.
It took two attempts, but Chris managed to get hold of Buck. At first, all he had was some shirt sleeve. Then, just as the fabric was tearing, he managed to get his hand around Buck’s wrist. Buck tried to sit up and pull Chris to him, but the river didn’t want to release either of them yet. Just as Chris got his feet down, the current caught him behind the knees and he fell back. By now, Wilmington had a good grip on his friend and wasn’t going to let him go. Adrenalin can only do so much though! Had Buck been fit, had he not been trying to brace himself on a panicking horse with his injured leg, he might have held on and pulled Chris back. As it was, he was pulled out of the saddle. Sick as he was, half starved, injured and anaemic from loss of blood, Buck Wilmington was still a fighter. As he slid past his centre of gravity and knew there was no going back, he gave up trying to hold onto the saddle and concentrated on keeping hold of the horse. Just as he fell free, he managed to shove his arm into the stirrup, getting it in up to the elbow.
Buck landed in the water on his side, one arm still locked in the stirrup, and a death grip on Chris’ wrist on the other side. The mare had decided that she didn’t like this part of the river, with it’s deeper water, fast current and soft bottom, and was now backing up toward the crossing as fast as she could.
Chris was desperate to get his feet under him so he could get back on his feet. He was terrified he’s lose his hold on Buck or Buck would lose his grip on the. Worse still, he might have to let go of Buck to save his friend. He didn’t want to, but he would not let Buck die saving him. Every time he thought he had some purchase on the bottom, the current took it from him. Buck was hanging off the saddle almost horizontal in the water, being dragged backwards by the horse; his head was under the water more than it was above. Larabee had almost made up his mind to let go, when something lifted him up and onto his feet.
Vin was cussing Peso every way to Sunday as he fought to get the horse back under control. When he did have him back on safe ground, he was horrified to see Buck riding into the deep water after Chris. Ezra had kicked his horse on and charged into the water the moment he saw Chris go down. Josiah tried to do the same thing, but his horse once more protested, dancing on the shore and tossing its head at the water’s edge.
By the time Peso was listening and obeying again, Ezra was almost at Vin’s side. Together, the two of them headed toward their friends. Buck had already made it to Chris. Hope turned to fear as they watched in horror as he was dragged from the saddle. It wasn’t necessary to discuss what they were going to do; they just rode on, Vin headed for Chris and Ezra for Buck. Almost as one, they grabbed a friend by the back of his collar and pulled them up. It would have been tempting to head for the closest bank, just yards away, but Vin shouted a warning about quicksand, so they headed back to the crossing, adding precious yards to their trip.
Having abandoned the argument with his horse, Josiah had dismounted and waded into the water on foot. As the others finally headed for the bank, he made it to Buck, relieving Ezra of some of his burden. Chris was managing to walk, though Vin had no intention of letting go of his collar until they were on dry land. Buck wasn’t able to walk, though he was moving his legs and seemed to be awake. As they reached the sand and gravel on the American side, Vin let go and Chris slid gratefully to the ground. At first, he landed on his knees, but the hard gravel cut into the newly reopened wounds. Consequently, he rolled to the side, eventually laying on his back as he got his breath back. As Ezra released Buck’s collar, Wilmington slumped against Josiah, who all but carried him a little way up the bank and then laid him down under a stand of willows.
By now, Buck was unresponsive, his heroics in the river having drained the last of his energy.
“Get the horses back!” Chris called as he forced himself up and moved over to Buck.
“Hey there, Big Dog, I thought I told you not to get wet,” Chris chided softly. He then placed his hand on Buck’s chest, just to reassure himself that his friend was still breathing.
By the time they had rounded up Buck and Josiah’s horses, it was almost dark. They moved back into the cover of the willows and made camp for the night. Buck has remained unresponsive, his fever was up slightly but it didn’t seem to be raging out of control. His leg wound was bleeding again but didn’t seem to be any more inflamed.
“What do you think?” Chris asked Josiah.
“That I wish Nathan was here,” Sanchez responded. “And in the meantime, I think we need to do something about your knees.”
“None of us is alright, and we can’t afford to let ourselves get any worse. We have to get Buck to some place safe where he can rest up. We don’t need to be toting your scrawny ass around as well.”
Chris finally conceded that this was true and let Josiah inspect his wounds. There was no clean cloth to cover them with, all they could do was cut away any fabric that might get stuck in the wounds and let the fresh air take care of them.
Vin and Ezra stripped Buck of his wet clothes and wrapped him in Vin’s bedroll. Chris stripped off his own wet clothes and pulled on Vin’s slicker. With clothes hanging on the surrounding trees, the four of them then sat by the fire, ate what food they had left, and waited for the dawn.
“This ranch, how long will it take to get Buck there?” Chris asked Vin.
“A day, with luck,” came the confident reply.
“And the people there, will they let Buck stay and rest up?” he asked.
Vin nodded. “Like I told you, they’re good people.”
“We need to get him there as soon as possible; I’ll ride to Presidio, which is what? A hard day’s ride from here?”
“I’ll send a wire to Nathan and the Judge. How long from Presidio to the ranch?”
Vin thought a moment. “A long day, if the moon is kind to you.”
“In that case, you give me directions from Presidio, then head directly to the ranch.”
“I should go,” Vin protested.
“You need to get the hell out ofTexas,” Chris pointed out.
“True, but not yet. No offence, Cowboy, but have you looked at yourself lately? You go down there looking like that, someone’s gonna start asking questions.”
“Mr Tanner, you have risked too much already, we’re safe now, time for you to get yourself to safety,” Ezra told him. “And think, the faster you can get out of Texas, the sooner you can shave.”
“I know but I came here to see y’all safe back home, I don’t aim to quit with the job half done.”
“I still don’t like the idea of you heading into some Texas town on your own,” Chris said, voicing the concern they all shared.
“You know there is away around this,” Josiah pointed out sagely.
“Well, don’t keep us in suspense, Mr Sanchez,” Ezra drawled.
Josiah looked pointedly at Vin. “You and Chris swap clothes, then Chris can ride into town without arousing any suspicions.”
Chris looked at Vin and then back at Josiah. “I’ll look like Ezra,” he pointed out, not quite keeping the horror of the situation out of his voice.
Vin looked at him as much as to say **I did it to save your ass, time to cowboy up Larabee**.
“I’ll try not to take offence at your tone,” Ezra assured him sarcastically.
“Yeah, okay, good plan. I’ll leave at first light,” Chris finally conceded.
Ezra fixed Chris with his poker face. “While I appreciate your sartorial sacrifice, I really think I should make the trip to Presidio.” Larabee opened his mouth to protest, but Ezra continued. “While you may be able to fool these two, and frankly, they are two of the worst poker players I have ever encountered so that is hardly surprising, I am better able to see and interpret every nuance of a man’s body language. If Mr Jackson were here, he would no doubt confirm that two days hard riding it not recommended for anyone with broken ribs.”
Chris considered protesting, he even opened his mouth.
“Before you say anything to the effect that you are ‘fine’, perhaps you’d like to consider how you’ll feel after a cold night on hard ground.”
Vin had been impressed with the Bar-D. A large and prosperous ranch located a half day’s ride south of Reed, it lay in a triangle of land between two tributaries of the Rio Grande and the great river it’s self. There was no doubting it was the best parcel of land in the area but, this close to the border, it was vulnerable. At the centre of the ranch was a large Spanish style house. With its thick adobe walls surrounding a central court yard, it had clearly been constructed with defence in mind. What windows there were in the outer wall, were narrow, set deep, with heavy shutters that bolted on the inside. The double doors into the courtyard were thick and reinforced with iron studs. Inside the walls, the courtyard was paved with flagstones, with a well, under a lead roof, standing in the centre.
Chris had woken up stiff and in pain, it hurt to breathe, it hurt to bend and lift, it pretty much hurt do anything. For this reason, he was no longer able to help Buck, who was now slumped against Vin on Peso. With Chris increasingly debilitated, and unable to stand any pace more than a walk over relatively flat land, the trip took much longer than they had anticipated. As the dying rays of the sun shone in their eyes, well armed riders appeared, flanking them on either side.
“It’s the ranch patrol,” Vin told them, even as Chris and Josiah hands were moving to their guns.
“The owner, Joe Devereaux, keeps men out patrolling close to the house.”
“Indians?” Josiah asked.
“No, he doesn’t have much of a problem with the local Indians, they have an understanding. Besides, I reckon he’s a half breed.”
“Really?” Josiah asked, it was unusual for someone of mixed race to be so prosperous.
“Pretty sure, from what I saw more than half his crew is Comanche.”
“If he gets on so well with the natives, why does he need the patrols?” Ezra asked.
“Banditos. He told me the law at Fort Reed won’t help him. There’s only a Marshall at Presidio, he won’t come up this far north. Texas Rangers are mostly too far away, so it’s up to him.”
Vin had also gotten the strong impression Devereaux had no love for the prison or the warden. He’d been more than happy to board the horses for a fraction of what the livery charged, even though he clearly didn’t need the money.
Slumped against Vin, Wilmington hadn’t shown any sign of regaining consciousness since he’d rescued Chris from the river. As they rode, Vin could feel the heat radiating off his friend’s sweat drenched body.
As they neared their destination, the patrol moved off, riding ahead of them to the house. By now it was almost dark. Chris didn’t think the pale orange glow of an oil lamp, spilling out from a narrow window, had ever looked so welcoming.
Once it became clear how sick Buck was, Barbara Devereaux took over. She had them carry him to the guest room. Once there, she promptly dismissed everyone but her trusty cook Deloris.
While they waited for news, Joe offered Vin, Chris and Josiah a chance to wash and some clean clothes. With their hair still wet, dressed in a mixture of their host’s cloths and the simple white cotton clothes of Mexican peasants and peons, the weary men returned to the main room. They had only been there a few minutes when Barbara, still drying her hands on a towel, came in the room. As one, the men came to their feet.
“How is he?” Vin asked for all of them.
“I think the wound in his leg is infected but I’ve seen worse. I don’t think it can account for his fever.”
“He’s been through a rough time,” Josiah told her softly.
“I’d say he wasn’t the only one,” she pointed out.
“He had the worst of it.”
“Well, all I can do is make sure he gets lots of rest, as much food and water as we can get into him, and Dolores will make up her famous honey poultice for the wound.”
“Thank you Ma’am. Can we see him?” Vin asked.
Buck looked a lot better already, clean, lying in a proper bed, under clean white sheets. Dolores was carefully binding a poultice to his leg. Without even thinking about it, Vin greeted her in Comanche and she replied. During the conversation, he confirmed his suspicion about their host’s parentage. He might be a successful rancher and an influential member of the local community, but as a half breed, he was never going to be truly accepted by other ranchers in the area. To Vin that automatically made him an ally, because none of them were ever going to truly fit in anywhere but in the family they had made for themselves, just like Joe Devereaux.
As Delores finished and stood up, she told Vin she knew Buck was a good man and a strong man and that his spirit guide would take care of him. Leaving her to her work, everyone else returned to the main room.
“I don’t suppose you can tell me what’s going on?” Devereaux had asked.
“Not yet,” Josiah confirmed. “But when some things are settled, we’ll let you know. Believe me; we are on the side of the angels.”
“I do believe you. Do you think I would let you into my home with my wife and children, if I didn’t trust you?” The Devereaux’s had four children, Matt who told them proudly that he was seven and a half, Robert who was just five, Harry two and Jenny nine months old. The two youngest were safely tucked up in bed, but the older boys, excited by all the activity and new faces in the house, were very much awake.
Chris smiled. “Fair point.”
“Well with Deloris busy, I had better see what is happening to the food,” Barbara announced, as she headed toward the kitchen.
“Would you like to visit your horses while we wait?” Devereaux offered.
“I’ll show you!” young Matt offered, bouncing on the spot.
So, picking up a couple of lanterns, they all followed him out to the main barn. The working area of the ranch was directly opposite the house and built to a similar plan. A bunk house, stables, barn, forge and even a pigsty, were all built against a sturdy curtain wall and facing in to a large courtyard with its own well.
The horses greeted them as soon as they heard the familiar voices. Chaucer and Beau immediately began to nuzzle any available pocket for a treat.
“I’ve got apple rings!” Matt announced, fishing in his pockets. As the boy was handing them out, he explained how he had helped to look after their equine guests.
“Mr Vin told us their names, so I looked after Pony and Chaucer and we let Robby help look after Cardinal and Beau, ‘cause they are more gentle. Chaucer’s not very friendly is he? Who does he belong to?”
“Our other friend, he’ll be here soon,” Josiah explained. “And don’t worry, he may not be very friendly to you, but he loves Ezra.”
“Pony thinks he’s the boss,” Matt continued.
“He takes after his owner,” Vin explained nodding toward Chris.
Matt craned his neck to look up at Larabee, who was doing his best to look stern and serious. Then the small boy’s face broke out into a huge grin. At which point all Chris’ resolve to look serious vanished and he winked at the boy, making him giggle.
“Cardinal is nice, but Beau is my favourite. He likes everyone,” the boy continued.
The men from Four Corners all glanced at each other and smiled. Yup, Beau was also just like his owner.
At that moment, little Robby, his mop of dark hair falling in his eyes, appeared at the door, bouncing up and down.
“Mama says the food is ready, so come to the table!” he announced at top of his voice.
“Now who do these two remind you of?” Vin asked.
“Miniature versions of JD,” Josiah agreed.
“Deloris says their spirit guides must be humming birds, because they’re never still,” Joe told them as they crossed back to the main house. “I hope you don’t mind eating outside, we don’t bother with formal dining most of the time.”
“Where else would you eat?” Josiah told him with a huge grin. Joe led them to a large table in the court yard, lit with lamps and groaning under the weight of food.
All that time in the mine, they had been hungry. Sometimes food was all they could think about, fantasise about, and here it was, right in front of them; thick juicy chops, tamales, tortillas, hot buttered biscuits, full, fresh, juicy corn cobs, running with butter– nothing like the miserable dry corn they had been eating – roasted peppers and fresh tomatoes.
“You boys all look like you could use a good feed,” Barbara announced.
“Ma’am, you have no idea how much,” Chris told her.
Chris sank his teeth into a chop. “This is delicious,” he complemented, “ but what is it?”
“’Oat,” Matt told him, without removing his mouth from his own chop.
“Goat,” Vin translated.
“Goat? I’m eating goat?”
“Is there a problem?” Barbara asked.
“No ma’am, it’s just I’ve never had goat.”
“Goat’s nice!” Robby told him enthusiastically.
Chris took another bite. “Actually, yes it is.”
Vin suddenly had to stifle a small laugh.
“What is so funny?” Chris asked.
“I was thinking about Ezra. I want to see his face when we tell him he’s eating goat.”
Chris and Josiah looked at each other and then burst out laughing and once they started they couldn’t stop. All that tension, all the pain and the fear and the frustration came out in peels of helpless laughter. It was as if a great black cloak, that had been suffocating them, was suddenly lifted and let the sun shine in again. True, Buck was still sick, and Ezra wasn’t with them yet, but they were alive, they were safe, they were free - finally
Eventually, the laughing subsided. Wiping tears from their eyes, the three men looked at their hosts somewhat sheepishly.
“Err, sorry,” Josiah began.
“What for, I understand,” Joe told them in a quiet measured tone and with a small smile.
Josiah looked at him quizzically.
“Two days after I got out of prison I saw this little kitten trying to work out how walk over a bed of cactus, and I just started to laugh.”
Chris studied their host. He was a good looking man, close to Ezra’s height, with dark hair and blue eyes. Presumably, he’d got most of his looks from his father, because if one didn’t know he was part Indian, he’d never have guessed. True he had high cheek bones, but then so did many white men, true his complexion was dark, but he lived under the Texas sun. He came over as friendly and generous, but now, as he really looked, Chris could also see a fierce intelligence. This was not a man who missed much. He also had to be a pragmatic man, to make a successful ranch in this land. It must have meant making compromises and alliances, and he wondered what it really took to keep the Comanche from taking his horses.
Joe held out his hand. “Welcome to the club?”
Chris nodded and then extended his own hand over the table.
As much as they craved the food, it soon became clear that Chris and Josiah were never going to be able to eat all they craved. The head said eat, but their shrunken bellies said no.
“Don’t you fret over it boys,” Barbara assured them. “No food ever goes to waste around here, what the bunk house doesn’t eat, the pigs will have. I think it’s going to be ‘little and often’ for you for a while.”
“Ma’am, please don’t go to any extra trouble on our account,” Josiah began.
“Hush man, it’s my pleasure. Any time you’re hungry, you just come into the kitchen and there will be food for you, and that is an end to it.” She fixed both man with a glare even Chris would have been proud of.
“Best to agree boys, she’s not one to take no for an answer,” Joe told them.
While the two boys had been put to bed, the three of them sat with Buck in silent support, until Barbara came in to shoo them out into the main room.
“Hope you’ve still got room for some good Irish Whiskey?” Joe asked, holding up a decanter.
“Damn, I thought you’d never ask,” Chris commented.
“I gotta ask,” Josiah began as he sipped his whiskey. “Goats?”
“This is a horse ranch. This land can only support a limited number of animals; horses are worth more and eat lessthan cattle, but we still need to eat. Goats are better for this land. They eat anything, don’t compete with the horses for food, and don’t mind the heat. Beside meat, milk, and cheese, we also get good leather from the hide and even the horns are useful.”
“But howdo you keep the stock safe? Every tribe and bandit in the area must be after them?”
“Oh they are. We brand them as soon as we can, that helps. I have a treaty with the local Comanche. They don’t touch my stock, and in return, every year I give the chief one colt, four yearling mares and two sides of bacon.”
“Bacon?” Chris asked.
“They have developed a taste for it, but can’t raise it themselves.” They had seen the Bar-D’s small collection of pigs when they went to see the horses. “And a few braves come and work for me, for a while at least. They get regular food, money and they learn English. For some of them that’s a good thing. It doesn’t hurt that any one who tries to take my stock runs the risk of being caught by a Comache.”
“That is some deterrent,” Chris admitted.
“Hey!” Joe suddenly exclaimed. “We could butcher a pig tomorrow, in your honour.”
“Why don’t we wait,” Vin said softly. “‘Til Bucklin’s up and about.”
“Buck does love a hog roast,” Chris agreed.
Joe nodded. “Of course. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready to hit the hay. The boys are sleeping in the nursery, so two of you can have their beds the other one will have to take the couch in here I’m afraid.”
“It’s okay. I’ll be taking the first shift in Buck’s room,” Chris explained.
“Oh, right, of course.”
Late the next day, Ezra arrived at the Bar-D. While he had wasted no time getting back to them, he had also taken the time to get a shave and purchase some new clothes, all at the Judge’s expense.
