Ezra was seething. His head hurt. His stomach hurt and his back was killing him. But he was taking his frustration out by shoveling the dirt into some stranger's grave. He was working at twice the pace of Nathan but that was probably keeping him from killing him. Do it for me --- meant save your ass, Nathan. Not put yourself between me and a whip. Of course, Saint Nathan wouldn't do that. My last act on this earth might have been to save one life. Just one life. And it would have been for a person he considered - friend.
Ezra knew he wasn't thinking logically. He didn't want to. He just wanted this over. But all he could really think about was maybe saving Nathan. And Nathan didn't want to be saved.
Even with half the Nichols gang gone, the odds were atrocious. Five-to-one. And they were armed to teeth. They had been extremely thorough disarming Ezra and Nathan including the derringer and gun in his boot.
Ezra had pretty much given up hope that any of the others would come to their aid. JD was either dead or near dead. Vin the same. Chris was probably whom they faced in Four Corners. Meaning it was either Buck or Josiah on the trail. And from what one the Nichols gang said, he was hurt too. That meant there was Chris and maybe one other man available to effect a rescue. Assuming Ezra and Nathan were on the top of the list to be rescued. Somehow he doubted it. His choice would be Casey Wells.
Ezra knew he couldn't move fast enough with out a lot of things coming together exactly right to effect his release. He didn't think much of Nathan's chances either. But if he could somehow slow up the pursuit, Nathan might just have a chance to escape.
A couple of times Nathan started to say something, but the old man with the gun cut off any conversation.
"Think you two are done there."
Ezra turned and stalked back to the blankets where they spent the night. He was looking forward to putting his shirt and coat back on. The early morning air had become quite chilly over the past two hours. Actually, the physical labor and anger at Nathan had distracted him but he shivered now.
Nathan. God damn him. Why couldn't he just . . .
"Ezra," Nathan grabbed for his arm.
Ezra dropped his shovel and pivoted his body suddenly and cocked back his arm to punch Nathan. Nathan effectively blocked the punch. They both stopped. Ezra made eye contact with Nathan. //What do you think?// he asked silently. Nathan's slight nod was all the confirmation he needed for them to play this out.
Nathan pushed Ezra away.
"Never listen, do you?" Ezra yelled.
"That's right, not to you." Nathan retorted.
"You'd think you'd know your place." Ezra sneered.
Nathan charged him and they both went down.
"Break it up," the old man yelled.
Ezra and Nathan ignored him and continued throwing punches at each other.
"I said BREAK IT UP."
"No, no. Let 'em have at it." Luke Nichols said.
"Can tell the gambler's been awfully mad at the healer. Do you think that's smart?" John Nichols asked.
"Sure, why not? Let 'em tear each other apart. They're not going anywhere?" Luke turned to his brother. "Five dollars on Mr. Liar."
John smiled. "Fair enough, I want the healer."
Luke started taking odds as the men gathered to watch the fight.
At one point, Ezra was pushed down my Luke's feet. "What are my odds?"
Ezra grinned flashing his gold tooth. Five-to-one. Had to appreciate the irony. "Put me down for ten."
With a rebel yell, Ezra charged Nathan.
Josiah turned to Buck. "Now?"
When Vin and Casey had finally disappeared from sight, Buck turned to Josiah. "Tell me what the camp looks like," he said quietly. "What can we expect?"
"Maybe ten men. Maybe twenty. Hard to tell how many are fixin' to ride out. Say closer to ten than twenty. Horses are on a picket line towards where Vin's settin' up. Ezra and Nathan were up movin' around. Which is good," he added after a pause, "but it means we don't know for sure where they'll be when we go in."
There was silence for a minute as each man thought about what lay ahead. An early morning breeze lifted the needles on the pine trees. The soft creak of leather and the sound of their horses breathing quietly were the only things disturbing the forest.
After a minute, Josiah looked at Buck. Then, he turned and looked straight ahead for another several minutes before he spoke. "Reckon we better start moving up."
Buck urged his horse to the right and forward, but as he jogged through the first pair of trees there was a sudden loud cry. Rustling branches reached down and slapped Buck's horse in the face. It reared up with a sharp whinny as two large birds flew past Buck's head and away into the forest.
Josiah looked after them. Crows. He looked at Buck. He had the horse back under control, though it still danced nervously, sidling away from Josiah.
"Buck..." Josiah began.
"Don't." Buck's voice was low and harsh. The only color on his face were two bright red slashes across his cheeks. The rest of his face--what wasn't hidden by his hat and his mustache--was stark and pale. He let the horse back a few more feet. He kept his left side turned away and Josiah'd have bet that there was fresh blood on the bandage he'd wrapped last night. Buck continued to let the horse step sideways and then back, letting it settle in its own way. He looked at Josiah with a dark, determined gaze. "We ain't talkin' about crows, Josiah."
No, Josiah thought, it's too damn late for that.
But he had to say something. "I could--"
No room left for discussion.
It wasn't fair maybe to say that Buck didn't care whether he made it back to Nettie's, because the truth, Josiah realized, was that he didn't even think that far. Not like this. Not right now. It wasn't that he didn't want to live. It was that he had one thing to do and that was the only thing that mattered in this moment.
So, in the end, all Josiah said was, "Ready?"
Buck looked at him for a long half second. Then, he nodded and the two of them moved on toward the camp.
In another fifteen minutes of slow quiet progress they'd reached a point where they could barely see the camp through the intervening trees. The scene that met their eyes was not exactly what they'd been expecting and they paused for a few minutes both to give Vin a little extra time and to scan the clearing before them. Josiah recognized the two Nichols' brothers, Luke and John. All the remaining men had clustered in a loose semi-circle toward the far side of the encampment. Something seemed to be happening there.
Josiah's eyes widened. He glanced at Buck, who was observing the scene with no discernable expression. They saw Ezra pick himself up off the ground, yell something, then lunge at Nathan.
Josiah turned to Buck. "Now?" he asked.
