An Eye For An Eye, part six


Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

Chris Larabee watched in horror as Vin and Casey fell. Vin's horse had tripped on one of his wires. One of the wires he'd set up to protect Nettie and Mary and J. D. Oh my god, he thought as Vin hit the ground and rolled and then lay still. Oh my god!

Twenty minutes earlier, he'd been standing with Mary on the rise behind the house when they'd heard gunfire. He'd run toward the house, shouted orders at J. D., at Nettie, at Mary as he prepared to ride out. But he'd barely made it to the barn when the fight broke into view.

He'd thought for a brief second that they were going to make it. Vin was well ahead of the attackers, everyone else was riding steady. If they could just hold on...

...and then Vin fell. And Casey. Chris didn't even realize until they were falling that Casey was up behind him. Oh my god! He had time for that one thought then he raised his rifle to his shoulder and started firing. He dropped one of the men who'd broken cover, cocked his rifle and fired again, knocking a second man back into the trees. He felt the breeze of Ezra and Casey's passing, cocked his rifle and fired again. In the part of his brain that could see everything as it happened, he saw Josiah grab Vin, saw Nathan and Buck move to protect him, saw Nathan jump down to help Josiah, saw Ezra out of the corner of his eye as he dropped Casey at the barn, rode back up, and stood beside him, firing his own gun. A steady rain of bullets poured from their guns. Nathan and Josiah inched closer, their progress seemed painfully slow in the supercharged air. Buck backed his horse, firing steadily, exchanging his rifle for a revolver, though he had to pause for agonizing seconds to reload it.

Under the constant steady fire from Chris, Ezra, and Buck it seemed as if Nichols' men would have to retreat. They'd have no other choice. But just as Chris was thinking they would make it, a lone gunman broke from the cover of the woods. He was riding fast, ducking low in the saddle so it was hard to get a shot at him, heading straight for Josiah and Nathan and Vin. Chris was at the wrong angle, Buck was too slow--had barely realized that someone had broken cover--Ezra was reloading his revolver. Damn! And the thought had barely formed in Chris's head when a shot rang out behind him and the man on horseback went down.

Chris spared a quick glance back. J. D. How the hell he'd gotten from the house when even standing there firing his rifle he had to lean against the barn for support was anyone's guess, but he was there. Then Chris heard another roar--Nettie's Spencer carbine. Damn fool, he thought. She should have stayed at the house. But then the carbine roared again, dropping a horse right out from under one of the Nichols' brothers.

Another minute and it was finished. Chris lowered his rifle as he watched the Nichols' gang ride off through the trees. They'd lost several men, but they'd also lost a lot of horses; most of the men had someone up behind them. This would be the time to go after them, Chris thought. Time to finish it. But a quick glance around him told him that wasn't going to happen.

Hell!

Chris saw Mary helping J. D. who'd slid down the side of the barn to his knees. He saw Casey standing next to Nettie, trying to decide what to do next. He looked at Ezra who cocked his head and flashed him a quick wild grin before holstering his gun and heading toward Mary to lend her a hand. He saw Josiah and Nathan struggling to pick up Vin. And he saw Buck, the only one still sitting on his horse, his revolver still in his hand as he watched the Nichols' men flee.

Chris moved to help Nathan and Josiah. Vin's head lolled back against Josiah's chest and with his jacket open it was clear that there was a lot of blood, fresh blood. His face was deathly pale, but he was breathing.

"Nathan?" Chris asked.

"I'll take care of him," Nathan said. "Gotta get him to the house and then we'll see." Then, he looked at Chris, looked at Josiah, looked over at Buck for a long minute, then looked at Chris again. He opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again and moved away with Josiah, carrying Vin.

Buck had holstered his gun and turned his horse. Chris took a step forward. He'd been most concerned for Buck, still remembered the picture burned into his brain of leaving him under the ridge. And now, here he was, riding into Nettie's under his own power. Better than Chris had hoped.

Buck reined in Josiah's horse right in front of Chris. "Buck--" Chris began, but before he got anything more than that out, Buck interrupted him.

"I couldn't..." he said and, like a giant tree, toppled slowly from his saddle into Chris's arms.