“You gentlemen look considerably better,” he commented as he joined them for dinner.
There was no denying the truth of his statement. Chris was distinctly self conscious about the loose fitting, plain, white, peasant trousers he was wearing, but at least they didn’t irritate his healing knees. His ribs hurt like hell and, as a result, he was moving slowly and very carefully. Spending a good portion of the night in the admittedly very comfortable chair beside Buck hadn’t helped, thus he was now possibly even stiffer than he had been the day before. Vin had taken the last shift with Buck, allowing Josiah and Chris to sleep late. While this hadn’t done much for Chris, Josiah was improving rapidly.
“How is Buck?” Ezra asked.
“The same,” Chris told him.
Over the next few days, that was how things remained. Ezra and Josiah made rapid progress, Chris less rapid, but still steady improvement. Vin spent time with the ranch hands, enjoying speaking his second language again. The two Devereaux boys found all their new guests fascinating and had a terrible time trying to decide who to spend time; Vin, who was so much like them, caught between two cultures. Josiah, who told amazing stories of places far away, Ezra, who did magic tricks or Chris, a real life gunfighter! The men indulged the boys. Ezra claimed that doing what he described as the most basic of slight of hand for the boys was good practice for him.
Through all this, Buck was the same. His fever wasn’t getting any higher, but nor was it getting any lower. His leg wasn’t healing, but nor was it suppurating or spreading. They sat with him, they talked and read to him, but he didn’t show any sign of responding.
“If I thought it was possible, I would say that our rogue has given up,” Ezra ventured, voicing the fear they all shared.
“Do you think he remembers that JD isn’t dead?” Vin asked.
“Maybe not, my father took sick with the same fever that killed my mother.” Josiah began. “He was there when she died, he prayed over her body. But when he recovered, he asked for her.”
From then on, they reminded their stricken friend often that his surrogate little brother was alive and well, but it made no difference.
On the afternoon the fourth day, a man from one of the ranch patrols came galloping in to report something to the foreman. Apparently, they had seen two riders approaching.
“Something is wrong,” Vin told the others as he listened to the man. “He called them ‘Strange Men’, strange not strangers.”
“Somehow, I don’t think this can be good,” Ezra commented.
To young braves with only limited experience of the white man’s world, they must have indeed looked strange since none of them had ever seen a bowler hat, let alone a black man. To the men waiting back at the ranch house, their silhouettes on the horizon could not have been more familiar or more welcome.
“Welcome brothers!” Josiah boomed as they pulled up outside the ranch house.
“Good to see you. Help me get JD down,” Nathan returned.
Only now did they see how pale their youngest was, as he sat hunched over the saddle.
“Is he okay?” Chris asked as Vin and Josiah moved to help JD down.
“Not really, but once we got Ezra’s wire there was no stopping him. He’d just have followed me on his own if I hadn’t brought him.
“I’m okay,” JD protested, pushing Vin away. “I just need to catch my breath.”
By now, Nathan was on the ground. “Sure. He needs to rest.”
“Not yet,” Chris told Nathan as they headed inside.
“What about the horses….” Nathan looked back to see at least four Comanche ranch hands all staring at him. “Are they…?”
“They’re fine, I’ll make sure the horses are okay and bring your stuff in,” Vin assured him, patting Nathan on the shoulder as he went past.
Even as they walked in, Chris was explaining about Buck and what they thought the problem might be.
“Where is he?” JD demanded.
JD didn’t hesitate; if he could have coordinated his legs enough to run, he would have. As it was, he still needed to lean on Josiah to keep his balance as he reached his best friend’s bedside.
To JD, Buck looked terrible; he’d lost a lot of weight, his cheeks looking hollow. Though someone had clearly shaved him, trimmed his moustache and combed his sweaty hair, somehow he still looked dishevelled. He was pale, but for a slight flush to his cheeks and a sheen of perspiration covering his skin.
“Buck?” JD approached the large bed, his own hand trembling as he reached for Buck’s larger one. “It’s me, JD, I’m here, I’m alive.”
With his own legs buckling, JD sank down to sit on the edge of the big bed, never once letting go of Buck’s hot, clammy hand. Satisfied that JD wasn’t going to keel over and hit the floor, Josiah stepped back to give Nathan some room as he followed them in, followed by Barbara.
“Nathan,” Josiah began. “This is Mrs Devereaux; she’s been taking care of Buck. Ma’am, this is our friend, Nathan Jackson.”
“I’ve very pleased to meet you Mr Jackson,” Barbara began. “There are no doctors out here, so we just have to do the best we can. I am very pleased to have a real man of medicine here.”
“I’m no doctor,” Nathan pointed out, as he checked Buck’s fever with the back of his hand.
“Yes, your friends explained, but they have every confidence in your ability.”
Nathan nodded his acceptance that she understood his position. “Tell me everything.”
While the two of them talked and examined Buck’s leg wound, JD continued to talk to his best friend.
“The big one, who thought he looked like you, he hit me with a rock, I think, because I can’t really remember anything about it. I remember waking up and Milagro was still there. I don’t know how I got on him, but I must of, because I managed to get home and Nathan took good care of me. All we had to go on were two wires, one from Vin, one from Ez, and what the Judge told us. I reckon there has to be more to tell, I’m waiting for you to tell me the whole story, you’re the best story teller. I know the others say Josiah tells the best stories, but he’s kinda long winded and sometimes I start to nod off…”
Josiah, standing in the doorway, huffed dramatically, but JD ignored him.
“Your stories are always the most entertaining. I mean I know a lot of it is pure hooey, and you make a lot of it up, especially about the ladies, but at least I don’t fall asleep.”
As JD spoke, Nathan examined Buck. His conclusions were the same as those of Barbara Devereaux and the others. Buck’s biggest problem was that he was just so weak, he didn’t have the strength to get better unless he wanted it badly enough.
“JD, you need to rest,” Nathan told him softly.
“No, not yet, Buck needs me.”
“I know son, but you’re no use to him unless you can stay awake. Take some food, a rest and then you can come back here.”
“This is not a debate JD, do it or I’ll have Josiah pick you up and carry you.”
“And I’ll do it too,” Josiah confirmed.
JD managed to eat about half the food Deloris brought for them before falling asleep on one of the big leather couches in the main room.
“Is he really the sheriff ofFour Corners?” Joe asked incredulously.
“In theory, yes, someone has to wear the badge,” Chris told him. “Wasn’t gonna be me.”
“Nor me or Buck, couldn’t be Vin, Ezra or Nathan, that left JD,” Josiah continued. “Don’t be fooled, he’s earned his place with us.”
“He doesn’t look old enough to be in long trousers.”
“That can come in handy,” Ezra remarked. “More than one miscreant has been lured in by those baby face looks, only to be on the receiving end of JD’s guns.”
“But only because Buck taught him how to survive, kept him straight, kept him alive until he learned enough to keep himself alive. Now…”
“Now they keep each other alive,” Vin finished.
“Keeping people alive is what Buck does best,” Chris stated quietly.
Buck was vaguely aware that someone was speaking, not that this was unusual, he’d been hearing voices, some of them familiar, for some time, but he couldn’t summon up the energy to work out what they were saying. He didn’t seem to have the energy for anything except drifting. When he drifted, the nagging pain in his leg and head seemed to diminish along with the memory of JD being left behind to die. He had made a promise to himself and God, not that was a sure he believed in God - but it couldn’t hurt. He’d made the same promise to JD’s dead mother, a woman he had never met and his own dead mother to keep the boy safe, out there in the big, bad world. He’d failed. For a while, he’d kidded himself that one of the voices was JD, but then it went and it was another familiar voice, deep, rich, comforting, but not JD.
There was a nagging memory, something he had to do, something he had to do for JD, but what was the point? His little brother was gone. What could he do for him now but morn? The drifting was getting easier, the voice more distant, less important.
He had almost given up trying to listen when the voice changed again. This voice was lighter, faster, more energetic and more familiar– JD! He tried to deny it, because JD was gone, he was dead, wasn’t he? But he couldn’t quite shake the idea that maybe he wasn’t dead, why did he think that. All this time, JD’s voice came to him. He couldn’t make out the words or the meaning, but the timber of his voice was so familiar. Maybe if he looked at whoever it as was talking? That way, he could prove once and for all if it was or wasn’t JD, then he could rest.
“Buck?” JD exclaimed mid sentence, as bleary, dull, dark blue eyes tried to focus on him.
“JD?” Buck croaked.
“It’s me, I’m okay.” JD now had a death grip on Buck’s hand. “look at me, I’m here.”
Buck was clearly confused but doing his best to focus on JD.
“Remember when I was shot? You were the first person I saw when I woke up the first time. I didn’t recognise you then, only the second time, when Casey was there. But before that, all that time, I could hear you. You kept me from giving up.
“Not dead?” Buck croaked, reaching out his other hand toward JD.
“No, I’m not dead and neither are you.”
Buck managed a smile. “Never.”
With that, his energy was used up and his eyes closed. JD sat down, releasing a heartfelt sigh.
JD turned to see Josiah in the doorway, holding a plate of food for JD.
“You saw that?”
“I did John Daniel, I did.”
“He’s gonna be okay,” JD stated confidently.
“I never doubted either of you. Now, you must rest.”
JD wanted to stay, but Josiah firmly pointed out that dawn was braking and he’d been sitting up all night with Buck. JD had no idea so much time had passed.
“I need to be here if he wakes up again,” he insisted.
“One of us will be here and we will fetch you as soon as he wakes again,” Josiah insisted.
“I have a better idea,” Barbara announced as she came up behind Sanchez. “Why don’t we move the day bed from my husband’s study in here?”
“Thank you, ma’am,” JD responded with a smile.
“Fine, once I have rounded up some strong backs to do this, I will sit with Buck, while you two go and get some breakfast.”
Around noon, Barbara was just thinking she needed to see what the rest of the house was doing, and she had better call one of Mr Wilmington’s friends to come sit with him, when she realised she was being watched.
“Hello,” she greeted.
Buck just stared at her, clearly confused.
“This is my house, your friends brought you here to rest,” she explained.
The dark blue eyes moved past her, apparently searching the room for something.
“He’s right over there,” she explained, pointing to the far side of the room.
With evident difficulty, he turned his head to follow her finger.
“I thought I dreamed it,” he croaked out.
Barbara stood up, filling a glass with water from the pitcher on the table. “No, he’s alive, he’s just sleeping.” She moved closer, placing a strong arm under his still hot and sweaty neck. “Take some water, and then we’ll see about some food.”
Buck was still watching JD. “Is he okay?”
“Your friend, Mr Jackson, says he will be fine, but he still needs to rest –like you.”
She held the glass to his lips and was gratified that he drank immediately. Once his head was once more resting on the pillow, she smiled down at him. “It is lovely to finally meet you.”
“How long have I been here?”
“Five days now. What do you say to some chicken broth?”
“That I’d rather have steak?”
“Well, we don’t have any steak, but if you are a good boy, and drink your broth, I’ll see about some scrambled eggs.”
“Mmm.” Buck managed a smile as he relaxed back into the pillow, still looking at JD’s sleeping form.
From that day on, Buck made steady progress. His fever wasn’t high enough to reach a crisis, so it didn’t break as such, it just subsided slowly. He slept a lot, but less each day. They moved him outside to get some fresh air in the shade of the court yard as soon as they could. Nathan was truly impressed by the effectiveness of the honey poultice and had Vin quiz Deloris about it, taking detailed notes. Buck would be left with a good size scar but his leg was healing well. Despite professing to be hungry, Buck wasn’t able to eat much and that was a concern. All four of them had lost weight, as indeed had JD, but Buck had clearly lost the most, his ribs all too visible when he bathed. Nathan and the women worked on feeding all the men, but especially Buck, bringing him small, tasty snacks all through the day.
With Buck on the mend, it was decided that he and JD would remain at the ranch and recuperate. The others would rendezvous with the judge to decide on how to proceed against the warden and the O’Hare gang. Nathan wanted Chris to stay as well, his ribs were far from healed, but he refused. Nathan had always known he would refuse, but he felt he had to say something.
“First thing we do, is get you the hell out ofTexas,” Chris told Vin. “We need to head home, take care of business.”
Vin wanted to protest, but he knew he had no chance. He did need to get out, everyday he stayed was another day he was at risk and another day he was putting anyone close to him at risk. Besides, they were employed to take care of Four Corners, and no one had been doing that for quite some time. When it came time to hunt down the Irish bustards responsible for all his friends’ ordeal, he’d be right there, but he couldn’t get involved with the case against the warden.
Ezra had wired the Judge from Presidio, informing him that they were all alive and to expect a letter sent to Four Corners. He had then written it all down, as much as he knew and sent it to Travis via Mary.
It was no surprise to anyone, that when they made it home, Travis was waiting for them. The old man was very pleased to see them alive and at the same time grimly determined to see all those responsible behind bars or dancing at the end of a hang man’s noose.
Travis wasn’t the only one to welcome them back. They had been taking care of the town for a little over two years now and most of the people in the town and surrounding area had come to depend on them, and trust them. In those two years, crime in the town had dropped to almost. If there was trouble, it usually came from outsiders. In this safer atmosphere, commerce had thrived, families had settled, there was even talk of building a school house. The people knew for their protectors to be away for so long, something had to be very wrong and they were anxious to hear what had happened to their protectors. After almost a month, the Clarion had reported that the four missing men were alive but that there wasn’t any more news. Some days later, five of the seven returned, but still there was no information to explain their absence. Those who knew them best didn’t need to be told that they had been through hell.
Inez was horrified to see how much weight they had lost and immediately began a campaign to feed them. To this end, she also enlisted Nettie, who began to bake for them every time she came to town, along with Gloria Potter and several other women. Not a day went past that the jail didn’t have at least one pie and one cake sitting on the window sill. Nathan and Vin had not, of course, lost weight, but still enjoyed this bounty, since it was more than Chris, Ezra and Josiah could eat on their own.
After a lengthy debriefing, during which he took copious notes, Orin announced he was leaving for Texas on the next stage.
“I’m going to speak to the Governor, this is potentially embarrassing politically. Richard…”
“Richard?” Ezra asked.
“He knows the Governor,” Vin explained.
“You know the Governor of Texas?” Chris asked pointedly.
“He used to work for me.”
“And when, exactly, were you planning on telling us this?” Ezra asked.
“It doesn’t matter, go on,” Chris prompted.
“As I was saying, Richard didn’t appoint Keegan, but it is a state appointment. Potentially, this is politically very embarrassing. It won’t look good if a bunch of outsiders are seen to be cleaning up a Texas problem. Whatever happens, it’s going to need manpower, which we don’t have. Nor do we have any authority in Texas. I know you want to get your hands on him, but we may have to sit back and let them clean up their own mess.”
Chris practically growled his frustration.
“It’s politics,” Ezra pointed out. “Almost as dirty a business as mining.”
“What about the mine owner, any news on who it is?” Josiah asked.
“I have sent an official letter to the appropriate authorities inMexico, but so far I haven’t heard anything.”
“More politics?” Chris snarled.
“I’m afraid so.”
Ten days after Travis left, Buck and JD returned to the town.
Dropping to the ground outside the saloon, Buck let out a soft groaned.
“I think I’m gettin' too old to be doing this much riding,” he complained, moving his injured leg gingerly and still holding on to the saddle.
“Are you okay?” JD asked anxiously.
“I will be.” Buck gave him a smile. “I’m just tired.”
JD took Beau’s reins. “I’ll take him to Tiny; you go in and get a drink.”
Buck had barely made it to the top step outside the saloon when Inez came out. She was so pleased to see Buck back; she forgot to pretend she didn’t care about him and flung her arms around him.
“Recepción detrás,” she greeted and then pulled back a bit. “Madre de dios! Qué sucedió al resto de usted?” she exclaimed. Buck wasn’t sure what she said, other then ‘Mother of God’, but it must have been about his loss of weight, because sheimmediately disappeared into her kitchen. Only minutes later, the smell of bacon, Buck’s favourite, wafted out.
While it was frustrating, all they could do was wait. Buck would never admit it, but he needed the extra time to fully recover. JD too needed the extra time. The headache he’d had for the last month had all but gone, only plaguing him when he was very tired. Chris, on the other hand, was like a caged lion. He needed to get hold of someone, anyone, to exact revenge.
Finallythe judge returned.
Travis gratefully acceptedthe whisky JD offered him as he sat down in the saloon.
“You best gather the others, Sheriff, I’m in no mind to say all this more than once.”
Summoned by JD, the others arrived at the saloon and gathered around the large poker table.
“Governor Coke sent the army into the prison, since there aren’t enough US Marshalls or Texas Rangers to do the job; they are running it for now. All the staff are under guard and beinginterrogated, but that is probably a formality. Warden Keegan, once confronted with the facts, co-operated completely. It seems the man you called The Overseer was Oscar Moreno and he was married to Helen Keegan, the warden’s sister. They asked me to confirm his death.”
“He’s dead,” Chris confirmed darkly.
“Fine, one less to deal with. Keegan is delusional if you ask me. He really can’t see anything wrong in what he did. As far as he isconcerned, he was sending men sentenced to die to their death. How they died, where and when was not his concern. He’s proud that he ran a good prison and swears he did nothing wrong. He boasted that Fort Reed is the only prison where every cent allocated for the care of the inmates is spent on them. He sees nothing wrong about making money from the misery of others. As I said, delusional.”
“Who else was involved?” Chris asked. There was no way Keegan could have hidden what he was doing without help.
Travis explained that they had spoken to Luther, who had identified all the empty graves. By matching the dates on the fake graves to the duty log, the army had identified two guards who were always on duty, on their own, on each night men were transported. In addition to them, the executioner had to be in on it.
“Sad to say the executioner is Mrs Keegan’s cousin, so as well as being widowed, her brother and cousin will be certainly be imprisoned.”
“A real family affair,” Ezra commentedsardonically.
“All the staff will beinterrogated, but I don’t think the rest of them knew what was going on. Both Keegan and the night clerk – who I am told genuinely didn’t now what was happening - were horrified that they had nearly sent innocent men to be executed,” Travis continued.
“They did send us to be executed, at least according to Keegan’s definition ofexecution,” Josiah pointed out.
“As far as it’s known, the O’Hare’s and the others still believe you’re dead.”
“Good,” Buck commented. The others all looked at him. “I don’t want them lookin’ over their shoulders when we come after them.”
“Mr Larabee sir?” Ben Culver asked. Ben was fourteen, he delivered telegrams and when there was nothing to deliver, he kept the telegraph office clean and studied Morse code.
“What?” Chris asked, not bothering to look up from his book.
“Telegram sir,” Ben held out the folded slip of paper.
