~ CHAPTER 1 ~
The rain poured hard over the dry land. It hadn't rained for many weeks. The rain was much needed, but now, it was too much. The cracked ground was too dry to absorb the torrential downpour. The skies stayed black much of the afternoon and into the evening until night fell.
The residents of Four Corners managed to keep dry in their homes, the hotel or the tavern. Ezra, in the tavern, entertained himself by practicing his finesse with a deck of cards intermingled with an occasional game with whoever would oblige him. JD and Buck, also in the tavern, were entertaining Casey, who had been stranded in town by the rain, and Sammi, who Buck was still attempting to court. Sammi had been forewarned about Buck's persistence by Vin and Inez. Inez would smile at Sammi whenever Sammi cut her eyes up to her. The rain seemed to bring a few of the menfolk together with the ladies. Nathan, too, found himself entertaining a young lady. Josiah, who was awaiting Maude's much delayed stage to arrive, and Chris seemed to just blend in with the background of the tavern keeping an eye on folks, making sure no one got out of hand. The rain, like the heat, seems to always bring out the bad in folks. Chris figured it was the inability to get away from irritating folks, stretch one's legs, get fresh air or just having to deal with the same folks for a long period of time. Friends could become enemies that way. He figured it to be the reason some friends should never marry or bunk together. Just because you're friends doesn't mean you can live in such close proximity to one another. Too many bad habits to aggravate folks.
Vin was not among those present in the tavern nor was he even in town. Judge Travis, who was at the jail, had asked him to escort a woman and her child back to their homestead, as they had animals that needed tending to. The woman, a Mrs. Davis, had been in town discussing the recent murder of her husband with the judge. Some folks from his past had come to even a very old score. Mr. Davis had brought his wife and son out here to escape his past. A past he never revealed to his wife or the folks in Four Corners. She feared the return of the men; hence, the escort back home. Mrs. Davis asked Vin to stay the night; he agreed. She fixed up a room for him to stay.
Later that night, after most of the town had retired, the stage, now several hours late after its heavy wooden frame sunk its wheels into the mud many times, finally arrived. The passengers, wet and muddied from helping to dislodge the submerged stage, yearned for a bath and a bed. They headed for the hotel to get just that. Maude was among the passengers. She had left town a couple weeks ago on business, but promised to return as soon as possible. She, too, required a bath and rest. She reserved herself a room; then, she went for a bath - a long bath. Her muscles ached from her participating in the rescue of the stranded stage. Maude finished bathing and returned to the comforts of her hotel room. She dozed on and off, but was constantly awakened by the crack of thunder that accompanied the rain. In the wee hours of the morning, she returned to the lobby of the hotel. All was dark, quiet and empty. She moved a chair to a nearby window, and there, she watched the fall of rain dance on the boardwalk. Hours had passed. Maude was just about to return to her room when, through the window, she saw the figure of a man slouched over his horse slowly making its way up the rain soaked street. As the horse began to pass by her, she thought she recognized the man's jacket - a fringed, buckskin-colored jacket. Maude quickly ran outside. In her haste, she forgot she was merely clad in her nightgown and robe. She grabbed the reins of the horse, as the rain drenched her hair and clothes.
"Vin Tanner?" she quietly questioned the man.
The man slowly raised his head revealing his face to her. Blood mixed with rain traveled down his cheeks. Maude gasped at the sight as she recognized Vin's features. She led the horse to the hitching post and tied it. She then helped Vin dismount. She struggled to hold him upright as he leaned heavily against her. They entered the hotel, and she escorted him to her room. She laid the injured tracker on the bed. She left him only for a second to shut the door. Maude figured that with the town asleep she would first remove his saturated clothing in an attempt to keep him warm and dry. This would aid in his survival, she thought; then, she would wake Nathan. As she removed his shirt, she found the shirt not only clung to him because of the rain but also because of the blood that was oozing from several wounds on his chest, abdomen and arms. His body was weak and limp, as she removed the articles of clothing. Upon removing his pants, she found more wounds and more bleeding. With a cloth she wet in the room's wash basin, she began to wash the blood and excess water from his face and body. Maude gently cleaned the wounds on his body and the gash in his head. She rang the liquid, a mixture of more blood than water, from his hair. Finally, she placed the bed covers over his trembling, shivering body. Vin's eyes remained slightly opened, as his breathing sounded more labored. His body was hot to the touch, as it desperately tried to fight its injuries. Maude, with the touch only a mother could possess, gently caressed Vin's cheek while she clutched his hand in hers to reassure him.
"Vin, I have to leave you now; so, I may request the services of Mr. Jackson," her expression worrisome, as she peered into his troubled eyes. Squeezing her hand gently, he spoke softly between each breath, "Please…Maude…don't go. <He swallowed hard.> Stay. If'n I'm gonna die…I…don't want…to die alone. <Again, he swallows.> Please."