As they'd agreed earlier, Josiah rode straight into the middle of the camp and shot the first man who raised a gun. Buck swung left and circled through the trees, coming out about fifteen yards away from Josiah's entry point. Someone pointed a rifle at Josiah and Buck shot him in the shoulder. Then, everyone was running and it was hard to keep track of who was where and what was happening. Buck thought he spotted Nathan and Ezra running toward the picket line, but he was trying to control his horse and pick targets in the still pale morning light and fire his rifle and he couldn't be sure that it was them. His horse shied left and a man fell right beside him, his pistol still raised. Vin, Buck thought and he'd have raised his eyes to the ridge, but there was no time. He fired and fired again. He emptied his rifle and pulled his revolver. Then, Josiah was beside him, shouting at him.
"Now! Let's ride! We've got to go, Buck!"
And there wasn't even time to ask about Nathan and Ezra, just trust Josiah knew. They rode toward the picket line. One of Nichols' men jumped at Buck to try and pull him down. Buck kicked him away and he didn't even realize until a long time later that he'd used his injured leg to do it. Somewhere in the back of his mind he took in horses, men shouting, a wagon full of rifles and ammunition and supplies.
A few shots fired after them, but there was no concentrated barrage. Probably pulling themselves together, trying to get to their horses, Buck thought. They'd have a long ride ahead, a lot could happen on the way to Nettie's house. Buck reined hard on his horse, pulling up short. Before Josiah realized he was no longer beside him, he'd turned and spurred his horse straight back into camp. He heard Josiah's angry voice behind him. "Buck! Damnit to hell, Buck!"
He rode straight for the supply wagon, plucked out two gun belts and a rifle, barely paused to turn the horse and rode at a full gallop back out the way he'd come. One of Nichols' men stepped in close and raised a rifle. Buck was calculating if he had enough space to swerve and knock him down when the man's eyes widened and he fell. Buck looked ahead to see Josiah holstering his revolver and shouting something at him and then there was no time for anything else as they were both riding away from camp as fast at they could.
At the same time . . .
Nathan and Ezra were dancing around the compound; jabbing at each other and ducking blows in the natural rhythm of any fight. As they fought, the Nichols men would move to give them plenty of room. Nathan and Ezra had effectively moved them away from the path where they kept their picket line of horses. Nathan pushed Ezra hard away from him and Ezra sprawled on the ground by Luke Nichols. He saw Ezra say something to Nichols. //Probably laying a wager,// Nathan thought disgusted. He surveyed the area, only John Nichols between them and freedom. He stooped and picked up the shovel, keeping his eyes fixed on Ezra.
Ezra let out a rebel yell and charged across the camp at Nathan. Nathan raised the shovel in a defensive posture.
Gunfire erupted in the encampment. Nathan swung the shovel hard knocking out John Nichols. The members of the Nichols gang left in camp scattered. Drawing their weapons as they ducked for cover.
Fortunately, their instincts were to return the gunfire that was coming from across the compound rather than shoot Nathan and Ezra as they made their escape in the opposite direction.
"Go, go, go" Ezra yelled.
Ezra veered away from Nathan on a trajectory to where the horses were tied. Nathan was on Ezra's heels.
"Don't even think about it," Nathan yelled as he ran up beside Ezra. //Funny how he knew what Ezra was going to do before he did it?//
Ezra's eyes were fixed on the blanket where his shirt and jacket were. Ezra licked his lips. Even though he was at a full run, Ezra bent as they passed the blanket and successfully grabbed for his red jacket. "Yes!"
Both ran to where the gang's horses were tied. They were ten yards away and the pursuit had been held up. Nathan could taste freedom when one of Nichols gang rose up with pistols in both hands. "You boys hold up right there."
Ezra and Nathan skidded to a stop. Their breaths were fast and choppy from the long sprint. Nathan felt a sickening sensation in the pit of his stomach.
The man indicated they were to raise their hands. Ezra made a move to tackle the man. "RUN Nathan"
The man raised his gun to shoot Ezra when both the gang man's hands flung up in the air and he collapsed forward. A sniper had shot him. Ezra tried to get the man's guns but gunfire from his pursuers cut him off. "Let's get out of here."
They dashed to the picket line of horses. The sniper prevented the pursuit from following Nathan and Ezra. Nathan quickly surveyed the horses. "Damn, most of these horses are spent."
"Two at the end," Ezra directed.
They quickly vaulted onto the horses' backs and could hear shouts behind them.
"Shit, the scabbard's empty."
"Let's move." Nathan urged. Nathan checked around the saddle but there were no weapons.
Tearing through the trees at a fast gallop. "No. What's your count?" Nathan yelled at Ezra.
"Three." Ezra responded as he ducked a low hanging branch.
They both chorused, "AND ONE IS VIN."
Casey heard distant yelling, indistinct and thready, floating up on the morning breeze.
Vin exhaled long and purposefully, and Casey caught her breath. This was it? This was how it was going to start? She looked up at him, knowing he was steadying his aim and squeezing the trigger at that moment. But she wasn’t prepared for the enormity of the roar that burst from the Sharps when he did. It was followed by five more shots in close succession, the combined blast of which seemed to shake the very ground. Casey blinked in the sudden silence and saw that Vin was already reaching across her for Josiah’s rifle. She shook herself, grabbed the rifle and pressed it into his hands as she took the one he’d just fired, opened its breach, and began to reload it even as he laid down a similar rapid pattern of shots with the new one. Casey was ready this time, and finished snapping shut the breach to hand Vin back his Sharps just as he started to lay down Josiah’s weapon. She was rewarded with a lightning glance of appreciation from the man’s eyes before he turned them back on the scene below. This time he took only a shot here and there, watching between them to see what was needed.