Chris’ hand reached up and snatched it. With that, Ben ran for it, mostly he’d have waited to see if there was a reply or possibly even a tip, but not from Larabee. The black clad gunman was scary enough at the best of times, but ever since he’d been back in town, from wherever he and the other three had been, he had been like a bear with a sore tooth.
“Did you have to scare the shit out of the boy?” Nathan asked as he came out.
“I didn’t do any…” Chris voice trailed off as he read the cable. “Where are the others?”
“Saloon, it’s time to eat,” Nathan pointed out. “Why?”
“We need to head toDurango.”
In the saloon, the other five had gathered around their favourite table and ordered their midday meal. Vin, comfortable once again in his red bib shirt and canvas trousers, was running his hand through his still short cropped hair.
“You keep doin’that you’ll pull it all out,” Josiah commented over his beer.
“Damn it!” Vin cursed and pulled his hand away.
“I think it makes you look muy hermoso,” Inez commented as she brought in their food.
Never one to upset a lady, Vin didn’t make any comment in response to the compliment and just thanked her for the food.
“Good grief woman!” Buck exclaimed, as Inez placed his order down. There was about twice as much food piled on his plate as on anyone else’s.
Inez just rolled her eyes and began muttering in Spanish as she headed back to the kitchen.
“She thinks you’re too skinny,” Vin translated.
“Me?! I’m too skinny?” Buck spluttered indignantly. “Why the hell isn’t she heaping food on your plate, you scrawny assed Texan, and what about Larabee?”
“What about me?” Chris asked as he and Nathan pulled up chairs.
“Buck was enquiring as to why Senorita Recillos believes he is the only one of us who requires extra food,” Ezra explained.
“And he thinks I’m the blind one when it comes to women,” JD muttered around his enchilada.
Ignoring this banter, Chris held up the telegram. “Whitey Neilson’s been found in Colorado. If we can get to Durango by Tuesday, we can question him before he gets back to Fort Reed and without having to go into Texas.
“That’s a hard ride,” Vin pointed out.
Chris looked askance at him, he knew what Vin was saying, that some of them weren’t up to it yet, but he wasn’t prepared to include himself in that list.
“Vin’s right,” Nathan agreed. “And we can’t all go.”
“Agreed,” Chris continued. “Buck and JD are gonna stay.”
“I didn’t hear no one agree to anything.” Buck fixed his old friend with determined eyes.
“Someone needs to stay here and you two aren’t fully recovered yet.” Chris was not going to back down easily. “Right Nate?”
“I’m fine,” Buck protested.
Nathan looked straight at Chris. “And neither are you.” He hated being put in this position, between his friends, between two friends, between two such strong willed men.
It took a second for Chris to realise that Nathan was talking about him. He gave Jackson a look that told him in no uncertain terms that the topic of his fitness was not up for discussion.
Nathan lifted his hands in surrender; he had said it, that was as much as he could have hoped for.
“I said, I’m fine,” Buck reiterated, pulling both men’s attention back to him. “Tell him Nate; tell him, I’m fine!”
“You still can’t finish a meal…”
“Ah come on, no one could eat the amount Inez has been…”
“You can’t even finish a normal portion and you know it.”
“And you’ve been sleeping about fifteen hours a day,” Nathan finished.
“Well, there’s been nothing to do except sleep, until now,” Buck protested.
“We don’t have time for this,” Chris snapped, standing up. “The rest of you eat up, we leave in an hour.”
“I’ll stay too,” Nathan offered.
Chris looked down at him, and then nodded his acceptance, before striding out.
An uncomfortable silence settled over the table as the others hurried to finish their meals. Buck was acutely aware that, while everyone was carefully not looking at him, he was the centre of attention and he hated it. But as much as he hated the attention, he hated that Chris and Nathan were right. He was constantly tired and, as much as he knew he needed to build himself up again, he just couldn’t seem to muster up an appetite.
“Go,” he finally told them. “Go after him, or the stubborn son of a bitch is gonna get himself killed.”
“Buck are you…?” Vin began.
When they had all left the saloon, including Nathan who had hurried off to put together a bag of supplies for Josiah to carry, just in case, JD finally spoke.
“He doesn’t mean to…”
“I know,” Buck stopped him before JD had to say what he already knew. “But he does it anyway.”
With that, Buck stood up, leaving his meal uneaten again, and strode out of the saloon with out another word.
JD was just glad no one seemed to have noticed his exit, or if they did, they were pretending not to. Truth was, he wanted to go after Neilson himself, he was tired of being left behind and he didn’t need to stay. Even being brutally honest with himself, he knew of the three of them, he was the most recovered. He’d seen Chris wince more then once, while saddling his horse, bending to pick something up, he’d seen him rubbing his ribs while reading outside the saloon. Buck wasn’t fit and they all knew it. Even Buck knew it, he was sure of that. Still, Chris didn’t have to be so brutal about it. As soon as Chris said his name, he’d wanted to protest that he was fit to go. Then Chris slammed Buck down and he felt he had to show some solidarity with his ‘brother’.
Inez came out to find everyone but JD had gone, most of the plates were empty, except Buck’s.
“Not again,” she exclaimed. “JD, how does he expect to get well if he does not eat? I’m going to find him…”
“Inez, no!” JD shot to his feet. “Leave him be.”
He placed his hands on her shoulders and gently turned the firey Mexican toward him.
He looked into her eyes. “I know you want to help him, but he just can’t eat much at the moment. Why don’t you try smaller meals, and build him up little by little?”
“You think so?” she asked.
She glanced down at the uneaten pile of food. “Maybe you are right.” Turning back to JD she smiled. “For a muchacho, you are muy sabio.”
JD assumed this was a compliment, smiled, kissed her on the cheek and followed Buck out into the sun.
“I know,” Josiah began, as soon as he had managed to manoeuvre his horse beside Chris and put some distance between them and the others.
“What?” Chris growled.
“That you only want to protect Buck, but...”
“He’s not fit.”
“I know, and to be honest I’m worried about him, so is Nathan, but the man still has his pride.”
“His pride will get him killed.”
“And yours won’t?”
Chris turned to look at the older man. “It’s not the same, I need…” he began, but there was no way to explain to anyone what Buck meant to him.
“He’s all you have left of your family and you can’t face losing him.”
Chris was now staring straight ahead; he said nothing, so Josiah continued.
“If you keep pushing him away, you could lose him anyway.”
“But he’ll be alive.”
“He’s a grown man; you can’t protect him from every danger. When it’s your day to die, there is nothing you can do about it.”
Chris head snapped back to him. “I don’t hold with that fate crap.”
With that he kicked Pony on and pulled ahead of Josiah. Sanchez was still watching Larabee when Vin came up beside him.
“You tried, Preacher,” he commented.
“I didn’t change anything though.”
“You can’t change either of them.”
JD found Buck where he knew he would be, in the livery, talking to his horse. For someone with such a big personality, Buck was an intensely private man. When he needed to confide in someone, it was inevitably his horse.
“Hello,” he greeted softly.
Buck ducked his head in response.
“Chris just, I mean he didn’t, that is he’s only…”
“Lookin’out for me? I know that. But you know what?” Buck continued to stoke Beau’s neck. “He’s not my Pa, or my wife or my big brother, so he doesn’t get to tell me what to do.”
JD moved so that he was in Buck’s eye line. “If he’s not your big brother, does that mean I’m not your little brother? ‘Cause I have to tell you, I’ve kinda got use to the idea of having a big brother these last two years.”
Buck’s hand stopped moving and he looked at JD, hurt all too evident in his expressive deep blue eyes. “You’ll always be a little brother to me kid, hoped you knew that.”
“I do, don’t you know that you’ll always be a brother to Chris?”
Buck just stood there; he looked back at Beau who was now nuzzling his master, hoping to get him to resume the stroking.
“The way I figure it, you’re the only family he had left after Sarah and Adam died. He’s just trying to keep his family safe.”
Buck still didn’t respond, so JD just patted him on the shoulder and headed back out of the barn, leaving his own big brother to his consider what he’d said.
By morning, or at least by ten in the morning, when Buck woke up, he was feeling much more positive and forgiving toward Chris. After all, he knew the man; he wasn’t ever going to be able to change him. Buck still didn’t have to like it, but there was no point letting it get to him. Embracing the new day, he strode across to the saloon in search of breakfast. Inez welcomed him with coffee and a smile. Not long after that, she reappeared with bacon, buttered toast and some scrambled eggs. The quantity on the plate was perhaps a quarter of what she had been putting in front of him.
“Thanks darlin’,” he complemented. “That looks delicious.”
“I made this especially for you, so you will try to eat it all for me, yes?” She gave him her best sweet smile, knowing he hated to disappoint a lady.
“I’ll do my best.”
He managed to finish his breakfast, and by eleven he was sitting outside, reading the paper and watching town life pass him by. JD emerged from the jail and crossed over to him.
“I’m gonna get a drink, can I get you one?” he offered.
“A beer ’d be nice, but I guess it’s still early, so more coffee?” He lifted up his mug.
“What about Nathan?” Buck asked.
“He was out at the Andrew’s place most of the night, seems the little boy’s got scarlet fever. He got back just before ten.”
JD was still inside when the rider came galloping into town. He pulled up outside the store and ran inside. Seconds later, he came out, with Gloria, who pointed across the street toward Nathan’s place. Normally this would have made Buck curious, and he might have followed the man to see if Nathan was going to need any help, but not today. As quickly as he could he slipped inside, beckoning to JD.
“What?” the young sheriff asked.
“Take a look at that guy crossing the street. Do you recognise him?”
JD peered at the man.
“No, don’t think so, should I?”
“I guess you don’t remember him, but I do; he’s one of McNeal’s relatives.”
“Why would he come back here?” JD asked, as he and Buck watched one of the McNeals cross the street.
“As far as he knows, no one here knows him. Nathan and Vin never met him and we’re all dead. He must need a doctor badly though.” Buck was thinking on his feet. “We need to get a message to Nathan.”
He turned away from the window and began to edge toward the door.
“Inez?” JD suggested.
By now their quarry was mounting the steps to the clinic at speed.
“Or better still.” Buck was now outside, confident he couldn’t be seen. “Casey!” he called.
Casey had come into town to get her aunt’s two draft horses shod. “Hey Buck,” she greeted. “How are you, JD said you’d been sick?”
By now, JD was standing behind him. “Oh did he?” Buck glared at JD, then turned his attention back to Casey. “We need your help.”
Nathan was very tired, but that didn’t matter, someone needed him and he always answered the call. Nonetheless, he had been in bed when the man came beating on his door. It had taken him awhile to get dressed and pull together what he thought he might need to tend his patient. He was still putting things in his bags when Casey Wells came running in.
“Mr Jackson!” she began and right then he knew something was wrong because she never called him anything but Nathan. “The Sheriff needs to see you right way!”
Trying to work out what was going on, Nathan played along. “What’s the matter?”
“Old Beau’s in the cells and there’s something wrong with him,” she told him.
Now Nathan had it. Buck and JD needed him, and his guest, who ever he was, wasn’t to know why or who they were.
“Right, tell him I’ll be right there,” he responded, then turned to the man standing in the doorway. “This shouldn’t take long, meet me at the livery.”
The man nodded and left them.
“Casey, what’s going on?” Nathan asked in a hushed tone.
“I don’t know, but Buck and JD need you to meet them in the jail as soon as you can.”
By the time Nathan made it to the jail, Buck was pacing.
“Where is he?” Buck grilled their healer.
“Waiting for me in the livery,” Nathan responded, presuming Buck was talking about his last visitor. “What’s going on?”
“Buck says he’s one of the McNeals,” JD explained.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” Buck snapped, “Think I could forget any of them bastards? What does he want?”
Nathan could see the urgency of the situation but he also needed Buck to calm down and think straight, so he kept his voice even and quiet, the same voice he used when he was treating them, a voice he hoped Buck had come to respond to with trust. “He says his brother his sick, very sick with a fever and a rash, he wants me to come out and see him.”
“Come out where?” JD asked.
“From the sound of it, they are camped some place along the river, north of the fishing hole.”
“Fever and a rash, reckon he’s got the scarlet fever, like the Andrews boy?” Buck asked.
Inwardly Nathan smiled, Buck was thinking again, not just reacting. “Most likely.”
“Did he get it from the boy or the other way around?”
“Either is possible, but Ben Andrews says when they were in Eagle Bend last week, the school was shut ‘cause of the fever, so it’s more likely that’s where the boy caught it.” Nathan was content to let Buck take the lead in this, he was more experienced than both of them and he needed to feel useful again. “What do you want to do now?” he asked.
“Me and JD’ll follow you, when he leads us to this ‘friend’ we’ll arrest them both and bring them back here and make them tell us where the others are.”
Okay, so Buck wasn’t thinking that straight.
“No,” Nathan told him plainly. “No way are we bringing them back here.”
“What?” Buck spluttered.
“I am not bringing scarlet fever into town! Have you any idea what could happen, how many people could die? He might be a McNeal, but at least he knew to keep his brother out of town and away from other folk!”
Buck was fuming, mostly with his own stupidity. Nathan was right and he knew it, but he couldn’t face losing a chance to locate their nemesis.
“Well, what then?” he finally asked.
“I’ll go, JD can follow me. When I know what’s going on, I’ll make a signal and he can come in.” Nathan turned to JD. “You’ve had scarlet fever, right?”
JD nodded. “Like I told you, when I was eleven, I damn near died too.”
JD remembered it, most of it, his mother always there, the raging headache, and at the end, the ribbons of skin peeling off him as the fever rash shed itself. He’d been lucky, a lot of people, mostly children, hadn’t been so lucky. The dead had included one of the daughters of the family his mother worked for, a chamber maid, and the stable boy. When he recovered, JD had walked into a dead boy’s boots to take his job.
Nathan turned to Buck. “You stay here.”
“Oh, come on now, Nathan, I’m fine, really. Chris might not think I’m ready for three days hard riding, but even he’d admit I can make it to the creek and back!”
“Are you mad?!” Nathan cut in. “Have you any idea what would happen if you caught scarlet fever right now, it would be more of a death sentence than any rope or mine! And I know you’ve never had it, because you told us all.”
And he had, loudly bragging what a healthy child he’d been, how he’d never had even one of the many diseases that regularly killed children, not diphtheria, not the measles, not influenza or whooping cough, not even scarlet fever. JD suspected that it was quite likely that little Buck hadn’t been permitted to go to school or mix with the ‘respectable’ children, which must have helped him avoid those childhood illness. He might have been blessed with good health, but JD suspected it was a lonely childhood.
Buck wasn’t ready to back down. “What about you? You had it?”
“No,” Nathan admitted.
“But I’ve cared for a lot a folk who had it and I never caught it,” Nathan persisted.
“Well, maybe I won’t.”
Nathan forced himself not to shout, but right at that moment, he could have strangled Wilmington.
“Even if you were full fit,” he began.
Buck opened his mouth but Nathan glared at him. As the only one of them tall enough to look Buck directly in the eye, it was remarkably effective and JD was seriously impressed. Buck closed his mouth.
“You might not get sick, maybe. But. You. Are. Not. Fit!” he snarled. “And the sooner you accept this, the sooner it will change. Do you understand?!”
“I…” Buck began then shrugged. “Yeah Nate, I get it.” At that point, the self deluding fight went out of Buck and he was finally able to engage his brain again. “Get a buck board, take the sick guy to Chris’place, you’ll need some place outside town to tend him.”
Knowing JD was somewhere behind them, Nathan followed the man, who said his name was Liam, to the shady spot by the river where a lone figure lay on a bed roll, a canteen by his side.
“What’s his name?” Nathan asked as he jumped down from the buckboard and approached his patient.
John was in a bad way and there was no doubt it was scarlet fever. Privately, Nathan didn’t think he had much of a chance. Clearly the illness, which often killed its victims even with the best of treatment, had gone unchecked for some time. John was unconscious, his body racked with fever, his breathing a painfully weak rattle. With the help of Liam, they lifted him onto the buckboard.
“I know a place we can take him, somewhere out of town,” Nathan explained.
“It’s scarletina isn’t it?” Liam asked.
“Yes,” Nathan confirmed. “Have you had it?”
At Chris’ place, they carried John into the shack and lay him on the cot.
“He’s going to die, isn’t he?” Liam looked at Nathan, imploring him to say no.
“I don’t know,” Nathan admitted, “but he’s very sick.” Jackson’s head said, keep the man here, he’s a killer, or as good as, but still his heart went out to a man who was scared and already beginning to grieve. “I’ll see to the horses and get my stuff. You stay here, sit with him,”
“Okay,” Liam acknowledged.
Outside, he looked to where he knew JD was watching and made a gesture toward the newly built barn, knowing he’d understand. Sure enough, just as he was bedding down the hired team, JD slipped into the barn.
JD spent a miserably itchy night sleeping in the barn, but as dawn broke, Nathan returned.
“Well?” JD asked.
“It’s over,” Nathan confirmed.
“One less McNeal, let’s go get another one.”
As JD followed Nathan out of town, at a safe distance, Buck was fuming with himself for being so dumb, as he saw it. He’d let his stupid pride get in the way of doing his job. Well, no more, he’d do whatever Nathan thought was right and get fit again. To this end, he headed over to the saloon in search of something to eat.
Ever since he’d got back, Inez had been plying him with food and being uncharacteristically nice to him. Now that he thought about it, she’d hugged him when he first arrived and cooked him some bacon, something she’d never done before. His reflection was interrupted by the lady in question, who greeted him with a smile.
“Ready for something to eat, it is past noon you know?” she asked as he approached the bar.
“Well now darlin’I reckon that it is, so yeah, I could eat.”
“I have just the thing!”
He didn’t feel like sitting at their regular table on is own, so he chose a smaller table more to the back of the room. Since it was past noon, he ordered a beer and sat down to wait for whatever Inez had chosen for his midday meal. He could have ordered something specific, but she seemed so happy with her choice, he hated to disappoint her and he trusted that after almost two years, she knew what he liked.
Inez didn’t disappoint, returning a few minutes later with a pork chop, mashed potato and gravy.
“Mr. Durham slaughtered one of his pigs only yesterday,” she told him with a smile. “I get chops, he gets whiskey.”
Buck was surprised to find he was hungry enough to pick up the bone at the end of his meal and suck the last succulent traces of meat from it. He was still doing this when two men walked in. With only a cursory look about the room, they strode up the bar and asked where the doctor was.
Buck recognised the accents and the men almost instantly. Rising quickly and silently to his feet, he made the smallest of signals to everyone else in the room to keep quiet. He then tried to gesture to Inez to keep the men talking and looking at her. To her credit, she got it instantly. She pretended her English was very poor and she didn’t understand what they wanted.