His weight knocked Chris to the ground. Buck's face was hot, his breathing labored, and his leg, god! there was blood everywhere, through the bandage, down his leg. Chris gathered his strength and tucked his arms under Buck's shoulders, preparing to lift him up, but then it hit him, all at once, like a freight train.

It was him. It was all him. Sarah was his wife. Hank Connolly was his father-in-law. Chris had brought the Nichols' brothers to Four Corners. Chris had let Buck and Vin ride out after J. D. and Casey, had left Buck alone back at that ridge, left him injured without a horse. And then, he'd stayed here last night, instead of riding out, instead of being where he was needed. Everything that was happening right now was his fault. His responsibility.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Ezra. "We'd best get him up to the house," Ezra said quietly.

Chris looked at Buck. Jesus, he thought. But what he said was, "Yeah."

Buck was dead weight as Chris and Ezra carried him into Nettie's cabin. They walked through to the back bedroom and laid him on one of the beds.

Ezra stood back a quickly survey the room. The room was crowded. Nathan was over Vin placing a bandage over the wound in his side to staunch the flow of blood. Miz Nettie was by Nathan cutting a sheet for bandages. Josiah was by Vin's bed and was reaching for his rifle to go outside. As soon as Buck was laid down, Mary was beside him. Tearing open his pants leg to get a better look as his wounds. Chris put a hand to his forehead and withdrew it quickly.

"Nathan, Buck's burning up."

"Mary, bathe him to cool him down." Nathan ordered. "Miz Nettie, I need whatever you've got for medical supplies."

"We used most of what I have on JD. Will need to make some bandages."

Nathan intent on assessing Vin didn't immediately say anything. His hands were working furiously to slow the blood flow. "Anything. Anything you got."

"Casey, child, come help me," Nettie called.

"Chris, help me with Buck's clothes," Mary asked.

Josiah was exiting. "I'll check things outside."

Ezra watched the frantic activity. "I'm feeling quite de trop," Ezra muttered. And turned to follow Josiah.

"Ezra," Nathan called. "Drink. Plain water, then some broth. Don't put anything on your stomach otherwise."

Ezra could feel 6 pairs of eyes look up at him. He must be quite the sight by their reactions. His bruised face ached. He could feel himself straighten his shoulders only to wince from his bruised stomach and back. He pulled at the lapels of his red coat and ducked his head embarrassed realizing the ladies present had not seen him in such a state of dishabille.

Ezra gave a brief smile to reassure folks he was fine and turned to follow Josiah. Nettie and Casey followed them out of the room.

JD was sitting in the rocker by the fireplace. His pale face extended back and he groaned as he moved in the chair. Casey rushed over to him. "Oh, JD."

"I'm fine. I'm fine. How are Buck and Vin?"

Grim faces looked back at him. JD nodded and didn't say anything more. Josiah did a quick weapon and ammo check. Picked up a box of shells. "Not much here. Miz Nettie, you wouldn't happen to have any ammunition would you."

"Cartridges for my Spencer. Maybe a box of bullets."

Josiah looked up briefly. "Best check out things outside," he commented gravely.

"Josiah, keep your head down."

"JD, always do."

"No, you don't. You're getting shot all the time. At the Indian village. Hell, just a few weeks ago when the Nichols were last here."

Josiah flashed JD one of his broad smiles. "No, not today."

Ezra smiled at Josiah's prediction. It was very comforting.

Nettie brought a cup of water over to Ezra frowning. Ezra was shivering slightly in the cool morning air. "Think I can rustle you up a shirt," Nettie commented and walked across the room to a trunk.

Ezra followed and saw the collection of men's clothes. Beggars could not be choosers. "Help yourself to whatever you want." Ezra bent and started fingering some of the clothes. Nettie lowered her voice. "I think I know what you're thinking. Probably should tell Mr. Larabee so he stops you."

Ezra startled at her words. Was he that obvious? Must be losing his touch.

Nettie squeezed Ezra's arm. "I won't," she said so softly that only Ezra could here.

Ezra grabbed some old clothes; he'd change outside.

Casey rushed up to him. "Mr. Standish. Thank you. Thank you for everything."