Maude couldn't resist his pleading. Her heart wept for the young man. There was nothing she could do except honor his dying wish.
Maude squeezed his hand with one hand as she brushed his hair from his forehead with the other,
"Vin, don't worry; I won't leave you." The young man's gaze remained fixed on Maude as he spoke to her,
"Maude…I'm not afraid…to die. I…just don't know…if I'm ready…now. When…I first came….to Four Corners…I didn't think…it would matter. Now, things….are diff'rent."
"You have friends, now, Vin, who care about you, and a sense of belonging."
"I know…you and Ezra…have had…some hard times…but he's OK. He's…a good friend."
"Yes, well, he has some really good friends in you, gentlemen.
"Sometimes…I wonder…how good…a friend I am."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"When Jody…Laughton…came to town…she shot him up…purty bad. She told me…it was my fault. I was to blame. She said…I was no better…than her brother…'cause I killed…for money."
"Nonsense, Vin! You merely did what the law could not. Her brother and the others you apprehended were not human for the terrible deeds they orchestrated. They outsmarted the law; they didn't outsmart you. Do you realize how many lives you probably have saved because of the men you captured or killed?"
"Doesn't matter…I still…took…another man's life. It's wrong…but I had…no choice…sometimes."
"Vin Tanner, you may not understand it now, but that woman was using your vulnerability to weaken you. She knew you and Ezra were close; JD told her during that card game that the two of you were blood brothers. She used him to get to you. Don't let her destroy your admirable work to justify her brother or her own detestable acts of terror and injustice."
"That I can understand. Life can be very confusing. Believe me; I have lived this life a long time."
A moment of silence befell them as Vin tried desperately to breathe. His eyes closed as his body weakened. Maude never left his side. She continued to hold his hand and stroke his hair and/or cheek, whichever her hand happened upon. He once again opened his eyes; however, the deep blue was not as brilliant. Just the same, they pierced Maude's eyes.
"Maude…tell Chris…and Ezra…and…the others…I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what, Vin; you haven't done anything wrong have you?"
"No…just…that I couldn't…make it. Tell them…that the time here…was the best. I hope…they won't…miss me much. Tell them…not to mourn…for me. Please?"
"Vin, you are not going to die. I will not allow it!" Maude's voice began to waver as she forced back the tears.
She knew he was hurt bad, but she had already promised not to leave his side. If only he could hang on until someone came, she knew he would make it.
"Maude…just promise…please." he again requested of her.
"OK, I promise," she finally submitted, quietly.
~ CHAPTER 2 ~
Maude and Vin talked during the early morning hours until the sun began to rise. She never asked what happened, though, and he never relinquished his secret. She thought about how she felt when Ezra had been shot by Jody Laughton and her gang. She didn't think she was this close to any of Ezra's friends. Well, there was Josiah, but Josiah, was, obviously, more like a lover than a son. She, of course, knew that she would have feelings for him if he were to be so gravely injured. As she cared for Vin and listened to his breathing and his quiet speech, she heard a rap upon her door. Knowing she had left the door unlatched a couple hours ago when she brought Vin in, she responded to it as such.
"Come in," she told the visitor.
The door opened, and not really to her surprise, Ezra and Josiah walked through it. The two never were able to speak their greeting to her. They were shocked to see her hovered over Vin's badly injured body. He lay silent now; his eyes still fixed on Maude as she greeted her guests.
"My God, Maude, what happened?" Josiah was first to respond to the sight before the two men.
"I don't know. He came into town a few hours ago in this condition."
"Why didn't you seek Nathan for his expertise in these matters?" Ezra interrogated her.
"Because, darlin', he begged me to stay with him. He believes he is dying."
"All the more reason to get Nathan," Josiah argued.
"Gentlemen, I am sorry if I did not handle the situation as either of you would obviously have handled it," Maude began to defend herself.
"Ezra…Josiah…please…don't be angry….with her. I…told her…not to get him."
"Why, Vin?" Ezra now pleaded.
"Because…I didn't…want...to die…alone. I was afraid…if she left…I would die…while she was gone."
"Vin, you don't have to die if we can get Nathan here," Josiah put his two bits in.
Vin smiled painfully,
"I…don't doubt him…I just know…what condition…I'm in. Trust me."
"Trust nothing, Vin Tanner! Maude, stay here with him. Ezra, come with me; we're going to get Nathan." Josiah surprisingly countered rather abruptly.
The two men left Maude and Vin to be by themselves once again. They headed for Nathan's office. They encountered Buck and Chris on the way.
"Where are y'all off to all fired up?" Buck questioned.