Casey could hardly see the targets he was apparently shooting at, but it was clear from what was going on down there that he’d been effective. It was pandemonium, men running everywhere, horses plunging, dust rising in long streamers from several places. She looked over at Vin as he fired again, and blanched when she saw the recoil of the heavy gun shove into his shoulder and then ripple visibly down his frame. He fired again, and she saw him clench his jaws against it, saw that it was pounding against him like a gigantic fist, realized with a sudden sense of horror that the new bandage was no longer merely stained; it was shiny with fresh blood.
Vin paused, breathing heavily, his eyes riveted on the encampment below them. He pumped the spent shells from the not-yet-empty Sharps and held out a silent hand to Casey for replacements. She laid the cylinders in his hand -- 4 of them -- and he slid them in without looking and closed the breech.
"They’re away," he announced, satisfaction ripping through his voice. Then he muttered softly, almost a growl under his breath: "No you don’t," and Casey realized he was addressing someone below as he shot again and pressed his lips together in a bitter smile. "Stay right there, boys," he admonished, shot again, laughed very low in his throat. "I said ‘stand still’, you bastards." Then he started shooting fast like before, the Sharps roaring so loud that Casey flinched, and he tossed it sideways to her and took the other one without even looking. Casey reloaded, and Vin grabbed back the Sharps the minute she was done, even though there were still shells in Josiah’s rifle. Two more shots thundered from the Sharps.
"Get to the horse."
Casey was frantically stuffing shells into Josiah’s rifle, and Vin’s words threw her off-balance. "What?"
"Now." Vin was moving, grabbing her by the wrist with strong fingers, his grip hard as iron. Casey looked up in shock. Two minutes ago he’d been --
"NOW." The look on his face was as hard as his grip, and Casey didn’t need a second after she saw it. Vin jerked his coat up from the grass and ammunition was suddenly rolling all over everywhere and glinting as it flew through the air from the places Casey had laid it out on the leather surface. He was pulling it on as he headed down the slope with long strides, Casey hurrying along next to him with Josiah’s rifle in her arms. She looked up at him again, her heart hammering in her throat, unable to understand how --
"Casey, up." He was already in the saddle, and reaching down to her. She grabbed his hand, vaulted up behind, saw him grimace when she did and heard the sound that burst out of his throat then even though he didn’t change his posture one bit, but grabbed the reins and turned the black downslope instead.
It was the fight, she realized suddenly. Her aunt had told her that --
Then Casey had to hang on.
Buck and Josiah rode hard until they reached the spot where they would rendezvous with Vin, who'd remained on the ridge extra crucial minutes to help give them the start they needed on their run to Nettie's house. As they slowed, approaching the base of the slope down which Vin and Casey would come, Josiah reached out and grabbed the reins of Buck's horse.
"What were you thinkin' back there?" he shouted.
"Thinkin' we needed guns." Buck's eyes burned with a feverish light and the color in his cheeks was high.
Josiah used the reins in his hand to turn Buck's horse and looked at his leg. Blood had soaked through the bandage and started setting streaks down his pants' leg.
He released the reins with a snap. "Damnit, Buck! You're gonna get yourself killed."
"We needed the guns."
The two men stared at each other for a long minute. Josiah's voice when he finally spoke was terrible in its quiet calm. "You got a death wish? That's fine, Buck. But don't take the rest of us with you."
"All right." Buck's eyes went dark. Josiah couldn't read them anymore.
"Are you boys ready?" Vin's voice cut through the sudden silence like a sharp bolt of lightning on a summer's night.
Josiah turned quick and saw Vin and Casey not ten yards behind them.
He made it down that slope awfully fast, Josiah thought, studying him carefully. But Vin was sitting straight in the saddle with Casey up behind. Josiah tried to catch a glimpse of the bandage underneath Vin's coat. Would there be fresh blood there, too? He knew there would and it was something he both needed to know and didn't want to see.
"Saw Nathan and Ezra as we were coming down," Vin said, pointing with his left hand toward a slight rise. "Reckon they're trying to figure what to do next. If we hurry we can catch 'em before they ride out lookin' for us and things get complicated."
Complicated. Josiah almost laughed. Here he was an old ex-preacher with two wounded men and a young girl, trying to outrun, outshoot and outwit a better armed, better supplied and much healthier enemy. I _am_ crazy, he thought. But he was damned if he'd stop now.
"Show us the way, Vin," he said with a half smile and a sweep of his hand. And the four of them turned their horses and moved out.
They caught up with Ezra and Nathan just as they were turning their horses to sweep back along the ridge.
"You are not thinking of heading in that direction?" Ezra said as Nathan turned his horse toward the ridge. He looked like a wild man, so unlike his usual well-groomed self, his hat set back on his head, his hair uncombed, the bruise on his face starting to darken, wearing a jacket, but no shirt.
"You all right?" Nathan asked him in his abrupt, caring style.
"I'm fine," Ezra said, "but I do feel compelled to point out--again--that we appear to have no weapons."
Nathan shrugged. "Vin's in that direction, right?"
"He'll be plannin' to meet up with the others. Makes sense, don't you think, to meet up with him?"
Ezra touched the brim of his hat and quirked a slight smile. "Lead on, my friend."
But they'd barely gone fifty feet when they heard the sound of horses approaching. Ezra looked at Nathan. There was nowhere to hide. Nathan's hands itched, wanting to reach back for knives that weren't there. Ezra moved his horse forward. Damn you, Ezra, Nathan thought and moved his horse up too. What they would have done if the Nichols' gang had ridden over the rise, was something Nathan never quite decided. All he ever knew was that he'd never expected to feel again the relief he felt when he saw that it was Josiah, Buck, Vin and Casey.
Relief, however, turned quickly to concern and then to downright fear as he got a closer look at them.
"Well, well, gentlemen. And gentlelady," Ezra said with a grin he just couldn't suppress. "I must say, you are definitely a sight for sore eyes."
Casey smiled shyly back at him. She turned and smiled at Nathan too, but he was looking at Buck and Vin. The bandage on Buck's thigh was grimy and bloody and the color on his face was high. He looked at Nathan and waited, his eyes dark and unrevealing.
"What happened to you?" Nathan asked.
