To the west, great swathes of scarlet, orange and gold had been brushed across the sky, their glory broken by a mottling of shadow-topped clouds. Directly overhead, darkness was already setting in, and the first bright stars had appeared. The day's heat was beginning to fade, and as Josiah paused to appreciate the touch of God's hand on the heavens, he shivered slightly, wishing for the woolen poncho that lay back in his living quarters at the church. He thought about getting it, but it was already past the time when he'd arranged to meet the others, so he let it go and hurried onward toward Nathan's.
The boarding house where most of his companions rented rooms was fashioned of red bricks, an almost unheard-of extravagance in this dry, hot corner of the world. As he climbed the outside stairs, Josiah let his fingers trail over their uneven surface, idly wondering who had brought them here, and why they hadn't been satisfied to build another of the simple wooden structures which made up the majority of town.
Nathan had already lit the hurricane lamp beside his doorway, and its small flame was a glimmer of welcoming brightness in the gathering dusk. Josiah knocked briefly on the weathered wood, waited for a call from within, then pushed open the door.
"I am beginning to feel like persona non grata out there," he commented as he closed it behind himself and looked around in vain for a place to sit. Nathan's room had not been designed to host five people. It was standing room only.
"If that means what I think it does, yeah, I know what you mean." Buck poured himself another drink from the whiskey he'd brought over with him, then considered the nearly empty bottle. Nathan seldom drank, and Ezra was sticking with some muck of his own, carried around in a fancy little silver flask, so Buck had consumed the largest portion of the bottle himself. That explained the distant buzz in his head, but he didn't think the liquor was responsible for the bad taste in his mouth. "Lines are already being drawn, and we ain't getting good odds of being on the winning side."
"You think this is going to come to a fight?" J.D. asked, his light voice cracking a little as it often did when he was excited or worried. He was propped up against a pile of pillows, and until now had been listening to the conversation around him with uncharacteristic silence.
"Could happen," Buck admitted absently. "A bunch of Stuart James's boys rode into town this afternoon. They been hanging around the saloon, looking for trouble. Only a matter of time before they find it, and I'm willing to bet our fancy new marshal is going to be on their side."
"He's got us boxed in good, too, what with the telegraph wires being down," Nathan added. "Supposed to have been brought down by the storm last night, but it weren't that big a storm. The telegraph operator says it could be a coupla days 'fore the line's back up."
"It could take longer than that, if the problem really is more than the weather," Josiah put in. "There's a lot of line between here and Ridge City. It doesn't take much effort to cut it in two or three more places every time the company men get it back up. Meanwhile, we're on our own."
"My gut says we can't afford to waste a whole hell of a lot of time, either," Buck told him. "You heard what Vin told Nathan. Could be some unfortunate accidents in all of our futures, if we ain't careful."
J.D. was staring at him with a tense, uncertain expression. When Buck glanced at him, the boy looked away quickly. The group had gathered in Nathan's room for privacy, but J.D. was all too aware that there was another reason, too. Until Mandrell had sought him out, it hadn't occurred to any of them that the young man was as much of a pawn as Chris and Vin in whatever game the marshal was playing. Now, J.D. figured he was liable to be saddled with armed guards for the duration of his stay in bed. The thought made him miserable, because it made him feel even more like a baby--and because whoever was sitting up here with him wasn't out where they were needed.
"I never liked being a sitting duck," Buck added, pretending he hadn't seen and understood J.D.'s reaction. "I say we make the next move before he does."
"Would you care to define the next move?" Josiah asked.
"Well, y'know, I figure that getting Chris and Vin outta that jail would be good for starters."
"You want to be a fugitive for the rest of your life?" Josiah inquired harshly. "You start gunning down deputy marshals and breaking prisoners out of jail, that's where you'll end up. Right now, the law seems to be on Mandrell's side."
"I'll tell you something, Josiah," Buck drawled, "I've always been one to do what I think's right, and over the years, that's put me on both sides of the law. If I gotta do it again, then I'll do it again. I'm startin' to get goddamned sick of this town, but I don't plan to run off and leave Chris and Vin rotting in jail."
"Actually, leaving is what I had in mind for you." Josiah waited out the curse Buck aimed at him, then explained, "Someone is going to have to ride out tomorrow morning and find a working telegraph, in Bitter Creek, or Ridge City if you have to. We still need to contact the Judge."
"I'm going jack-nowhere until this thing is settled," Buck informed him in a voice that left no room for negotiation.
That response was what Josiah had expected. He would have preferred to use Buck as a messenger, purely because the big man was the one of them most likely to turn this situation into a shooting war, but he could think of no arguments that would persuade Buck if he wasn't willing. Once he made up his mind on something, he was as stubborn as J.D.
Letting the argument go, Josiah turned his attention to his second choice.
"Nathan? How much doctoring does J.D. need these days?"
"I'm fine," J.D. snapped before Nathan could answer. "I'll be back on my feet in no time. I don't need a whole lot of coddling, 'n--"
"All right, all right," Josiah smiled at him mildly, and the expression turned into a grin when he received a dark glower in exchange for his unthinking condescension. "Nathan? What's your opinion on the matter?"
"He don't need a lot now," the healer admitted. "So long as he don't go overexerting himself, and there's someone around to help him out and change his bandages, he should keep healing up just fine."
