His arms trembled, and Vin had the god-awful feeling he was going to throw up or pass out. More than likely both. He concentrated on picking his targets, and bullets splintered the window frame, throwing wood chips in his face. The gunshots increased, and Vin hoped Chris and the others were taking advantage of having the outlaws attention on him.
"Hold it!" a voice commanded from the doorway.
Vin froze. Damn, he shouldve known someone would get into the general store and get the drop on him.
"Throw down that rifle and turn around slow-like."
Vin had no choice but to do as the man ordered. His carbine fell to the floor with a dull thud, and he twisted around to look at his captor soon to be executor if Vin was any judge of killers.
The outlaws finger began to squeeze the trigger and a shot exploded in the rooms close confines.
From behind an overturned poker table, Nathan raised himself cautiously to look out on the quiet street, and he smiled broadly. "Looks like we gotem," he announced to Cal.
The trouser-clad girl stood slowly, brushing her tousled brown hair back from her forehead.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
She nodded shakily. "I think so. At least I aint shot or anything like that."
"What do you say we go join the others?"
"I dont think so, mister!" the bartender arose from behind the bar and raised a double barrel shotgun.
Nathans heart skipped a beat, and he took a step toward Cal to place himself between her and the shotgun. "Its over. Calendars finished," he stated.
"Not yet it aint!" He snugged the weapon tighter against his shoulder.
Cal took a long step away from Nathan, putting herself back in the open. "You plannin on killin me, too?" she demanded insolently.
The bartenders gaze flickered to Cal, giving Nathan a moment to grab the knife that hung at his back and fling it at the man. The blade struck the mans shoulder, forcing him to drop the shotgun. Cal quickly grabbed it from the bar top and aimed it at their would-be killer.
"Give me the gun, Cal," Nathan said.
"Im gonna kill him!"
Nathan inched toward her. "Dont. Well put him in jail so he can answer for his crimes."
"He woulda killed you, Mr. Nathan! Ill take care of him so he doesnt ever try to kill anyone again."
Compassion coupled with a sense of astonishment struck Nathan at Cals willingness to protect him. "I appreciate you tryin to help me, Cal, but I cant let you kill him on account of me. Hell get his due in court."
She didnt take her eyes off of the bartender, nor did the shotgun barrel shift from its intended victim.
Nathan took another step closer. "Please, Cal, dont be doin this. Theres been enough killin." He reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder gently. "You shoot him and youll be no bettern he is. And I know deep down youre a whole lot bettern him."
The shotgun wavered, and Cal allowed Nathan to take it from her grasp. A tear rolled down her cheek. Keeping the bartender covered, Nathan wrapped his other arm around Cal, drawing her shuddering body against his side.
"Lets go see if everyones okay," he said softly.
Cal nodded, and Nathan motioned for the wounded man to go out ahead of them. They walked out onto the street and found the handful of remaining outlaws had been rounded up.
Chris glanced around, surprised to see Nathan with Cal bringing a prisoner out of the saloon. He smiled slightly at Nathans reassuring nod, then continued to account for everyone. Nobody else had been wounded. Buck leaned heavily on Sr. Katie, and though his face was pale, he was smiling at the nun. It appeared that whatever had been stuck in Bucks craw had worked itself out. Ezra, Josiah, and JD along with the girls and Sr. Adrian circled around Chris.
Only Vin was missing. He lifted his gaze to the second story window and spotted Nutmeg. A moment later, the girl screamed, "hes dead!" and her sobs filled the silent street.
Adrenaline coursed through Chris and he dodged across the street to the general store. As he climbed the stairs two steps at a time, he realized Nathan and Ezra were right behind him, leaving Josiah, JD, Buck, and the nuns to watch over the captured ambushers.
Had Vin been killed before he could clear his name? If so, Chris swore hed go on to Tascosa by himself, and prove Vin innocent of murder. If nothing else, it would ease Chriss crowded conscience if not for him and the others, Vin wouldve been to Tascosa months earlier.
He plunged into the room, nearly tripping over the body of a stranger. He saw Robbie and Nutmeg kneeling beside Vins still body, and crossed the room in three long strides. Chris hunkered down beside them, and Ezra gently moved the two girls away. Nathan bent down to place his ear against Vins chest.
Nathan lifted his head, a smile easing his tense features. "Hes alive."
Chris wiped a shaky hand across his brow, and looked up to see a mirroring expression of relief on Ezras face. "He been hit again?"
Nathan did a quick examination and shook his head. "He mustve passed out."
Ezra examined the fallen outlaw. "This gentleman has a piece of lead in his back, but he appears to be alive."