Ezra waved her off. "Miss Wells. I did nothing." He turned back and looked gravely at the bedroom and the frantic work Nathan, Mary, and Chris were involved in to save Vin and Buck.

"No, I know better."

Ezra looked down at the earnest face of Miss Wells. "I . . ." Ezra couldn't seem get any words past his tight throat. He took a slow deep breath, smiled down at the girl. "You're very welcome." Ezra bowed his head to hide his glistening eyes and abruptly exited the cabin.

Ezra changed clothes in the barn. Surprised his horse was in the barn, he quickly saddled it. He led it back out and around the cabin tying it to a tree out of sight of behind the cabin, then, he climbed the hill at the back of the cabin.

"Why, Brother Ezra, I don't believe I've seen you in such finery since you were a stagecoach driver." Josiah smiled at Ezra. "You talk to Chris."

"Nope. He's busy with Buck."

"Think this is a good idea."

"Probably not." Ezra refused to look at Josiah. "I don't see many options. Vin, Buck, and JD are in no shape to go into town; therefore, neither can Nathan. Both you and Chris are better in a fight. I'm better at playing a role - I am the logical choice."

"Should send somebody with you?"

"Josiah, we've just discussed the options. We cannot afford to deplete any of our resources here. And we are in desperate need of supplies."

"You could've just gone without saying anything."

"I have a request."

"If I don't come back. Assume I'm dead. Don't come looking." Ezra stated in a flat voice. He was looking out over the valley behind the hill. Not really seeing it and definitely not looking at Josiah.

"Ezra, there is no way in hell I'm going to honor . . ."

"But should I be captured or killed, it will be today. There is no tomorrow."

"Do you have a plan?"

"The Nichols gang knows we are not in town. My plan is to sneak in and sneak out before it gets too late. The time is now, it can't wait. It's early yet, not many folks will be around town."

"The Nichols will be back. They won't ride away. This will end one way or another."

"With those ones we just drove off, it will take them awhile to collect themselves for another attack. And neither you nor anybody else can afford to leave this place unprotected. The Nichols gang is coming but they're not fools. They'll wait for tonight. Our only advantage right now is that we have the high ground. We can see them during the day. They'll come and it will be tonight. We have got to have more guns and ammunition. What else?"

"Nathan's medical kit. Dynamite. An army. Ezra, it's obvious I can't dissuade you from this plan. And I think you might be right."

"I'll take one gun and some bullets. Leave the rest here, should I not come back? It at least be something."

"I wish you wouldn't do this?"

"Good bye, Josiah." Ezra had an air of finality to his voice that Josiah couldn't help but notice.

"May peace be with you, Ezra." Josiah gave Ezra a brief hug.

Ezra looked up at the kindly man. "Thank you." He turned and ran down the hill to his horse. He led the horse away from the cabin before mounting, keep an eye out for any of the Nichols. For now, at least, it seemed they hadn't set up any watches on the cabin. Probably licking their wounds someplace. Ezra mounted and set off towards town. Although he couldn't see Josiah, he waved good bye before leaving sight of the hill.

On the North Side of Four Corners

It was still early morning. Almost unnaturally quiet as Peter Nichols looked down on the town of Four Corners. There was a barrier of wagons and wood blocking the entrance to town with several men milling about. Beyond, there seemed to be no activity on the town streets. He quickly looked around him. They were flush with men now. This town will pay. The seven will absolutely pay. Peter started to laugh. He looked over at his good friend, Cole Preston. "Ready to have some fun."

"Riders coming in," the call came from the barricade.

The men manning the barricade leading into Four Corners straightened up. They were a motley lot. They were mostly merchants who came out west for the opportunity. They wanted to live quiet lives and here they were manning a barricade. Sometimes the seven brought bad men to town. Men wanting to test their abilities against the best. Old enemies. But the seven dissuaded many more from ever coming to Four Corners. The bad element often bypassed their town. It was with those mixed feeling that these men who never looked for a fight found themselves in the middle of this one.

Peter Nichols rose him arm to halt his men. They were very different from the men on the barricade. They lived by the gun. Expected to die by it. Rough men, without consciences. They killed. And killed often. Violence was their way of life.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen, please. Give us what we want and we will leave peacefully," Peter cajoled. "And most of you will live."