"Been busy," Buck replied.
Nathan waited, but the normally voluble gunslinger offered nothing more. Nathan noticed that Josiah gave Buck a hard look when he spoke and then turned his face deliberately away from him.
He turned to Vin. He couldn't tell for sure where he was hurt, but he knew by the closed look on his face and the still way he sat his horse that he _was_ hurt and probably seriously. "What about you?" he asked.
"Been busy, too." Vin smiled slightly.
Casey made a choking sound. "They're not--" she began, but Buck interrupted her, urging his horse forward.
"Thought you fellas could use these." He unhooked two gunbelts from the pommel of his saddle and handed one to Nathan and one to Ezra. He handed Ezra an extra rifle too, which he took with thanks and tucked into the empty scabbard on his saddle.
"You get these from Nichols?" Nathan asked.
Nathan buckled the gun belt and adjusted it on his hips. He drew the revolver and tested the weight in his hand.
"We best ride," Vin said. "They won't hold much longer."
Nathan looked at Josiah asking without words for the preacher to tell him honestly how the others were holding up. Josiah just looked at him for a short second and raised an eyebrow. Then, he urged his horse forward and, one by one, the others followed him. Nathan watched them. We've got a hell of a long way to go, he thought as he nudged his horse to a trot and fell in behind.
"Whoa." Matthew Nichols raised a hand. "Hold up."
As the Nichols Gang stopped and quieted their horses, Matthew listened intently. "Damn. Gunfire from the direction of our camp." He wheeled his horse in that direction.
"Matt, wait." Peter Nichols demanded. He listened intently. The gunfire had stopped.
"We got to go back."
Peter nodded in agreement. "That's right. Take 5 men and check it out. If Mr. Liar and the slave have somehow managed to escape, go get 'em. I don't care if you have to kill them. Although I'd prefer alive. Especially, Mr. Liar. But Matt, you get in over your head, withdraw and come get us. Rendezvous will be the hanging tree."
"We probably need all the men we can get."
Peter smiled slowly. "That's right. I wired Cole Preston in Dodge. He's bringing 20 men. Should be getting here anytime now."
Matt smiled. "Should have known you'd have it covered?"
"That's right, should have known. Remember Matt, meet at the hanging tree."
Matt pointed to 5 men. "Let's go."
Two miles north of Four Corners:
A rider approached a group of 20 men. Didn't need to know them to know they were rough men. Armed to teeth, each man carried a minimum of two pistols and two rifles. They were after all professionals, working for Nichols syndicate. Enforcers. They were a feared group who kept folks in line. And they had a taste for killing. Particularly their leader, Cole Preston.
Cole Preston was a handsome man. A contemporary of Peter Nichols, they met as young schoolboys. He and Peter could be quite the gentlemen. Meet Cole sober and he was so amicable. A great host --he would make sure you'd want for nothing at the string of saloons and hotels he managed for the Nichols. Problem was, he wasn't often sober. And he was a mean drunk. Team him with Peter Nichols, he was even meaner. Heard of one barkeep that was watering the whiskey without permission and skimming profits. Cole and Pete tied to a post in the saloon. Would have been okay if they just killed him. But they wanted to entertain the patrons. And send a message. So they shot 'im in the arm. Drank and played cards. Shot 'im in the knee. Drank and played cards. During the next few hours, they shot, drank, and played cards until the man eventually succumbed. It was slow. And it was terribly painful. You did not cross Cole Preston and everybody in Kansas knew it.
The man was nervous. Sure didn't want to report that he didn't have the information he was sent for.
"Mr. Preston." The man's voice quavered hoping he would survive this. "The town's shut up. They've got barriers at both ends of the major street into and out of town. Armed men manning them. Got in. But the saloon's closed. Everything is closed. And there is nobody on the street."
"Peter's here. Just a manner of finding out where."
"Riders coming." One of the men called out.
"That could be them." Cole Preston rubbed his hands together in glee.
"It's Peter Nichols." A man with a spyglass reported.
Peter Nichols reined in. Men drew their horses back to give him a wide berth. He smiled with satisfaction. Something mighty powerful about intimidation. Peter relished the power he had over these men. "Cole." He heartily clapped the man on the back. "Thank you for coming."
Cole smiled. "Wouldn't miss it. Sounds like fun."
"Oh it will be," Peter drawled, his face creasing in a broad smile.
"Heard of these men."
"Chris Larabee - sure. Gunfighter. Very good. Extremely good. Never go at him one-on-one; you can be sure not to survive. Vin Tanner - was a bounty hunter till he was brought up on murder charges. Accurate with a long rifle beyond compare. They'll use him as a sniper. He's got to be taken out. And Ezra Standish - at least that's the name I think he's using these days."
"Ahhh. We call him Mr. Liar."
"That's him. Gambler. Con man. While the others play straight up, he won't. He'll cheat to put the odds in their favor. And he is very good at it. The others, know only by reputation." Cole paused in his recitation of the men they would face. Grinned at his longtime friend. "You couldn't choose an easier bunch to go up against?"
"Think of it as a challenge."
"I love challenges." Both men laughed. "Where're your brothers?"
"Taking care of a challenge."
"What's up for us?"
"The town these men protect have decided to hide one of the Seven from us. They need to be given a lesson in how to pick their friends."
"I think we are just the men," Cole commented with utmost confidence.
"So do I. So do I."
Jogging, dropping to a fractious walk for a few steps here and there, breaking now and again into a tight lope -- the men’s five horses moved through the trees unevenly; first one in the lead, then another, sometimes spread out and at other times bunched tightly. Most of the time it was Vin in front, though, and Josiah knew it was because he was homing in again on the goal he’d had for 24 hours now: get Casey back safe to Nettie. And most of the time Nathan was a bit behind him and to one side, his eyes darting back and forth between Vin and Buck with intermittent shakings of his head and a troubled expression. Ezra, Buck, and Josiah, though, kept intentionally trading places, one or the other of them dropping back behind the group from time to time to check for pursuers. So far, nothing had shown up, and Josiah was beginning to wonder if maybe their luck was finally changing for the better.
