What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
Buck came out the doors in a rush, his gun up, firing. JD blinked tears from his eyes in time to see that his brother was hugging an elbow against his side--God, no, he's hit, Buck--and threw himself up and back, away from the trough, behind a stack of barrels that had been left at the edge of the boardwalk for reasons unclear. The sheriff, still fifty feet away, had taken cover under a wagon. Gunfire crisscrossed like deadly wasps, and JD screamed out without realizing he was doing it as he saw Buck hop, almost dropping his Colt, and go down in a tumble as one leg gave way under him. But the unknowns were too well aware that there would be more enemies arriving with every second to stop and make sure of him. They went tearing off toward the west end of the street, away from JD and the sheriff, clearing a way with random fire as lingering churchgoers came running, then scattered aside like panicked prairie hens.
JD didn't bother himself with them; all that mattered was Buck. He hurtled across the street and skidded down on his knees beside his big brother, stuffing his left Colt into the holster but keeping the right out and half raised just in case the man he'd brought down proved to be playing possum. "Buck! Buck, are you hurt bad?"
Buck grunted and rolled half over, his hearty handsome face pulled into a grimace of pain. "Not...not so bad I can't...still appreciate the ladies when they get to motherin' me," he gasped.
JD grinned foolishly in relief, knowing Buck well enough to understand the coded meaning of the words. "Buck, you're so full of crap," he rebuked shakily. "Don't you ever stop?"
"Day I stop...you'll know I'm dead," Buck got out. "You...okay, little brother?"
"Never touched me. Let me look--"
The bartender--a husband and father and a well-liked member of the community--was dead; the swamper had a shattered leg that would probably have to be amputated. The sheriff didn't even stop to ask Buck any questions. Two citizens of his town had been assaulted by a group of strangers, as had an official representative of a colleague of Judge Elliott's; it didn't matter how the altercation had started--finding out that sort of thing was what courts were for. But you couldn't have a trial without defendants, and the longer you delayed about getting after fugitives who might become so, the likelier they'd make a getaway. Within half an hour a posse had been sworn in and gone thundering down the west trail in pursuit of the gang.
Corona was a larger town than Four Corners, with fully a thousand people living within its limits, plus those who dwelt on the farms and ranches in the outlying districts, and as was often true in such cases, it had no less than four doctors, one of whom was a fully qualified surgeon trained in a regular medical school. Dr. Holland was chiefly an herbalist who concentrated on internal ailments and minor injuries, but out of necessity he had also learned to extract bullets, and Buck had been carried to his house at JD's request: the young sheriff knew his brother would willingly trust his life to anyone who had helped train Nathan. The gunslinger's wounds were painful, but not mortal: a bloody crease along his right ribs, just above the waist; one bullet gone cleanly through his left forearm; and another, the only one that had lodged, two inches above his right knee. He'd lost a fair amount of blood, but Dr. Holland assured the anxious JD that, barring secondary complications such as infection (which his herbal concoctions should keep at bay), he saw no reason the man shouldn't make a full recovery. "He'll need to rest for a few days--no riding. But he's a big strong man and seems to be in excellent overall health," Holland said.
"He's the strongest man I've ever known," JD agreed.
"The two of you seem very close," the herbalist observed, remembering the sight of the kid walking alongside the board on which Buck had been brought in, his hand intertwined with Buck's and his eyes never leaving the wounded man's tight, weary face.
"Buck's my big brother. He just about raised me," JD explained. "Can I see him?"
"Yes, but just for a little while, and try not to upset him or tire him out. I'm going to mix some valerian for him to take; that will help with the pain and make him sleep. Are you going to be staying with him? If he has someone to look after him, keep track of his temperature and such, he can be moved to a rented room."
"I ain't sure," JD admitted. "It kinda depends what all the shootin' was about earlier. That's what I need to talk to him about. Thanks, Doctor." And he slipped past the older man into the quiet back room off the consulting office, where Buck lay in a narrow low-backed walnut bed, a black-dotted red comforter pulled up over him. He'd been stripped down to his faded underwear and his bloodstained clothes sent out to be laundered and repaired; part of his left sleeve had been cut away and a dressing wrapped around his arm. His gun, rig, and hat lay on a splint-bottomed chair alongside the bed, and his boots rested on the Indian rug. At first JD thought he was asleep, but he was only husbanding his reserves; as the door clicked shut his eyes opened and his head turned on the pillow. JD grinned at him. "Hey, big brother. Doctor says you're doin' real good."