"This ain't our fight."

"Absolutely correct." Peter responded. "Let's make sure it stays that way. Where are the seven?"

The men looked around at each other. "We don't know," one responded.

"He didn't say."

"We didn't ask."

"This is not our fight."

Peter held up his hand. "Gentlemen, I concur, this is not your fight. We followed the trail of a travois brought to town. Where is the boy, JD?" Peter asked.

"We don't know."

"Chris Larabee came and took 'im out of town."

"I expect you're telling the truth." Peter paused for effect. "But my brother was here. I know you assisted in their escape. So I need one of you men to step forward and take responsibility."

Mr. Skaggs from the mine office stepped forward first. Followed by Mr. Watson from the hardware; then Edwin, the hotel clerk; and followed by the other four men at the barrier.

"Well, well." Cole Preston drawled, "Not so meek." He drew his pistol to kill the men.

Peter reached over to stop him. "No, there is punishment and there is indiscriminate violence. We cannot kill them all. Not good for business." Peter hissed. "We would pay for it over and over again." It was one thing to teach a lesson. Go overboard and he would have no influence. People would just be afraid. They would shoot first or hide rather than endure that kind of violence from a man with no discretion, no conscience. It was a fine line, lesson versus vindictiveness, which could not be crossed. As much as Peter respected Cole, it was one business rule Cole did not understand.

"Have you gone soft?" Preston scoffed.

"No. Smart." Peter quickly responded. "Now gentlemen. We can come to some accommodation."

"What do you have in mind?"

"We will search the town."

The town men looked at each other; several were shaking their heads no. . .

"Let me be clear. We will search this town one way or another." Peter said with a hard voice. "You don't want this fight. I don't want you in this fight." Peter raised his voice, "But let me be clear. I cannot abide liars. If one of the seven is found, then seven men from this town will die. Now before we begin does anyone want to change their answer to the question: are any of the seven here in town?"

"They're not here," one of the men affirmed.

"Step aside." The barrier was removed and the Nichols gang rode into town. "Check every building and store. Line up all the townspeople on the street. Make sure that none of those seven men are here."

"Cole. Keep your men in line."

The Nichols gang split into two groups and started knocking down doors. Searching for anything they could use in a fight. They dragged folks out of their houses and had them line up in the street.

Ezra approached Four Corners. The town seemed almost unnaturally quiet to him. He noted the barrier at the end of town. The Nichols gang had talked of burning the church but it was still a shock to see it burned to its foundation. Josiah was the rock right now. Without him, none of them would have made it back to Nettie's. And his foundation, the one thing that brought him comfort and peace was rubble. Josiah, why aren't you defeated? Ezra had to examine his own motives for even telling Josiah he was coming to town. Did he really want Josiah to come looking should he not return or was it, he didn't want them to think badly of him if that should happen? Ezra shook his head to shake the pessimism. Got a job to do Ezra. Stay alert.

Ezra slipped into Nathan's clinic. They had accumulated a lot of supplies yesterday. Damn, it was going to take more than one trip. He grabbed at the saddlebags and carried them to the tree line.

When he returned for more, he heard the horses, the yelling and shouting, the breaking in of doors, the shattering of glass, screams of women . . . Ezra loosened his shoulders to get in character. He stooped his shoulders and grabbed at some bad smelling mud and smeared it on a pants leg. He shuffled down the alley to see what was going on.

Ezra was shocked at the number of men in town. Was it the Nichols gang? Sure enough, there was Peter Nichols. Ezra started counting the men. Must be at least 20. He recognized few of them; most had not been at the encampment. Nichols had gotten some reinforcements.

The Nichols gang were breaking into every building in town and lining up the residents. They were in front of the Clarion offices.

"Now, now. Isn't that interesting?" Peter Nichols was looking intently at the shot out window of the newspaper office. "Bullet came from the inside."

"It sure did." Ezra knew that voice, couldn't place it. The man's back was to him. He was certain it was no friend.