"Nathan's," Josiah answered.
"Hey, what's up?" JD joined the group.
"Vin came into town last night. Apparently, so did the stage," Josiah began to explain.
"So, what of it?" Chris asked.
"So, Maude's got Vin up in her room at the hotel," Josiah continued.
"Maude?" Chris said throwing a glance over to Ezra.
"Yes," Ezra confirmed.
"Seems Vin came in with a number of injuries," Josiah explained.
"Hey, everyone's up early this morning," Nathan said with a wide smile on his face. The smile faded when he met the solemn faces of his friends, "What's wrong?"
"Vin came back to town last night after escorting Mrs. Davis back to her home," JD informed.
"He apparently needs your help, Nathan. He pleaded with Maude last night not to leave his side. He thinks he's dying." Josiah continued.
"Dying!" Chris exclaimed.
"Yes. She wanted to request your services when he arrived, but he made her promise not to leave him. He did not wish to die alone," Ezra explained.
"Why, would he think he's dying?" Chris asked.
"I don't know, Chris, we didn’t stay long. We left as soon as we found out; so, we could get Nathan to go over there."
"We figured the why wasn't as important right now as it was to get Nathan there to try to save his life. " Josiah told the group.
"I do believe, however, from what I did witness, that we should wire your friend, Dr. O'Shannon, Nathan. He's probably the closest doctor other than yourself, of course." Ezra added.
"Vin's that bad?" Nathan queried.
"He could be. His eyes were kind of glazed over when I saw them. He also seemed to have a lot of blood on him; Maude seemed to be trying to keep him clean. I would say he's probably hurt pretty bad," Josiah acknowledged.
The six men started towards the hotel.
"JD," Chris started, "why don't you go over to the jail and see if the judge is there yet."
"You want me to bring 'im over to the hotel?"
"What room are they in, Josiah?" JD asked the preacher.
"Josiah, you think you can wire Dr. O'Shannon?" Chris asked.
"He's in New Cork, right?" Josiah made sure he had the name of the town correct.
"Yeah, Josiah. Hey, thanks," Nathan appreciated him taking care of notifying the doctor while he checked on Vin.
JD turned and headed for the jail. The others continued on their way to the hotel. Josiah went to the telegraph office. JD arrived at the jail and entered.
"Judge Travis?" JD searched upon entering the building.
"JD, what's the matter?" Mary responded to his search.
"I was looking for the judge."
"What did you need, JD?" the judge asked coming up behind him.
"The stage came in last night with Maude on it…" JD began.
"So?" Mary questioned.
"Well, Vin came back last night, too." JD finished.
"Vin? He was suppose to stay with Mrs. Davis last night to protect her from the men who killed her husband," Judge Travis stated.
"JD, what is so important about this that you came all the way over here to tell us?" Mary asked.
"Mary, Judge, it seems something happened last night. Josiah and Ezra found Maude caring for Vin this morning in her hotel room. He's been injured pretty badly according to them. He thinks he's dying!" JD hurried to tell.
"He thinks he's dying!?" Judge Travis exclaimed, yet questioned.
"Yeah, Chris, told me to come over here and get y'all," JD reported.
JD, Mary and Judge Travis left the jail heading towards the hotel. Josiah was headed back to the hotel when he met up with the three. The others had already arrived in room seven of the hotel. Nathan approached Vin and Maude. Maude moved closer to the head of the bed, allowing Nathan to move to Vin's side. Nathan took the bed sheet in hand and removed it from Vin's upper body. He quickly scanned the bloody body that lay before him. Nathan examined the gash in Vin's head; he noticed that some of the hair around the wound was singed.
"He's been in a fire," Nathan stated aloud.
"A fire?" Chris asked.
"Yeah," he confirmed.
"His hair has been singed around the wound. It seems as though something fell on his head."
Nathan looked into Vin's eyes; they seemed a little vacant as they just stared back at him.
"Vin?" he called quietly. Vin's gaze never changed,
"Nathan?" Nathan smiled as his friend answered him,
"It does matter, Vin."
Vin didn’t respond. Nathan turned to the others.
"He obviously has a concussion. His body is in shock. I've seen these kinds of wounds before," Nathan observed.
"What do you mean, Nathan?" Chris asked.
"Gattling gun," Nathan said quietly.
"Gattling gun! Nathan, what are you saying…that somehow Vin tangled with a Gattling gun?" Buck questioned.
"That's what I'm saying. He believes he's dying because he probably is. It's a damn good thing we had Dr. O'Shannon wired." Nathan confirmed.
Chris glanced at Vin's expressionless face; he turned and walked to the window hiding the tears that were welling up in his eyes.