Buck snorted softly. "Ain't ever lost as much blood in as little time as since I hitched up with Chris again," he grumbled. "It'd almost be better to go back to duckin' jealous husbands."
JD laughed. "You want to be with Chris like you ain't wanted anything else ever," he said. "You're not foolin' me. Besides, you been runnin' toward trouble most of your life." He scooped his brother's things off the chair, set them carefully against the wall and sat down, his face sobering. "You had me awful scared for a minute, when I saw you take that leg shot. What happened, Buck?"
"Met an old...friend," the man replied. "Somebody Chris and me crossed paths with in the War. Virgil Sablett."
JD's expression changed. "Sablett? I've seen Wanted posters on him. He's a real bad one. Wanted here and in Mexico both, and there's an old Army warrant on him besides. They say he'll kill anybody, man, woman, or child, for a two-dollar watch. I didn't know you knew him."
Buck sighed. "It was Chris and me got that Army warrant put on him. Him and his outfit was terrorizin' civilians in Tennessee after the occupation. We were the ones caught him at it and brought him in. I told you about that."
"Oh, yeah," JD agreed softly. "I remember now, you just never mentioned the name but I remember the story. What happened, he recognize you?"
"Yeah, but that ain't the worst of it," Buck told him. "Somehow he's found out about Chris gettin' shot. He was just passin' through here on the way to Four Corners, him and his gang. How many of 'em got away?"
"Eight or nine, but we think one or two are wounded," JD answered automatically, before he registered the earlier information and paled. "I better send a telegram to Vin and the others."
"No." Buck put out his good hand and grasped his brother's wrist to check him from getting up. "Tell me more what happened out there. Is there a posse out?"
"Yeah. Sablett and his gang headed west, toward Gallinas Peak, which makes sense; even if they don't know the country, they'll have a better chance of losin' pursuit up in the mountains, maybe even layin' a trap. I gotta send a wire, Buck. If you're right and they get away, first thing they'll do is head for Four Corners."
"Won't do that much good," Buck insisted. "Vin and them won't know who they're supposed to be watchin' for. Sablett knows he's on dodgers; he'll send a couple of men in ahead to look things over, get the lay of the land and find out where Chris is stayin'. Anyhow, them others wouldn't agreed to go along on a personal revenge thing if he hadn't dangled somethin' good in front of 'em, like the bank or whatever. And you know the kind of rep he's got--he won't stop with Chris. He'll strip and burn the whole town if he can. They'll need every gun, little brother. Yours too."
"I ain't leavin' you here alone, Buck. Dr. Holland's a good man and he knows his business, and he's Nathan's friend, and I trust him. But he ain't your brother, and he don't care about you the way I do."
"JD," Buck began, with an undercurrent of steel that his brother knew too well, "you're wearin' a badge. You volunteered to be sheriff, and sometimes that means hard choices. This ain't no choice at all. I been shot enough times to know when it's bad and when it ain't. I'm gonna pull through this just fine, but Four Corners and the other boys might not. Now you listen to me, okay? That town and them people in it are our responsibility. We were hired to do a job and this is part of it. And you and me are the only ones that know Sablett and his boys are out for Chris's blood. I can't ride, so it's up to you to get home ahead of 'em and warn the others. If you don't, Sablett'll catch 'em flat-footed and none of 'em'll have a chance. You understand? You're the only hope they got, little brother. They're countin' on you."
JD thought about their five friends, about Mary and Mrs. Potter and the other innocent townsfolk Judge Travis had commissioned them to protect, and about the stories Buck had told him of Sablett and pillagers like him. He hesitated, swallowed uneasily, and then squared his shoulders and settled his bowler with an air of resolve. "Can I make it?"
"You can if you go at it right. Sablett'll expect a pursuit and he'll make a long bolt tryin' to lose it; then he'll have to find his way down out of the mountains and circle back. That'll give you some time. Take Seven and Plata and one saddle. Hold to a steady lope for about twelve miles, drop to a walk for half as much again, then after about two and a half hours dismount, lead, and change saddles. Take my watch so you can time yourself. Stop at nightfall, midnight, and sunup to water and feed, but don't let 'em drink a lot or you'll stiffen their legs and spoil their wind. The horses'll blow hard, but they'll live and recover. You should be able to make it back in twenty-seven hours. Sablett don't know I had anybody with me, and I'm sure he knows I was hit; he won't figure on somebody carryin' word ahead of him. Once he outruns the posse he'll cut back his pace, tryin' to save his horses in case they catch up again, and he'll be held back by his own numbers; you bein' so light'll be your big edge."
