They rode in silence and drew to a stop a few hundred yards from Calendars barn where the stallion was kept. Pale shadows moved across the ground, produced by a breeze that rustled the bushes and sighed through the nights stillness. They dismounted and huddled close.
"Rina, you and Sr. Katie will be with me. Cal, you will accompany Nathan," Ezra instructed in a low voice. "Keep low and quiet and move around the side of the barn. Once we get inside, Rina and Cal will get Goldie while Sr. Katie, Nathan, and I keep a sharp eye out for visitors." His gaze captured the eyes of the three females. "Do not attempt to be a heroine. If it appears that we will be unable to complete our mission, you will get back here as quickly as you can and ride out."
"What if you or Mr. Nathans hurt?" Rina asked softly.
"Youll leave us. Your safety is the most important issue, as Im certain Sr. Katie will agree." He glanced at the nun, and she nodded reluctantly. "All right. Lets proceed."
Ezra, Sr. Katie, and Rina moved out as quietly as they could.
Nathan glanced at Cal, and she nodded, then he led the way toward the barn. They moved swiftly and soundlessly. Every ten yards, Nathan checked to make sure Ezra and his companions were doing all right, and to ensure Cal was close behind him. A coyote howled in the distance, and another echoed the call from a ridge further away. A bush rustled, and Nathan halted abruptly. Cal bumped against his back, and followed his gaze.
"See anything?" she asked in a nearly inaudible voice.
"A squirrels all."
Nathan heard her sigh in relief, and they continued on. Arriving at the corner of the barn, he paused to see Ezra, Sr. Katie, and Rina at the opposite corner. Keeping their backs against the side of the barn, Nathan and Cal sneaked around to the front of the building.
A horse snorted from inside the barn, and Nathan heard a mans muffled voice, then an answering one. There were at least two men inside keeping guard on the stallion. It didnt surprise Nathan he and Ezra had suspected as much. It only made their task a bit more difficult.
He spotted Ezra approaching the front door from the other side and, using hand signals, told him there were guards inside. Stymied for a moment, Nathan spied a rope on a pulley used to lift hay into the upper level of the barn. He pointed to it and Ezra nodded in comprehension.
"Wait here," Nathan whispered, close to Cals ear. "Im goin to climb up and take care of the guards."
Her blue eyes wide, Cal nodded.
Ezra met Nathan at the rope.
"Ill go up and get the drop on them. You come inside when you hear me holler," Nathan explained to Ezra.
"Ill go with you."
Nathan shook his head. "You aint strong enough to climb a rope yet."
Ezra couldnt deny it, but his expression told Nathan he didnt like it.
Nathan quickly shimmied up the rope and swung into the open door. He waved down at Ezra to let him know he was okay, then moved carefully across the hay-littered floor. At the ladder leading down, he paused and let his eyes adjust to the lamplight. Fortunately, there were only two guards and both of them appeared to be tired. One leaned against the stalls gate, his chin touching his chest as if sleeping. The other sat on an overturned bucket, his elbow plopped on his thigh and his head resting in his palm.
Surprise was on his side, and he considered his chance of jumping to the ground below without breaking a bone. Not good. Hed have to get the drop on them from the high ground and hope they didnt try anything stupid.
Nathan raised his revolver, and held a knife in his other, ready to let it fly if one of the men did try something stupid. "Raise your hands!" he called down.
The two men awakened instantly and one of them went for his weapon. The next moment, he was clasping his forearm where Nathans knife had embedded itself.
The door to the barn flew open and Ezra entered, covering the men so Nathan could climb down the ladder.
Sr. Katie and Cal found some rope, and quickly trussed up the two men, while Nathan and Ezra held the outlaws at gunpoint. Using the mens own bandannas, they gagged them so they couldnt holler out to their friends.
Rina approached Goldie slowly, and the stallion greeted her with a soft nuzzle to her neck. She untied his lead rope from the stall, and opened the gate to lead the palomino out.
"That went quite satisfactorily," Ezra commented with a twinkle in his green eyes.
"Were not out of this yet," Nathan said cautiously. "Lets go."
With Rina and Cal on either side of the stallion, the group hurried out of the barn with as much haste as they dared. The sky was beginning to lighten as they made their way back to their horses and mules. In a few minutes, they were hurrying down the road, the prized stud in their possession once more.
The approach of footsteps alerted Chris to the arrival of company. He glanced out the small barred window at the early morning and wondered what brought them so early. His blood ran cold. Had they decided to hang them in the morning rather than the evening?