"Chris, we can remove the bullets, or at least as many as we can find. We can fix up his head, but I can offer no guarantees. All I can say is that we can do this and hope for the best," Nathan tried to console the gunfighter.
"If you do this, what are his chances?" Judge Travis inquired.
Nathan sighed, "They're not good. He has lost a lot of blood. If he had only let Maude come and get me, he wouldn't have lost as much blood as he has. Why didn't he let her come get me?!" Nathan almost screamed with the fear of his own inability to help Vin.
"Nathan, do what you can. Dr. O'Shannon is on his way. We can hope and pray for the best; no one will blame you if he dies," Josiah comforted the healer.
~ CHAPTER 3 ~
Nathan wiped his eyes and face on his shirtsleeve. Chris continued to gaze out the window; he pretended to be keeping an eye out for the doctor. Buck walked over to Chris and placed his hand on his shoulder, offering his old friend comfort. JD took the chair in the corner, shaken at the events that had taken place. Mary tried to console JD. Ezra and Josiah stayed close to Maude as she still held tightly to Vin's hand and continued to stroke his hair. Judge Travis went to Chris and Josiah and gazed out the window.
Nathan tended to the gash in Vin's head. Maude had gotten that wound to stop bleeding. He cleaned it up and sewed the wound. He attempted to clean the hair surrounding the wound. Vin remained awake; yet, he just stared aimlessly. His talkativeness, which was evident with Maude, seemed to quiet some now that the others arrived. Nathan continued tending to each wound. He also found that Vin's right arm had also been broken possibly by something heavy falling on it. The flesh on his arm around the break also had been seared. Nathan could at least confirm that Vin had been in the vicinity of a fire.
Time passed. Nathan worked quickly trying to heal all the wounds on Vin's body. Amazingly, he remained conscious. He sometimes would jokingly tell Nathan he was hurting him, but in reality he wasn't feeling much, as his body was numb to the pain. His only complaint was his inability to breathe normally. His lack of air made him weak.
"He's here!" Chris exclaimed, leaving the window and darting out of the room down towards the street.
Buck followed after him. The two friends met Dr. Blaine O'Shannon as he approached the hotel.
"Doctor, up here," Chris motioned up the stairs inside the hotel.
Chris, Buck and the doctor quickly ascended the stairs. As they entered the room, everyone exchanged greetings. Nathan hurried through his explanation of Vin's condition. The doctor quickly began helping Nathan remove pieces of lead from Vin's body, attempting to mend any areas of his body that were affected. As the doctor and healer finished with Vin, all the men agreed to leave Maude to continue to tend to him. She was asked to please seek the doctor and/or Nathan as soon as possible regardless of Vin's pleading. However, she told them that would not be possible because if he died while she was away she would never forgive herself. Instead, Nathan agreed that after they met and discussed how they would handle the situation he and/or the doctor would return, depending on the outcome of the discussion.
All present, with the exception of Maude, left the room and met in the lobby of the hotel. They decided this was best in the event Maude needed Nathan or Dr. O'Shannon.
"Well, what're we gonna do?" Buck questioned Chris.
"Judge, you said Vin stayed with Mrs. Davis last night didn’t you?" Chris asked.
"Yes," Judge Travis affirmed.
"I say we start there," Chris stated.
"Good idea," the judge agreed, "maybe Mrs. Davis can offer some insight."
"Aw'ight, Nathan and Blaine, you stay here taking turns lookin' after Vin. Judge, we'll return as soon as we can with any information we can gather from Mrs. Davis," Chris explained his plan.
The five men - Chris, Buck, Ezra, Josiah, and JD - gathered their horses and some supplies; they made their way towards the Davis homestead. The men rode the rest of the day arriving in the early evening. The sight they observed upon arrival devastated the five riders. Their hopes for finding out what happened were dashed when they witnessed the condition of the homestead. The remains of the buildings still smoldered against the blood red setting sun. The men looked at one another in disbelief. A simultaneous sigh was faint among them. Anger and frustration overcame Chris. Buck approached Chris, watching him, trying to read the expression in his face.
"I guess we have to see if Mrs. Davis' and her son's bodies are among the rubble?" Buck asked his friend while watching the smoldering heap.
"Yeah, guess so," Chris agreed, barely audible.
The five men approached the smoldering mound that was the ranch house. They dismounted their horses leaving them far enough away, so, as to not put them in harm from the scorched land and timber. The men searched the burned remains of the house.
"Chris!" Ezra screamed in horror.
The shriek caught the attention of all the other men. They each left the area they were searching and arrived at Ezra's location almost simultaneously. Upon arrival, they saw the object that made Ezra scream as he did. A body. A child's body blackened by the fire. Chris knelt down trying to determine any features of the child's face. He could only assume it was the Davis boy.