"I shot him," Robbie confessed, her face threatening to crumble. "He was going to shoot Mr. Vin so I had to do it."
Ezra turned to face Robbie, going down on one knee so he was at eye level with her. "I know shooting a man is a very difficult thing to do as well it should be but you saved Vins life. And for that, we owe you a great debt of gratitude."
The girls eyes glistened with unshed tears. "I didnt want to do it, but I knew if I didnt, hed kill him."
He laid his hands on her shoulders. "There are times in a persons life when they have to make life or death decisions. Im only sorry yours had to come so early. Remember this, Robbie, you saved a friends life, and when all is said and done in this world, that is what is truly important."
Robbie nodded somberly, and wrapped her arms around Ezra. He looked over her shoulder to see approval and understanding in Chriss eyes, and Ezra felt as if he was truly starting to become a part of the seven men.
Vin groaned and tried to sit up, but didnt succeed until Nathan and Chris helped him. Comprehension came quickly to Vins hazel eyes, though it was hazed with weariness. "We get the bad guys?" he asked with a husky voice.
Chris grinned. "We gotem, thanks to you."
Vin smiled crookedly. "Yeah, Im a regular hero, aint I?" His gaze slid over to Robbie who stood close to Ezra. "Did you shoot him?"
She nodded hesitantly.
"Thanks, Robbie. Im in your debt," Vin said warmly.
"Youre a friend, Mr. Vin, and a person has to take care of their friends," Robbie said softly.
The touching silence was broken by four-year-old Nutmeg who tugged on Ezras arm. "I gotta go potty, Mr. Ezra."
Ezras shocked expression brought a round of laughter from his friends, and he fixed them a glare, then helplessly allowed Nutmeg to lead him out of the room.
A week had passed since the shootout in Ruthville, and Buck and Vin were well on their way to recovery. Theyd left Calendar and his hired guns in the care of a US Marshal who showed up a few days later after having been contacted and apprised of the situation. Right after hed arrived, the seven men had escorted Sr. Adrian, Sr. Katie, and the girls the remaining distance to Tohatchi. A couple days of resting up there and the men were ready to continue their journey.
Chris and Sr. Adrian stood beside the Tennessee studs corral and watched the palomino cavort about the enclosure.
"There was a time when I had a dream of having a horse ranch myself," Chris said softly.
"What happened?" Sr. Adrian asked.
Chris shrugged. "I lost my heart and soul." Their names were Sarah and Adam, he thought, the sharp taste of sorrow piercing him anew.
"Youll find them again someday."
"Maybe," Chris said skeptically. He straightened and smiled. "Good luck, Sister. I have a feeling your horses are going to be known far and wide someday."
"I expect you and your friends to come calling in a few years so you can see for yourselves the miracle youve given us," Sr. Adrian said.
"If we can, we will."
Sr. Adrian seemed to understand what was unspoken. She put her hand through the crook of his arm, and the nun and the ex-shootist walked back to join the others.
Nathan sought Cal among the group of girls, but didnt see her. He stepped over to Rina. "Have you seen Cal?"
"I saw her in the barn a few minutes ago," the redhead replied.
Nathan strode to the building, and entered, then waited a moment for his eyes to adjust. He followed the sound of quiet sobs to an empty stall where Cal sat cross-legged in the straw. His chest tightened at her obvious distress and he stepped into the stall. He lowered himself to the floor beside her.
"I didnt want to leave without sayin good-bye," Nathan said softly.
Cal rubbed her eyes, and said curtly, "Good-bye."
"Is that all I get? I thought we were better friends than that."
Cal slowly turned toward him and the dim light illuminated her tears. "Why is it everybody I care about leaves me?"
Nathan smiled gently. "They dont leave you, honey. Theyll always with you, in your heart and in your memories. Just like youll always be with me, and Ill be with you."
"Do you think Im gonna go to hell?"
"For killin your step pa?" Cal nodded. "You were only protectin yourself and the Lord knows that." Nathan paused a moment. "Not everybody is tryin to hurt you, Cal. You gotta start learnin to trust folks again."
"I trust you, Mr. Nathan," she said softly.
Her simple declaration warmed Nathan. Little did she resemble the hostile girl hed first met. "Thats a step in the right direction. You got good people around you here Sr. Adrian and Sr. Katie and all the other girls. They care about you."
"I know that now." She took a deep breath. "I reckon I might even put on one of them dresses every once in a while."
Nathans chuckle was deep and true. "When I come back to visit, Ill look forward to seein that." He stood and offered Cal a hand which she accepted without hesitation. "Come on, lets go join the others."
They walked out of the barn together.