JD listened intently, taking it all in. "I can do this, Buck. We can do this, Seven and Plata and me." For a moment he seemed to hesitate again, and his hand went out to touch Buck's uninjured arm. "Are you sure you'll be okay?"
"I'll be fine. Afterward you and Josiah can come down with a buckboard and pick up me and my saddle. It'll take you about as long to get here as it did us, so by the time you get in I'll be well on my way to healin' up."
"I'll send you a telegram as soon as we've settled it with Sablett and them, so you'll know," JD promised. "Now tell me what they all looked like. I know Sablett from his posters, but who all was with him?"
JD reasoned that it wouldn't do him much good to ride all night if one of his horses threw a shoe partway home. So, after leaving Buck's side, his first stop was the stable, where he asked that both mares' feet be thoroughly checked and their shoes tightened or replaced if necessary. Next he went to the hotel, checked himself and Buck out, and moved their gear to Dr. Holland's house. He provided himself with half a dozen thick sandwiches of veal loaf and cold roast beef, a hunk of sage cheese, a big can of tomatoes, some apples, and half a pound of seeded raisins, and emptied his saddlebags of everything else he had except for his coffee and coffee can; but he didn't eat yet, for he knew that stuffing yourself wasn't a good idea when you planned to ride far or fast. He went to the feed store and ordered 160 pounds of oats, which he had sacked in five equal portions, then sewn into a single large bag. This he would carry on whichever horse he wasn't riding at the moment; it weighed less than himself and his saddle put together, but being dead weight, it would sit more heavily on the animal. He filled his canteen at the livery pump and stripped his saddle of everything but that and his saddlebags--even his rifle and rope--and left it in care of the owner. It was about four-thirty when he pulled out, astride little Seven, with Plata following on a halter and lead, the grain bag strapped over her withers.
By the time the sun disappeared, a little after eight o'clock, he'd already changed mounts once. He stripped both mares so their backs wouldn't scald, led them back and forth for a while till they were cooled out, watered them, and divided the first small sack of grain into two portions, just under thirteen pounds for eight-hundred-pound Seven, sixteen for bigger Plata. He tied the nosebags on them and let them feed while he built a tiny fire for his coffee, rested and ate some of his food. After about an hour he went on, keeping to the road because it was both the most direct route home from Corona and the easiest travelling in the dark.
All his life JD had been what is called a "light rider," not merely because of his physical size, but because he kept himself not only in balance on his horse, but also with it. He didn't make pulls or pushes which, by antagonizing his mount's movements, subjected the saddle to twisting or dislodging strain. He could go for miles without retightening his cinches or unduly tiring his horse, rarely galled its back, and, unless he was roping, riding a bucker, or travelling a steep hillside, little needed to care whether his cinches were loose or tight. Buck, who had taught him to ride, knew this; it was one great reason he had believed his brother could handle the job thrust upon him by Sablett's threat.
At midnight he stopped again, watered and fed himself and the horses, changed saddles for the fourth time and went on. By the time the sun appeared about five-thirty he was definitely feeling his missed sleep. But he was about halfway home now; he'd stopped to rest at a four-way crossroads where a signboard proclaimed, Santa Constancia, 11 mi. east, Albuquerque, 98 mi. west. He brewed his coffee double-strength and drank two cups of it, and took a little extra time to check his horses' feet and backs and give them a slightly longer rest. Seven pushed her soft muzzle against his coat and Plata gazed down at him with a hurt look in her eyes. "I know," he told them. "I know you're tired, girls. I am too. But we gotta keep goin'. Like Buck told me, we're the only chance the other guys have of bein' warned what's comin'."
He went on. As the sun rose higher in the sky and warmed the horses' blood, they stepped out with a revived energy. They knew they were on the home stretch now, knew the sights and smells of this country. He knew they'd take him home by themselves if they had to, and let himself doze in the saddle, though he wasn't very good at it and had to keep forcing himself awake to change his pace or lead for a while.
Noon, and he stopped again. He had to lean against Plata's tall side for several moments before he could summon the will to move. Come on, JD, don't be a quitter now, he rebuked himself. The guys're countin' on you. Chris is countin' on you. Buck is countin' on you. Just a few hours more and you can rest.
"Coffee," he mumbled to himself. "Walk the horses and water 'em, and then you can have some coffee..."
Virgil Sablett's gang had spent the last four years in Mexico, except for brief dashes north over the Border to elude Presidente Porfirio Diaz's new rurales, and they didn't know the country around Corona well. But they knew posses and the general principles of flight, and they knew where they wanted to go: they had learned in Carrizozo what roads would take them to Four Corners.