"What happened here?" he said as he rose to his feet, agitation in his voice.
"You suppose somewhere in this rubble, Mrs. Davis is in the same condition?" Josiah pondered.
"Nathan did say Vin's hair had been singed and his arm was burnt," JD added.
"I would gather he was trying to escape the inferno or rescue the Davis'," Ezra concluded, quietly.
No answers were given to any of the questions. The men continued their efforts to locate Mrs. Davis. With gloves on, they moved hot smoldering rubble until their gloves were blackened by the ash. Finally, in a spot where Chris and Buck had been searching together, they found Mrs. Davis' body. Equally as burned as her son. Vin was not able to rescue either of them. Were his efforts in vain, they thought. They tried to piece together the events of the night before, but darkness shrouded them. They decided to gather the two bodies and take them to town. They figured they could come back in the morning to further investigate the horrific scene. After rounding up one of the Davis horses that were scattered about the land, they placed the charred bodies of the woman and child on the horse. Chris took the reins of the horse as they headed back to Four Corners.
The town was quiet when they arrived. Judge Travis awaited their return on the front porch of the sheriff's office and jail. The entire town was concerned over the possible passing of one of its protectors. Chris and the others rode into town drawing attention from those still up and about. Many folks in town knew what was going on, and they knew whom the bodies belonged to. As the men passed those on the street and boardwalk, the folks bowed their heads. Death loomed heavily over the town. It was just a week ago that Mr. Davis was slaughtered in front of his wife and son; now, both his wife and child are dead. And then there was Vin. His life hung by a thread. The five men approached Judge Travis as he awaited them. The townsfolk gathered to hear what the men had to say.
"Judge," Chris began, his voice was soft and solemn, "these are the bodies of the Davises."
The judge and Mary, who kept him company that evening, walked towards the bodies. Mary gasped a she saw the burned forms before her.
"Do you know what happened, Chris?" Judge Travis asked.
"No, the entire homestead was reduced to ashes," Chris told him.
"If Vin dies, we'll never know what happened," the judge observed.
The bodies were removed and dealt with accordingly. The horse was lead to the livery stable.
"Judge, do you know how Vin's doing?" Chris asked
"He's still alive. They're doing all they can, Chris. I haven’t heard any bad news yet, but I did check on him about an hour ago. He was still alive then," the judge informed.
"We'll be going back out in the morning to have a look around the Davis property. See if we can't figure out what happened out there," Chris told the judge as he turned and rode over to the hotel.
He dismounted and entered, headed to the room where Vin lie trying to recover from his injuries. The other four men followed him.
~ CHAPTER 4 ~
The following morning, Chris, Buck, Ezra, Josiah and JD again left town in search of clues that would lead them to answers about what happened out at the Davis homestead the night of the torrential rain. They arrived quicker this time than before. Chris had determination spelled out over his face. The late morning sun beat on the men as they searched the land for answers. The rubble from the buildings still gave them no ideas, except for a fire, of course. They began to spread out about the land. Ezra went to where the stables once stood. JD and Buck searched the fields. Josiah gathered the animals. Chris examined the area about 500-700 feet in front of the house. He wondered if someone could have hidden in the trees and ambushed the house. His suspicions led him to the dense thicket and trees that stood some distance away from the house. Ezra found nothing at the remains of the stables. He walked in the direction of Chris figuring he would help him. Chris met Ezra under a large oak tree. He had seen something in the dirt and decided to investigate it. When Ezra reached Chris, Chris was bending down.
"What is it?" Ezra asked.
"Looks like wheel tracks," Chris determined pointing to the ground.
"You don't suppose Nathan was right about the Gattling gun, do you?" Ezra questioned.
"Right now, Ezra, I think I'd believe almost anything," Chris admitted.
"Josiah! JD! Buck!" Chris hollered.
The three men ran to Chris and Ezra's side.
"What's the matter?" Josiah asked as he arrived.
Chris and Ezra showed the others what they found.
"Do you think it’s the same men that killed Mr. Davis," JD questioned the other men.
"Probably," Buck answered.
"Damn! What the hell did that man do that brought down this wrath upon his wife and child…and Vin?" Chris demanded.
"I don’t know, but whoever sought these folks out, wanted to make sure they died," Josiah stated.
"I would theorize that they open-fired on the house causing it to erupt in flames," Ezra offered his opinion.
"Yeah, that's my thought to, Ezra," Chris agreed.
"Let's see if we can follow these tracks and see where they go."
The men walked their horses through the trees following the wheel tracks. When the tracks cleared the trees, they mounted and followed on horseback. The trail led them to an open canyon. Chris looked up at the setting sun. They had been traveling for hours following the trail.
"Well, gentlemen, I do believe we should return to town," Ezra observed.