Her performance gave him the time to come up behind the men, his own gun drawn. With one swift and expert move, he levelled his gun at the right hand man, while he pulled the gun of the left hand man from its holster and levelled it at its owner.
“Feel free to move boys,” Buck offered with a grin. “You can even make a try for your gun,” he told the left hand man. “Because I’d love an excuse to shoot you.”
It was a sorry precession that entered the town around eleven. JD in the lead, Nathan driving the buck board behind him, with two horses tethered behind it. Sitting behind Nathan was Liam McNeal, his hands cuffed in front of him and his brother’s body beside him.
They pulled up in front of the jail where they were greeted by Buck, who was grinning like a loon.
Nathan jumped down. “Liam McNeal and his bother John, deceased,” he announced.
“Oh really?” Buck was still grinning. “Well, I’ll see you one dead and one live McNeal and raise you a Tracy and a Cullen.”
“Who?” JD asked as he came up beside Nathan.
“Brothers-in-law to your two.”
The three Irish men sat together in the jail of Four Corners and contemplated their likely fate and their foolhardy choice to return to Four Corners.
“Why?” JD asked them. “Why’d you come back this way?”
Dylan Cullen gave his brother-in-law a scathing look. “He ran out on us,” he explained. “Him and John, scared of the fever.”
“Bryan died!” Liam snapped.
“So he did, and John was already sick when you left! Maybe if you’d stayed, instead of dragging him across the country, he’d have made it!” Cullen turned to Nathan. “Right?”
Nathan was forced to agree. “Still doesn’t explain why you came looking for them,” he pointed out.
“We bought a saloon, with the money. And it made good money right enough, but it’s no place for a family. We were offered a good price for the place, more than we paid for it,” Tracy explained. “But John and Bryan were still co-owners, so we needed their signature on the bill of sale.”
“Where are the others?” Buck asked.
The three men looked at each other and shrugged. “We don’t know,” Cullen told them.
“Do I look like I was born yesterday?” Buck snapped.
“It’s true, we decided to split up, they didn’t have any plans, other then to go west.”
Eric‘Whitey’ Neilson was one miserable sigh, sitting in an equally miserable jail cell and he really, really didn’t want to hang. If talking to Larabee would get his sentence commuted, he’d tell him every thing, not that he probably wouldn’t have told him anyway, the guy looked ready to kill him though the bars.
“I never killed anyone, I never even stole any cattle,” he insisted.
“Not what the court said,” Josiah pointed out, while Chris just glared at him.
“I’m just the butcher.”
“The what?” Chris growled at him.
“Peter’s no fool, he worked out that the best place to sell the cattle was where the price was highest and no one asks questions.” He looked at them expectantly, but when both men just continued to glare at him, he continued his explanation. “In remote mine camps.”
There was no denying the logic. Mine camps were full of hungry men, too far from any town, who would pay a premium for fresh beef.
“The trouble is,” Neilson continued, “They didn’t really know what to do with it. They needed someone to butcher it and a carcass is worth even more if you sell by the cut. I was working in a mine and I hated it.”
“Join the club,” Ezra muttered.
“But my father was a butcher; I know how to handle a carcass.”
“So you joined them to butcher what they stole?” Josiah clarified.
“Yeah, but it was after they killed them two cowboys. No one got killed while I was with them,” he protested.
“What about JD?” Vin asked, after all Neilson wasn’t to know the kid had survived.
“JD Dunne, the sheriff ofFour Corners! Young, wears a bowler hat!” Josiah snapped. “The kid O’Hare decided you didn’t need when passing us off as you and sending us to be hung!”
Neilson shrunk back and paled. “I didn’t know they killed him,” he claimed.
“What the fuck did you think had happened to him?!” Chris roared. “Did you think that Irish bastard and his son patted him on the head and sent him away?!”
“I… I… It wasn’t me.” Neilson protested. “What could I do? You don’t know what he’s like; they’re all scared to death of him, except his son. If anyone said anything against him, he’d beat the shit out of them, or have Dermot do it. I’m not even related to him, what do you think he’d do t’ me?”
“Where are they now?” Vin asked.
“Who? I mean which ones?” Eric asked hesitantly.
“All of them!” Chris snapped at him, taking a threatening step forward.
“Um, well, the five of them who went into the jail, they got the reward money and I heard they were going to buy a saloon or a livery or something. I don’t know where.”
Chris moved even closer.
“I don’t know, honest I don’t, they took the money and took off.”
“And the other four?” Josiah asked.
“They went off together, headed forCalifornia. That’s all they told the others, but I overheard Peter and Dermot talking about heading to Truckee, something about a new industry and easy money. I don’t know what they were on about, but I do know there is no way they shared the money from the rustling evenly. I know what the meat sold for, I know how much I got, it didn’t add up.”
“So O’Hare’s got money stashed some place?” Josiah asked.
“I don’t know, but I never saw him spend much. That’s all I know, I swear.”
The three men from Four Corners stared at him in silence for a long time. Finally Vin said. “I believe him.”
“So do I,” Josiah confirmed.
Chris gave a curt nod of acceptance.
“I told you everything I know, so can you put in a word for me with the Governor? Please?” Neilson pleaded. “I was tried and convicted without ever getting to defend myself, it’s not right,” he protested.
Chris looked down on him as if he was so much horse shit. “Tell him,” he finally said.
“Governor Coke agrees with you,” Josiah began, “You’re going back to a second trial, a proper trial.”
Neilson nodded, weight almost visibly lifting from him. “Thank you.”
“Weren’t my idea,” Chris told him, “I’d have let you hang.”
As they turned to go, Neilson called out to them. “Watch out for that young one!” They turned back to look at him. “The kid who went with them, Rory I think they called him. He’s got that look in his eyes, like he’s not really all there, you know?”
“I know,” Josiah confirmed. “Thanks.”
Once they were reunited in Four Corners, it became clear they would all be going after their principal nemesis. This was likely to require an extended trip away from the town. In such circumstances they would normally ask the Judge to send a marshal to watch the town. It was never a popular move; the town’s folk didn’t really trust marshals. On this occasion they were in luck, Francis Corcoran was in town. After their first encounter, Francis had left what was left of the ‘Ghosts of the Confederacy’, and was in need of a job. On Chris’ recommendation, the Judge had put in a good word for him with the stage coach company, securing him a job riding shot gun.
Most of the time he slept at the various hotels and way stations on the long north/south route he usually worked, but when he did get some time off, he spent it in Four Corners, where he kept a room at the boarding house. The others were always happy to see him, they enjoyed the‘crack’, as Francis called the lively times they had together.
“Francis!” Josiah had greeted. “How’d you like to earn some cash?”
“How much?” the big Irishman asked instantly.
“Dollar a day, plus room and board,” Chris told him.
“Who do I have to kill?” Corcoran asked with a grin.
“No one, just keep an eye on the town, we’ve got some business to attend to.”
Francis, perceptive as ever, picked up that this was all too serious. “Someone gonna regret you left town?”
“With any luck,” Buck commented darkly.
“Sure, no problem.”
“If you need help ask Tiny,” Chris advised.
“Mary’s pretty handy with a rifle, so are Nettie and Casey come to that,” Vin added.
“Don’t forgetter Inez, you do not want to cross that woman,” Buck warned with a wink.
Truckee was a thriving, bustling town, growing rich on the proceeds of lumber, the railroad and the new trade in ice. It was just the kind of place that offered a ruthless thug with a modicum of intelligence, like Peter O’Hare, easy pickings. It took them three days on three different trains to get there. It might have taken a lot longer if Vin could have found a way off the train before it crossed a particularly high trestle bridge south of Sacramento. Only recently constructed. it was built of steel rather than timber and looked unfeasibly flimsily compared to the very sturdy timber ones they’d previously crossed. It didn’t help that JD had happily told them that this bridge was built to replace a previous one, which had been washed out two springs ago.
November was still almost two weeks away and, back in Four Corners, the weather was still warm, hot even. However, by the time they changed trains in Sacramento, there was a distinct chill in the air and snow was visible on the distant peaks. By the time they reached Auburn, it was down right cold and with each sweeping turn the line took as it climb it got colder. By Colfax, a thin covering of snow lay on the ground and as the train approached Truckee, the snow was at least three inches deep.
“Oh dear God in Heaven, why do people not leave this frigid place and move south in the winter?” Ezra exclaimed, jamming his already gloved hands into his pockets. “Animals have the good sense to do it, why not people?”
“It ain’t that cold,” Buck told him, not bothering to disguise the fact that he thought Ezra was being a baby. All the same, he pulled the collar of his sheepskin coat up around his ears.
“Yeah, inBoston this wouldn’t even be worth putting your winter coat on for,” JD boasted.
“Fuck, it’s cold!” Vin exclaimed as he jumped down from the train.
“Thank you, Mr Tanner,” Ezra responded, looking at the others triumphantly.
“What?” Vin asked as he tried to pull his scarf even higher around his ears.
Before the‘conversation’ could progress, Chris pushed past them and strode off toward the main station building.
“I guess that means follow him?” Nathan asked.
“I guess so,” Josiah agreed as they all hurried after their leader who hadn’t even bothered to do up his coat, which now flapped behind him like the wings of some huge malevolent bat. Even before they reached him, Chris had collared some terrified looking railroad official who was pointing across the street. Not bothering to tell them where they were going, Chris set out again, knowing his friends were behind him.
“Wait up!” Vin called, running up to draw level with Chris.
Chris stopped. “What?” he demanded.
“Just wait and think a minute, will ya?”
By now, the others had caught up. “What is on your mind?” JD asked.
Vin moved to Chris’ side and proclaimed, “We go into town like Sherman marching though Georgia and we’re gonna draw attention. If they’re here, then we’re likely to spook ‘um in to runnin.”
“He’s got a point, Stud,” Buck agreed.
“We’re strangers here, we don’t have any horses, don’t know the area, don’t know who we can trust or rely on. Vin’s right, we need to do this subtly,” Josiah agreed.
Chris looked at his men, professionals to a man, proven in battle. He took a deep breath.
“Yeah okay. Subtle it is.”
“You gentlemen are going to do something with subtlety? This I have to see,” Ezra commented.
“Shut up Ezra,” Chris snapped then turned to Vin. “You and Nate, go see what you can find out, we’ll wait in the station.”
The jail, which was located one street back from the main commercial row, was very new and designed to last. Built of local stone, its walls were almost three feet thick.
“Impressive,” Nathan commented.
Inside was just as impressive with truly huge iron doors and an iron ceiling. In the gloomy interior, heated by a small stove, they were greeted.
“Afternoon fellers, can I help you?” the man asked.
“You the sheriff?” Vin asked.
“Nope, he’s got business in town. I’m Constable Jake Teeter, maybe I can help.”
“We’re looking for four men, wanted for murder, attempted murder, rustling, horse thieving, kidnapping and assault. Got information they may be here.”
“You law men?” Teeter asked.
Vin pulled out the letter of accreditation the judge had provided.
The constable turned up the lamp as high as would go, necessary because, despite the fact that the sun was shining outside, the jail had no windows, only tiny ventilation slits in the walls. Eventually, he looked up. “Who are these men?” he asked.
Nathan described Peter, Dermot and Michael. “There is a young feller with them as well, don’t have much of a description on him, but they are all Boston Irish.”
Teeter looked at these two unusual men and made a decision. “You need to talk to the sheriff.”
“First, tell me if you think any of them are in town right now?” Vin asked.
“I don’t reckon so, least not right now.”
The sheriff was in a local hotel which was doubling up as a court room that afternoon. The case was over and the sheriff was talking to the judge. He was a long bean pole of a man, with shaggy black hair hanging just over his collar. He needed a shave, and the salt and pepper stubble emphasised his hollow cheeks. He was dressed in mole skin trousers, tucked into heavy boots, and a thick flannel shirt under an impressively long woollen coat. He listened as Chris and Ezra filled him in, while examining their letters of accreditation.
“Hey Gus,” he called over to the judge. “You ever here of a territory judge called Travis?”
“Orin Travis?” the judge asked.
“Sure, good man, tough as old nails, but honest.”
This endorsement seemed to seal things in their favour.
“You boys know much about the ice trade?”
They had to admit they didn’t. The sheriff, whose name was Dick Pepper, explained that with the coming of the railroad, it was now possible to cut ice in the winter and ship it west to San Francisco. The lumber jacks, who used to leave when the snow made it impossible to work, now stayed to cut ice from shallow ponds, created specifically to make winter ice.
“Two months ago, a man calling himself Patrick Dempsey arrived in town, with him were three other men, his son Brendon and two others, Casey Hogan and Robert Duffy. There were two companies in town shipping ice west. But Dempsey comes in and sets up the Shamrock Ice Company. He’s offering to pay over the odds for the ice. So naturally, the cutters want to sell to him, but he can’t make much, if any, profit, not at the price he’s offering.”
“It’s a classic tactic,” Ezra interjected. “Destroy the competition by driving them out of business. Then once you have all the customers and the opposition is non existent, you can dictate the price and take all the profits.”
“He’s never caused me any problems, not personally,” Pepper continued. “Doesn’t mean I trust him, the man’s got dead eyes.”
Buck had to agree with that. That day, a day that was forever etched in his memory, when Peter O’Hare told his son to kill JD, there had been a quality to his eyes that sent shiver to Buck’s very soul. Even just thinking about it made him feel sick and want to put the kid on the next train heading back to Four Corners.
“Do you know where he is now?” he asked.
“Down at the ice ponds. There was just enough ice to cut last week, but today is the first real cut of the season, everyone is down there.”
“What about the others?” Chris asked.
“Duffy, the kid, is probably with him. Brendon and that red head left yesterday forSan Francisco, don’t know when they are due back.”
“Sounds to me, like you’ve been keeping a close eye on them.”
Pepper looked at Chris and then at Ezra. “I’m well aware he’s trying to corner the market. When the railroad came through, this town grew fast, no law to speak of, lotta men, hardly any women, you get the picture?” They did, he was after all describing Four Corners before they took over as the town’s law. “But things are improving, despite fires, avalanches, hard winters and spring floods, families are settling here, last thing I need is some bully trying to take over anything.”
“Well, don’t worry any more, we’re gonna arrest him and take him back to stand trial,” Buck informed the man in a soft, low voice, without his customary smile. “All of them.”
“And you will have my full cooperation.”
Peter O’Hare was happy, and very pleased with himself. He’d been short changing his gang from day one, banking half the loot and dividing the remaining money between himself and the others. Now that ‘Peter O’Hare’ the wanted man was officially dead, he was free to build a new life. Originally, he planned to stay in San Francisco and look for some business opportunity, but an overheard conversation in the hotel restaurant made him investigate the ice industry. It didn’t take a genius to work out that, if you could corner the market, it would be possible to make huge profits in the winter and be a man of leisure all summer.
The sun was dropping below the mountains; lanterns were being prepared as he watched the men cut the first real harvest of the year. The lumberjacks made good money using their skill, tools and muscles to cut blocks of ice. If the conditions were perfect, producing the best quality clear ice, cutting would go on around the clock, moonlight and the supply of troches and lanterns permitting. While Peter and his young nephew Rory supervised in Truckee, Dermot and Michael were in Oakland, making sure the agents at the other end of the line knew how much cheaper their ice was going to be. The cutters didn’t work cheep and he couldn’t blame them for getting as much as they could, it was, after all, skilled work in miserable conditions. None the less, as much as he didn’t blame them, once he was the only buyer in town, they would work for what he was prepared to pay, which he calculated to about half what they got now.
This year he’d pay more for the ice and sell it for less, so he’d make a loss, but he had funds to cover that, and by the end of the season, the competition would be bankrupt. He couldn’t help but smile as he looked at Rory, sitting on a log, watching the men work. Once Shamrock Ice was the only company in Truckee, he’d have to make sure no smart ass tried to open up a rival operation. His son, Dermot, and Rory would take care of that. It was possible the boy enjoyed inflicting pain even more than his son did and, between them, they’d keep any other companies away – away or in the grave yard, Peter didn’t mind either way. He was smiling again, Dermot might be good at keeping order but he had no head for business, unlike his nephew Michael. Peter planned to install Michael in San Francisco to run that end of the business. Michael was family, he was terrified of Peter and Dermot and so he could be trusted not to cheat him. Yes, all in all, the future was all looking rosy.
He stiffened, his smug smile dropped in an instant. The unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked assaulted both ears. He glanced to the left, at Rory. Two men stood behind him, each pointing a gun at his nephew’s head. Even in the gathering gloom, he recognised the men, one of them looked a little like him, the other was dressed like a dandy – they were meant to be dead, weren’t they?
Peter knew then and there he had no chance to get away, at least not then. He’d be going to the town’s very impressive and probably escape proof jail. It didn’t bother him, he hadn’t broken the law in Truckee so they would have to move him, probably to Texas. It was a long journey and with plenty of opportunities to be rescued. His son and nephew were still at large and with Michael’s brains and Peter’s brawn, he’d be free in no time. That was assuming Rory didn’t do something stupid.
Chris’s gun was pressed hard against O’Hare’s neck, and the temptation to squeeze the trigger was very strong. Buck removed the man’s gun and checked him for secondary weapons. Josiah moved around to stand in front of O’Hare to cover him, the grin on his face told Chris the preacher wanted to kill O’Hare just as much as he did.
Vin’s gun was pressed just as closely against Rory’s neck while JD checked him for weapons. Nathan was standing in front of him, one of his knives glinting like gold in the dying light of the sun, as he toyed with it just inches from the young man’s face. Ezra, the sheriff and the constable stood back by the horses watching.
“You gonna cause us any trouble?” Pepper asked as O’Hare turned to face them.
“Me Sir? No Sir,” the big Irish man replied with mock servility. “I’ll come good as gold.”
With the light fading there hadn’t been time to get a wagon, so their prisoners would be riding back into town. Once mounted Buck stepped up to cuff Peter’s hands behind his back. Ezra, hand cuffs in hand, stepped up to Rory’s horse. Peter knew he should have warned the boy to go quietly, he should have pointed out that the law had nine guns on them, and he should have reminded the youngster just how well that half breed Tanner could shoot. Rory waited for Standish to step closer then shot his right foot out, catching him under the chin and sending him. Simultaneously, he kicked his horse in the left flank, causing it to spin around, wrenching the reins from the constable’s grasp. With that and without bothering to even try and grab the flailing reins, he urged his horse into a gallop and took off into the darkness. Peter had to admit his nephew could ride.
“Stop him!” the sheriff shouted.