He looked up at Buck just then, riding to his left, and noticed with a sudden drop of his heart that the gunman’s face had started to gray. More scrutiny showed him that Buck was sitting off-center in the saddle now, too, his weight shifted away from his injured leg. Josiah felt the heaviness grow in his heart as he looked at Vin and realized that the tracker was starting to sag over his pommel again.
Not yet, Josiah thought, don’t let the fight wear off them just yet. We’re nearly there. He looked at his friends again, knowing well that it had to wear off soon, and that when it did it would drop both of them right to the ground. If only they could hold on a little bit longer. Nettie’s couldn’t be more than another mile. He looked back over his shoulder at the sound of rapidly approaching hoofbeats to see Ezra, hat in hand, gesturing urgently.
"They’re comin’!" he screamed. "Go!" His face was red as he reined in his plunging horse and glanced into the forest behind him, then looked back at the others with flashing eyes. "GO!!!"
Josiah felt his stomach lurch and the men around him spurred their tiring horses into a run. God no, he thought, not more. Please. But even as he thought it pistol shots rang out, and tiny pops and zings as bullets hit the trees nearby and careened off into the forest. The horses leaped in fright at the sounds and the scattering shards of bark, stretched out their necks and lowered themselves flatter, and hit their strides in a furious gallop that made the wind roar in the men’s ears. Josiah and Ezra drew together at the back of the group to race alongside each other with their stirrups nearly touching, exchanging a solemn look of agreement as they did so.
Nichols’ men would not get to Casey Wells except through them.
Nathan glanced back to see that Ezra and Josiah had made a clear decision to guard the rear, and scowled in frustration. He already felt torn as to who was closest to being in trouble right this minute, who might be the first to fall beneath the hooves of the horses coming behind, and now here was Ezra --only just past being so dizzy he couldn’t even stand up -- riding hell-bent-for-election like a damned cossack, shirtless and with his red coat streaming out behind him in the wind. Nathan looked over at Buck and saw that his face was suddenly more animated again, his skin flushed an unhealthy shade of red. He couldn’t even see Vin’s face; the tracker was pushing his black so far ahead, trying to keep Casey away from Nichols’ men, that all Nathan could see of the two of them was Casey’s dark pony tail whipping like a flame behind her, Vin’s hat just visible in front of it. The healer pulled out his pistol, settled his hat more firmly, and drifted his running horse on a sideways slant to take up a new position between Vin and Buck, one where he could see Ezra if he turned around a little bit.
Then the first real attack came.
Two horses materialized out of the shadows of the forest on the group’s left, coming in on a long slant but still out of pistol range. Josiah reached instinctively for his rifle, then realized Vin still had it. He reined in with such suddenness that it felt for a moment like he was racing backwards as the others pulled away from him. As he raised his pistol to take careful aim at the first rider, he saw Ezra whirl his mount in a half-rear to make a stand with him. The pursuing rider Josiah shot at went down, pulling on the bridle as he did so in a way that tumbled his horse to its knees. The second rider raised a rifle to Josiah then, froze it with concentration as he drew a bead -- and vanished backwards over the cantle as Ezra galloped past him from the other side, firing as he went. The gambler drew back around in a wide arc, his horse bouncing and chewing on the bit as he reined it around, and Josiah met him to turn again and follow the others.
Josiah realized with a start that he recognized the terrain all of a sudden, that Nettie’s was almost within sight. A lighter area far ahead in the dark forest had to be the clearing her cabin was in. Relief flooded into the preacher’s gut. Maybe Chris would be there. Maybe Nichols’ men would give up when faced with new and unexpected firepower. Then grim darkness clamped back down again when he saw that as close to Nettie’s as they might, it could still be just a little too far away.
Because a second group was coming up behind them on the right, fast and hard, driving their spent horses with loud screams of rage. Three were in this group, and they lashed the ends of their reins across their horses’ rumps as they spurred savagely, faces dark. Josiah and Ezra drifted towards the right to intercept them and block their approach to Vin and Casey, who were pulling slowly farther in front of the others as Vin pushed the black gelding ever harder. The firing was faster this time, less accurate as the pace of the horses marred everyone’s aim, but when at last one of the horses went down the one behind it was brought down also as they collided, and two men rolled to the ground in heaps of arms and legs and dust and a cloud of pine needles. The third rider drew away in a wide arc -- to double back around with some more help, Josiah was certain. He looked up to see that Vin had Casey a good 30 yards in front of everyone now, his black wet and frothing although it ran with nothing more than the man’s heels and hands to urge it on.
Casey, clinging to Vin like a burr, felt like the wind was going to rip the air right out of her lungs. She’d always liked to ride fast, but she’d never experienced anything like the speed at which Vin was racing the black now. She could hardly keep her eyes opened against the whistling air, and the tree trunks whipping past were like a string of blurred fenceposts. Suddenly, Casey felt Vin wobble in the saddle -- not much, and he recovered almost instantly. But she knew what it meant. She leaned up against the tracker’s back and wrapped the fingers of both her hands around the saddle horn in front of him, her arms so short that it forced the side of her face against his back. She hoped he would think she was just holding on so she wouldn’t fall off, that he would not realize she had made up her mind to somehow keep him in the saddle with her embrace or go with him as he fell. She wasn’t about to try to explain to her aunt that she’d abandoned the man who’d nearly given his life for her -- nor did she care to explain it to herself.
"NATHAN!!" Buck’s scream was so shrill that Casey heard it even over the roar of the wind in her ears, but dared not look back to see what had happened. Nathan heard it too, and ducked instinctively at the warning as a large-caliber shell tore his hat off like it had been hit by a brick. He jerked the reins of his horse to swerve it as another shell plowed a deep furrow through a tree a foot in front of him; he had a sudden glimpse of splintered wood pale under shredded red bark as he wheeled the horse back the other direction to dodge another shot. He glanced back to see Buck furiously holstering his empty pistol as he bore down on the man who had dismounted to improve his aim and was raising his rifle on Nathan a final time. No, thought Nathan, he CAN’T be -- and then realized he was. Damn fool, Buck!