A key turned in the lock and the thick wooden door swung open. Ross Calendar himself stood in the doorway, his impressive girth filling the opening.
"Where the hell is he?" the man demanded.
"Where the hell is who?" Chris asked mildly.
Calendar strode into the cell, and four men stood close behind him, their weapons in hand. "The stud."
Chris laughed. "So somebody beat you at your own game. Thats right nice to hear."
Calendar drew his boot back and kicked Chriss side viciously. Chris grimaced but didnt give the bastard the satisfaction of hearing him cry out.
"I want that stallion back," Calendar roared.
"Youre either as dumb as you look or just plain stupid how could we have stolen it when we been in here the whole time?" Buck asked.
Calendar advanced on Buck, and his gaze flickered to his injured leg. Without warning, he kicked the wound. Intense pain flowed through Buck, and nausea gripped his gut, threatening what little contents were in his stomach.
JD jumped to his feet, his fingers curled into fists. "Leave him alone," he stated, his deadly tone at odds with his boyish face.
Calendar dipped his head, and two of his cronies came forth to grab JDs arms. Calendar grabbed a handful of his dark hair and jerked his head back, then brought his face inches from JDs. "Tell me where he is!"
JD swallowed, his adams apple bobbing up and down, but his voice was scornful. "How would I know?"
Calendar crashed his fist into JDs middle, and JD nearly buckled. He struggled for air that wasnt there, then gasped when oxygen finally found its way back into his lungs.
Chris surged to his feet, ignoring his throbbing side. "Leave him be, Calendar. How would we know what happened to your horse?"
Calendars narrow-set eyes pierced Chris, but he didnt back down from the pig-like mans intimidation. Finally, Calendar nodded and the two men released JD who fell to his knees beside Buck. "If I find out youve been lying, Ill have you whipped," Calendar stated. "Right before I hang you."
Then he whirled around and stomped out of the cell, his entourage following closely behind. They waited until they could no longer hear the men.
"It appears Nathan and Ezra have been busy," Josiah said in a low voice.
Chris nodded, wrapping an arm around his throbbing ribs. "You okay, Buck, JD?"
"Fine," JD managed to say.
Buck merely nodded as he continued to fight the demons that had been awakened in his wound.
"Wonder what Ezra and Nathan got in mind?" Vin asked, his voice raw.
"Hard to say, but I suspect wed best be ready to travel when they make their move," Chris said.
He knelt beside Buck whose eyes were tightly shut, and checked his leg wound. New blood stained the dirty bandage, and he cursed.
"Cant keep your mouth shut for a minute, can you?" Chris asked, his anger colored with concern.
"You know me too well, pard," Buck admitted with a slight smile, but his eyes remained closed.
His dark mustache contrasted sharply with his faces pallor, and Chris added another mark against Ross Calendar. The man had a lot to answer for, and Chris would make sure he did, even if he had to do it from the grave.
He glanced up at JD whose anger and worry for Buck was clearly reflected in his dark eyes. For a moment, the past merged with the present and Chris saw himself in Buck, and Buck in JD. Where the hell had the years gone? And where was the man he used to be?
Ross Calendar wasnt a happy man. To have his stallion stolen twice was about more than he could tolerate. If he didnt need the men so badly, he wouldve had the two guards whod allowed the stud to be taken shot. Instead, hed sent them out with the search party that combed the area looking for the palomino. All but five of his men were out searching now, and he expected to have the animal back by the time he hung the men in his jail.
A man entered the restaurant, glanced around, spotted Calendar and hurried over to him. "Theres a fellah in the saloon whos lookin for ya."
"Who is it?"
"Ezra Smith fancy gambler type."
Calendar frowned in puzzlement. "He say how he knew me?"
"Nope. Just said hed heard that Ross Calendar liked a challenge and said he was the man to give it to you."
His curiosity piqued, Calendar tossed his napkin down on the restaurants table and stood. Maybe a poker game would do him good get his mind off the horse for a time. He left the restaurant and followed the messenger to the Silver Lady saloon. He paused inside the door of the nearly empty establishment. Clean-shaven and wearing a red coat with a ruffled snow white shirt beneath it, Ezra Smith appeared every inch a professional gambler. A wave of excitement coursed through Calendar now there was a man who would be a worthy opponent.
Calendar approached the table, and Smith glanced up. He rose, smiling a too-charming smile. "Mr. Calendar, I presume?"