"See?" J.D. inserted triumphantly, then ruined the effect by stifling an enormous yawn. He had been awake for most of the day, upset and excited. His body was informing him, ever more urgently, that it needed another spoonful of laudanum to deaden the growing pain, followed by many hours of sleep.
"You want me to go find a telegraph?" Nathan queried.
"Seems the most practical solution. Have you been to Bitter Creek?"
"Can't say as I have. Ain't done much travelling around at all since I got here."
"I'll go," Ezra put in suddenly.
Several pairs of eyes swiveled to him, filled with varying degrees of suspicion or curiosity.
"Y'know something?" Buck commented. "I just don't think that's such a good idea. You got this bad little habit of goin' off places and then forgetting to come back."
The gambler had been playing with a silver dollar, passing it back and forth along his fingers in an exercise of manual dexterity that had been second-nature to him as far back in his life as he could remember. At Buck's comment, he closed his fist around the coin, feeling the edge of the metal bite into his flesh.
The offer had been another of those moments of insanity that seemed to be claiming him with increasing frequency and had surprised him as much as it had surprised his audience. Yet Buck's accusation was unfounded. If he went, he would come back. He wasn't certain why, but he was certain of that fact.
When he looked around the room, no emotion at all showed on his face.
"I am willing to give you gentlemen my word that I will come back," Ezra informed them coldly, "to make a report on what information I have gathered, if nothing else. But since you have brought the matter up, what is it that leads you to believe leaving is not the best solution for all of us? We have already served our originally agreed-upon term of office, and it would appear that our services are no longer required. The law has come to Four Corners, gentlemen, and I feel no urge whatsoever to be trampled by it."
"So, let me get this straight: You're saying we should just all ride out of town, 'n leave Chris and Vin where they are?"
"What you choose to do is your business. Personally, I do not feel that I owe Chris Larabee one damned thing. He has threatened to kill me on at least two occasions."
"Only when you betrayed him," Josiah reminded him. When Ezra momentarily lost his unreadable mask and darted an uncomfortable glance his way, the preacher smiled back at him with benevolence that carried a knife-edged warning. "Just something to think about."
"I already have plenty to think about, I do assure you. And this does not come down to a matter of 'betraying' anyone. We are not working for Mr. Larabee. We are working for Judge Travis, and through him, the Federal government, as he is so fond of reminding people. If the proceedings against our companions are, indeed, legal, then our tenure here is finished. The best thing we can do is go our respective ways as quietly as possible."
"When the hell did you start caring about legal proceedings?" Nathan demanded, at the same time Josiah said far more mildly, "We don't know where we stand yet, and we're not taking anything for granted. That's why we need to send a man to Bitter Creek. So we can be sure what our options are."
"I'll go," Nathan announced, glowering at Ezra.
"Fine," the gambler agreed. "Suit yourself."
"One of you's gonna have to take over looking out for J.D.," Nathan went on, ignoring him.
"We can move him to the church," Josiah offered, before J.D. could come up with a response. He would have vastly preferred not to hold this discussion in front of the young man, but trying to move it out of his ear shot would have been obvious and every bit as humiliating as simply getting it over with. The shame in J.D.'s clear, young eyes was visible for all to see, but no matter how much he wanted to, he couldn't will himself back to health.
"No." Buck shook his head. "Not the church. We'll get him a room in the hotel. It's closer into the center of town. Anyone who happens to be visiting with him can keep an eye on the street, too."
"Fine. I'll go make the arrangements. We can move him over there tomorrow morning, before Nathan leaves for Bitter Creek. Ezra--"
Having sensed that the group was about to break up, the gambler had already regained his feet and started for the door. At Josiah's call, he stopped and reluctantly turned back to face the rest of the group.
"You heading back over to the saloon?"
"That was my intention."
"Good. Keep your ears open. And watch your back."
"I always do." Ezra walked out and closed the door.
"He always does," Buck echoed. His tone was full of amusement, but there was an underlying edge to it. He was a man who angered quickly and was equally swift to forgive, so he didn't have it in him to hold a grudge against the decisions Ezra had made in the past--but, on the other hand, he wasn't fool enough to pretend they hadn't happened.
"He helped us out against James before," Josiah reminded him. "And he stayed when the Judge hired us."
"He stayed because it got him a pardon, and he helped us out because it meant Chris let him out of jail," Nathan retaliated. "Lot of Rain's people died 'cause of what he did, going off huntin' for gold instead of standing guard when he should. Her father died 'cause of Ezra."
"Maybe so, but in the end, he came back. If he hadn't provided a distraction, we could all have died out there."
"Still don't make it even. Look, I ain't condemning him--"
"No. I'm just saying we shouldn't depend on him too damned much unless we got something he wants."
"Amen to that," Buck agreed. "You heard what he said, Josiah. He's all for cuttin' and runnin'."
"If that was what he really wanted, he could have done it this afternoon. The way I see it, Ezra is having a bit of trouble figuring out where he's headed right now." Josiah picked up his battered old hat, and rested his hand on the door knob. "Been in that state myself on more than one occasion. I'm willing to trust him."
When the preacher was gone, Nathan complained, "For a man who claims he never learned how to turn the other cheek, Josiah's too damned trusting."
"I think that's what preachers are supposed to do," J.D. offered, then stifled another enormous yawn behind his hand. "Not that he acts much like a preacher most of the time."
"Here, lemme have one of them pillows so you can get comfortable--" Buck rested a hand on J.D.'s shoulder to ease him forward, but the young man shrugged it aside.