Nathan spun his horse on its haunches as he hauled its head back around and raced for both men. He saw the shooter’s eyes widen when he realized his target was inexplicably riding straight down his barrel, then smile grimly as his trigger finger started to move. Buck hit him from behind at that instant, high on the back as he dove from his horse and piled the man into the ground beneath him. The shooter lost the reins of his own mount as the animal screamed in fear and jerked backwards away from the fight; Buck’s horse --Josiah’s horse -- shied sideways rolling its eyes as Buck rose up out of the cloud of billowing dust, the shooter’s collar tight in his hand. Buck pulled his arm back, smashed his fist across the man’s face twice in quick succession, then staggered backwards himself and started to fall as a new rider flashed into view beneath the trees, his pistol already blazing. Nathan fired back, grabbed the reins of Buck’s horse just at the bit to steady it as the tall man reached out and caught the stirrup, hauled himself back to his feet, and grabbed the saddle horn. More gunshots, Nathan’s eyes hard and the other man dropping from his horse, which thundered past with its reins flying loose.
Nathan’s attention followed the terrified horse a fraction of an instant --just long enough that something moving far off under the trees caught his eye -- something flitting, racing through the shadows like dark phantoms. The hair on the back of his neck stood up suddenly. It was a large group of new riders, closing fast on fresh horses. Where the HELL were all these guys coming from?
Nathan turned to Buck with new urgency in his voice. "BUCK! Get up NOW!"
Buck dragged himself into his saddle then, with a sharp, involuntary cry of pain as his wounded leg protested. He paled visibly, a bright spot of color high on each cheek, blood running freely down his leg now, and his seat unsteady. Nathan reached out a hand to his friend to help hold him to the saddle so they could head out again, but before he could do a single thing to help Buck it got even worse.
Josiah went down.
Chris rubbed his face hard trying to ease the fatigue. He had just finished another walk of the perimeter. It had been very quiet. In some regards he was relieved. It gave JD a chance to rest and if the fight came to them, he was going to need him. Chris finished his perimeter walk at the hill. It afforded him a good view of the surrounding landscape. The sky was beginning to lighten to the east. Be dawn soon.
Shit. He really thought someone on his team would've road in by now. Five men and Casey and no word.
He mounted the steps to the cabin. Nettie was sitting on the porch rocker that Vin had made her with her Spencer Carbine across her lap. "Fresh coffee on the stove." Chris admired her fortitude. She had been a brick. After showing her initial fear, she made dinner, cared for JD, and assisted with the watches. Never cryin'. Never lettin' on just how fearful she was she would never see her beloved niece again.
Chris nodded to her about the coffee. He went inside and poured himself a mug. Mary was in a chair by the fireplace. A rifle across her lap. Wisps of her blond hair had escaped the braid and lay across her breast. Her clothes, shirt and pants, emphasized her lithe figure. She was no tea rose, just pretty to look at. Her intelligence and business savvy kept The Clarion operating. It was her will that kept the town of Four Corners going when it was on the verge of descending into lawlessness. She deserved so much better than the hand she was being dealt.
He went to the bedroom to check on JD. As soon as he reached the portal, JD's eyes opened.
"How ya' doin'?" Chris smiled.
"I hurt all over." JD's raspy voice responded. Chris assisted him to sit up and handed him some water. "Anybody ride in?"
"No." Chris didn't effectively hide the pessimism from his voice.
"You gonna ride out after them?"
Chris pulled up a chair and sat beside JD. "No"
"No?" JD was obviously shocked.
"I can't. As much as I want to, I can't. I can't leave Miz Nettie and Mary unprotected. The Nichols don't care who they hurt, including women. We have to protect them. And it's going to take both us."
Chris paused giving JD a chance to digest what he said. When JD nodded, his head he continued. "Do you feel up to movin', if we have to?"
"I could ride, Chris," JD answered earnestly.
Chris was skeptical but it may come to that. "I'm thinking to stay put here."
"They'll come here." JD's voice was laced with fear. Not for the fight. JD didn't have anything to prove on that score. No, Chris knew better, it was concern for Nettie and Mary. "They will eventually find out Casey doesn't live in town and figure we would head here."
"That's what I'm figurin'"
"What?" JD exclaimed.
"Let's consider the options. First, we could move. But where? - that the rest of guys could find us. It would exhaust you, making you less useful in fight. And if we were intercepted while moving, will have no chance to prepare our defenses." JD was nodding his head as Chris talked. "On the other hand, we can stay here. Set up a perimeter which is already done. Create some traps. The fight would be on our ground, on our terms. Plus, this is the rendezvous point. All the guys know to head here."
"I think that's the better plan."
"Do you mind helping to stand?" JD asked.
Chris frowned. "You should get as much rest as possible."
"I'm tired of being sick and tired. I'm stiffening up like a piece of plywood. Need to get movin', stay looser that way. Get my feet under me. Be much better in a fight." Chris liked his thinking.
Chris went around the bed to JD's right side and wrapped an arm around his waist. JD put his right hand on Chris' shoulder and swung his feet out of bed. He let out a big sigh. He nodded his head slightly and stood. He swayed initially and Chris was thinking too much, too soon. But after that initial dizziness, JD seemed to recover. He walked slowly with Chris beside him into the kitchen.
Their footfalls woke Mary. "JD, what are you doing out of bed?" She demanded, rising to her feet and setting the rifle beside the chair.
"Tired of being in bed." JD sulked.
"You need to get your rest so you recuperate."
"Gonna sit up awhile. Have a bowl of chicken and dumplins'."
Mary threw up her hands in frustration. "Broth, JD, broth."