They went into the building. A few minutes later they came back out. Peter Nichols grabbed one of the townspeople and showed him a picture. The man was quaking and Ezra had a hard time hearing, but he definitely heard "Mary Travis."

Ezra didn't like the smile that creased Peter Nichols face or the face. . . oh shit, Cole Preston.

"Hey, you there." Ezra was pulled up to a standing position by his coat collar. He was shoved out into the street. The man inclined his head, "over there with the others."

Peter and Cole took no notice as Ezra joined the townspeople lined up. "Keep your head down." Ezra had every intention of doing that. He looked at who was talking to him. It was the liveryman. Ezra never really spoke to him, but he would be in the stables brushing down his horse and the liveryman would check in on him. Never did it overtly, but Ezra was aware he took special care of his horse.

The Nichols gang apparently finished their search of the town because they came back to the center of town where they had all the townspeople congregated.

"It appears that you men were telling the truth. None of the seven appear to be in town." Peter Nichols announced. He was deliberately surveying the people in front of him. He walked down the line, pulling up heads to look carefully at all the townspeople.

Ezra tried not to panic. When Peter Nichols got to Ezra, he wrinkled his nose at the odor and continued down the line.

Cole Preston stopped in front of Ezra for a long time looking him over. He jerked Ezra's chin up. "Where'd you get that bruise?" He pointed at Ezra's cheek. Ezra mumbled an indistinguishable answer.

The liveryman spoke up. "He was cleaning stalls for me. Kicked by a horse."

"Not to smart, huh."

"No, sir," the liveryman was very deferential.

Ezra's heart was in his throat. Cole released Ezra's chin. "You seem familiar somehow," Preston commented under his breath. He frowned at Ezra, shook his head, and continued to survey the line up of people.

"See any of them?" Peter Nichols asked Cole Preston.

Preston shook his head no.

"We appreciate your hospitality during our visit. I'm sure you would like to feed us."

The manager of the hotel stepped forward. "Yes, sir, certainly. If you will release my kitchen staff, we will make you a very nice meal."

"Certainly." Peter smiled at the response. "But in a moment. You have all made it clear this in not your fight. Make sure you keep it that way. You, step forward."

Mr. Skaggs, the manager of the mine office, stepped into the street. He was a meek man. Wouldn't hurt a flea. He did not deserve this.

Cole Preston raised a gun and paused. There were gasps and cries of dismay from his friends. The townspeople were all his friends. He was a fine man.

"You volunteered to die for helping the seven. Don't you remember?" Peter questioned Mr. Skaggs.

Ezra had this sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach. He could see the tableau being laid out. They were going to kill and there was nothing . . .

Mr. Skaggs dropped to his knees, "Please mister." Cole Preston looked down at that man and deliberately holstered his gun. Ezra relaxed slightly.

"What? You won't do it again." Peter raised his head and looked at the gathered people. "None of you will help the seven again. Are we clear on that?"

There were nods from the townspeople. Just as they assumed no one would die, Cole Preston drew and shot Mr. Skaggs through the heart. There were cries of shock and dismay. His wife rushed to his side wailing.

"Take this as a message. If you help the seven, you will die."

Ezra breath was coming in gasps. He fingered the gun in his pocket and started to draw. The liveryman grabbed his arm and squeezed painfully.

Peter surveyed the townspeople. They cowered away from him. He was gleeful. "You were wrong, Cole. Definitely lambs." They both chuckled.

"Men, find anything we can use and pack it in a wagon." Cole Preston ordered his men. "Folks, you get off the streets now. Show's over." Cole Preston checked to see his orders were followed.

"Now sir, how about that fine meal at the hotel," Peter clapped the hotel owner's back.

The liveryman did not release Ezra's arm. He led him across the street and into the back alley. Edwin from the hotel was there with a carpetbag. "Here's some things for you. Clothes. Your extra guns."

Ezra just stared at him. He and Edwin had rarely conversed and he was packing his bags for him. There were several saddlebags. "Guns, ammo, food, bandages." The liveryman bent forward to pick up some of the bags. "Gotta go now," he urged.

Ezra looked at Edwin, extended his hand to shake Edwin's. "Thank you." The normally loquacious Ezra Standish could think of nothing else to say.