Jasper Sahoni, the half-Cherokee, half-Negro outlaw with the silver earring--his surname meant "Panther," and came from his Indian father, who had purchased his black mother's freedom from a partblood kinsman--had been hit in the process of their getaway; the bullet hadn't lodged, but the wound was painful. Sablett knew that such flesh wounds could give a man a nasty case of poisoning, and, remembering the newspaper's mention of "attending healer Nathan Jackson," saw this as a perfect excuse to insert a couple of scouts into Four Corners. After the gang's first all-out dash, which took them off the main road and set them homing on Gallinas Peak, he ordered Sahoni and Lance, the blond in the Comanche jacket, to split off from the main group and lie low till the posse had passed them, then cut back down its trail (thereby concealing their tracks) and get onto the road again. "We'll take care of these boys," he said, "and meet you south of Four Corners."
The two did as he'd said, eluded the pursuit handily, and headed north at a steady jog, six miles to the hour. They stopped after dark to make camp, then continued on their way, cutting off the main road just west of Vaughn and taking to a tributary trail that serviced the ranches and farmsteads between there and the Albuquerque stage road. They passed more than ten miles to the west of the crossroads where JD Dunne had made his midnight stop, and pulled in to Four Corners about half-past three, before he was more than halfway between home and his noontime rest stop.
Vin Tanner, lounging on the boardwalk in front of the establishment the Seven referred to as "the saloon" (though it was in fact only one of three in the town), lowered his chair slowly to its four legs as he saw the two men ride slowly past. Their horses weren't done up enough to make him suspicious, but he noted the cut and bloodstained sleeve of the darker-skinned man, and recognized the Comanche make of the blond's jacket. The latter, perhaps because he wasn't occupied with his pain, apparently felt Vin's gaze and swivelled his head, almost casually--almost, but Vin wasn't fooled--to meet the tracker's blue eyes with his own hard agate ones. Instantly something in the back of Vin's head came to full attention; his stance didn't change, or his face, but he was on the alert. He'd seen eyes like those before, and not only in Chris; most of the men he'd brought in--almost all the worst ones--had had similar. What was more, there was something in that look, a hunger that he knew; he'd seen it in Comanches when an enemy was at their mercy and the knives were about to come out. These fellers are trouble, he told himself, and watched as they rode on down to Yosemite's stable and dismounted.
"We hear you got a healer in this town, name of Jackson," Lance told the stableowner. "Where'd he be found?"
Yosemite gave directions, and the outlaws made their way to the clinic. The front room was empty when they entered, but the sound of their arrival brought Nathan out of the back bedroom, closing the door all but a small crack behind him. He immediately noticed the dried blood on Sahoni's sleeve and the rough bandage, and said, "Well, I reckon I don't need to ask why you boys are here. Sit down and let me have a look."
Sahoni pulled out a chair with his good arm, and Nathan checked the bandage. "You got this pretty well stuck on with dried blood," he said. "I'll have to wet it and ease it off, and it'll sting. How long ago it happen?"
"Yesterday," Lance replied honestly. "We were huntin' meat and I thought I was shootin' at a deer, and it turned out to be Jasper here instead."
"Seen it happen before," Nathan agreed as he filled a basin with water and assembled his bottles of alcohol and carbolic, jar of ointment, roll of bandages, scissors and sponge. "You lucky to be alive, brother." He began the delicate task of removing the bandage without tearing the wound too badly.
The outer door opened and all three men looked up. "Oh, I'm sorry, Nathan," Mary Travis apologized, "I didn't realize you had anyone here."
"That's all right, Miz Travis, it ain't much, looks like just a bullet crease. Somethin' I can do for you?"
"Is Chr--Mr. Larabee awake?" Mary nodded toward the rear door.
"Was a minute ago. Go on in, I got to finish what I'm about here."
Lance and Sahoni met each other's eyes past the healer's bent head. So much for the first and biggest part of the task: they knew where Larabee was without even asking. Mary shivered briefly as the blond's agate eyes touched her. The look in them wasn't one of lust--she knew lust when she saw it; she was, after all, a very pretty woman and well aware of the fact. This was a look that mingled anticipation with satisfaction and a disconcerting hunger like the blood-hunger which sometimes impels a weasel to enter a chicken coop through a knothole and make a pest of itself by killing fowl, rather than concentrating on mice, rats, and rabbits, by which it would help the farmer. Hiding her feeling of disgust and apprehension, she quickly slipped into the back bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind her.
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