The cardsharps southern accent added a note of authenticity to the gambler, and Calendar stuck out his hand. "And youre Ezra Smith."
Ezra took the mans offered hand. "Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Calendar."
The mans chest puffed out so much Ezra thought hed pop his shirt buttons. "I am known to enjoy a game of chance, Mr. Smith."
"Call me Ezra," he said, using his disarming smile to cover his enmity. "I thought perchance you would be willing to pit your abilities against my own."
"You have money?"
Ezra lifted a roll of money from his jacket pocket. "What about you, Mr. Calendar?"
"I own this town and everybody in it," Calendar responded without hesitation.
"Then perhaps I shall be able to relieve you of that burden and take it upon myself if you see fit to wager your fair town."
Calendar chuckled. "I like you, Mr. Smith. You remind me of me."
Ezra didnt find that comforting, and reminded himself this was just another con, albeit the stakes higher than anything hed ever played for before. If he lost, Chris, Vin, Josiah, JD, and Buck would pay with their lives. He forced the sobering thought from his mind to concentrate on the game at hand.
The two men sat down and Ezra offered Calendar the card deck. "Be my guest."
Calendar tipped his head in acknowledgment, and shuffled the cards, then dealt them. "Limits?" he asked.
"I prefer to play without such impediments. It makes the game more stimulating."
Ezra tossed a twenty dollar bill into the tables middle, and the game began in earnest. The first hand was won by Ezra, the second and third by Calendar. They continued back and forth throughout the afternoon, neither man winning nor losing all the time.
The sun slanted in the batwing saloon doors, telling Ezra time was growing short. From the information theyd gathered, the hanging would happen soon.
"I have a proposition to make, Mr. Calendar," Ezra began. "That is if you are interested in upping the ante."
"What do you have in mind?"
"It has come to my attention that you have some horse thieves you will be hanging this evening."
"I wish to play for the highest stakes of all their lives."
Calendars eyes narrowed, and Ezra could almost see the wheels spinning. "And why would you want to do that?"
Ezras easygoing expression fled, replaced by a flat, hard look. "Those men are good friends of mine, and I would not take it kindly if you hung them." He forced himself to relax once more. "And I have your precious Tennessee stud."
Calendars fist crashed down on the table. "You son-of-a-bitch, you stole him."
"One cannot steal something which the other party did not own," Ezra said mildly.
"Where is he?"
"A safe place. The wager is as such you win, you get the stallion; I win, I keep the stallion and you release my friends."
"Whats to stop me from having you thrown in jail with them?"
"That would not be very smart Mr. Calendar, because you will lose the precious stallion. You see, I dont even know where the horse is. I will contact my partner who will bring you the stud if you win. Your wisest choice would be to agree to my wager that way youll have a chance at regaining that which youve lost."
"How do I know I can trust you?"
Ezra laughed without humor. "That is rich, Mr. Calendar. It should be me questioning your integrity."
A tic started below Calendars left eye. "I could have you shot where you sit."
Ezra nodded calmly. "That, sir, you could, but that be a foolish course of action. And you are not a foolish man." He smiled brightly. "What is your decision?"
The bartender and a man slumped over a table in a drunken stupor were the only people in the establishment. A fly buzzing and a womans faint voice from outside back-dropped Calendars stentorian breaths. The air was still and heavy, hanging over them like a funeral shroud and Ezra quickly shoved that image aside. He had to keep his wits about him for everyones sake.
Finally Calendar nodded. "All right, Smith, you got yourself a wager."
Ezra caught himself before sighing in relief. Keep the facade in place. He handed the cards to Calendar. "Be my guest, sir."
Without appearing to do so, Ezra watched him closely. He could spot a cheater a mile away and Calendar struck him as someone who would force the odds to favor him. Ezra didnt want to think about his own past when he wouldve admired a man like Ross Calendar.
"Draw poker, deuces wild," Calendar stated.
Ezra nodded. He picked up his cards a mess of nothing. He had to use all his self-control to keep his expression relaxed. He glanced up at Calendar who, much to Ezras chagrin, only tossed one card away. Deliberately, Ezra stretched out the waiting and was gratified to see a bead of sweat roll down Calendars doughy features. He studied his cards once more and finally threw three cards away, facedown.
Satisfaction lit Calendars expression as he dealt three cards to Ezra and one to himself. If he was cheating, Ezra didnt see it and a frisson of anxiety rifled down his back.
Ezra picked up his first card, then the second. His heart nearly clogged his throat he was missing one card for a straight flush. His chest tightened, threatening to cut off his oxygen as he slowly lifted the third card a deuce. This was the miracle hed been hoping for.