Ezra stopped in the clinic to pick up some more medical supplies and then, with the assistance of the liveryman carried the bags to the tree line.

The liveryman turned to sneak back into town.

Ezra's words stopped him. "We are forever in your debt."

The liveryman looked up and smiled wryly. "No, consider it a debt paid. You probably don't remember. Several months ago some men came to the livery with a valuable horse. It died and they blamed me. You stepped into the fight and took a beating for me." The old, black man shook his head. "Never thought I'd see no southern boy stick up for me in a fight. Will just call it even."

Ezra eyes welled. He had honestly forgotten about the incident. "Even," Ezra didn't recognize his own husky voice.

The southern gentlemen and the former slave shook hands fervently.

Ezra mounted and stayed until he saw the liveryman sneak safely back into town. He then kneed his horse and took off toward Nettie's.

Nettie unrolled Mr. Larabee’s bedroll on the floor against the wall next to the fireplace and then Mr. Standish’s, that Chris had brought from town in the wagon, on top of it. The floor was hard, she thought, but their two beds were full now and it was at least better than a rocking chair.

"C’mon, Boy. Lay down here an’ get some blood back in your face. You’re pale as a full moon in January." She put a hand under JD’s arm and was lifting him up before he even knew she was there. "Casey, take ‘is other arm an’ help out, now."

A shock vibrated through Casey’s body at Nettie’s words and she looked as if she’d been someplace real far away for a moment. She shook her head slightly and hurried to help, though, and it was only a moment to move JD from the chair to the pallet and get him comfortable. He sighed when he stretched out, in a way that made Nettie pat his good shoulder reassuringly with a smile that Casey recognized very well. She suddenly knew the exact words her aunt was about to say:

"There, there, now. You rest, JD, an’ things’ll look better when you wake up. They always do."

Nettie stood up straight and sighed as she fixed pale eyes on her niece. My what a sight she was, Nettie thought. The poor thing! Dirt ground into the scrapes on her face, bright spots of blood on the deeper ones, grass and leaves sticking out of her hair, he clothes filthy and torn in places, her hands and nails -- oh my! Those nails needed a stiff brush and lye soap. Well, first things first. Always the best way to go at it.

"Come help me in the barn, child." Nettie already had her hand on the latch of the door. Casey was still standing next to JD, staring down at him with that far-away look on her face again, and she turned to Nettie in surprise. But she was a good girl, raised right, so she just came to the door without a word and followed her aunt outside into the bright morning.

"The chickens. . ." she said suddenly, her voice soft with something amazed.

"The silly things took off runnin’ when everyone piled in shootin’, an’ now they’re all up in the trees in the woods down yonder. You know how they lose their heads in a commotion." She slid the big door opened just enough for the two of them to go inside, and sunlight fell into the dark interior like something out of the Bible -- the dust in the air was suddenly like floating specks of gold in the bar of light, and Casey caught her breath looking at them dance in front of the dark warmth of the rest of the barn behind them. "They’ll come back once it quiets down." Casey blinked and looked at her aunt, who was already opening one of the stall doors.

"Who will?"

"The chickens." Nettie paused with one hand on the pinto Ezra had ridden in and fixed her niece with a steady look. "Now you stop wool-gatherin’ an’ pay attention. Come get the saddle off Mr. Wilmington’s poor horse --"

"It’s actually Josiah’s horse," corrected Casey, matter-of-fact. She was already undoing the buckle on the cinch.

"Needs to be rubbed down and walked out, regardless," said Nettie. Better, she thought. Now she’s sounding like Casey again. Strong and sassy.

"Where’ll we put all these saddles, Aunt Nettie?"

Nettie’s smile grew enough that she turned her face away from her niece before she answered. "Stand ‘em up on their pommels against that wall so they’re handy and so the skirts can dry out underneath." She heard Casey dragging Josiah’s heavy Mexican saddle across the barn floor and a thump as the girl stood it up on end with some effort. More saddles undone, then, and bridles off, halters on, back and forth across the barn and the air was warming up and the birds outside began to sing in full throat as if nothing in the world was different today than any other day. Nettie nodded to herself. Just right, she thought. Teach her, birds. Teach my Casey how you do it, how you survive.