"I can do it myself!"
"Sure, you can, J.D. I just thought--"
"I can do it!" J.D. repeated furiously. He reached behind himself very carefully, trying not to twist his torso too much as he tugged the pillow free.
Buck caught Nathan's protest before the healer voiced it and silenced him with a shake of his head.
"You had your dinner yet, Nathan?"
"Not yet. Ain't had time. Too much else going on."
"Well, go on, then. I'll keep J.D. company a spell. Don't feel like being out and around tonight, anyhow. 'M already getting tired of people staring at my back, wonderin' what it's gonna look like when some yahoo puts a hole in it."
He waited in silence while Nathan gave J.D. a spoonful of opium-laced painkiller to help him sleep. By the time the healer departed, J.D. had gotten himself arranged back in bed without help. He lay there staring up at the ceiling, wearing an expression that managed to convey both anger and abject misery.
"It ain't your fault, son."
"That ain't what you been telling me all week."
"Suppose not," Buck admitted. He pulled off his hat and started to play with it idly, turning it around and around in his hands. He could yack his head off with the best of them about things that didn't matter a hang, but when it came down to what was important, he was better at doing than he ever had been at talking. Besides, he still hadn't exactly got the hang of predicting how J.D. would take some of the things he said. He'd known some prideful youngsters in his time, but the one in front of him now topped them all. That was part of why he liked him, and part of why he occasionally had to fight down the urge to thump him.
"But that's behind you," Buck went on quietly. "You can't undo it, so there's no point in whipping yourself over it. Never does a man any good to get himself all tied up in knots over what's done and gone and can't be changed."
"I want to help!"
"I know you do, J.D., but in case it's slipped yer notice, none of us is doing a whole hell of a lot at the moment except sitting around on our behinds, jawing."
"And if I start hearing gunshots, what am I supposed to do? Lie here and point my guns at the door 'til I see who's gonna come through it next?" Clenching his right hand into a fist, J.D. pounded it ineffectually against the mattress beside him.
"Look, Buck," the young man interrupted, "I really need to get some sleep." With the cautious, painful-to-watch slowness that characterized all his movements, he turned over so that he was lying on his good side with his back turned pointedly towards his companion.
With a sigh, Buck accepted that clear declaration that J.D. didn't want to talk about it. He hadn't been quite sure what to say, anyway. J.D.'s concerns were the hard truth. Weak and bedridden, the boy was a vulnerable target if things turned bad--and they were almost sure to turn bad from what he could tell. If Buck had had any idea at all of where to send him--or how to get him there--he would have tried to pack him off to safety, but that wasn't a practical possibility. The kid had never mentioned any family, aside from his departed mother, but even if he had relatives they were thousands of miles away, and J.D. was in no shape to make it to the next town.
"Night, J.D.," Buck said quietly.
There was no answer, but the pattern of J.D.'s breathing gave away that he was still awake. Standing up, Buck went around the room, turning off all but one of the lamps Nathan had left burning. The soft glow that remained barely showed him the small, still figure curled up beneath Nathan's homey patchwork quilt.
<Don't you worry, son. I ain't got enough friends that I can afford to waste any of them. We're all going to get through this just fine.>
Settling back in the chair he was beginning to hate, Buck stuck his feet up on a corner of the bed, stared at his boots, and went back to waiting.
+ + + + + + +
The saloon was crowded, but their corner remained private. Even the wooden railing that boxed in the slightly raised corner of the floor was free of its usual complement of leaning bodies. For perhaps the first time since he had wandered into town, Ezra couldn't find a poker game, so he retreated to the empty table and settled there alone. His hands were the only part of him that wasn't still. He ran a deck of cards through his fingers continuously, sorting and shuffling them, palming aces as they went by purely to keep in practice. Lately, he'd been getting far too little practice at the things he was really good at and too much with activities that were liable to get him killed. It had always been his plan to die in bed a very old and very rich man. Every day he ran with Larabee's gang, playing unofficial lawman to a town that didn't even give a damn, he was reducing the chances that he would ever be either.
Half a dozen cowboys from the James ranch were spread around the room. Patrick Dull Knife and another of Mandrell's deputies leaned against the bar, watching everything that was going on around them while they pretended to ignore it all. The townsfolk were giving them an equally wide berth, treating them with the same polite wariness they aimed at Chris and his team. Unless it affected them directly, they had little interest in the changing politics of the town. Sheriffs, marshals or enforcers came and went, while the clerks, storekeepers and farmers had learned to keep their heads low and get on with their lives.
An hour or two after Ezra returned to the saloon, Mandrell entered and stopped inside the doors to survey his surroundings. A momentary hush passed from table to table as men spotted him, and one or two patrons got up to leave, wanting no part of whatever trouble might be coming. The rest soon returned to their drinks and their cards.
Eventually, Mandrell turned and sauntered towards Ezra. "Prowled" was a better word for the way the man moved, the gambler decided, watching his approach from the edge of his vision while he continued to play with his deck of cards. The marshal moved like Chris. Even when there was nothing overtly menacing about them, you instinctively knew they were trouble. It was buried in the way they watched everything around them, the way they always kept in perfect balance, ready to dive for cover, or go for their gun in a heartbeat's notice.
<Lord, I hate gunfighters.>
"Mind if I join you?" Mandrell inquired, as he arrived at the far side of the table.