In no more than a second or two, Vin and JD were mounted and had taken off after him. JD was quickly in the lead; his rented horse was a lot like his own Milagro, small and nimble, together they made better time dodging deftly between the trees. Vin thought to shout a warning to him, but seeing his young friend swing effortlessly to the side as he passed close to a tree, he concluded it was unneeded. They were both closing in on the dark form ahead of them. Rory was weaving madly though the forest when it happened. At first they didn’t know what it was, the horse in front continued to run but something had changed.
“Hold up!” Vin called.
“But he’s…” JD began to protest.
“No he isn’t.”
JD pulled up and looked behind him. It was hard to see in the gathering darkness, but he could make out the grey Vin was riding as he appeared out of the gloom. As the tracker got closer, JD could see he was peering at the ground.
For whatever reason, the darkness, his lack of control over the horse, or the icy condition underfoot, Rory McNeal had ridden straight into a tree branch. They found him, lying motionless in the snow, his forehead a bloody mess. The others arrived shortly after Vin and JD pulled up. O’Hare, still securely cuffed, was with them.
“Happy now?” he accused as he looked down at the body in the snow. “You lot won’t be satisfied until you’ve killed every one of my family.”
“We didn’t kill the kid,” Vin pointed out. “It was an accident.”
“We didn’t kill him at all,” Nathan announced from beside the ‘body’. “He’s not dead.” He looked up at the sheriff. “We need something to carry him on.”
“I’ll go,” the constable responded.
“JD, go with him,” Chris instructed.
O’Hare wasn’t giving up. “So he’s not dead, yet, I still say you tried to kill him, ya bastards.”
“Ez, ain’t there some sayin’ about a pot callin’ the kettle black?” Buck asked as Standish arrived on the scene.
“Oh indeed, but that would imply that we were as bad as him. I think the one about people in glass houses not throwing rocks might be more apt.”
Buck nodded and looked back at O’Hare. “In other words, shut up.”
As he ushered their prisoner safely into a cell, Buck looked at Ezra with a more critical eye, taking in the blood that was still running freely from his friends chin, soaking into his fancy shirt and jacket.
“You okay?” he asked.
“According to Mr Jackson, I will be fine. I, on the other hand, beg to differ.” Ezra pulled out a large handkerchief and dabbed at his chin gingerly,wincing dramatically.
With that, Wilmington slammed the cell door shut and the two peacekeepers left the cell area, Buck’s arm guiding the gambler through the front door. Had they stayed, they might have seen the smile ofconfidence that tugged at O’Hare’s mouth and wondered why he was so confident. Of course, O’Hare wouldn’t have told them, even if he’d been asked. He wouldn’t have told them about the coded telegrams he and his son exchanged every evening. A single word from the Lord’s prayer carefully inserted in the wire, father to son and son to father, every other word in order. Last night they had both sent the word ‘thy’. Tonight he was due to send ‘come’ and was expecting the response ‘will’. If either one of them failed to receive their wire by midnight, they were to assume there was something wrong. When Dermot received no wire that night, he’d know his father needed help.
Dermot O’Hare paced outside the Oakland telegraph office, while Michael sat and smoked.
“Maybe the line’s down?” Michael suggested.
“No, feller said he got a message just now fromReno, that had to come down the same line – right?”
“I guess.” Michael didn’t like his Uncle Peter, nor did he trust him, but he was afraid of him. He stayed with him because so long as he remained in his good graces, he was protected and he made money. “What do you want to do?”
Just then the door of the telegraph office opened, causing both men to spin around.
“Sorry gents, no news, I’m shutting up for the night,” the operatorannounced.
“When do you reopen?” Michael asked, before his cousin could demand the poor man stay at his post all night.
“Mr Perks will be on duty at six,” he informed them.
With that, he turned the key in the lock and headed off down the street.
“We need to get back to Truckee,” Dermot announced.
“Well, one of us does,” Michael agreed.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“In case you’veforgotten, our first big shipment is due in this morning, and we have a lot of money tied up in this. If we don’t corner the market, we will lose all of it,” Michael reminded angrily, standing up.
Dermot squared up to his cousin. “You think I care about that while my father is in danger?”
“Your father, not mine.”
“And your brother? Or have you forgotten Rory?!”
Michael pulled himself to his feet. “Forgotten him? No I ain’t forgotten him, but the kid’s aliability, always has been. You know why Mam let him come out here with the others?”
Dermot shook his head.
“’Cause the cops in Boston are still after him for a boy he killed in school! Kid’s crazy.”
“Don’t matter, he’s family, yours and mine, and family comes first, so we are both heading back up to Truckee.”
“Fine.” McNeal wasn’t happy about it, but not going would, assuming Dermot ever returned, be a death sentence; Rory wasn’t the only crazy in the family. He just had to hope the deal he’d struck was so good the buyers he’d lined up wouldn’t defect and the agent he’d employed at the depot was honest enough and scared enough of Dermot not to cheat them. “But we’re still gonna have to wait until morning, the fastest way is by train and the first one doesn’t leave until five in the morning. We might as well go and get some sleep.” He waited for his cousin toaccept the logic of this, which he did with a curt nod of the head. “I am going to regret this,” Michael muttered to himself as he turned way and headed to their hotel.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Dermot asked
“For all we know that sheriff in Truckee has wired the local law to be on the lookout for the both of us.”
“Why would he?” Michael protested.
“I don’t know, so until we find out what went wrong, we’re gonna hire a couple of horses and ride east, pick up the train at Fairfield.”
“Fairfield! That’s more than fifty miles from here; we’d have to ride all night to make the first train.”
“Exactly, which is why no one will be looking for us there. Come on, we need to move.”
“Now I know I’m gonna regret this.”
They carried Rory to the office of Truckee’s resident doctor, an ex army surgeon called Ian Brudney.A tall, angular man whose confident and efficient manner persuaded Nathan it was safe to leave the boy in his care. He stayed only to confer and offer his help if it was needed and then set off in search of Ezra. He’d checked him out quickly after he’d been kicked, before responding to Vin’s urgent shouts for help. The cut under his chin looked unpleasant but he didn’t think anything was broken. That said, Standish needed the wound cleaned and stitched up. Thinking on that, Nathan concluded he needed to find Josiah or Buck as well, since Standish would probably need holding down.
Buck, having come to the sameconclusion and having seen Nathan approaching from the opposite direction, stuck close to his friend as they approached the hotel.
“Is there a saloon close by?” Ezra askedcasually as he too watched Nathan’s approach, medical bag in hand.
“Sure, in the hotel,” Buck reminded him.
Buck’s large hand slipped under Ezra’s elbow. “Keep moving Hoss, it won’t hurt – much.”
“Buck…” Ezra began to protest.
“Do you want me to get Josiah?”
“That, Sir, is unfair.”
“Yeah, I know, so do as you’re told.”
With Ezra stitched up, they all retired to the hotelrestaurant with the sheriff to eat and plan their next move.
“I wired the law in Oakland, told them to pick up Dermot and Michael, but I haven’t had any conformation that they even got the message, and the office is shut now,” Sheriff Pepper explained.
“And none of them really know what they look like,” Chris commented, then he looked across the table. “Vin, you, Josiah and Ezra head to Oakland on the first train in the morning. Pick them up and bring them back here.
“And what time would that be?” Ezra asked. If anything, he now looked worse than when Buck had delivered him to Nathan. The clean shirt had done nothing to improve the look of ugly black stitches under his chin and rapidly developingbruising around them.
“First train comes through at a quarter after six,” the sheriff informed him.
“In the morning?!” Ezra spluttered.
“Oh dear God!” Ezra turned his attention to Larabee. “Why do I have to go? I am wounded you know?”
“You got kicked in the face, not shot. Besides, I need you to go.”
“Why me? Why not Buck?”
“Because if Buck get his hands on Dermot, he’s likely to kill him there and then.”
It could have been a flippant statement, almost a joke, but it wasn’t. It had been so long ago, it was easy to forget the look on Wilmington’s face when he thought O’Hare hadbludgeoned JD to death. Wilmington himself said nothing, no hasty assertion that he’d do no such thing, he just sat there head down, staring into his beer, his frame ridged.
“JD?” Ezra offered.
“They think he’s dead, for now I want them to keep thinking that.”
“You?” Ezra fixed Larabee with a rare glare.
Chris glared back, it was true. He, like all of them, was tired, and he didn’t relish getting up before dawn to catch a train. It was also true that while Ezra’s injury wasn’t thatserious, it was clearly painful and he probably wouldn’t get much sleep tonight because of it.
“Very well, I’ll go, you stay here.” With that, he turned away from Ezra toward Nathan. “How’s the kid?”
“Dying,” came the simple replay. “The doctor says his back is broken. He woke up, but he doesn’t seem to have any feeling ormovement in his arms or legs. I’ve seen it before, even though he can still breath, he’ll die. It might take a day or a week, maybe even two weeks, but he’ll die.”
“Poor guy,” JD commented softly. The others turned to look at him. “All I’m saying is, it’s ahorrid way to go, he must be so scared.”
“He brought it on himself,” Chris reminded.
“I know, but …well, it happened to a boy I knew, back east. He could still move his hands some and he seemed to be kind of alright to begin with, then he just go sicker and sicker and died about two weeks later.” JD dropped his head, looking at his hands. “All I’m saying is, if it happened to me, I’d want someone to put a bullet in me, end it quick.”
Building a rail line over Donner Pass was no mean feat; it was anengineering triumph, hard won with sweat and blood. To obtain the necessary smoothness, the line snaked up and down the steep gradients, often doubling back on itself in tight horseshoe bends. These bends forced the trains to slow right down, slow enough for a fit man to drop from the moving train and survive. One of the tightest bends was close to Truckee. It was still dark when two of the passengers made their way to the gap between the last two cars. They waited for the train to reach the apex and slow to a crawl. When it did, both men jumped and, upon hitting the deep snow, rolled to a stop. They stayed down until the last car was out of sight. It would be a hard five mile hike though thick snow to reach the town unseen, but it would preserve the element of surprise. They began trudging through the cold night.
“What now?” Michael asked as they slipped, hopefully unseen, into town.
“We find out what’s going on.”
They made their way through the alleys and around the back of the livery until they were outside of the small cabin they had rented several months before. Considering it was now midmorning, they made their way quickly to the locked door and, unlocking it, made their way into the empty, shuttered room. From there they moved to where they could view the telegraph office, which was a hive of activity, confirming that there was nothing wrong with the lines. Thewarehouse where the ice was stored and then loaded onto trains was empty. The previous day’s ice had been dispatched and new blocks had not yet arrived from the lakes.
“We’ll have to get the horses and head down to the lake,” Dermot announced.
“I don’t think so.” Michael tapped his cousin’s shoulder and pointed across the tracks. “He’s a long ways off but don’t Irecognise that feller in the fancy duds coming out of Polly’s Restaurant?”
Dermot squinted at the man in the red coat, stridingpurposefully and confidently along the board walk toward the hotel. “Shit! What the hell is he doing here? How the hell did he get here?”
“And if he’s here, where are the others?” Michael added.
Replete with a fine breakfast, taken at a restaurant the Sheriff recommended, Ezra was taking a stroll down Main Street. At every saloon he came to, he checked out the poker tables, trying to find which one might offer the most profitable game for that afternoon. He had just come out of the third saloon when he saw JD running toward him.
“Where have you been?” he panted, but didn’t wait for a replay before he continued, “We’ve got a problem.”
“Such as?” Ezra’s chin ached and he really didn’t want to do much more than sit in a nice, dark, busy saloon and play poker.
“Rory died in the night.”
“Blessed relief I am sure, what’s the problem?”
“The doctor took it upon himself to tell Peter, now he wants to go to the funeral.”
“Which is when?”
“This afternoon. They want to get him in the ground before it’s permanently frozen.”
“Well, tell him he can’t,” Ezra stated blankly. Considering the murderer’s crimes, he didn’t see why Peter O’Hare deserved any considerations.
“They’ve got a priest and he’s insisting O’Hare has the right.”
“I do hate the morally righteous,” Ezra muttered. “Where is Buck?”
“Talking to the sheriff, but Pepper’s a catholic as well.”
“Did I mention I also hate religion?”
“Don’t tell Josiah.”
“Didn’t I kill that little squirt?” Dermot O’Hare muttered as he watched the encounter.
“Apparently not,” Michael pointed out the obvious. “We need to find out what is going on.”
“Sal, she’s sweet on you, she’ll know, all we have to do is get to her.”
Sally Reilly was a good, flame haired, Irish girl from County Kerry, or as good as she could be seeing, as she was a whore. She was short and plump and she was very fond of Dermot, whom she knew as Brendan. Apparently she liked men, especially big Irish men. Sal worked at Lucky Lucy’s, a thriving brothel located one block back from The Street at the eastern end of town. By staying south of the tracks and keeping behind the warehouses, they made it safely to the brothel. Not a single building, Lucky Lucy’s was actually a saloon and opium den with a number of cabins behind it where the girls ‘entertained’ and, although trekking though the snow and rain to reach them was occasionally inconvenient, the added privacy and security was very popular with many of their clientele.
Sally was in cabin six, the last on the east side row and, by sheer luck, she was home.
“Bren!” she greeted as soon as she opened the door, her smile lasted just long enough to notice Michael standing behind his cousin. “Casey,” she greeted, not bothering to keep the disappointment out of her voice.
“Can we come in?” Dermot asked.
“Sure.” She stepped aside. “What are you doing here?”
“What do you know?” Dermot asked urgently.
“That your Pa is in jail and Rob is at the doc’s office. I thought you’d be with him.”
Sal knew that Robert Duffy was in some way related to both these men, but she didn’t know he was the kid brother of the man she knew as Casey.
“What happened to him?” Michael asked.
Sally shrugged. “Not sure, but Missy heard from that Chinese girl who works at the Gold Axe that he got thrown from his horse.”
The town’s working girls had a communication network that was better and faster than any telegraph.
“What about my father,” Dermot asked.
“Like I told you, they arrested him. I heard some of the ice cutters talking about it last night. They said it wasn’t just the sheriff, there were some other men with him, marshals maybe?”
“No, they’re not marshals,” O’Hare muttered, mostly to himself as he tried to work out what to do next. He turned to the pretty red head who took no guff from anyone, despite her diminutive stature. “Can you find out how Rob is?” he asked.
“I guess.” Sally looked from one man to the other. “I suppose you two need to stay out of sight?”
“You could say that,” Michael admitted.
“Typical, stay here, I’ll be back.” She was almost out of the door, her thick wool shawl over her head against the cold, when she looked back. “I suppose you’ll be wanting some food and whisky too?” Both men nodded. “Like I said, typical.”
Buck was beginning to seethe. The priest, one Father Donald, was adamant that Mr O’Hare, a devout Catholic apparently – Buck thought Mr Abraham, the tailor in Ridge City was probably a more devout Catholic than Peter O’Hare but let it slide – had the right to attend his nephew’s funeral.
Father Charles Donald, for his part, was determined to bring the civilizing influence of Christianity to this town, which he considered to be no better than a modern Sodom and Gomorra. The town’s population was almost entirely male, more so now that the loggers had come down into town for the winter. Saloons, bordellos, opium dens and theatres putting on promoting bawdy shows, dominated the town’s commercial area. When he arrived, there was only one small protestant church, which was poorly attended. Donald set about identifying the town’s Catholics, turning on the guilt and getting them to build him a church. From there, he set about building up his flock and trying to get some of the ungodly business’ in the town closed. He wasn’t a popular man with many people, but he was undaunted, fuelled by his faith and the sure and certain knowledge that he was right. That the town’s sheriff was devout Catholic did his campaign no harm at all.
“I told you he’s wanted for murder, rape...” In Buck’s world there were only two kinds of criminal who were worse then rapists; murderers and any one causing harm to a child. “Attempted murder, kidnapping, false imprisonment and rustling.”
Father Donald remained calm. “A man is innocent until proven guilty,” he reminded.
“He’s been found guilty!” Buck fumed.
“Mr O’Hare tells me that he was tried in absentia, that he had no chance to defend himself. This is unconstitutional, and – as I understand it – grounds for a retrial.”
Buck turned to the sheriff. “This is ridiculous, you can’t let him go.”
Dick Pepper was torn. He could see, knowing what they had told him about O’Hare and his gang and what they had done, why Buck was so adamant that he should remain in the jail. However, he also couldn’t, in all Christian consciousness, keep a man from his nephew’s funeral. “There’s only one of him, there’ll be at least five of us, what can happen?” he pointed out.
“We don’t know that for sure, that bastard son of his and the other one are out there somewhere, they could even be here.”
“Maybe, but this is a small town, my men have passed the word that we are looking for them,” Pepper assured.
Buck was running out of argument and he knew it, better now to concede and concentrate on keeping their prisoner from escaping. Maybe Peter O’Hare was a believer, maybe he really did want to mourn the passing of his nephew, but Buck doubted it.
Buck wasn’t the only one seething; Chris was ready to shoot someone. They had made it to Oakland, only to turn around and head back to where they came from.
On arrival, they had been met by a local lawman. “We checked around, the men you are looking for seem to have gone. They aren’t at their lodging; they weren’t here to meet their ice shipment. The telegraph operator who was on duty last night says they were there until he closed,” he explained.
“Doing what?” Josiah asked.
“Waiting for a message fromTruckee, a message that never came. He said the tall one was very ‘agitated’ about this. We can’t prove it because no one remembers them, but I think it most likely they caught the first train out, you probably passed them at Sacramento.”
“Shit!” Chris had cursed.
The train they were now on was the express, not scheduled to stop until it got to Sacramento, then straight on to Truckee. Their quarry, in their haste to get back, had jumped on the first train of the day, the local train. The men of Four Corners might have set out two hours behind, but would reach their destination only half an hour later, at least in theory. The trouble was, as they began to climb into the mountains, the snow was getting alarmingly thick with more coming down every minute, blown on a strong wind.
The town’s burial ground was northeast of the town, on a slight rise. Only recently opened, it was mostly empty, which at least meant the grave dug for Robert was close to the entrance. The wind was still blowing steadily, making it hard, at times, to see more then five feet in front of you. Thus, it was a strange funeral precession that set out from the doctor’s office. Muffled up against the cold, their clothes were whiter than a bride’s gown before they had made it twenty yards up the hill, eyes and cheeks stinging with the cold. Buck couldn’t help but feel sorry for the pawl bearers, and hoped they had been well paid. Ahead of him, O’Hare, his hands cuffed in front of him, kept his head high as he walked, the very image of dignified grief. Buck knew better. As he walked, Peter was scanning, as best he could through the snow, looking out for an opportunity, for some sign of a rescue; Buck knew he was doing this, because it was what he was doing.