"Ezra's right, Chris, we can gather supplies and return," Buck agreed.
"We can investigate this development further once Judge Travis knows of our findings at the Davis homestead," Ezra added.
"Yeah, I thought of that, too. I figure we can check on Vin again and try to get some answers out of him, as well," Chris agreed with Ezra and Buck.
The men turned their horses around and rode towards Four Corners. It was late when they arrived in Four Corners; the men met Judge Travis heading into the hotel. They dismounted and followed him inside.
"Judge, we found something out there today," Chris informed.
"What did you find?" the judge responded.
"Wheel tracks. We attempted to follow them, but it began to get dark. We started heading back hoping to gather supplies and question Vin," Chris explained.
The men and the judge reached room seven where Nathan, Blaine, Mary and Maude were sitting with Vin. They entered the room.
"How's he doin'?" Chris asked.
"He's still alive and surprisingly still conscious," Blaine answered.
"Can we talk to him?" Chris questioned.
"Only if he wants to talk to ya," Nathan quipped.
Chris moved in on Nathan, who was sitting beside Vin. Nathan vacated his chair allowing Chris to interrogate Vin.
"Vin," Chris spoke softly, "we need to know what happened out there."
"I told y'all….it don’t matter."
"Vin, it does matter. A mother and her son were murdered. And you…well, only time will tell," he said with a smile.
"Chris…it doesn't matter…they're dead…and soon….I will be, too."
"Vin, if you are so fired up to die; then, damn it, just get it over with, will you!" Chris demanded, angry at his friend.
"Look, Vin, I don't suppose you thought about the fact you are still with us?" Josiah asked the tracker.
"What d'you mean?" Vin asked.
"Well, if you were all fired up to die, you should have done it by now. Apparently, you're no readier to die than the rest of us," Josiah retaliated.
Vin just stared at the preacher, not knowing what to say.
"So, are you gonna tell us what happened out there?" Buck queried.
"I don't really know…honest."
"Vin, just try to think about it. Tell us what you do remember," Chris asked his friend.
"We all went to bed…I heard a noise…like rapid gunfire. I crept to the window…but…I couldn't see anything. I felt something…it burned. I tried to move away…my leg wouldn't work. Just as I got it to move….I realized….the house was ablaze. The rapid fire…continued. I tried to get away…a beam from the ceiling…fell. It hit me on the head. I fell. I couldn't get up…another beam fell. It hit my arm. I struggled…the fire closed in…I couldn't get out. Finally…I managed…to get the beam off my arm. I desperately tried…to get out. The firing…from the gun…still hit the house. You could see…the holes…burst through…the house. I could feel them…each one burn through me…I kept falling. I couldn't stand…couldn't seem to get out. Beams kept falling…had to duck…fire was everywhere. I escaped…out the back. The horses…were running. I…had to catch one…got mine to come. I led him here…and met Maude…in the street."
"Vin, what about Mrs. Davis and the boy?" Chris questioned.
"I…don't know. I didn't think…I'm sorry. I did a bad thing. I should've…"
"Vin," Josiah interrupted, "you did what you had to do. I'm sure you knew deep down that there was nothing you could do for them. Besides, if you had tried to rescue them, you would have burned to death with them."
"No matter." Vin swallowed, as he couldn't bear to think of the horrible death the Davis' suffered and tried to hold in his tears. "They are still dead. I should have…helped them. I should have died."
Chris bowed his head. He finally realized why Vin thought he was dying. It wasn't that he was dying, but he thought he should have died. He was feeling guilty; a guilt Chris knew would not leave Vin easily.
"Vin, you perceive your actions to be vile; however, you entered the night admirably. You remained when you knew this was a possible outcome," Ezra attempted to comfort his friend.
"Gentlemen, I do believe we should allow Vin to rest. I think he has done more than enough talking for one night," Blaine O'Shannon said observing Vin's rather upset condition.
Chris leaned over his friend and whispered, 'Get well, Vin. We have faith in you and your actions. We don't blame you for their deaths. The only men responsible for the deaths of the Davises are the same men responsible for your current state of health. We'll be leaving tomorrow; we think we have a lead on them."
Vin just gazed into Chris' eyes. The blond gunfighter stared back into Vin's blue eyes. He wished he could make him well, but he knew he had to leave that task to Nathan and Blaine.
~ CHAPTER 5 ~
Chris rounded up Buck, Josiah, JD and Ezra. They began to retrace their path to the where they had left off. The canyon appeared empty. Each man scanned the canyon several times.
"Chris, look," Josiah pointed.
Chris looked in the direction Josiah pointed. Two men sat guard over a large object appearing to have wagon wheels.
"What d'you think?" Buck asked.