"If I said no, would it make a difference?... Forgive me, Marshal. I fear I am in a somewhat less than sociable mood at the moment. Do, please, have a seat." Ezra made an expansive gesture towards the remaining chairs.
Mandrell moved one so that when he sat down, his back was protected by an expanse of wall and he could watch the room.
"Couldn't find a game tonight?"
"As I told you, I am in a less than sociable mood. Changes in the weather always do that to me. Did you have some business you wished to discuss with me?"
"I'm not sure yet." Idly, Mandrell picked up the ever-present whiskey bottle, read the label and set it down again.
"Do help yourself to a drink," Ezra offered with deepest sarcasm. "Though I cannot say I would give that particular brand a personal recommendation."
The aspersion drew a small, amused sound from Mandrell. "I never drink when I'm working."
"That makes you a unique man in this territory. You said you had business to discuss."
"More a matter of curiosity, really. You have quite an... interesting background."
"Judge Travis and I have settled that little matter in Fort Laramie. If you were aware of other unfortunate peccadilloes from my previous travels, I presume you would have already arrested me."
"I'm aware of several, actually, but they don't interest me at the moment."
"From which I infer that, under the right circumstances, they may interest you in the future?" Ezra inquired icily. Blackmail was a tool for which he had never cared and to which he had never, in his long and varied career, resorted. He cared for it even less when he was faced with the possibility of being on its receiving end. "Fine. I shall take your thinly veiled threat under advisement. What is it--exactly--that you want from me, Marshal?"
The other man considered the question for a moment, then raised his shoulders in a shrug. "Off hand, I can't think of anything you could offer that I might need. Can you?"
"You seem to have a great deal of confidence that you have matters well in hand."
"Oh, I do." He slanted Ezra a sideways glance, his pale eyes glittering cold in the lamplight. "Don't you?"
Ezra was still considering his reply when a burst of harsh voices drew his attention to a card game at the far end of the room. A big cowboy surged to his feet, and the table went flying. Cards, bank notes and coins scattered wildly as the other men dodged back out of the way. The cowboy who had dumped the card table was shouting curses and insults at one of his fellow players. With considerable surprise, Ezra realized that Billy Parks was the focus of the attack. He had played poker with Parks numerous times and never seen any hint that the man was a cheat. As far as Ezra was concerned, that meant Parks was not a cheat, because he had absolute confidence in his ability to spot any trick known to a professional, far less a small-town rancher with an unhealthy fondness for gambling.
When the cowboy grabbed Parks by the shirt front and half-lifted him off the floor, another of the players tried to intervene. The cowboy responded with a fist, knocking the would-be good Samaritan backwards into a table packed with card players.
The latter group thought little of having their game interrupted and threw themselves into the fray with enthusiasm. A minute, maybe two, after the first punch was thrown, the chaos had spread to include half the room, with drunken men scrambling to join the fray or escape from it. A flying beer glass added another crack to the spider web marring the big mirror behind the bar and sent the barkeep ducking prudently into cover. At one side of the room, four men picked up their table and carried it deeper into a sheltered corner before sitting down again to ignore their surroundings and continue their game.
Whatever Mandrell's interests in Four Corners, they didn't include keeping the peace within the saloon. The marshal hadn't moved, and a small, cold smile flickered across his mouth as he watched the escalating fracas through the trail of blue smoke spiralling upwards from his cheroot. His two deputies remained equally aloof, backing into corners without attempting to take part in what was happening around them.
"I gather spontaneous acts of pugilism are not presently considered a felony in this county?" Ezra inquired with heavy mockery.
The question seemed to amuse Mandrell, but he didn't answer it. A flying bottle missed its target and impacted against the wall between them. The marshal didn't flinch, but he fastidiously brushed flecks of splintered glass from the shoulder of his debonair suit coat. The debris missed Ezra entirely, though a dark, whiskey-scented stain splattered across the table. Automatically, he fluffed the lacy shirt cuff at his right wrist, checking the spring-mounted derringer that waited in his sleeve, then looked over and found Mandrell watching the move with intensity that announced he understood exactly what Ezra was doing.
The crack of a gunshot startled a small jump out of the gambler and sent his hand reaching for the pistol holstered at his waist. In the milling mass of bodies, he couldn't immediately tell who had fired the shot, nor if it had found a target or simply added another hole to those already decorating the walls and ceiling. There were a half-dozen men on the floor, hiding under tables or nursing bruises before throwing themselves back into the fray, but they all appeared to be moving.
"I do so abhor violence," Ezra commented evenly, rising from his seat.
"So I have heard."
"I gather you have no objections if I take my leave?"
Mandrell tilted back his head and sent a smoke ring drifting towards the ceiling. "None at all."
"Good night to you, then."
Ezra turned towards the door just as Nathan barrelled through the opening, drawn by the sound of the shot. The healer's gun was in his hand, but he holstered it again as soon as he saw the situation, then dodged sideways to avoid being run down by a man who reeled through the door, propelled by a kick from behind.
The room was filled with a cacophony of noise: curses, shouts, the sounds of breaking wood and roughly handled bodies. A louder cry, keen with agony, ripped suddenly through the din. As Ezra stepped down to the main level of the saloon and began circling carefully around the perimeter of the fight, Billy Parks staggered out of the mass of bodies. His face was filled with confusion and terror, and his hands clutched uselessly at the oversized skinning knife which protruded between his ribs.