Michael had to admire his cousin’s ruthlessness. It was a bold plan and it showed no mercy, only a grim determination to rescue his father. He’d considered bailing on him, but decided against it. As things stood, he reckoned he stood a better chance of survival with the O’Hare’s. Once they were free and clear, he’d set out on his own. The snow might not have been falling so heavily but the stiff wind was creating almost blizzard like conditions and keeping folk inside, which made it easier to conceal their movements and their preparations.
Chris positively loomed over the engineer. “How long?” he demanded.
The driver, a grizzled, if diminutive man named Fred, wasn’t easily intimidated. “It depends on how deep the drift is and how far it reaches,” he began.
Their train had come to a halt, just yards from the Donner summit, the snow in the gap just too deep for the train’s snow plough to shift.
“I’m surprised we’re stuck, it hasn’t been snowing for that long,” Josiah commented.
“Some of this has fallen down from higher up, it’s always a risk in this section,” Fred explained.
“What are our options?” Josiah asked.
“If the snow doesn’t extend very far, we dig ourselves out. If there’s too much, we back up and head down and wait until the track is cleared.”
“How long would it take to walk intoTruckee from here?” Chris asked.
“In this snow?” Fred spluttered incuriously. “Too long, you’d be dead long before you made it, this is Donner Pass, you know? As in the Donner Party? What are you - suicidal?!”
Josiah reached out and placed a restraining hand on Chris’ shoulder before he could deck the only man who could drive the train.
“Why don’t I go see how much snow there is?” Vin offered.
“Son, that’s a fine offer, but you leave that to us, we’ll cut a path though it,” the fireman began.
“Weren’t planning on taking that long,” Vin told him, before he disappeared from the driver’s cab and began inching his way along the side of the engine.
“Where the hell is he going?” Fred asked.
“Up,” Nathan supplied.
All five men on the footplate leaned out and watched as Vin stepped off the train and onto the mound of compacted snow in front of the train and then clambered up the snow and ice covered rocks. From there, he disappeared into the trees. As they watched, snow fell in great lumps and showers from the over handing branches. Then everything went still for what seemed like forever before there was another shower of snow. In the middle of the shower, Vin’s lithe form dropped down onto the snow and clambered back into the train cabin.
“Shit its cold,” he gasped, his teeth chattering as he held his hands out to the glowing fire box. “Snow’s only deep for about ten more yards, maybe less. Reckon if we get all the men on the train to help, we can dig ourselves out.”
If Vin said it was doable, that was good enough for Chris. Not stopping to ask the engineer, he turned to climb back over the tender and into the train.
“We’ll be back with help,” Josiah explained, “find something to shovel with.” Vin turned to follow him. “You stay here and get warm.”
Vin grinned happily, he didn’t need to told twice to keep warm.
Buck didn’t think any funeral could take so long or he could be so cold. About ten yards to his left, he could see JD, his back to the proceedings, scanning, searching, watching and yet the movement in his shoulders told Buck the boy was shivering. He couldn’t see Ezra, he was behind him someplace, no doubt when they finally got inside they’d all hear about how much he’d suffered in the cold. Finally, the priest said ‘amen’, Peter crossed himself and the unfortunate pawl bearers began to shovel snow and half frozen earth onto the coffin.
“Thank God for that,” Buck muttered.
Leaving the men to their thankless task, JD and Ezra moved in to join Buck and escort their prisoner back to jail. The sheriff was saying something to Father Donald when suddenly, they heard a bell ringing in the town. All eyes turned toward the sound. Through the swirling snow and gathering gloom, they could see what looked like smoke billowing up into the leaden sky and the unmistakable glow of flames.
“Not again! Not again!” Pepper cursed. “Men, with me!” he called to the pawl bearers come grave diggers.
“What the hell?” Buck interjected, grabbing hold of the tall sheriff.
“It’s another fire. Do you have any idea how many times this town has burned? Well not again, not if I can stop it. Looks like it’s in the rail yards. If we can keep it there, we can save the town. You get him back to jail.” He handed over his keys. “Then come help us, if you’ve a mind to.”
With that he was gone.
“Mighty convenient fire,” Ezra commented as he approached the ladies man, his gun already drawn and pointed at their prisoner.
“Smells like a diversion,” Buck agreed.
“Just what I was thinking,” JD confirmed as he approached.
“You’re learning kid.”
The track from the graveyard back to town was open and exposed, with no suitable cover for over two hundred yards and high ground to the north, it was the perfect spot for an ambush.
“This way,” Buck turned to the steep, rough ground to the south.
“What?” Peter protested. “The track is that way.”
“Isn’t it, never mind, this way,” Ezra poked him in the ribs with his Remington.
“I’m not walking down there, it’s dangerous.”
Their prisoner had a point. The ground was steeper, uneven, there were tree stumps all over it, mostly covered by the snow.
“You walk or I shoot you here for attempted escape,” Buck threatened him.
Mostly Buck’s friends would have said this was an empty threat, he would never kill in cold blood. However, the way he said it, the way his voice dropped and his whole body stilled, JD wasn’t so sure this time.
“You want me to walk toward the fire?” Peter was still incredulous.
“That’s what we want,” JD confirmed, adding his gun barrel to the one that was already pressed to their prisoner’s back.
Reluctantly, their prisoner gave in and began to walk.
Buck took point, scanning the land ahead for dangers of all kinds. Peter was about three yards behind him, his hands still cuffed in front of him, Ezra’s gun still jammed painfully under his ribs. JD had dropped back another three yards and was walking, not exactly backwards – the ground was too dangerous for that, but side on as he kept their rear covered.
They had gone no more than forty feet before there was a single shot from somewhere behind them. JD fell, landing face down in the snow, a red stain spreading rapidly from under his head.
Even with all the able bodied men working, whether they wanted to or not, it still took four hours to dig the path through the snow for the east bound train. While this first snow drift was their biggest obstacle, it wasn’t the end of their troubles. There were other snow drifts which, while small enough for the snow plough to shift away from the tracks, the sheer depth of snow forced the train to slow to a crawl. Finally, as the light was beginning to fail, the track levelled out and the train picked up speed. Suddenly, even as they entered the town, the train lurched to a sudden halt, sending passengers and their luggage flying.
The four men from Four Corners picked themselves up, and while Nathan lagged back to make sure none of the other passengers were badly hurt and with Vin cursing up a blue streak enough to make even grown men blush, headed for the door.
“What is it? More snow?” Josiah asked as Chris leaned out, looking down the length of the train.
“Can’t see,” he responded.
Vin tapped Sanchez on the shoulder and looked up. Sanchez nodded his understanding cupping his hands for Vin’s boot; he boosted the lighter man up so he could climb onto the carriage roof. In only seconds, he was swinging back down just as Nathan arrived.
“What’s going on?” Chris demanded.
“Fire, big one, looks to be in the rail yards,” Vin explained.
Chris turned to Nathan. “Do you need to stay here?”
“No, nothing serious that I could see, just cuts and bruises.”
“Fine, let’s go.”
The four of them climbed and jumped down from the train and began to run towards the engine. Ahead of them, they could see the driver and his firemen leaning out of the cab and watching the fire.
“Why the hell did you stop?” Chris bellowed.
“’Cause those carriages back there are made of wood. You ever see a train full of people catch fire?” Fred didn’t wait for an answer. “It ain’t pretty and not something I aim to risk.”
Not bothering to stop and argue, Chris turned away and began to run toward the fire, the other three following right behind him.
On hearing the report of a gun, Ezra ducked and spun to see where the shot came from. This action, though it was purely instinctive, put O’Hare between him and shooter. Buck had no such protection but didn’t care. He too had spun around just fast enough to see JD hit the ground.
“Keep a gun on that bastard!” he bellowed as he ran past Ezra.
Buck was already running toward JD as more shots rang out. As he ran past, Buck’s big Colt fired so close to Ezra he could feel the concussion wave as it hit his cheek, the sound almost deafening him.
Buck couldn’t see the shooter, even the muzzle flash was lost in the swirling snow, but he kept firing, hoping to keep the shooter’s head down long enough to reach JD. He was fairly sure there were two of them, but didn’t have time to stop and count or think about it. Behind him, a second gun joined his. He’d almost forgotten Ezra’s second pistol, the one he carried under his coat in that fancy shoulder holster. Hell, if it came to it, they still had the Derringer. By now he had reached JD, gun in his right hand, though he only had one shot left. Firing his last shot, he shoved his own gun into his holster and he reached for the Dunne’ second gun from left holster, the one he’d had in his hand must have fallen into the snow somewhere, there was no time to look for it. While still firing the gun in his left hand, he grabbed is young friend’s collar. There was no time to worry about how badly he might be hurt, he just lifted his face out of the snow and began to drag him down the snowy slope.
“Head for that stand behind you!” he called to Ezra, hoping Standish would realise he meant the group of three or four lopped off tree trunks that stood a couple of feet higher than the knee height ones they had been negotiating. He’d seen them as they headed down the slope, guessing the trees had been cut down some winter when the snow was much deeper.
“Move!” Ezra commanded his prisoner.
Knowing he was quite safe from the shooters, Peter O’Hare smiled and willingly complied, confident he’d be free and away soon enough.
The scene that greeted Chris and others as they neared the rail yard was one straight out of Dante’s Inferno. The huge wood pile was alight. Trains heading west needed a lot of fuel to get them to the top of the pass, trains heading east needed to replace what they burned reaching summit from the other side. Still more than a hundred yards away, they could already feel the heat on their faces. People, no more than silhouettes against the roaring, orange inferno, ran back and fourth, their desperate shouts almost drowned out by the fire itself. The snow on the ground, close to the inferno, had already melted turning the ground into thick, clawing mud.
“There!” Nathan pointed to the distinctive outline of the sheriff.
“How’d it happen?” Chris asked as they ran to meet Pepper.
“Don’t know, but we have to stop it spreading to the town.”
Already men and a fair few women had formed a bucket chain to bring water from the two huge water towers to the fire. As heroic as their efforts were, it was as effective as pissing on a forest fire.
“Don’t you have a fire engine?” Josiah asked.
“Not any more, we lost it in the last fire. Ordered a new one, but it hasn’t come yet,” the sheriff replied.
“What about them?” Chris pointed up at the water towers.
Gravity kept the two huge towers topped up continually with water from a mountain stream. Each tower had a feed arm that could be raised and lowered and at the end of it a canvas funnel. The canvas meant that water could be fed more quickly into engine tenders since the train didn’t need to stop in exactly the right place and all the water went straight into the tanker, so it took less time to fill.
“Could we lift the arm so it could spray water onto the fire?” Chris asked Josiah.
“We’d need some way to create some pressure or it’ll just fall short.”
“A funnel of some kind maybe?” Nathan offered
“That’ll work,” Josiah agreed.
“What the hell are you lot talking about?” Pepper asked.
“Never mind, just trust us,” Chris told him, before turning back to his men and making plans.
So quickly and deftly was the transfer accomplished that by the time O’Hare felt the change, as Ezra shoved his Derringer prisoner’s back, it was too late. The now empty spare gun was back in it’s holster, the equally empty Remington had been transferred to his left hand and the tiny gun had popped out of its spring loaded arm holster in no more than a blink of an eye.
“It may only be small, but point blank, it will kill you very effectively and very messily,” Ezra told him. “Oh, and it has a hair trigger and I’m very nervous right now.” With that, Standish forced him to back up until they were behind the taller tree stumps
This last salvo proved decisive, allowing Buck to get him safely behind the taller tree stumps and both of them out of the line of fire. Their opponents seem to recognise this and stopped firing.
“What are you going to do now?” O’Hare asked smugly.
“Well, I could just shoot you!” Buck warned him darkly, while still working on JD.
“Is he…?” Ezra asked, seeing JD’s blood covered face and saturated clothing.
“No, far as I can see, the bullet just grazed him.” Buck pulled off his gloves as he gingerly examined the deep gash just above JD’s left ear.
“Reload,” Ezra instructed quietly.
“What?” Buck asked, still checking JD over.
“You need to reload.”
Buck looked up. He was about to protest that JD was his first priority, until he realised the two shot, limited range Derringer was their only loaded weapon. Without a word, he switched guns and began to reload his own weapon with a speedy and sure hand that told its own story. Buck was a man used to doing this simple but fiddly task under pressure. With the gun loaded, he turned it on their prisoner, giving Ezra time to reload his own guns, no less speedily. With that accomplished, Buck turned back to JD, pulling off his own bandana and fashioning it into a bandage to try and stem the blood flow.
“Here,” Ezra removed his wool scarf one handed and held it out to Buck. “Pack some snow against the wound and hold it with this, the cold will slow the blood flow.”
Chris sprinted back to the train, while Josiah headed for the closest mercantile. Nathan was already in the station waiting room, helping the doctor to treat the casualties, mercifully so far this was limited to people who had inhaled too much smoke or had cinders blown into their eye. While the Sheriff cleared people from the track, Vin grabbed a rope from the back of a near by wagon and began to climb the water tower.
“We gotta get the train up there,” Chris told to the engineer.
“Look young fella, I told you…”
“Just the engine, not the carriages,” Larabee cut in impatiently.
“Come on, Frank, reckon he’s proved his worth.” With that the fireman jumped down and ran to the back of the tender and began to uncouple the carriages.
The higher Vin climbed, the hotter it got. Steam began to rise from his hide coat and he could feel his cheeks beginning to burn. He quickly pulled his bandanna up over his nose and jammed his hat down as far as he could. Reaching the narrow platform at the top, he inched his way around the huge water tank until he was in front of the water delivery arm, which was in the upright position. Below him, Josiah had returned with a large sack and gave him an affirmative nod.
Under Chris’ direction, the engine came up and stopped with the roof of the cab under the canvas. Josiah then undid the rope that held the water delivery arm up and allowed it to drop to its horizontal position. Once it was level with the platform, and with a deep breath and silent promise that Josiah and Chris – who’s plan this was – owed him a very good bottle of whiskey, Vin straddled the metal arm and began to inch his way out to the end.
“Errr,” JD groaned as he began to claw his way back to the conscious world.
“Easy there kid,” Buck’s soft and reassuringly familiar voice helped to bring him all the way back and he opened his eyes. “Hey there,” Buck greeted.
“Ouch,” JD stated as he gingerly lifted his hand toward his head.
“Nah, don’t do that, you’ll only regret it.”
“’Fraid so, bullet grazed you, so you just sit there and rest.”
JD sat for a few moments and looked around, trying to remember where he was and what was going on.
“My ass is cold,” he commented.
“Be grateful it’s not the rest of you,” Buck told him, giving him a pat on the shoulder.
O’Hare snorted his derision. “What is the matter with you lot?” he asked. “You’re all about to die and all you can do is complain about the cold?”
Buck, who was squatting down in front of JD, spun on the balls of his feet to glare at their prisoner, their nemesis, the man who had callously ordered his son to club JD to death, who would have had them all hung.
“Get one thing through that fat Irish head, I’d like nothing better than to see you dead, and you will die before I do, I guarantee that.”
O’Hare appeared unconcerned. “Really, what about the boy, you willing to sacrifice him? Let me go and you three can all walk free,” he offered.
Now it was Ezra snorting in derision. “Oh please, do you really expect us to believe that? Your relatives will gun us down in cold blood the moment they get a clear shot.”
Just then, gun fire erupted again. This time it wasn’t rifle fire but the destructive power of a scatter gun loaded with heavy buck shot.
The canvas tube below the feed arm was only connected by a series of rope loops, hanging off hooks around the end of the metal arm. The plan was to drop a funnel down this tube, hoping to find one that would get safely lodged at the bottom and thus cause a narrowing, sufficient to force the water into some kind of jet.
The heat from the fire made Vin feel as if he was being cooked, but as tempting as it was, he knew he couldn’t take off his coat or other protective clothing for fear of being barbequed alive. His heavy gloves made the fiddly task of unhooking all but two if the loops a tortuously long task but he managed it eventually. He then lowered the rope to Chris, who was standing on top of the train. Josiah had raided the local mercantile, not to mention a blacksmith shop, and the engine itself to find funnels that might work. One at a time they were placed in a sack, which Vin pulled up and tried. The first three fell straight though, the fourth got stuck only a yard down. Precious time was wasted while he forced it back up and discarded it.
Vin, from his high vantage point, could see what no one else could, proof that the fire was deliberately set. A fire started by some stray chimney spark would have burned from the outside down. This fire was burning from deep within and, like some funeral pyres he’d seen, the fire had created a kind of cavern, a cave of fire with a brittle roof of burning logs. Eventually, soon if he was any judge, that ‘roof’ would collapse, sending an eruption of flame into the sky. He’d seen it happen before, but those fires were tens of times smaller. If this one collapsed before they could get water on it, not only would he be dead, but any chance to control the fire would be lost
Sheltering behind the tree stumps, Buck, Ezra, JD and their prisoner were showered in splinters and snow as the shotgun peppered the base of their shelter.
“They’ll kill us all,” JD pointed out as he tried to keep out of the line of fire. “Even him.” He pointed at Peter.
“No they won’t,” Buck told him confidently. “If they wanted us dead than we’d be a bloody mess by now, they’re missing deliberately.”
“Please explain,” Ezra requested.
Buck looked at Peter, who was squatting on his heels, smiling smugly. “All they want is to keep us here, pinned down, so the other one can get a clean shot.”
Spinning on his heels, Buck surveyed the land around them.
“Are you sure that’s what they’re doing?” Ezra asked, as he too scanned the horizon.
“It’s what I’d do. There’s no cover close enough on this side, not in these conditions.” The light was fading rapidly and snow, while light, was still falling. Buck turned away from the town and looked down toward the rail yards. The sky glowed orange and they could just make out figures running back and fourth and hear shouts.
“From here, we’d see him before he could get in position,” Ezra pointed out.
“Yeah, which leaves …” Buck and Ezra both turned to the depleted forest to the east of them.
Just then another two balls of buck shot forced them to duck for cover again.
“Let me go now, it’s your only choice,” Peter told them calmly.
Finally they found a funnel that fell almost to the bottom. Chris declared it to be good enough, even though Nathan would have to trim off about a foot of canvas from the bottom. Even as he was scooting back along the arm, scorch marks were appearing on Vin’s coat. He didn’t think he’d ever been more grateful to be leaving anyplace as he was to get off that water tower. Below him, Fred the engineer pulled the lever to release the water. Nathan and Josiah, standing on the roof of the engine cab, hefted the ‘hose’ onto their broad shoulders and braced. As the water began to flow, it took all of their combined prodigious strength to hold it steady
“Higher!” Vin bellowed from half way down the water tower ladder.
“What?” Chris asked, from his position on the engine.
“Get the water on top, it’s going to collapse in on it’s self!”