"Well, Mr. Smith?" Calendar prompted, looking like a cat about to pounce on the poverbial canary.
His palms slicked with sweat, Ezra held his breath and fanned his flush on the table. Calendars tic started again and Ezras relief nearly made him giddy.
"Well, Mr. Calendar?" Ezra parroted.
He slapped his cards down, revealing four jacks, then stood so quickly his chair crashed to the floor. He pulled a revolver from a shoulder holster and aimed it at Ezra. "I dont know how you done it, but you cheated me, mister!"
"And how pray tell did I accomplish that, Mr. Calendar? You yourself dealt those cards," Ezra related calmly.
The figure slumped over the table rose silently and turned, planting a Colts barrel in Calendars back.
"Hes right," Nathan said with a flinty voice. "Ezra dont need to cheat."
Calendars expression turned to granite, but he lowered his weapon and held his hands up. "You wont get away with this. Ill track you down if it takes til hell freezes over."
Ezra stood. "And here I thought you were a gentleman, Mr. Calendar. Obviously I was under a mistaken assumption." Ezra lost his easygoing manner and his eyes turned as cold as a mountain lake in the spring. "You will ante up, Mr. Calendar, or I will personally carve your heart out of your chest. That is, providing you have a heart."
Nathan grabbed Calendars arm and shoved him toward the door. Behind them, the bartender reached below the bar and Ezra spun around, his sleeve gun appearing in his hand. "I wouldnt."
The bartender raised his hands, and Ezra covered him while Nathan propelled Calendar out onto the boardwalk and toward the blockhouse that had five guards lounging around it.
"If you would like to live to see another day, I would suggest you behave yourself," Ezra said in a low voice, close to Calendars ear. "Tell your men to drop their weapons."
They stopped about five feet from the first guard, and Nathan gave Calendar a nudge with his revolver a little reminder to do as Ezra had said.
Calendar hesitated a moment, then said, "Drop your guns."
The outlaws slack-jawed faces revealed their bewilderment. Nathan took a step away from Calendar, revealing the revolver aimed at their boss.
"If you wish to be paid, you will follow your employers orders," Ezra spoke mildly, but with an undercurrent of steel.
Another moment passed, then the men let their weapons slip to the ground. Cal, Susan, Rina, Robbie, and Misty appeared from behind one of the buildings to scoop up the guns. Sr. Katie and Sr. Adrian, along with the rest of the girls, emerged from their hiding place to join them.
With the nuns and Ezra keeping Calendar and his men covered, Nathan hurried to the blockhouse and grabbed the ring of keys off the outer wall. He jammed a metal key in the lock and opened the door.
Chris squinted in the bright light that streamed in through the open door, and focused on the tall familiar man who stood there. Nathan he and Ezra had done it!
"Yaall goin stay in here or come join the rest of us?" Nathan asked, a smile in his voice.
JD whooped which brought a grimace to Vin and his aching head, but Vin still managed a smile. Josiah gave Vin a hand, while JD and Chris got on either side of Buck to help him out of the rank cell.
The girls gathered around them, their relieved and excited faces telling Chris how worried theyd been. It was a humbling experience to realize how much the seven men had touched their lives in the short time theyd been with them.
He glanced up to see Ezras concerned gaze on him and he sent the gambler a reassuring nod. Ezras expression eased only slightly, and Chris didnt blame him the five men were filthy with whisker-grizzled faces and bloody bandages, and they all limped to varying degrees.
"Where are the others?" Chris asked Ezra as he neared him.
"Out looking for the stud," Ezra replied. "Well put Calendar and his men in your former abode and see what they think of the accommodations."
Chris grinned, but no warmth emanated from it, only icy anger. "Maybe we should shootem first."
Ezra didnt bat an eye. "Superficially or mortally?"
"Dealers choice," Chris replied with a shrug.
Sr. Adrian and Sr. Katie exchanged amused looks, knowing Chris and the others well enough to know they wouldnt shoot unarmed men.
"Ah, hell, just throw them inside," Chris growled, then turned on Calendar. "But if I see your face again, youd best kiss your ass goodbye because Ill shoot you on sight."
While Ezra and Sr. Adrian herded the men to the jail, the girls distributed the weapons theyd picked up to Chris, JD, Josiah, Vin, and Buck. As the men buckled the belts around their hips, Nathan bent down to examine Bucks leg. Sr. Katie hovered nearby, ready to help.