They walked out the stiffness in the horses’ legs, two lead ropes in each of the women’s hands, let them have a little water, walked them some more, gave them more water, rubbed their legs with old feed sacks and then brushed all the dirt and sweat out of the horses’ coats with stiff brushes. The brine that flew up in the dust that rose from them at that point was sharp in Nettie’s nostrils, and she saw that the smell grabbed Casey all of a sudden and jerked her backwards like a hand on the back of her collar. The woman paused with the foreleg of Vin’s black still in her hands, where she’d been checking it for a place the trip wire might have hurt it. She watched Casey for a good long moment, running her hands up and down the animal’s tendons and feeling for swelling that wasn’t there, and she saw the girl’s eyes unfocus, saw her face start to shift into an expression of fear and concern and helplessness remembered.

Nettie dropped the black’s forefoot to the ground and stood up straight.

"Looks like he’s fine." Nettie’s choice of words was very intentional, and she was watching her niece as she said them.

Casey gasped and looked at her aunt quickly, then at the black gelding that was now nosing into a pile of hay with a satisfied snort.

"He went down pretty hard," continued Nettie, patting the animal’s rump as she came out of the opened stall and walked up to her niece. "Must be outta’ good, sturdy stock, that one. Seems no worse for the wear."

"How --" Casey’s voice trailed off and Nettie saw her eyes drift over to the saddles lined up against the wall.

"How what, Child?" Nettie kept her voice simple, low, gentle.

"How’ll we get the -- the blood off Josiah’s and Vin’s saddles? They’re kinda’--"

Nettie nodded slowly. "That’s real good thinkin’, Casey. I’m proud of ya’." The girl flushed with pleasure at her aunt’s words, but her eyes were growing more miserable by the second. "Fact is I wiped ‘em down already with some straw to start with. An’ we’ll come back out here later an’ rub ‘em with some saddle soap an’ elbow grease."

"It’ll all come out?" The girl’s dark eyes flashed a spark of hope that Nettie knew she was, herself, unaware of.

"No," said Nettie carefully. "They’ll always be stained, but they’ll not be ruined. An’ the stains’ll get darker an’ fade into the leather over time as the leather’s oiled an’ such. There’s no harm done, but they ain’t the same as before."

It was silence that drifted in the bar of sunlight, then, and for a long time as the woman and the girl stood there among the tired horses. The sounds of hay pulling and sliding out of the cribs, the rhythmic crunching sounds of the horses’ teeth, an occasional thump of a hoof or shake of mane, low snorts. The women did not speak. Nettie waited. Then suddenly Casey did, and her voice was low and quavering.

"It’s all my fault." Her hands flew to her face and she was suddenly sobbing with heaving shoulders. Nettie wrapped the girl in her arms so quickly that Casey fell into her bosom face-first almost before she knew she needed it, and threw her arms around her aunt in return as she began to cry in earnest. Nettie held her, felt her heart sigh within her, let one hand find the tie around the girl’s pony tail and undo it and smooth out the tangled hair and stroke it slowly, again and again. She didn’t say a word, just held and stroked and waited while the storm of Casey’s crying slowly ebbed. When it finally did, Nettie led the girl to a low bench and sat her down on it, then sat down next to her. She pulled a handkerchief from her skirt pocket and handed it to Casey, reached over and moved loose strands of hair off the girl’s pale face as she wiped her eyes and then her nose. Casey sniffed and sighed, looked at her aunt with miserable eyes, and shuddered.

Nettie’s eyes were as kind as Casey had ever seen them. "Casey," she said, "I want to you to remember somethin’ an’ never forget it."

"Yes, Aunt Nettie?" The girl gave a dry sob and shuddered again.

"The fault of such a thing is in them that are wicked. You ain’t got a wicked bone in your body."

The pain that flashed through Casey’s eyes then sliced Nettie’s heart like a filet knife. She laid her hand quickly over one of Casey’s own as the girl’ s anguish bled out in hasty words.