"I'm gonna go down and see if I can talk to them. I want y'all to back me up and cover me. The slightest hint of trouble; shoot them dead," Chris instructed.
"Gotcha," JD responded.
Chris started down the canyon with the others following at a distance. When they were within gunshot range, all, except Chris, stopped to find a spot to hide themselves. Chris continued on. He slowly approached the two men.
"Gentlemen?" Chris greeted.
"What d'ya want, mister?" they greeted the gunfighter, drawing their weapons.
"That your gun?" Chris asked.
"I was wondering if I might buy it from you."
"You'll have to ask, Mr. Randall."
Jim Randall approached the men.
"What's the problem here?" Randall asked.
"No problem, boss; this man wants to buy the Gattling gun."
"Well, Mr. Randall, I was hoping to use it against an enemy of mine and some friends of mine. Do you know if it still works?" Chris questioned.
"How can I be sure?"
"Well, first of all; I didn’t say I was selling it. Second, I know it works because we recently demolished a house with it."
"A house, huh?" Chris pondered.
"Yes, someone we needed to be rid of."
"Well, can we talk about a price?"
Jim Randall and Chris left the guards to tend to the gun. They chatted for a few minutes; then, returned.
Chris returned to the others.
"What'd you find out?" Buck asked his longtime friend.
"They did it. He says they recently demolished a house owned by someone they needed to be rid of. The man's name is Jim Randall. Anyone heard of him?" Chris explained asking about the man he spoke of.
"Jim Randall is a deadly man," Josiah answered quietly.
"You are familiar with this person?" Ezra asked.
"Yes. It explains the westerly direction he and his men have taken. He runs a mining operation out in California."
"Mining operation?" Chris questioned.
"You don't suppose Davis had something to do with this mining operation, do you?"
"Come to think of it, more than likely. It seems I remember a friend of my father's writing to me about a man that swindled a lot of gold out of Randall," Josiah told the group.
"You don't suppose Mr. Davis is the man that swindled him, do you?" JD asked.
"I'm starting to think that's the case," Chris answered the young man.
"Well, we shall never know Mr. Davis' account of the incident," Ezra stated.
"It doesn't matter, Ezra; they killed three people and possibly Vin," Chris affirmed.
"So, what are we gonna do?" JD asked.
"We're gonna destroy the gun and bring them in for murder," Chris said.
"What if they don’t see it that way?" Josiah questioned.
"Well, we'll just have to see," Chris commented.
Chris approached the men again; this time he was accompanied by Ezra. He introduced Ezra as the man who wanted to purchase the gun. Ezra attempted to con the men out of the gun; he failed. They left the men thinking they would consider their final offer.
"What are we gonna do now?" Buck questioned Ezra and Chris.
"Well, I can tell you I sure wish Vin was here. He could shoot that dang gun and blow it up," JD pouted. Ezra perked up,
"Who is to say we can not accomplish the task on our own?"
"Ezra, whoever aims at that gun is going to have to be damn good," Chris stated.
"It'd have to be hit just right to blow it up," Josiah added.
"I might be able to hit it if I'm close enough," Buck confirmed.
"No. You are not getting any closer. If you were to hit it, it'd blow you up with it," Chris countered.
"Chris…" Buck began.
"No, Buck, you are not going," Chris cut him off.
"Damn it! Ain't it bad enough Vin's lying back in town dying because of these men? Do you have to add their death toll?"
"Chris, we need to do something. Maybe he can hit it and stay out of reach of its explosion," Josiah attempted to rationalize with the gunfighter.
Chris cut his already angered eyes towards Josiah. He knew Josiah was right, but he was afraid of losing Buck, too. Finally, realizing he had no other options, Chris agreed to send Buck a little closer.
"Make sure you only go as close as necessary, Buck," Chris warned.
"Trust me, Chris, I'm not in any mood to lose any limbs or my life, for that matter," Buck responded.
Buck gathered his rifle and headed closer to the gun. He found a spot he could aim without interference from any of the men around the gun. He aimed carefully. The Gattling gun in his sights. He looked for a loaded barrel. His aim had to be perfect. He tried to think of how Vin would handle the situation. He, too, wished Vin were here. He could feel his nerves become more frazzled as he attempted to hold his aim steady. Why did he volunteer? What a stupid thing to do, he thought. How was he going to destroy this gun? However, he thought, if he succeeded, Chris would be grateful to him. Everyone would look up to him for accomplishing such a task. He knew folks treated Vin with high regards because of his accuracy with a gun…any gun. Vin rarely missed and had earned everyone's respect. Buck brought his mind back to the duty at hand. He watched the men that walked about the gun, waiting to get a clear shot. He wasn't worried about the men dying in the explosion; they aided in the killing of an entire family and hurting Vin, possible killing him. His gaze on the gun grew ever more constant. His finger lay on the trigger waiting for the moment to press. His eyes squinted to see his target. Finally! The gun was in full view. Buck felt his trigger finger press hard on the trigger to his rifle. The blast from the rifle nearly deafened him. He knew he had to act quickly to leave his position in enough time to escape the explosion. As soon as the blast exited his rifle, he rose to his feet and ran as fast as he could, ducking behind a rock waiting to hear the destruction of the powerful gun below. He covered his head and protected his ears with his hands. Buck heard the muffled explosion. He knew not to look up. Falling debris could blind him if it were to fall in his eyes. After a few minutes, Buck did raise his head. He quickly ran back to Chris and the others.