"Aargh. I can hardly wait till Nathan . . . " Mary stopped mid-sentence realizing what she said. Her shocked eyes looked at both Chris and JD. Her breathing started to come faster and faster until she started wheezing. She pivoted sharply and exited the cabin.
"You gotta go after her."
"And say what?"
"The right thing this time" JD said as he sat gingerly in a chair.
Chris shook his head in resignation. Kid was right. But he was never very good at saying the right thing to Mary. From the first day when she sat so prim and proper behind her desk lecturing him about the bad element, till today when she seemed a stranger to him.
Chris brought JD some water and a bowl of chicken and dumplin's. JD dug into the food enthusiastically. Good sign, the Kid havin' an appetite.
Chris left the cabin to follow Mary up the hill. "Miz Nettie, JD's up."
Nettie rose to go into the cabin. "Was it JD or you that upset Mary?"
Nettie smiled slightly at his answer and turned to enter the cabin.
Chris was fairly certain Mary had gone to the rock where they had talked last night. His mind was going blank. He couldn't think of a thing to say to her. His long strides easily covered the ground up the hill and sure enough Mary was sitting at their rock.
As Chris approached, Mary dashed the tears from her eyes. "You know its okay to cry for someone you love." Tears spilt again from Mary's eyes.
"It just seems so selfish."
"Mary." Chris spoke tenderly. He kneeled in front of her and he gently pulled her into his embrace. Her head bowed to rest on his shoulder and quiet sobs raked her body. Chris just held and stroked her back. This had been a long time coming. And it wasn't just the events of the past day. They were the triggers but it was loss of the life she had, the loneliness, the fear . . .
She finally stopped. And used the dry side of Chris' shirt to wipe her tears. "Thank you."
"Mary." Chris paused, thinking of what to say. "Mary, no matter how it is between us. Don't ever doubt you can't come to me. For protection. For a shoulder. For love . . . "
Mary looked up at him pensively. "I won't do that."
Chris bowed his head. "I just wanted you to know. Whenever. Wherever."
"Thank you, Chris." Mary responded solemnly. She looked up into his eyes. Chris felt himself drawing her toward him. He was fully expecting her to stiffen and pull back. But she acquiesced.
"Mary?" His husky voice asked permission as he bowed his head. He could see the pulse beating, moving the porcelain skin of her throat. The soft gasp as one hand rounded to cup her breast. Mary moved closer to him and Chris groaned softly.
Damn, he wanted her.
Long repressed desire exploded in both them. Chris crushed his mouth to hers. He nipped at her bottom lip and Mary opened her mouth. Chris groaned and pulled her tight against him letting her feel his desire. His tongue plundered her mouth. He kissed her along her jawline and her head thrust back as he suckled her neck. His hand on her breast began a firm massage. She pulled has both hands behind his head and pulled his head up so she could kiss his mouth, his jawline, his neck . . . Chris rolled her to the ground so she was beneath him. His mouth found hers again, swallowing her broken gasp as he ground his pelvis against hers.
They both froze . . .
Faint gunshots broke the quiet of the dawn.
One minute Josiah had been bringing up the rear, his attention torn between protecting Nathan while he got Buck remounted and making sure Vin got Casey away. The next minute his tiring horse’s gait broke, the animal faltered, and it was crashing to the ground with Josiah leaping from the saddle to avoid being crushed. He saw bright blood pouring from the animal’s chest as he stepped away and whirled to face his pursuers. Damn those crows anyway, he thought. God damn them! He reloaded grimly, quickly as he watched three of Nichols’ men coming at him, then raised his pistol and started firing. The riders scattered to present a less compact target, and Josiah knew one of them would get lucky any minute. He took one step back, still firing, then another. He wanted to spare a glance towards Nathan and Buck, to see if Buck was up again yet, but he had to duck and then roll, and then rise up and fire, the smoke from his pistol stinging his eyes.
Then suddenly out of nowhere, there was Ezra, wheeling around him like a trick rider, putting down one hand for Josiah to haul up on and shooting with the other. The pinto the gambler had grabbed staggered a moment as it adjusted to the combined weight of the two men, then broke into a labored run. Josiah saw Nathan and Buck whirl to run again from where they’d been laying down cover for him and Ezra. Farther ahead he saw Vin’s gelding enter the sunlight of the clearing beyond the forest, its two riders looking -- Josiah blinked, squinted. Something was wrong there.
Vin had heard Ezra’s initial yell, and knew immediately what it meant. Damn, he thought. We’re so close, nearly there. He pushed the black to run faster and leaned down a little to cut the wind resistance. The movement made something strange happen, though -- for a moment things sort of faded out, the sound of the chase dimming, and then it came back again with a deep searing pain in his side that took Vin’s breath away. Damn! Not now, he thought. Not yet. Shots sounded behind them and to one side, then more from the right and much closer. Keep ‘em away from Casey, Boys, he thought. Give me just a few more minutes. He could see the clearing ahead, on the far side of it the weathered gray wood of Nettie’s cabin and a thin stream of smoke coming from the chimney. The trees flashing past started to blur, and the clearing seemed hazy somehow. Vin blinked, raised his right hand to wipe the sweat out of his eyes, wondered why his hand was shaking, felt the gelding break stride suddenly -- two steps, then three -- still running but off balance somehow.
Casey couldn’t see a damn thing, but she knew they had to be getting close to home. She could feel it. She could also feel Vin beginning to reel alarmingly in the saddle, finally sagging so far to one side that he was pressing against her arm hard enough to make her fingers turn white with hanging on to the saddle horn. The gelding was still running, although she thought it was more from fear than anything else now. All around them were sounds of desperate fighting, first to one side, then another. Men’s voices rang out in wordless yells of triumph or anguish amid the pops and roars and bangs of the various calibers of weapons being fired.
"Casey." Vin’s voice was so raspy that at first Casey didn’t realize what she was hearing. "Casey. Let go a’ me."
"NO." She understood suddenly what he was asking, his head turned to one side so she could hear his voice.
"Casey. Let go."
The girl bit her lower lip and tried to reach far enough forward with two fingers to grab the reins.