"But they -- Aunt Nettie, they used me as --" Casey choked, and Nettie patted the girl’s hand and waited. The girl swallowed, looked down at the floor, closed her eyes. "They used me as bait." The word came loose with a torrent of shame that Nettie sat through as if it wasn’t even there. Let it go, Casey, she thought. Nothing you can say will shock me or shame me, an’ when you feel that you’ll be all right too. What she said was:

"Go on, Child."

"They, they tied me up an’ -- an’ gagged --" she struggled a moment, and Nettie clenched her other hand, the one Casey couldn’t see, but kept her face calm and open. I’ll kill the bastards myself, she thought, an’ no doubt about it.

"Yes, they gagged you," said Nettie in a perfectly normal voice, "so you couldn’t warn no one. I understand. Go on, Child."

"An’ they had these men set up aroun’, behind trees, with rifles, an’ -- an’ they were goin’ to shoot -- to shoot whoever came trailin’ -- and’ shoot me, too, then." She raised horrified eyes to her aunt.

"An’ I reckon’ it was Vin Tanner that come along, trailin’ ya’?"

Casey nodded. Ah! Thought Nettie. I knew it was him that got her back! I knew he’d not let me down.

"Was Buck with ‘im, Child?"

"No. We found Buck that night. Last night." The girl shook her head. "It seems so long ago, not like just last night."

"That’s always how it is." Nettie sighed and patted Casey’s hand again. "So how is it your fault that you were used as bait to trap someone, Casey? I can’t see it."

"If I hadn’t --" The girl stammered to a stop.

"If you hadn’t what?" Nettie worked hard to keep her voice perfectly level.

Casey was silent for a long time. "If Vin hadn’t trailed me, cut me loose--he wouldna’ been hurt. An’ if--"

"Wait a minute." Nettie cut off her niece’s words with a short sound to her voice that made the girl look up in surprise. "Sounds to me like you’re sayin’ it’s VIN’s fault. He’s the one that trailed --"

"No!" Casey looked horrified. "Oh, no, Aunt Nettie! It’s not HIS fault."

"Well, that’s sure how it sounded to me. He’s a grown man. He knows if he should trail someone into a trap or not."

"But he SAVED me, Aunt Nettie!"

The sound in Casey’s voice made Nettie wince inside, but she held firm. Nearly there, God willing.

"All the same," she said, hating the words even as she said them, "he should’ve done a better job or gotten help. It’s his own fault--"

"NO!" Casey leaped to her feet, anger and outrage and shock on her young face. "How can you SAY that, Aunt Nettie?! He was tryin’ to HELP me! He DID help me! They’d have killed me if he hadn’t come along when he did. And they shot him, Aunt Nettie! They shot him! He was brave an’ he saved me an’ it’ s THEIR fault, all THEIR fault, ‘cause they kidnapped me to begin with, an’ beat JD an’ shot ‘im, an’--" She was starting to cry again, clear tears that rolled down her cheeks as if she didn’t even know they were there. "How can you SAY that?"

Nettie rose stiffly, her mouth tight, knowing she had to face those words but not liking it any the more because of it. She looked at her niece with an intent expression and spoke very clearly and carefully.

"It’s their fault," she said.

"Yes."

"Listen to yourself, Child. To what you just said." Casey blinked, and a puzzled look replaced the one of anger. "It’s the fault of those wicked men that Vin was hurt."

"Yes?"

"Not yours."

Casey sat down on the bench suddenly, hard. Nettie sat down next to her again, put her arm around the girl’s shoulder, drew her close. She squeezed her, feeling the reassuring warmth, remembering the long hours she’d thought maybe -- no use going there, she thought, hauling herself up short. She waited a couple more minutes, then patted Casey’s arm and made her voice matter of fact.

"We need to get you cleaned up, Child. You’re about as dirty as wet laundry the dog’s’ve got in." She stood up. "C’mon in the house an’ we’ll string up a blanket across one corner so you can change your clothes and wash up."

"Yes, Aunt Nettie." Casey’s voice was so soft suddenly that Nettie looked quickly to see if she was all right. Saw that it was the tiredness now, after the storm, coming in fast and hard.

"Let’s go," said the woman, "right quick. Then it’s off to bed for you, too. An’ you’ll see: things’ll look better when you wake up, Casey. They always do."

Part Seven