Nathan reached Parks before he sank the floor, eased him down on his back, and knelt beside him. A couple of townsmen practically tripped over them and stopped in shock when they saw what was happening. The rest of the room remained oblivious to the small drama taking place amidst the general chaos.
Ezra had gotten halfway to the door unscathed, but the overactive curiosity that was sure to some day get him killed stopped him as he found himself watching the dozen small tableaus of conflict which shifted and changed by the second. There had been a fight in this saloon every second or third night since he arrived in town, but normally, they were no more than a minute or two in duration. A few punches were thrown, then peace was enacted by force, sometimes by Chris's men, more often by the friends of those involved, who hauled them apart, calmed them down, dumped them in the water trough outside if necessary to get their attention. It was all routine and relatively harmless, a side-effect of boredom or exhaustion or too much liquor.
<This is different,> the gambler realized, as the melee in front of him began to sort out into individual groups. Every time a lull threatened, one of James's cowboys stirred it up again with a randomly thrown punch or shove. <This is deliberately staged. Why?>
At the same instant he arrived at that question, one of Mandrell's men finally stepped into the fray. He dropped a heavy hand onto the shoulder of one of the townsmen, who was staggering backwards, having just escaped the grip of a cowboy. Startled and drunk, the man whirled and struck out wildly with his fist. In the blink of an eye it took him to take the swing, the deputy had drawn his gun and fired, taking the townsman in the chest at point-blank range.
"What the hell...?" Nathan rounded on the deputy before the second victim had fallen.
In the half-second it took the healer to jolt to his feet, Ezra had worked out exactly what was about to happen as surely as though he had already witnessed it. Nathan knew better than to charge a loaded gun, no matter how lunatic he considered the man who was holding it. But he wouldn't have to. All he had to do was provide an excuse, and that needed to be nothing more than a step forward--then he, too, would die, "resisting arrest," or "attacking a peace officer," or whatever meaningless excuse they were planning to use as legal justification for his murder. With a half-dozen of Stuart James's men to act as witnesses, no one else in the town would say differently, not to Judge Travis or anyone else.
While Nathan was in the act of turning to face his death, Ezra cursed himself for being six kinds of a fool, drew both of his sidearms, and fired one of them. He was a decent shot, but he didn't have time for finesse. The deputy marshal went down in the same moment he brought his pistol to bear on Nathan. As he hit the floor, he began to flop around wildly, spattering blood everywhere while his life spurted out through the bullet hole torn in his throat.
"That was, perhaps, a mistake," Ezra announced into a silence that was broken only by the dying man's futile, noisy struggle for air. "Let us all endeavor not to compound it, shall we?"
He seemed to have a positive talent for getting himself into this situation, and this time he was in the worst possible position to defend himself. There were a dozen or more hostile guns to one side of him while Mandrell sat almost one-hundred-eighty degrees away. Nathan was still caught in the middle, staring around with blank disbelief. Some of it was aimed at the whirl of events that had just taken place, but the majority was a response to Ezra's action.
<Believe me, Mr. Jackson, you are no more surprised by all this than I am. Let us hope we both live to be deeply embarrassed by these events.>
Aloud, he said to the room in general, "I would be most obliged if those of you not directly involved in this altercation would seize the opportunity to depart."
At least some members of his audience understood the suggestion, and they started a veritable stampede for the door. Ezra wasn't sure if the James boys would stay or go, but after a certain amount of hesitation, they went, leaving behind a wasteland of broken furniture populated by three corpses--one of whom was still struggling weakly to stave off the moment of his death--and four men.
"You go, too, please, Mr. Jackson."
"No way." Nathan shook his head. "I ain't leaving you."
"Go," Ezra demanded impatiently. "I would hate to have this display of stupidity on my part wasted by your being shot for resistin' arrest. That was, I believe, the intention."
Nathan looked slowly from Ezra to Mandrell to Patrick, who had a pair of .45s levelled on the small gambler.
"Like they're plannin' to do with you?" the healer asked.
With the large herd of distractions removed, Ezra could keep most of his attention on Patrick, who was the most immediate danger. So far, the halfbreed had showed no inclination to fire without orders. Mandrell, on the other edge of the gambler's vision, had neither moved nor drawn his gun. At such an oblique angle, Ezra couldn't be certain the venerable old breech-loader clasped in his left-hand was even aimed directly at the marshal--but when seen from the wrong end, any gun barrel had a way of seeming to expand to cover the whole horizon.
Nathan remained frozen in place by uncertainty. Even if Ezra hadn't just saved his life, he wouldn't have been inclined to leave. But he knew that if he went for his own gun, he risked upsetting the precarious balance Ezra was maintaining.
"I have no wish to remain here all night," the gambler prodded him. "Go find Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Sanchez, if you would. Their assistance may be required."
That demand finally roused Nathan to movement. Carefully, expecting to get a bullet in the back at any moment, he headed for the door and pushed through it into the street. The crowd, which had been inside the saloon, now straggled around outside it. No one showed any inclination to stop him or get in his way, so he headed towards home at a run, knowing that Buck, at least, would still be there with J.D.
As soon as Nathan was gone, Ezra shifted his attention towards Mandrell without moving his head. The marshal had his elbows balanced on the arms of his chair, his fingers steepled loosely in front of him. It was hard to judge if the action was an unthinking mannerism or a way of demonstrating that he had no gun in his hand. Either way, he seemed to be enjoying the situation enormously.