Ezra gazed at Misty and Kristens forlorn expressions and tried to think of some way to brighten their moods. Of course, he had grown somewhat fond of the urchins himself, and would miss the young girls more than he wanted to admit.
He squatted down in front of them, and took a hold of each of their arms. "You dont want me to depart looking upon those disconsolate faces, do you?"
"We dont want you to leave," Kristen said plaintively.
"Yeah, whos gonna teach us how to spot a sharper dealing from the bottom of a deck?" Misty asked.
Ezra pressed his forefinger to his lips. "Shhhh, you wouldnt want the others to discover our secret, would you?"
Misty and Kristen shook their heads solemnly.
"I do appreciate your diligence in the guardianship of my green and red jackets. Without your assiduousness in the care of them, I daresay they wouldve been ruined beyond repair," Ezra said gallantly.
Kristen looked at Misty who shrugged.
"We got no idea what you said, Mr. Ezra, but it sounded real nice," Misty said innocently.
Josiah, standing within earshot of their conversation, swallowed a chuckle.
"Whos gonna tell us stories, Mr. Josiah?" Judy asked, her eye bright.
Josiah brought his attention back to the two girls standing by him. "Ill bet Sr. Adrian and Sr. Katie have some good ones for you."
"But I like your voice better. It makes me feel all safe and cozy," Kerry said.
Josiah smiled, a part of him wishing he could stay. He enjoyed the evening story time as much as they did, if not more. Here he could do the Lords work and be a father to the orphaned girls a combination that tempted him greatly. He lifted his gaze to Chris who approached with Sr. Adrian, then Nathan, Ezra, and Vin the men he owed his spiritual and mortal life.
"All you have to do is close your eyes at night and if you listen real close, youll hear my voice in the wind," Josiah promised in his gentle, rumbling tone.
Nutmeg tugged Robbie over to Vin who leaned against the porchs post, a piece of straw between his lips.
"Me and Robbie got something to give you," Nutmeg spoke up.
Vin smiled. "And what would that be?"
Robbie drew her hand out from behind her back and presented him with a necklace made of flowers. "I know only girls wear necklaces, but we couldnt think of anything else to give you."
Vin swallowed the block of emotion in his throat and accepted the garland. "Itll remind me of both of you pretty and sweet-smellin."
Robbie blushed, while Nutmeg grinned mischievously.
"We got them from the garden out back," Nutmeg announced.
Robbie put her palm over the small girls mouth. "Shush! Do you want to get in more trouble?"
Vin lifted a hand to hide his smile. "Well, they say its the thought that counts."
Chris approached the line of saddled horses, and the other men hugged the girls good-bye, doing their best to maintain their own stoic fronts.
Susan walked up to Chris shyly. "I want to thank you, Mr. Chris. You helped me see things a little clearer. I still think of my folks and get sad, but now I dont feel so angry." She looked skyward. "I know theyre up there somewhere looking down on me, just like your familys looking down on you."
Chris pressed his lips together and gazed upward also. For a moment, he thought he saw Sarah and Adam waving down at him, then they were gone.
"I think youre right, Susan," he said softly. "One of these days well be with them again, but until then, we got to live each day making them proud of us."
Susan nodded, then hugged Chris. "Thank you," she whispered.
Chriss arms moved around her shoulders and returned the embrace. "Youre welcome."
She stepped back, keeping her face averted, and Chris suspected she felt the sting of tears in her eyes, too.
He and the other men mounted their horses, then Chris looked around. "Anyone seen Buck or JD?"
"Maybe Buck has been called to be a brethren of the church," Josiah said with a twinkle in his eyes.
"That, Josiah, will occur only when there are no fair ladies left on Gods green earth," Ezra said.
"Buck said to pick him and JD up at the church," Nathan said.
Vin removed his slouch hat and ran a hand through his long, tousled hair, careful of the bandaged wound on the side of his head. "They been actin almighty secretive since we got here. I wonder what theyre up to."
The men wheeled their horses around and rode out of the convent yard, waving at Sr. Adrian and the girls whod wormed their way into each of their hearts.
The priest poured a steady stream of water across Bucks forehead. "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."
Sr. Katie crossed herself and JD glanced around nervously, wondering if he should attempt to make the sign of the cross himself, then thought better of it. The priest handed Buck a towel and he dabbed his forehead dry.
"Thank you, Father," Buck said with heartfelt gratitude.
"Youre welcome, Mr. Wilmington. Its always a pleasure to draw a lost sheep back into the flock," the gray-haired priest said with a paternal smile.
Buck, JD, and Sr. Katie walked out of the church slowly, with Buck leaning on a cane. They paused outside in the warm morning sunlight..
"Your mother can rest peacefully now," Sr. Katie said softly.