Chris nodded his understanding. Climbing higher, he called up to the others, redirecting the water. The sudden jet of water effectively collapsed the brittle‘roof’ over the heart of the fire, sending flames and sparks high into the night sky, and causing everyone to pull back, everyone except the four men fighting the fire and the town’s steadfast sheriff.
“What the hell have you done?” Pepper bellowed.
Chris jumped down from the train. “A hell of a lot more than you were doing,” he growled.
“Really, so where are the others?”
Chris frowned. “Others?”
“Your friends, I left them up at the graveyard. They were to put O’Hare back in jail then come down here and help, so where are they? It can’t have taken more than half an hour to get him back in a cell, and that was two hours ago.”
Chris frowned. “Two hours ago, you’re sure?”
Pepper pulled out his pocket watch and checked. “More.”
Chris gestured to Vin, who swung down and joined him. Larabee had to do a double take, Tanner’s face was so blackened from the smoke, that all that was really visible were his eyes, which were red rimmed and watering and his teeth, which flashed white as he asked what was going on. Behind them, the fire was now beginning to die down again after the initial flare up.
“That’s not like Bucklin or JD,” Vin commented.
“What about the other one?” the sheriff asked.
“Standish? Who knows?” Chris admitted.
“But he’d go along with whatever Buck decided to do, he’d help,” Vin insisted.
“So what do we do?” JD asked, looking around.
“I told you, let me go,” O’Hare insisted.
“Shut up!” Buck snapped. “JD, can you hold a gun?”
Dunne sat up a little taller and, despite the earlier warning, pulled off the strange scarf and snow turban he was wearing.
“I can,” he attested confidently, holding out his hand for his gun, which he could clearly see tucked into Buck’s holster.
“You need to load it,” Buck told him as he handed it over.
“Just what is your plan?” Ezra asked uneasily.
“To draw them out, attack is always better than hiding and waiting.Washington said that – right?”
“I think it was ‘It is a maxim, that it is better to attack than receive one;’ but close enough.”
“Well if it’s good enough for old George, it’s good enough for me. Besides, it always worked for Chris an’ me in the war.”
“I’m loaded,” JD announced.
“I ask again, what do you plan?” Ezra pressed.
Buck was already pulling off his heavy coat, watched by a puzzled JD.
“Oh no,” Ezra warned.
JD was still trying to work out what was planned, even as Buck was telling him to keep his gun on O’Hare.
“You just keep that scatter gun off me,” the brunet told Ezra.
“This is suicide,” Ezra warned.
“Calculated risk.” With that Buck stood up and turned side on to the presumed location of the second gunman.
Now JD understood, Buck was going to offer himself as a target to draw out their assassin. JD turned his head toward Ezra, but he was already firing, a gun in each hand. Looking up at his mentor, JD could see Buck standing sideways. Chris was always teasing Vin about being so skinny. Hell, Chris was probably the skinniest of the Seven but Buck wasn’t far behind, except he was tall and had broad shoulders.
The second gun man opened up now, the distinctive crack of a rifle, sounding to Buck a good deal closer then it probably was. He heard the shot pass him, then a second one. Now he had him, the muzzle flash was clear as day in the gathering dusk. From behind, he could hear that the shotgun was being fired back at Ezra. Forcing his mind to block out everything but his shot, he aimed and fired. Simultaneously, something struck him across the back.
Ezra, with only marginally more cover than Wilmington, continued to fire, even as the ground around him and at the base of the tree stumps that protected him were battered by shot. So great was the noise that he almost didn’t hear JD’s shout of alarm. He glanced, momentarily, to see that his young friend seemed to be fine.
“Look!” JD called again.
Ezra’s eyes moved to follow JD’s horrified stare. O’Hare, their prisoner, was slumped forward, his hat had fallen, the snow that fell on his bare head turned red as soon as it settled.
Buck turned and knelt in front of the man, making a quick examination. “Reckon he’s dead,” he announced.
“Was he shot?” Ezra asked.
“I think this did it.” JD pulled a rusty, old axe head out from behind the body. At least a quarter of the blade was missing and the remains of a broken handle were still attached to it. Clearly, it had broken while the tree was being felled and abandoned long ago.
Buck glanced up, and was just able to make out a notch in the tree stump where it must have fallen from. “Guess that damn scatter gun loosened it.”
At that moment, the gun in question opened up again, just as the rifle fired. The rifle missed them all, despite now having a clear shot. The buck shot sent more splinters and snow over them
“To hell with this!” Buck exclaimed and stood up, apparently unconcerned that he was fully visible and coatless; he began to fire toward the shot gun shooter.
“He’s dead! Don’t you understand! Dead! It’s over!” he bellowed between shots.
Caught off guard, Ezra took a moment to react and do his best to cover Wilmington from both shooters. JD tried to stand, only to find his legs were still not co-operating. It was hard to tell, but JD thought he heard a second rifle fire, just before everything went quiet.
Chris and Vin had grabbed their guns and a pair of horses and raced to the jail. Finding it dark and empty, they headed toward the graveyard. As they approached, riding as fast as they dared given the snow and the fading light, they could see the gun fight ahead of them. Vin suddenly called out and pulled up. Even as he was doing this, he was pulling out his rifle and standing in the stirrups. With one of those moments of stillness that only Vin seemed to be able to muster out of no where, he froze and fired before the horse could think to move again.
“Come on!” he bellowed to Chris as he lowered the gun.
Larabee didn’t need any encouragement, he could see what was going on all too clearly. Arriving ahead of Vin, he pulled up and swung down, gun drawn, and ran toward Buck. Wilmington’s gun was still drawn but he was out of bullets, just standing there, breathing in deep shuddering gasps, the rage positively radiating off him.
“Buck?” Chris began softly, knowing how dangerous Buck was when he was this angry. This was a side ofWilmington the others had never seen, and he prayed would never again. “It’s okay, I saw the last shot he fired, it went skyward, I reckon he’s down.” Keeping his own gun level and drawn, he used his free hand to gently push Buck’s down.
“I need to see him,” Buck stated ominously as he took a step forward.
“You have no coat and you’re bleeding,” Chris told him, eyeing the blood soaking into Buck’s shirt across his lower back.
Wilmington ignored him and began to walk toward the grave yard.
With his gun holstered, JD now had both hands free to pull himself up onto his feet, albeit holding onto the tree stumps for grim death. Behind him, Vin, still mounted, rode past, his mare’s leg drawn, and headed for a small hollow in the remains of the forest some 100 yards away to the east. Somehow he wasn’t surprised to see Vin there, he just accepted it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Ezra was heading in the same direction as Vin, gun in hand.
He hardly dared to look at Buck, afraid his best friend might be no more than a bloody mess. He looked past the tree stumps. Well, Buck was bloody, but he was on his feet, steady as a rock, Chris standing right there beside him, just as he should be.
“Chris!” he called. Larabee whipped around. “His coat!”
By now, Wilmington was beginning to walk up the hill, back to the grave yard. Chris hesitated for a second then ran to JD.
“You okay?” he asked, seeing the bloody bandanna around the young man’s head.
“I will be.”
“What about him?” he pointed to the slumped form or Peter O’Hare.
“Dead, long story.”
Chris gave a curt nod and then, grabbing Buck’s coat from the snowy ground, he set off to catch up with his old friend.
Vin had seen someone stand, a rifle, not at their shoulder but held somewhat awkwardly in the left hand. None the less, the gun was pointed at Buck, who seemed - if not unaware of it, at least unconcerned. He could see Ezra was trying to cover Buck, but from where he stood he had no line of sight to this gunman. Vin, high up on his horse, had no such problem. He stood in the stirrups to create the best possible angle, fired a single shot before the strange horse could move, and the man fell.
As he approached his victim, Ezra joined him.
“I’m glad you could join us Mr Tanner, your intervention was most fortuitous.”
“Glad to be of help.” Vin flashed Standish a huge smile.
“Good grief man, where have you been, down a coal mine?”
By now, they had reached the body. Michael McNeal lay dead, a neat hole in the middle of his chest and a very ragged one in his right shoulder.
“You?” Vin asked, looking at the shoulder wound.
“Possibly, more likely Buck.”
Being relatively new, the grave yard was mostly empty, many of the graves had no markers, those that did were mostly marked by wooden crosses or head markers. There was, however, one solitary grave stone. Standing nearly three feet high, and more than two feet wide, it provided more then sufficient cover for a man, even one the size of Dermot O’Hare. It should have protected him; it would have protected him, if he’d stayed behind it. Dermot had evidently not kept behind it, because he’d been gut shot. He was lying on the snowy ground, the shot gun beside him, both hands clutching at his belly in a vain but instinctive attempt to keep in the blood and hold back the pain. He was still alive.
“Where is my father?” he gasped out.
“I told you, dead,” Buck told him plainly.
“You killed him! He was your prisoner!”
“We didn’t do it, you did.”
“Shooting away with that thing.” Buck pointed to the shot gun. “You loosened an old axe head and it fell on his head.”
“Why would I lie about it? If I’d done it, I’d boast about it. You killed your own father - remember that as you die,” Buck taunted.
“No, please not that, you’re lying.”
Buck continued. “It was a quick and painless death, better than he deserved– not like you.” Dermot glanced down at his own wound, fear began to replace anger. “You and your family condemned us to a slow death, now it’s your time.”
“We, I don’t understand…”
“I can’t be bothered to explain it; I’d rather watch you die.”
“Buck,” Chris’voice held a clear warning.
“It’s more than he deserves,” Buck insisted. “I’ve seen men who were gut shot, I know you have too, probably shot a few of them yourself, so you know how it goes. They die, they always die, sometimes it takes minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes days.” Dermot all but whimpered. “If they are stupid enough to let a doc get to them, they can hang on for a month or more, their wounds festering, unable to get up, lying in their own filth.”
“No please,” Dermot begged.
“But however long it takes, they all die and it hurts, it hurts so much.”
“Kill me now.”
Buck ignored him.
“Some of them are brave, they just lie there, some of them cry, some of them call for their mamas, others beg for mercy.”
Dermot began to move one hand way from his gut and toward the gun.”
“Oh don’t bother, it’s too far, it’s too heavy and it’s not loaded.”
“Please, I beg you, kill me.”
Chris lifted his gun.
“Don’t you dare,” Buck warned him.
“What’s going on?” Buck and Chris looked around to see JD, supported between Vin and Ezra, approaching.
“Kill me, one of you please, a clean kill,” Dermot begged. “Don’t leave me here, I’m begging you!”
Buck holstered his gun and turned his back on the man, as he faced JD.
“Buck?” JD asked, the tone of his voice conveying everything he wanted to ask in a single word.
“He tried to kill you,” Buck reminded. “He clubbed you down and left you alone in the desert to die.” That was the heart of it for Buck. Yes, they had been put through hell, yes, he’d almost died, but he would not have left a man to die slowly, in agony, for that alone. Oh, Dermot would still have to die, but Buck would have been happy to see him hang for that, but this man had tried to kill JD, in cold blood, just because he was inconvenient. Worse than that, Buck had been there and not been able to stop it. He had appointed himself JD’s teacher and protector and he had failed. Buck was grateful Josiah wasn’t there with them. The preacher would’ve looked straight into his heart and known that as angry as Buck was with Dermot, his real rage was with himself. He was punishing himself by punishing Dermot. Josiah would have given him that look, the one that said ‘You’re better than this’, but he wasn’t there and Buck didn’t want to be better than this. He was Buck, whore house brat, a good for nothing son of bitch. Why should he try to be something other than what everyone had always told him he was?
“Shoot him,” Chris’voice was uncharacteristically soft.
Maybe Buck didn’t need Josiah there to look into his soul, when the only other person who knew what he was feeling was standing right there next to him.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because you’re not him,” JD answered.
They stood there, face to face; the two of them more like brothers than friends. Then with out another word spoken, Buck turned, drew and fired. A clean head shot.
The fire wasn’t out, but it hadn’t spread either. Josiah and Nathan were soaked, dirty, exhausted and very proud. Once they saw that the plan was working, the men of the town began to get the second water tower working as a fire hose. Since there was no time to get the boiler up to temperature, a whole gang of men had pushed a small tank engine into position under the tower. Once that was done, they had the second tower delivering water to the fire in no time.
“We’ll take it from here,” a burly man announced as he climbed up onto the cab roof beside Nathan.
“I’ll take it now,” another man offered as he stood beside Josiah.
“Thanks,” Josiah told him gratefully.
“I think we’re the ones who need to be saying thank you.”
Once on the ground, with the engine between them and the fire, the two men from Four Corners quickly found out just how wet they were as the chill of the night replaced the fire’s warmth.
“This way boys!” a woman called to them. “Come on, before you freeze to death.”
In the darkness it had been hard to see her, but they didn’t argue, following her into a building a the end of a side street, with the warm yellow light spilling from the windows and plume of smoke billowing from the big central chimney promising warmth within. Inside, it proved to be a bath house.
“Come on boys, off with those wet clothes. I have hot baths waiting for you,” their hostess encouraged, indicating the curtained off area behind them.
Still they hesitated.
“My name is Adel McDonald,” their new hostess began. She was a slim woman of average height, her jet black hair and dark, almond eyes gave her an oriental appearance. She stood there, hands on hips, smiling. “This is my place. I’ve had to rebuild it three times already, but thanks to you and your friends, not this time! Not this time!” she told them joyfully. “So go on in and get warm.”
“Thanks Ma’am,” Nathan responded with a smile.
They were relaxing back into their deep tubs, full of blissful warm water when they heard the door open.
“Gents!” Adel called.
“Yes?” Josiah responded.
“Do you have dry clothes someplace in town?”
“At the hotel.”
“Under what names?”
“Jackson and Sanchez.”
With that, the door closed again.
“My boy will head on over there and get them for you,” Adel called to them cheerfully. “You just lie there and relax.”
They decided to get Buck and JD up onto the two horses Chris and Vin had ridden in on, since JD was still having problems with his balance and seeing double. Chris took a quick look under Buck’s shirt and decided it was best to leave it and get him to Nathan as soon as possible. Getting him up onto a horse was clearly painful, but Buck didn’t complain and it was going to be better than having him walk or waiting to find a wagon or sleigh to get to them.
“What about the bodies?” JD asked.
“Leave them,” Buck muttered darkly.
“Shouldn’t we tell someone?”
“The morning will be soon enough,” Chris stated.
“Won’t be much left by then,” Vin informed them. “Wolves and other critters will have them tonight.”
“Possibly the only useful function they ever provided,” Ezra commented with a wry smile.
By now it was almost completely dark and the glow of the fire was brighter then that of the dying sun.
“It was deliberately set, wasn’t it?” Ezra asked Vin as they walked beside JD’s horse.
“Oh yeah, but we got it under control,” Vin told him proudly.
Nathan woke up with a start; it took him a moment to orient himself. Looking around quickly, he located Josiah, asleep in the tub, snoring softly.
“You gents decent in there?” Adel called.
“Err, not quite,” Nathan called.
“Well, I’ll give you a moment before I send Tom in with your clothes.”
Nathan scrambled out of the bath, grabbed a towel and shook Josiah all at the same time.
“What?” his friend asked.
“Time to get out.”
“Damn and I was having a wonderful dream. I was in the ocean and a mermaid came by…”
Nathan tossed a towel at his friend, forcing him to interrupt his narration to catch it. “I don’t want to know, get up!”
Josiah pulled his not inconsiderable bulk out of the water. “You are no fun at all, Nathan Jackson.”
With that, both men began to dry off. Apparently, the men of Truckee didn’t habitually take long to dry off, because no sooner had they started than Tom, presumably Adel’s son, marched in with their clothes. Josiah had his back to the boy, who was about fourteen and a fine, tall, lad with his mother’s jet black hair. Nathan, however, was facing him, and drying his back at the time. Man and boy both froze where they were.
“Oh!” Tom stammered out, unable to stop his eye line drifting south. “Oh!” he exclaimed again, and promptly spun on his heels.
Nathan couldn’t help but laughed.
“Have you never seen a naked man before?” Josiah asked as he too turned around.
“Oh yes Sir, many times … I mean by accident, because I work here for Mother, that is I don’t look on purpose, uh deliberately … Oh Lord!”
“It’s okay,” Nathan assured him. “Have you never seen a black man before?”
“No, I mean yes, but not, you know… that bit…”
Now both men laughed, despite feeling sorry for the poor boy, whose neck was now turning bright red.
“Well now you know,” Nathan told him, forcing the laugher out of his voice.
“Yes Sir. I’ll just put your clothes here.” With that young Tom dropped the bundle of their clothes on a stool and bolted through the curtain and out of sight.
He was only gone a moment or two, before they heard the door open again, sending a blast of cold of air into the room.
“Mr Jackson!” Adel called to them.
“The constable just caught me. Your friends are headed for the doctor’s office, seems two of them are hurt.”
Nathan, now just about dressed, pulled the curtain back. Even as he was trying to pull on socks over still damp feet, he was asking questions to which she had no answers. As soon as he had his boots on, the healer grabbed his coat from where it was drying next to the copper water heater and headed out the door.
“I’ll show you the way,” Tom offered as he followed him out.
Adel watched the door slam behind them, then turned to Josiah, who was himself almost dressed. She picked up their still wet clothes and bundled them into an old pillow case, before handing it to him.
“I hope your friends are alright.”
“As do I, dear lady. Thank you so much for your hospitality. What do we owe you for the baths?”
“Not a cent. As I said, for what you did, it is too little, indeed much too little. Send all your friends here if they need a bath, for however long you stay in town, there will be no charge.”
Josiah bent, lifted her hand, kissed it, then tipped the hat he had only just put on and headed out into the night to find his friends.
Nathan had been about to shout to young Ben that he didn’t need a guide to the doctor’s office, he’d been there before and in a town with only two streets, it was hard to get lost. As it turned out, he was glad he didn’t. In the dark, snow blanketed streets, if he’d tried to take the same short cut between the buildings on the main street that Ben had led him down, he’d have been lost in seconds.
The doctor’s office was close to the jail, a squat, single story, log cabin, with four rooms opening off a large central lobby. It looked, and even smelled new, and had probably only been built that summer, possibly the previous one had been lost to the last fire to ravage the town. Nathan would have killed for such premises. Inside the front door, there was a door to left. Though it was closed, Nathan assumed it lead to the doctors own bedroom. The door opposite it led to was a room with two beds, where patients who had no one to care for them or needed on going treatment could stay. Facing the front door were two more doors, one that lead to the doctor’s kitchen come parlour and one that lead to his office and treatment room. The kitchen door was closed but from behind it, Nathan could clearly hear a heated argument. He couldn’t make out what was being said, but one voice was definitely Chris’. The second door stood open, light, considerably brighter than the dim light from the single lamp in the hallway, spilled from it.