The sound of hoofbeats on the dry-packed earth startled everyone, and Chris looked up to see the rest of Calendars men returning.
"Damn," he muttered.
Calendar and the guards were just beginning to enter the blockhouse, and Calendar stopped to look back at the returning hired guns. He opened his mouth to shout something, but Sr. Adrian stopped him with a rifle butt to the back of his head and Calendar stumbled into the cell.
Although a nun, Sr. Adrian didnt have any trouble using a show of force when required, and Chriss respect for her notched upward.
She and Ezra locked the door behind the thieves and their leader, but the damage had been done. The search party caught sight of the seven men and the women and girls, and drew their guns.
"Find cover!" Chris hollered, then all hell broke loose.
Buck found Sr. Katie and Rina on either side of him, helping him over to a couple barrels. His leg throbbed, threatening to give out, and he leaned heavily on the two much smaller females. They tumbled down behind their sparse cover, and Buck choked back a colorful cuss word.
"Buck?" JDs voice rang out above the thunder of gunshots. "Buck, you okay?"
Buck glanced over to see JD hidden behind a water trough a few yards away. He had Kerry with him, and both of them lay prone behind the scant protection. "Get your hat off, JD, or youll get your fool head shot off!" Buck shouted, using anger to cover his concern.
Without hesitation, JD removed it, then lifted himself to fire a couple shots at one of the outlaws who was running across the street. The man fell to the ground, but Bucks approval was short-lived as two others opened fire on JD, and the bullets plunked into the trough, splashing water onto JD and Kerry.
Buck managed to find the rest of his companions. Sr. Adrian and Ezra had taken refuge along the side of the jailhouse and they stood back to back, covering each other. Chris and Susan had managed to dive behind a wagon wheel, and he had Susan behind him as he used his own body to shield her. Vin, along with Nutmeg and Robbie, were fairly well sheltered inside the general store across the street. Josiah, with Judy, Misty, and Kristen, were well-protected in a narrow alley between two buildings. Nathan and Cal had the worst position on the ground by a hitching post.
Buck spotted the four outlaws who were moving in on Nathan and Cal, and ignoring the brutal pain in his leg, he squeezed off some shots toward their attackers. Sr. Katie noticed what was happening and added her rifle to their defense. Two of the gunhands fell, and Nathan took the chance to rise and, grabbing Cals hand, the two of them ran hellbent for leather toward the saloon across the street. Bullets kicked up dust around their feet, and Buck noticed Ezra and Josiah added their firepower to protect Nathan and Cal.
Chris ducked as a bullet whistled past his ear. How the hell did they get themselves in this position? They needed some high ground to gain an advantage or the outlaws would slowly pick them off including the girls. He glanced across the street, noticing the general store had an upper level with a few windows.
"Vin!" he hollered.
Vin lifted his head and peered out the general store window which no longer had any glass in it. Chris motioned upward and Vin nodded, understanding the signal.
"Robbie, Nutmeg, cmon, we gotta get upstairs," he said urgently.
Robbie took Nutmegs hand and Vin ushered them up the stairs in the room behind the counter. Vins head pounded, making his stomach churn and his legs wobble, but desperation drove him upwards. He stumbled, and Robbie turned.
"Keep going upstairs," she urged Nutmeg.
Robbie leaned over and wrapped her arm around Vins waist. He slung his arm over her shoulders and they continued the last few steps. Vin motioned toward the room overlooking the main street, and they hurried over to one of the windows. Vin slipped to his knees, and struggled to raise the window. Breaking the glass would only call attention to himself, something he didnt want until hed had a chance to pick off a couple of the men. Without a word, Robbie helped him raise it, and he gave her a quick smile.
He handed Robbie a revolver. "Know how to use this?" She nodded, her blue eyes wide. "You and Nutmeg go into the corner and keep down," Vin ordered, his tongue feeling swollen and awkward.
"I want to stay with Mr. Vin," Nutmeg pouted.
"Go on, girls, I dont want either of you gettin hurt," Vin said.
Without any more arguments, Robbie and Nutmeg moved off to the far corner. The gunshots from the street below abated slightly so it didnt sound like an all-out war anymore; instead it reminded Vin of the drawn-out battles hed fought in the War. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, he raised the rifle and wished it were his own. Checking the sights, he picked out an outlaw sneaking up behind Chris and Susan, and fired. A blossom of blood appeared on the mans chest, and Vin turned his sights on the next target. Another outlaw went down.