"I believe this is what is known in the vernacular as a Mexican stand-off," Ezra pointed out, purely to start the conversation. He estimated that he had another minute, perhaps two, to talk himself out of this situation before help arrived. It might be help for him, but more probably it would be help for Mandrell, who still had four gunmen unaccounted for.
"Not really," Mandrell countered. "The advantage is all on our side. I suggest you put down your guns and surrender."
"And what would that get me?"
"It depends on what you are willing to do for me in return."
"A short time ago, I possessed nothing of which you were in need. Isn't it just amazing how one's value can increase unexpectedly? Very well. I will give you your life."
"It isn't yours to lay on the table. You can barely keep both of us in sight. Shoot from there, and you'll only damage the wallpaper. Look this way to correct your aim, and Patrick will drop you. As I see it, you have two options: I can shoot you right here, in the process of arresting you for the murder of a federal peace officer. Or, I can throw you in jail while conveniently forgetting to file the paperwork."
Ezra laughed sharply. "And you would do that because...?"
"Because I believe in seizing opportunities when they are handed to me. It never hurts to have an ace in the hole, Mr. Standish, as you know very well. Sometime in, oh, say the next three days, Chris Larabee is going to decide it's time to get himself out of jail. If I know ahead of time when he's planning to make his move, it will be far easier to stop him. I would hate to see him killed before I'm ready to deal with him."
"And you expect me to betray his plans to you?" Ezra inquired.
"Why not? You don't care what happens to him. I've been picking things up around town. The two of you are not exactly friends."
"It's truly amazing how malicious gossip can spread," Ezra drawled, while his mind worked hastily through Mandrell's offer, trying to evaluate its possibilities. He didn't believe for a minute that it would save his life, even if he chose to keep to his part of it--but it would buy him time, and right now, time was something he did not have.
"It sounds to me as though you have nothing to lose by throwing in your lot with me," Mandrel continued, "and everything to gain. Frankly, it isn't terribly important to me one way or another what happens to you."
"Thank you ever so much for saying so."
"You're most welcome. I want Larabee to remain exactly where he is, safe and unharmed, until I've finished the job I have been hired to do here. After that, I have specific plans for him."
"And suppose I tell him what you've just told me?"
"What would that gain you? I put a lot of faith in self-interest as a motivater, Mr. Standish. Help my plans run smoothly, and when this is all over, you can leave town without interference. None of my men will stop you. Refuse, and either Patrick over there or I will kill you. So, think about it."
"Fine," Ezra agreed instantly. "I believe I have thought about it sufficiently. I have always had a singular preference for coming out on the winning side. How do we proceed?"
"Patrick, put your guns down."
The young Indian hesitated, but it was a mark of Mandrell's discipline that the delay was brief. Scowling his disapproval, he uncocked both pistols, then showed his youth by spinning them showily around his fingers before slapping them back in his holsters.
"Your turn," the marshal offered.
Taking the chance, Ezra holstered his guns. A couple of seconds passed, and no unexpected bullets found him.
Mandrell rose to his feet and strolled forward, one hand coming up in a signal to someone outside whom Ezra couldn't see. Finally drawing his gun, the marshal used the barrel to push Ezra's suit-coat aside, then relieved him of both side-arms and his gunbelt. He tapped the gambler's sleeve with the weapon, crooked an eyebrow, and waited until Ezra activated the spring harness which shot his sleeve-mounted derringer into his hand. When Ezra slipped it off its mount and handed it over, the marshal dropped it into his pocket, then used his pistol to gesture toward the door.
"What next?" Ezra queried coldly.
"We'll discuss that on the way over to the jail."
+ + + + + + +
Panting hard from running the length of the street, Nathan burst into his room, then froze, arms wide and still as he stared into the barrel of Buck's pistol. As soon as the other man had time to recognize him and lower the gun, he sagged against the wall, dragged in a long breath, and said, "Ezra's in trouble."
When the briefest explanation he could provide was done, he asked, "You coming?"
Buck threw an eloquent glance at the bed. Between the drug Nathan had given him and sheer exhaustion, J.D. hadn't even stirred at Nathan's arrival or the sound of their voices.
"I'll go," he said finally. "You stay here. Where's Josiah?"
"Haven't seen him. The church, I guess. Maybe I should come along."
"You stay with J.D. If you hear shooting..." He finished the sentence with a shrug that suggested Nathan would just have to use his own judgement.
Josiah was already striding down the street when Buck reached it, making his way towards the crowd milling around outside the saloon.
"I saw Nathan heading this way on the double," he explained as he reached the other man. "Trouble?"
"Yeah, lots of it." Talking as he walked, Buck headed for the saloon.
The crowd was starting to disperse when they got there, some of them heading homeward, others venturing back into the saloon. Three bodies were lugged out through the swinging doors, one after another, and the men carrying them started off towards the undertaker's parlor to drag Mr. Richards from his bed. When they were part way down the street, Billy Parks' widow appeared, a shawl wrapped over her nightdress, and flung herself on his body, crying hysterically.
"None of them is Ezra," Josiah observed. "I suppose that's a good sign."
For once, Buck just let the comment go. He wasn't fond of the gambler, but Ezra was one of their own, however tenuously, and in the present circumstances that far outweighed his personal feelings for the man.
"It looks like all the excitement's over, too," he commented, observing the casual level of activity around the saloon. "Well, if Mandrell didn't shoot him, I guess he must be in jail by now. Getting a mite crowded in there, ain't it?"