Inside, the first thing he saw was blood, a lot of blood. Maybe anyone walking into that room would have seen the blood first, or maybe Nathan just naturally homed in on injury. Buck was lying on his stomach on the treatment couch. He was only wearing his blood stained, faded, red under clothes, and most of those were hanging down in tatters, having been cut away. Somewhat incongruously, he still had his socks on. His exposed lower back was covered in blood. The doctor was working on him, meticulously cleaning the wounds. Vin was standing at the end of the table, watching the doctor work, while resting a supportive hand on Wilmington’s shoulder.
JD was sitting on a chair by the desk, he was ghostly pale. Ezra was kneeling– not something you saw often – in front of him, holding what looked like a towel to the side of his young friend’s head. Blood stained the collar and shoulder of JD’s coat. No two ways about it, there was just too much blood.
“Mr Jackson,” the doctor greeted. “Wonderful to see you, I could use some help. You’re friends seem to have the utmost confidence in your ability.”
Nathan moved toward Buck cautiously. Usually when he met doctors– real doctors – they were suspicious or even dismissive of his skills. However, Dr. Brudney seemed to be accepting him as a fellow physician.
“What happened?” he asked, glancing at Buck, who, to his surprise, was still conscious.
“He got shot,” the doctor stated plainly. “Looks like the bullet stuck here, gouged out a good size chunk of his right flank, skimmed across his lumber region and took a smaller chunk out of this side.”
Nathan looked down at Buck. “Were you standing side on to him?”
“Didn’t want to get killed,” Buck ground out.
“That was not my impression,” Ezra commented.
“Oh really?” the doctor asked.
“No, I would say that someone who stands up in plain sight of two gun men intent on killing him, is - as they say - asking for it.”
“You stood up?!” Vin asked, gently slapping Buck on the shoulder.
“Ouch! Watch it.”
“Well?” Vin demanded, still wanting an explanation.
“I had to locate the second shooter before he out flanked us. Took my coat off, turned side on, what else was I meant ...” His voice trailed of and he stopped speaking.
Instantly, Nathan and Brudney checked him, both quickly relaxing. “He’s fainted,” the doctor announced.
“Don’t let him hear you say that,” JD warned the doctor.
“Oh, why not?”
“Wilmington’s don’t faint,” JD stated confidently.
“Loose enough blood, anyone would faint,” Brudney told him just as confidently. “But it means I can work faster. Mr Jackson?”
“Call me Nathan.”
“Ian,” the doctor introduced himself. “There is no way to stitch these wounds.” Nathan looked down again at Buck’s injuries. It was true, the two biggest wounds were too wide to stitch and the others, too shallow. “So I’m just going to clean and dress them. However, I believe your young friend is going to need stitches. Would you be so kind as to see to him?”
Nathan looked at the man, a doctor, a real, honest to God doctor, a good doctor, was asking him to treat a patient, having never seen him stitch so much as a button. He must have looked stunned, because the doctor continued. “You’re friends tell me you are exceptionally skilled with a needle.”
“Oh, yes, where do I?” he finally responded.
“The suture tray is on the desk.”
By the time Josiah arrived, not having had the benefit of someone to guide him, both medical men were working calmly on their patients and Vin and Ezra were sitting in the outer lobby. Seeing that his injured friends were being well cared for, he asked who Chris was arguing with.
“The sheriff doesn’t agree with our methods,” Vin explained enigmatically.
“Methods?” Josiah prompted.
Ezra then related what had happened and, in particular, Buck’s dispatch of Dermot O’Hare.
“The problem is,” the doctor interjected as he worked. “that unlike most of us, Pepper has never seen a battle.”
“He didn’t serve in the war?” Josiah asked.
“No. He’s a good sheriff, very good, but he still has a – how shall I put this – some what naive view when it comes to the brutality that man can inflict on his fellow man. We, on the other hand, know all too well.”
“How do you know we fought in the late, unfortunate conflict?” Ezra asked.
“Because you gentlemen earn a living with your gun, you are still alive and sane …”
“Matter of opinion,” Josiah told him with a wry smile.
“I didn’t fight in the war,” JD pointed out.
Brudney smiled at him. “No, you’re too young, but you are being taught by men who did – correct?”
“Correct,” JD admitted.
“Besides, it takes one to know one.” Everyone turned to look at Chris. “How’s Buck?” he asked the doctor.
“He should be all right. He needs to rest, maybe a couple of days lying on his belly, then taking it very gently for a day or two.”
“Buck doesn’t do ‘taking it gently’ very well,” Vin pointed out.
“Said the pot to the kettle,” Nathan reminded.
“Well tie him down if you have too,” the doctor told them, apparently deadly serious.
This statement was followed by a deathly silence in which all six men stared at the doctor as if he’d just grown a second head.
Finally, Ezra pulled out his note book and pencil, opening it with deliberate slowness.
“I’m running a book on who gets to do that,” he announced. “100 to 1 on JD.”
“I’m not tying him to anything!” JD all but squealed in horror. “I like my teeth.”
Brudney looked from one men to the other. “Oh come one, surly you Sir?” He pointed to Josiah.
Chris rubbed his own jaw, just remembering the last time Buck had hit him, and that hadn’t even been in anger.
“Don’t bank on it Doc, Buck punches like a sledge hammer.”
Buck regained some measure of consciousness when Nathan and Josiah lifted him off the exam table and moved him to the big bed in the recovery room. He wasn’t really aware of his surroundings and was asleep as soon as he was on the bed. The doctor didn’t lie him on his stomach, but on his side, propped up on pillows and bolsters so that he wasn’t putting any pressure on any of the injuries to his back. JD protested that he was fine and didn’t need to go to bed. Despite these protests, he was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow of the smaller bed.
Buck woke slowly and it took him a while to work out where he was. He was in bed, a nice bed, clean, fresh, soft sheets, firm mattress, no lumps. It was day time, he could see a window and sunlight seeping in around the heavy green drapes. The light had that slightly ethereal quality to it that only comes with a heavy snow fall. The next thing he worked out was that he was naked under the sheets. Pain took time to reassert itself. He moved, only a little and there it was, lancing across his back. Now it all came back to him, he looked around the room a little more and located an empty, unmade bed and Josiah, sitting on it, reading a book. For a long time he just watched Josiah read. He could have called to him, greeted him, but then he’d have to talk or even move and he really didn’t want to do either.
In the end, he didn’t have to call, because Josiah looked up at him.
“Good morning,” he greeted.
“Mornin’,” Buck returned.
Sanchez got up and walked over to him, pulling up the hard wooden chair that stood beside the bed and sitting down.
“Do you need anything?”
Buck thought a moment. “Might need to take a piss soon, but not right now.”
“After the piss.”
“Everyone else okay?”
“Yup, JD’s got a sore head, but he’ll be fine. He was here with you last night, but he got up for some lunch a few hours ago.”
Buck frowned. “What time is it?”
Josiah looked past Buck’s shoulder at the clock on the mantle. “Almost four. You’ve been asleep for about twenty hours.”
“I can’t have, I’ve never …”
“You lost a lot of blood.”
Josiah waited for Buck to respond, and when he didn’t, took his opportunity. Ever since their late night chat before Buck’s duel, he’d known that of all them, Buck was the one most open to talking when he was troubled. Perhaps it was that he was raised entirely by women or just that, once Buck accepted you as a friend, he trusted you completely. What ever it was, Josiah was willing to exploit it now, because what he had just been though had to be troubling.
“Do you want to die?” he finally asked.
“And yet, not once, but twice, you stood up and made yourself a target.”
“No other way to do it.”
“That is not what I have been told, especially about the second time.”
Buck’s deep blue eyes seemed to look straight though him. “They couldn’t kill me, or you or any of the five of us.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Because they’d had their chance, they tried to kill us, did their damndest, but they failed. They had their chance and they blew it.”
Josiah wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Buck’s faith in fate or karma or whatever he called it was a new revelation, not something he’d have guessed at.
“Even fate isn’t infallible, so promise me you won’t put your faith in this theory again.”
“I do what I have to, never figured to die old in bed.”
Josiah sat back, not sure how to respond. “Don’t we all,” he finally admitted.
“You aren’t him,” Josiah said softly.
“JD told me what happened at the end. Dermot might have pretended to be you, but that doesn’t mean you are him. You’re better then him, than all of them.”
Buck wasn’t sure how Josiah knew just what he had been thinking, but then he had long accepted that Sanchez was a mystery he would never solve and a good deal smarter than him. Truth be told, Buck reckoned all the others were smarter than him, but he didn’t let it bother him. He’d long got used to people being smarter and better educated than he was, but he was confident in his own abilities. Yes, he thought, he could hold his own in almost any company, especially if it was female company. Holding his own and being a good fighter, defending others, these were all second nature to Buck, he didn’t even have to think about it. However, fighting that little voice inside that said he was a worthless bastard, sometimes that was a lot harder.
“You need to remember that,” Josiah added.
“Sometimes it’s harder to remember than others,” Buck finely admitted.
“Reckon you could help me find the outhouse?”
Josiah stood and retrieved a chamber pot from under the bed. “Doctor’s orders, you’re not to leave this room for two days.”
“What!” Buck sat up immediately, or at least tried to; he got about half way, before grabbing at his right side and sinking back on to the mattress.
“Two days –minimum,” Josiah reiterated.
“Just shoot me now.”
After two days trapped in bed, Buck was going stir crazy. Not to anyone else but to himself, he had to admit to himself that lying in bed, moving as little as possible was all he had really wanted to do. None the less, he wanted to get out of the bed, the room, the indoors, but no one would bring him any clothes.
Doctor Brudney and Nathan were agreed that even after he was allowed to leave the doctor’s office, Buck would need a few more days rest before making the trip home.
“What?” he all but exploded. “I’m fine.”
“It’s not the train ride we’re worried about,” Nathan explained, “it’s that long stage ride on the other end.”
Even Buck had to concede that the prospect of being jostled around on the hard seats of a stage coach for a day was not something he was looking forward to. None the less, he protested that was able to leave with the others.
“The answer is still no. We’re not leaving you alone, JD and Josiah are staying with you.”
That JD would want to stay with Buck was a given, but he’d never ask to stay. Luckily, his still healing head injury gave Chris a perfectly good reason to order him to stay. Josiah would also stay, Buck might still need a strong shoulder to lean on, literally and figuratively, something Chris also recognised.
Before the others left, Josiah arrived to liberate Buck from his sick bed.
“You got my clothes?”Wilmington asked.
“Right here.” Josiah held up bundle of clean, neatly pressed clothes. On the top was a bright red bundle.
“Those are not my clothes,” Buck stated confidently.
Josiah made great play of looking at the clothes. “Yes, these are yours. I recognise the blue polka dot shirt and the tan leather vest.”
Buck levered himself up to sit on the side of the bed, pulling the heavy quilt with him.
“Those are not mine.” He pointed to the band new, red union suit.
“Yours had to be cut off you, besides they were covered in blood and threadbare.”
“Do you have any idea how long I’ve had that suit?”
“Much too long.”
“It was comfortable.”
“All good things come to an end.”
“That one will be itchy.”
Josiah stated at him in amazement. Who would have thought big, tough Buck could sound like a petulant five year old.
“Well, if you had thought to bring two with you,” Josiah pointed out, now wondering if he really was having this conversation.
“Well good ol’Chris didn’t give me much warning, my others were still at the laundry,” Buck explained, still sounding peeved.
Josiah reminded himself his friend still be had to be hurting. The huge swathe of white bandage around his waist was an all too visible reminder of what he’d been through. “Well, the old ones must have been new once,” he reasoned.
“Never, I bought them in the summer, then I found a fast flowing river and staked them out under the water with boulders, then settled down for three or four days fishing. By the time I got them out of the water, they were faded and nice an’soft.”
Josiah stared at Buck, who clearly thought this was perfectly reasonable. “You’re a strange man Buck Wilmington,” he finally stated, putting the clothes down on the bed beside Buck.
“You’re calling me strange?” Buck asked, poking the new union suit suspiciously.
“Touché,” Josiah conceded.
All seven of them gathered at the hotel for the night, before four of them left for home. Vin managed to get Chris and Josiah to purchase him a bottle of the best whiskey Truckee had to offer. Upon receipt of which, he promptly shared with the all the others. Nathan kept telling Buck he was in no condition to be drinking hard liquor, advise he ignored at every opportunity.
When Buck, JD and Josiah finally made it home, they were surprised to find themselves sharing the last part of their stage coach journey with the Judge.
“We got a problem?” Buck asked him.
“No, but I have news,” came the replay.
Despite JD asking him repeatedly, Travis refused to divulge the nature of his news until they arrived in town and he could speak to all of them together.
The seven of them gathered in the saloon to hear the Judge’s news. Inez was very happy to see them all back together and in one piece, until she spotted the fresh stitches in JD’s head and how gingerly Buck eased himself down into a chair.
“What have you done to them?” she demanded of Chris, as she set down their drinks
“Me?” he asked indignantly.
“You,” she asserted. “You are El Jefe, they do as you order. Look at Senor Buck, he is still just skin and bone,” she reprimanded.
She then patted JD affectingly on the cheek, and flounced off before Larabee could defend himself.
“You know, I think she’s coming around,” Buck commented as he watched her leave.
“She just feels sorry for you,” Vin told him.
“I’ll take that,” Buck responded with a huge grin. “It’s a start.”
Travis told them that he had been contacted by the authorities in Mexico.
“The mine is owned by one Don Sebastian. He’s rich, very rich, and owns a number of mines across Mexico. Apparently, he claims to never have even been to that mine and had no idea what was going on out there.”
“Do we believe this?” Chris asked.
“There is no way to be sure, but there is nothing we can do about it,” Travis told them. “The man is too well connected.”
“Besides, who knows when having a rich Don who owes you a favour, might come in handy?” Ezra pointed out.
“Good point,” Travis conceded. “And talking of being well connected, Richard was very grateful that we let him handle the whole situation atFort Reed quietly.”
They were still getting used to the idea that Travis was a friend of the governor of Texas. He smiled as he pulled out an envelope and handed it to Vin.
Glancing slightly nervously at their employer, Vin opened the letter, pulled out the heavy sheet of paper, glanced at it and then handed it to Nathan, who was sitting next to him.
“This is from the Hannibal Boone,” he began with clear wonderment in his voice.
“Who’s he?” JD asked
“He’s the Attorney General of Texas,” Buck told him while never taking his eyes of Nathan.
There was then a short silence as Nathan skimmed all the way through the letter. “It says all charges in the state of Texas against one Vincent Michael Tanner are here by dropped, any reward is withdrawn and no payment will be made for his capture.” Nathan looked up and smiled, handing the precious sheet to Vin.
“That is a copy,” Travis told him. “The original is on record in the Attorney General’s office, another copy has been sent to the sheriff in Tascosa, also one to the US Marshalls and the Texas Rangers. A wire will be sent to as many sheriff’s office’s here in the territory and in Texas as possible. Mary will print it in the paper and she will ask other newspapers to reprint it.”
Vin just sat and stared at him. “This is real, I’m not wanted anymore?” he finally asked, not daring to believe it was true.
“Quite real. The case against you was all circumstantial, there were no witnesses, you had no motive to kill him other then believing him to be Eli Jo. He was shot with a pistol, which you don’t carry. You had never claimed bounty on a dead man before. It is quite honestly a scandal that charges were ever brought against you. As far as the murder of that man is concerned, both the Governor and the Attorney General are satisfied that Eli Jo was the culprit and since he is dead, the case is closed. I am only sorry it has taken me this long to get it all cleared up, but until I had some leverage over Richard, it wasn’t in his best interests to help.”
“Not in his interests?” Chris all but snarled. “You mean he knew the case against Vin was a pack of lies but didn’t do anything about it?”
“No, but Boone did. Its politics Chris, and I hate it as much as you, which is why I am still a territory judge and my former pupil is a state Governor.”
“I don’t care how it happened, I’m just glad it’s over,” Vin announced. “Judge Travis, can I buy you a drink?”
“No,” Travis told him, “Because I am going to buy us all a drink. Miss Recillos!”
“The next round of drinks is on me.”
Three weeks later, with Buck all but fully recovered and Thanksgiving almost upon them, all seven men once more left the town in Francis’ capable hands and headed for Texas. Vin had placed his pardon letter in a small pouch and hung it around his neck, just in case.
They headed for the Bar D ranch, skirting around Fort Reed. None of them wished to revisit that place any time soon. On the way, they called in at a cattle ranch and picked up a plump heifer. Two days before Thanksgiving they were approaching the Bar D. Their gift was meant to be a surprise but, of course, the ranch patrol had reported back to their boss long before the Seven reached the ranch house.
Joe and Barbara Devereaux greeted them as they rode in, their boys running up to say hello to both two and four footed friends.
“Good to see you all looking so well,” Barbara told them, letting Buck hug and kiss her.
“Good to see you as well, I wanted to say thank you properly,” he told her.
“You know that’s not necessary, it was our pleasure.”
“And this is our pleasure,” Vin explained, handing over the rope on the heifer’s halter to young Matt.
“Beef on the hoof,” Chris told them.
“You can stay for Thanksgiving?” Joe asked.
“We would love to,” Josiah assured them.
“Will we have beef for Thanksgiving?” Matt asked his mother.
“Well, we could, but,” she turned to look up at Buck. “I seem to remember promising Mr Wilmington a pig roast, which he never got.”
“Well, first off Darlin’, you call me mister again and we are gonna have a fallin’ out. And secondly, I don’t remember anyone offering me a pig roast and since it is my very favouritest thing to eat, I’d have remembered.”
“You were too sick to eat it, so we waited,” she explained. “But you are here now and looking very well.”
“Oh yes Ma’am, and I could eat a whole pig all on my own!”
“Well, you could try, but you may have to fight Mr Tanner for the privilege,” Ezra pointed out.
“Not to mention my husband!” Barbara assured them. “Well, that settles it, roast pig for Thanksgiving, beef for Christmas.”
Then, as the boys took the horses and the heifer away to the ranch hands in the barn, the men all turned toward the house.
“You know,” Ezra began as he walked beside Josiah. “I don’t think I have ever had pork for Thanksgiving.”
“It’ll be a whole new experience for you then, like eating goat.”
Ezra stopped in his tracks. “I have never eaten goat,” he stated firmly.
“Sure you have, we ate it when we were last here.”
“What did you think it was?”
“Rather gamey lamb?”
“And what do you think goat tastes like?”
Ezra thought a while. “I guess like gamey lamb?”
Josiah roared with laughter. “Come on, I seem to remember Joe having a particularly fine Irish whiskey in the house.”
“Indeed, I think I may need a whiskey if I’m going to be eating goat any time soon!”