Buck gazed at the compassionate, courageous nun. If she hadnt become a Sister, he wouldve been mighty tempted to forget about his footloose ways and settle down. "Thank you, Sr. Katie, for everything."
"It was my pleasure, Buck. Saving souls is a side benefit to being a nun, and one I wish I experienced more often than I do," she said, her blue eyes bright and clear. "Now that youre baptized, you wont go to limbo when you die. You may join your mother in heaven."
JD grinned. "Provided he makes it there." His dark eyes twinkled with mischief. "Yknow, Bucks got quite a reputation with the ladies he calls it animal maggotism."
Buck slapped him in the chest with his hat. "Thats magnetism. And you shouldnt be talkin about stuff like that Sr. Katies a nun, for Gods sake."
"You got that right," JD shot back.
Sr. Katie laughed, a sweet, melodic sound, and she stepped between the two men, putting her hands through the crook of each ones arm. "Its a good thing you two care so much for each other, or one would think you didnt get along."
She walked them to their horses. "How can I thank you for the hope youve given us?"
"Just make sure that Tennessee stud has lots of foals," JD said with a smile. "Who knows, I may come back someday and buy one."
Sr. Katie shook her head. "You wouldnt have to buy one itd be our gift to you. All of you earned that and more. Youve also given the girls some joy in their too tragic lives, and for that Im extremely grateful."
Buck grinned roguishly. "I might come back in about ten years and see what kind of flowers they blossomed into."
"Dont worry, Ill come along and make sure he behaves himself," JD assured.
Sr. Katie studied JD a moment. "With two such handsome men, I doubt any of the girls would have a chance."
JD blushed, but Buck held back from teasing the younger man. Buck had been uncomfortable asking JD if hed witness his baptism, but he needed two witnesses. Sr. Katie had been an obvious choice since shed arranged the sacrament to be given to Buck. Hed considered Chris, but he wasnt certain Chris would understand why he felt the need to be baptized. JD knew the truth, and accepted it without judgment, so had been an obvious choice.
Buck glanced at his young friend a man more like a brother and fondness welled within him. He could trust JD with his secret, as he could with his life. Although he and JD had grown up a thousand miles apart, Buck suspected he and JD shared a similar childhood. One where they were taunted for not having a father and other children were warned not to play with them. A lonely upbringing with only a mother to love.
Buck shook off his thoughts. The past was only that the present was what counted. He glanced heavenward, gave his mother a nod and knew she understood.
"Wed best be ready to ride, JD, or were gonna be left behind," Buck said.
Sr. Katie hugged JD, whispering, "Take care of him."
Then Sr. Katie gazed up at Buck, and he saw what couldve been in her expressive eyes. He smiled warmly and embraced her carefully, as if she were made of delicate china. "I can never thank you enough," he said.
"You already have," Sr. Katie said. She brought something out of her pocket and pressed it into Bucks palm. "Perhaps youll have need of this someday."
Buck looked down at the rosary in his hand, and heartfelt emotion made words impossible for a moment. "Thank you," he said huskily. He put the beads into his pocket and limped over to his horse.
Buck carefully lifted his foot into the stirrup, and grabbed the saddlehorn to pull himself up, trying to keep most of the weight off his healing left leg. He felt JDs hand on his arm, helping him, and he settled into his saddle. Although grateful for his assistance, Buck glared down at him. "Aint you ready yet, JD? Youre about as slow as a snail climbin a greased log."
JD sent him a scowl, then turned to mount his horse. Buck sent Sr. Katie an impish grin and winked.
The sound of approaching horses alerted them to the arrival of their friends. The men touched the brims of their hats respectively and greeted Sr. Katie.
Chris glanced at Buck who appeared more relaxed than hed been in some time and Chris wondered what theyd been up to. "You boys ready to move on?"
Buck nodded. "More than youll know, Chris." Then he glanced at JD and the two of them exchanged a look which Chris couldnt interpret.
Though it wasnt any of Chriss business, he couldnt stop the niggling feeling that something important had happened and for the first time, Buck had locked him out.
Vin brought his blaze-faced mare up to join them. "Were burnin daylight, boys," he said with a crooked grin.
After saying good-bye to Sr. Katie, the men rode off, leaving behind a cloud of dust that glittered more brilliant than gold in the dazzling sunshine.
Sr. Katie lifted her hand in farewell and for a moment, thoughts of a different kind of life tempted her. Then she turned her gaze to the cross at the top of the church and a sense of peace filled her.
"Take care of them, Father, for they are good men, all of them," Sr. Katie prayed aloud, then crossed herself, and said softly, "amen."
The Trail to Tascosa #3: Old Debts and New Friends
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