"And, as I recall, Ezra thinks very little of the quality of the accommodations."
Mary Travis was attempting to comfort the stricken Mrs. Parks. When she saw them approaching, she left the newly made widow to the care of her friends and hurried to meet them. In spite of the hour, she was still fully dressed, with a shawl thrown over her shoulders against the night-time chill.
"Have you heard what happened?"
"Some of it, ma'am," Josiah admitted. "Did you see Ezra?"
"Yes. He and the marshal came out of the saloon together a few minutes ago. He didn't appear to be hurt, but he was under arrest. They took him over to the jail."
"Better that than being dead."
"Well," Buck put in, taking a step towards the jail, "come on, then, let's go--"
"--Back to Nathan's." Josiah finished, laying a hand on his arm to restrain him. Receiving a dark glower in response, he continued, "What do you suggest we do? Storm the jail right now, just the two of us?"
"That sounds like a damned good plan to me."
"And if all three of them die before we get through the door?"
"If this keeps up, we're all gonna be in there with them. Damn lot of good that'll do us."
"Two innocent men are dead, Josiah," Mary pointed out quietly. When Buck pointed a finger at her, and said, "See?" triumphantly, she went on quickly, "Not that I'm suggesting you storm the jail, of course, but we must do something quickly before there are more."
Josiah was silent for a long moment, lost in thought, then he ventured, "Believe me, Mrs. Travis, I couldn't agree with you more. But I don't think anything else is going to happen tonight." To Buck, he added, "We're not going to wait for tomorrow morning to move J.D., we'll do it now. Then one of us can keep watch on what's going on from the hotel while the other has a look around. We need to know everything we can about how Mandrell operates. Tomorrow morning, Nathan can go in to see Vin before he leaves. We need to talk to Chris and Vin before we make a move."
Turning back to Mary, he suggested, "You should try to get some sleep, Mrs. Travis. It's late."
"I have a lot more to do before I go to bed, Josiah. When the town wakes up tomorrow, I plan to have editorial waiting that will give them something to think about. You aren't in this alone. You shouldn't be, anyway," she added, less certainly. Her fellow citizens had lived in fear so long that it was too much to expect them to change in only a few short weeks, especially since many of them were no more convinced than she had been initially that bringing Chris and his men in to protect the town was a change for the better. In the face of the present crisis, her own doubts and reservations had become completely irrelevant, but she knew better than to expect others to see it that way.
"It's a good thought, Mrs. Travis," Josiah told her quietly, "but it might not be the wisest course of action right now."
"I have taken many courses of action over the years that were considered unwise," Mary assured him. "I have no intention of dropping my principles now just because it's the safe thing to do. I shall report the facts as I know them and my beliefs. There's nothing else I can do." Saying a brief "good night" to both of them, she walked away towards the Clarion.
After a brief discussion, Josiah went on to the hotel to see if anyone was still awake or roust someone out of bed if there wasn't. Buck headed for Nathan's and found the black healer out on the wooden porch that circled the building, waiting for him as he approached.
"The kid still asleep?" Buck asked.
"Ain't stirred. Likely won't until tomorrow sometime, either. He was up way too long today. Used up what little strength he's got." Nathan shook his head. "All this fussing and worrying ain't helping him a bit."
"It ain't helping any of us, Nathan. Just as well if he's dead asleep right now, anyway. We're moving him tonight." Smiling, he added, "If I know J.D., his dignity won't take kindly to being lugged around."
That prediction turned out to be an understatement, as Buck discovered when he tried the simple process of wrapping the sound-asleep J.D. in the quilt off the bed and picking him up. Drugged or not, the kid came awake in a hurry when he felt himself moving, panicked and made a damned good attempt to break Buck's jaw with one wildly swinging fist. When he saw it coming, survival instincts made the big man drop his burden and jump backwards with more haste than grace. J.D. crashed down onto the bed, cried out sharply when it hurt like hell, and instantly made a frantic, uncoordinated scramble for his six-guns.
Before he could make it that far, his dazed mind regained enough clarity for him to recognize Nathan's hasty admonitions and Buck's cursing. He sagged down limply atop the disturbed bed clothes, dragging in air as desperately as though he had just run a foot race. His heart was banging against the inside of his ribcage, and if he hadn't been so furious, he probably would have passed out from sheer fright.
"What's... going on?" J.D. demanded indignantly. He wasn't sure the words were even understandable. Thanks to the painkiller in his system, his mouth just didn't seem to be working right. He was scared to even think about the hole in his side. He was sure it must have torn open again.
But when Nathan coaxed him over onto his back, no fresh blood stains marred the bandages. Nathan explained the circumstances while he was checking him for damage, and by the time he was done, J.D.'s head was a little clearer. When Buck took a step forward, planning to take up again where he'd left off, J.D. set his jaw stubbornly and announced, "I ain't going to be hauled around through the street in my nightshirt."
"Look, J.D., I know--"
"I want my clothes."
Nathan looked at Buck for inspiration, but all he got was a shrug.
"He wants his clothes," Buck echoed, his sense of humor breaking through in spite of everything. With another shrug, he suggested, "Probably be faster than arguing with him."
"Damn right it will," J.D. agreed and tried to sit up. To his own surprise as much as Nathan's, he managed it, though it left him sweating and so light-headed that he had to cling tenaciously to the edge of the mattress to stay that way. The strain of moving increased the relentless ache in his side, but it was somewhere far off beyond the opium and exhaustion that clouded his mind, and it almost didn't matter.