Why wouldn’t she let go? What did she think she was -- Vin shook his head, felt the heaviness grab at him with more strength than before, knew he couldn’t stick in the saddle all the way across that wide clearing. It was too far. But she wouldn’t let go. Somehow that girl had hold of him in a way that was dragging her off with him, and he couldn’t get her to understand that she had to let go of him. Vin clenched his teeth against it, tried to force himself to sit up straighter, to force his legs to grip the sides of the horse, to force his hands to close more tightly on the reins.
It was too far. It was too bad he couldn’t finish the job and keep his promise, but it was just too damned far. Vin saw the sky swimming in and out of the trees, caught a quick glimpse of shadows falling sideways and then upside-down, felt himself sliding into a slow fall in which it seemed he was suspended forever off the side of the gelding, the ground never arriving, Casey being caught in a tug-of-war between the ground and the horse. The girl could feel Vin’s weight prying the fingers of her right hand from the saddle horn, one by one, as he starting losing his long fight to stay conscious. And each moment that she held on against the pull, he dragged her a little farther and a little farther off center. Suddenly she felt the saddle slip a tiny bit, felt the horse react with a nervous sideways shear in its run as the weight on his back started shifting beyond its own balance point. Casey grabbed frantically at the horse’s mane with her left hand, her right clutching desperately to keep hold of the saddle horn as Vin sagged so far over her right arm that she thought her elbow would snap. The black hopped sideways one step mid-stride in its run, snorting in fear, sensing that the shift in the two people’s weight was a sudden threat to its own ability to stand upright. Casey got hold of the reins, tried to pull the gelding’s head around to help it get back its balance before it threw them or fell.
And at that moment, the gelding hit one of Chris’s trip wires with a single forefoot.
Josiah saw them go. He heard Ezra curse as Vin and Casey were launched from the saddle of the falling horse like sacks of feed. Vin hit the ground a good 15 feet from the gelding and slid several more feet through the grass and dry leaves, the impact rolling him over several times as he went so that his hat flew off and skipped across the clearing like a stone on a still pond. Casey landed a little behind him and to one side, hitting hard on her hands and knees, and then rolling completely end over end once before she came to a stop. The gelding’s feet went out from under it sideways as it came down hard, one stirrup flying up in the air and then bouncing back down; almost immediately the animal struggled to its feet, heaving, dust and leaves and bits of grass flying up thick as a storm. It took to its heels for the house, reins flying, head raised in terror.
Casey pushed herself up off the ground tasting dirt and grass and blood in her mouth, her chin and cheek and the palms of her hands stinging like sixty, and looked around to find Vin. She saw him not far away, on his back, and shook her head to clear it. Behind her she could hear the pounding of horses coming, no telling who. The girl crawled over to the tracker and started to grab his shirt, but he shook his head at her, his hair fanning out on the ground beneath his head as he did so.
"Vin, I can’t--"
"Dammit, Casey, RUN!"
The horses were closer. Casey looked back over her shoulder to see what looked like half an army bearing down on them, close enough that she could see the clods of earth flying up from behind the hooves of the lead runners. Vin spoke again, urgency lacing his voice with a fear that she hadn’t ever heard before.
"RUN! PLEASE!" He’d come so far, he thought, tried so hard, used up everything he had to get her home, and now she was sitting there paralyzed, looking at the approaching riders with wide eyes. Why wouldn’t she go? Vin tried to raise his hand to grab her, tried to sit up to pull on her, tried to do anything.
Found he couldn’t. He couldn’t even raise his hand. It was even getting hard to make the words come out, but she had to hear him.
"CASEY!" He was screaming, but it was coming out a whisper. Like a nightmare. Screaming to her to keep going before it was too late. Go home to your aunt, go home to your future, go home to your childhood. Go home, Casey. Run.
Then Vin saw the flashing legs of a horse being reined in next to him, saw someone reach down an arm around Casey’s waist and draw her up, protesting, behind him on the saddle. God no, he thought, trying to find his gun. Not that. No. Casey was yelling something, and Vin felt a sting like humming run through his frame as he found movement again and reached for his gun, laid his hand on it, started to draw it and rise up again and --
Josiah stopped him. Pressed large hands against Vin’s shoulders to keep him down and so he wouldn’t shoot Ezra thinking he was one of the Nichols. He could see in Vin’s eyes that he didn’t know enough of what was happening right now to understand that Casey was safe, not captured. Lord knows, thought the preacher, the girl hadn’t helped matters by screaming bloody murder at Ezra over being made to leave the fallen tracker.
Nathan and Buck drew rein and turned to face the men behind them, to lay down as much cover as they could to protect Josiah and Vin. The group of pursuers scattered in the face of the combined volley, and were now busy taking up positions behind trees and bushes along the edge of the clearing. Nathan glanced at the preacher to see that he had picked Vin up from the ground and was holding him awkwardly in his arms, the tracker’s head and neck hanging down loosely and one arm dangling. Josiah was going to need help.
"Buck!" The gunman kept firing, his horse backing and twisting, and Nathan called more loudly. "BUCK!"
Buck turned bloodshot eyes on Nathan that were nearly blank of expression. A smear of gunpowder darkened one cheek, and his skin was chalky. Nathan gasped. "Go, Buck. Go on!" He gestured towards Nettie’s with his pistol barrel, then turned it to shoot at a face suddenly poking around the side of a tree.
Buck shook his head as if to clear it. Then he turned his horse, Nathan beside him, and the two men rode up to each side of Josiah. The preacher was a strong man, but he was struggling, tired as he was. As they all were. And Vin was past helping with anything, his eyes half-opened but staring unseeing. Nathan started to get down to help Josiah mount up, to help carry Vin --anything. A curse from Buck warned him that the men were coming out of cover behind him, though, and shooting broke out again. A bullet spanged off the ground 6 inches away, and Nathan’s eyes met Josiah’s in a look of mutual and very clear understanding.
They were about to lose.