"Did I get 'em?" Buck inquired.
"Yeah, you got them," Chris said jubilantly.
The men rushed down to see what remained of the men. They searched the area, but only found three bodies.
"Chris, were there not five men?" Ezra recalled.
"Yeah, there were," Chris agreed.
"Where do you suppose they went," JD asked.
"I don't know; we'll have to look for them," Chris ordered.
The five men split up and searched for the remaining two men. They searched the entire area of the canyon where the men had been. Nothing. Two men completely vanished.
"They're gone, Chris," Buck acknowledged.
"Yeah, they are," Chris, too, admitted.
With Jim Randall and one of the other men gone, the five men gathered the three dead men's bodies and placed them on two of the horses that scattered when the Gattling gun exploded. The third horse was not in sight. The Gattling gun was destroyed and lay in many pieces scattered about the area. They were not about to even begin to locate all the pieces and carry it back. Chris led the men and horses back to Four Corners.
~ CHAPTER 6 ~
After delivering the dead, Chris, Ezra, JD, Josiah and Buck went back to the hotel where Nathan and Blaine were keeping a vigil with Vin.
"How's he doin'?" Chris asked the healer and doctor.
"He's finally resting," Nathan answered.
"Will he survive, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra inquired.
"I think so. He was asking for you, Chris, before he fell asleep. He told me to tell you that he was sorry to put everyone through this. He's sorry he couldn't save Mrs. Davis and her son," Nathan informed the men.
At that moment, Vin opened his eyes. Still weak; his eyes sleepy. He attempted to focus on the men that now stood around him.
"Did y'all get 'em?" Vin asked.
Chris approached Vin; he leaned over him and told him, "We found those responsible and destroyed the weapon they used against you and the Davises. A man named Jim Randall was the leader of the group. We're not sure as to why they were after Davis, but it possibly was over gold Mr. Davis swindled from Randall. Three of Randall's men died when the Gattling gun exploded. Buck shot one of the barrels and blew it up. You would have been proud of him. As for Randall and the other man he was with, we couldn’t find them. They got away from us. Hopefully, they fled back to California where Randall has his mining operation. Now, about your comment to Nathan, I told you it's OK, Vin. No one's gonna hold you responsible for their deaths."
"Thanks, Chris. Thank the others for me; will you?" Vin said as he fell back to sleep.
Chris, JD, Josiah, Ezra, Buck and Nathan left Blaine and Maude with Vin. They met with Judge Travis regarding the incident.
"If Mr. Davis swindled gold from Mr. Randall, I think we can expect either Mr. Randall or any treasure hunters to come looking for the gold, regardless of whether it's here or not," Chris related, concerned for the safety of the town.
"Do you think it's out at the homestead?" Judge Travis questioned.
"We didn't find anything when we were there, but we weren't looking for anything other than bodies and clues to the attackers," Chris responded.
"Well, regardless of whether we locate any precious metal or not, we will have to handle every gold-digger that decides to go in quest of such a treasure," Ezra noted.
"Ezra's got a point," Buck offered his opinion.
"Well, gentlemen, that will make your positions here a little more difficult and possibly more deadly," the judge determined.
"Is there anyone who wants out?"
The judge waited for the men to tell him they were leaving.
"Judge, we've been through a lot here. I think I speak for everyone present, and also for Vin, when I say that we seem to have grown to need one another. We each need what one of the other offers. We offset each other's characteristics. Where one of us is weak, another is strong. Our shortcomings are complimented by someone else's tenacity. In other words, we need each other," Josiah explained to the judge.
No one countered Josiah's remarks; yet, they didn’t confirm them either. They remained quiet. They also remained in town because, although, they didn't speak the words or utter their confirmation of the words spoken they did agree with what Josiah had said. Judge Travis was glad to hear the town helped the seven men become friends; for he knew, these men had pasts and secrets that prevented them from getting close to anyone. The fact they could admit they had feelings for one another meant that they, too, were benefiting from the arrangement made to protect Four Corners.