It didn't take him long to figure out that his attempt to save some remnant of pride was completely in vain. There was no way he was going to be able to dress himself, far less walk anywhere. The only way he was managing to stay upright was by remaining rigidly still. As soon as he shifted enough to upset the balance, he'd be flat on his back or his face.
"Forget it," he whispered in defeat and relinquished his hold on the mattress. "Do whatever you want."
As he toppled, Buck's arm was behind him to catch him and keep him upright.
"We'll have you fixed up in a minute, J.D.," Buck assured him with casual acceptance. "Nothing to get yourself all fussed up over."
"That's easy for you to say," the young man flung back at him. "You ain't the one being hauled around and dressed and watched like some damned baby!" In his early life, he had been on the receiving end of plentiful contempt because his mother was only a servant, and because he could claim no name but hers. She had tried to teach him how to deal with his anger and humiliation by locking them away inside, but it was a lesson J.D. had never mastered--not even when his failures were driven into his hide with slaps or fists or worse. He still hadn't mastered it, but he was too tired to fight any more, and, anyway, there was no one to be angry with this time except himself. He'd brought all this on himself, and Buck and Nathan were just trying to get him through it.
They helped him dress--more truthfully, they dressed him--then Buck wrapped a blanket around him and picked him up again. He didn't argue, just laid his head against the bulky softness of Buck's coat, and wished the laudanum would hurry up and put him back to sleep so he wouldn't have to watch this happening.
"You planning to carry me all the way to the hotel?"
"It ain't that far, J.D.," Buck assured him cheerfully, "and you ain't too heavy."
Somehow, between closing his eyes and opening them again, J.D. went from Nathan's room to the outdoors. They weren't in the street, but somewhere in the unbroken darkness behind the row of buildings where there was little chance that they would be seen by anyone. He muttered some kind of thanks for that small kindness, and Buck laughed, the sound friendly.
"One thing you have purely got to learn, J.D., is that there ain't nothing wrong with takin' a little help from your friends now and then. It don't make you one lick less of a man."
"When was the last time someone carried you through the damned street?"
That miserable question earned him another laugh, the sound reverberating through Buck's chest. "Well, lemme tell you, there is the odd occasion when I have to depend on some kind soul to haul my sorry ass from the saloon to m'bunk," the big man admitted. "Next time it happens, I'll expect you to pay me back in kind."
He could tell by the tone that Buck didn't believe that was possible, but J.D. was reasonably sure he would be able to lift the bigger man when he was healthy. He had been a stableboy from the time he was seven. Years of physical labor had left him stronger than he looked and stronger than people expected him to be. Even so, their size difference would have made carrying Buck an awkward, ridiculous process. As he promised, "Sure," in a sleepy voice, J.D. snickered softly at the image that formed in his head.
J.D. recognized the back of each building as it went past, because he came out this way when he was patrolling around town. Most of the structures were dark, but there were still lights in the Clarion, and he heard the faint clatter he'd learned to recognize as the sound of a newspaper press. Many places had jumbles of outbuildings behind them, and a few even had penned-off areas for chickens or pigs, easily discernible by their smell. Tonight, some of the familiar landmarks seemed to be missing, or else they were lost in the long, foggy times between eyeblinks.
By the time they reached the back door of the hotel, Buck was panting like a bellows from the exertion of carrying him. Josiah waited in the doorway, and J.D. murmured a wry greeting as he was transferred from one set of strong arms to another. Buck was right. He ought to be grateful to all of his friends for being so matter-of-fact about this, making it a little bit easier to bear by reducing it to a matter of such small importance. He was grateful to them, simply for being there, and for accepting him even though he'd done too little to prove he could measure up.
The laudanum weighed down his eyelids, sweeping away his embarrassment in a wave of artificial well-being. He barely felt himself being settled into the hotel room bed, and by the time Nathan straightened up from pulling the covers over him, he was sound asleep again.
"That is one stubborn kid," Nathan commented, with a shake of his head. Folding J.D.'s trousers neatly, he laid them over the back of a chair near the bed.
"If we were doing this tomorrow night, he would have insisted on walking over here under his own power," Josiah agreed with a smile.
"You probably ain't far wrong," the healer agreed. "I'm gonna go back to my place and pick up the things you'll need for looking after him. After that, I'm going to try to get some sleep. Got a long ride ahead of me tomorrow."
"Good advice for all of us," Josiah told Buck when Nathan was gone. "I have a premonition we may be glad of whatever rest we can get tonight."
Settling down on the window ledge, he gazed down upon the street. The dozen or so campfires which served Four Corners in lieu of streetlamps had been abandoned for the night. Some of them had already burned away to smoky coals. Others still threw off small, fitful flames. The glow of a near-full moon overwhelmed them with its cool, bluish light, giving him a clear view of everything below.
He had blown out the lamps to avoid making an obvious target for anyone looking up, but he automatically leaned deeper into the darkness when he saw Patrick stroll past below.
"Our friends are out on patrol."
"Think you could pick him off from here?" Buck inquired, coming over to the window to check out what had caught the preacher's attention.
"There would be a certain satisfaction in that, wouldn't there?" Josiah agreed, grinning as Buck pointed an imaginary gun at the glass and pulled the trigger. "Never mind, our time will come."
"Yeah, I know it will," Buck agreed soberly. "But how many more men gotta die before it does?"