by Jordan McKenzie


Part 18


Josiah stood outside the door of the jail and scanned the streets as Archie Sanders walked Mary back to the safety of the Clarion. The older gentleman had taken it upon himself to escort many of the ladies around town so they could conduct their business without fear, and since Mary had insisted on preparing and delivering meals for the seven men who protected Four Corners he was only too happy to accompany her on her mission. Archie hurried along to open the door to the newspaper office for his pretty young charge, waved her inside and made sure the door was secure before he departed.


Surveying the area one last time, Josiah finally gave in to the smell of hot food and reentered the jail. As he locked the door behind him, he saw JD stuff a large piece of bread into his mouth. “Much better than the food at the saloon, ain’t it?” he remarked.


JD nodded as he savored the taste in his mouth. It was the first time Josiah had ever seen the boy actually take time to chew. Usually he bolted his food without regard to what it would do to his stomach, but this was home cooking, something neither of them had tasted in months.


“You know that bread tastes even better when you slather butter all over it,” he advised, scooting JD around the desk and into the chair as he made himself comfortable on the bench he’d dragged from the window. “Pass me some of that stew before my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.”


JD obliged him and dove into the large helping he’d spooned out for himself. After several enthusiastic bites, he finally came up for air. “That was real nice of Miss Mary to do this for us. I ain’t tasted nothing this good ever. I bet Nathan and the others were sure glad to get some.” That said, the young man filled his spoon again and shoved it into his mouth.


Josiah wiped his chin. “Amen to that. I doubt Nathan’s had time to even think of food, much less where it was gonna come from.” He pulled the buttered bread apart with his fingers and paused. “He sure looked worried when he was here before. Ezra ain’t doin’ so good.”


JD stopped chewing at the mention of the gambler’s name and stared at the preacher.


“There’s not much tellin’ what those men did to him in the time they had him.”


Dunne set his spoon down and pushed the bread aside as his appetite began to fade. “I ain’t never seen anybody so torn up before. Can a man survive what he’s been through?”


“I suppose that all depends on the man.”


“Yeah,” he said sadly.


“Just remember, that man’s Ezra. I have a feelin’ he’s been through many vicious times in his life, probably all on his own. There’s no reason to think he won’t get through this, especially with all of us to help him.”


The young sheriff didn’t look convinced.


“Have faith, JD.”


“Oh, I have faith in Ezra, Josiah. I learned a long time ago he ain’t all about fancy clothes and pretty talk. He’s tougher than he looks. I’m just worried we might not get our old Ezra back when this is all over.”


Sanchez thought a moment before he spoke. “I can’t say what Ezra’s gonna be like on the other side of this, but I figure we’ll all be changed by what he’s goin’ through. We deal with it together. We don’t let him down and we don’t let him think he’s let us down.”


“How could he think he’s let us down? He nearly died tryin’ to protect Chris and Hank.”


“When a man suffers at the hands of someone as evil as the Nichols family you don’t know what he’s liable to wake up thinkin’.”


Understanding crossed the young man’s face. “It won’t matter though, will it,” he said with a hint of hopefulness. “We’ll take care of him.”


Josiah smiled his agreement.


“We’re his family now,” Dunne added decisively, as if the declaration was something he’d been giving considerable thought.


“From your lips to God’s ears.”


A grim laugh sliced through the moment like a knife. “A family? You really believe you bunch of heathens are a family?” The laugh sharpened.


JD began to rise but Josiah put out a hand to stop him.


“You’re a gang of hired guns!”


Josiah calmly pushed his bowl from the edge of the table, stood and walked towards the cell housing John Nichols. The man now sported two wrapped limbs cradled in the same sling across his chest. He looked ridiculous, sprawled on the cot, but he doubted the youth was aware of it given his ego. Sanchez stood tall outside the cell and looked down on its occupant. “You do like to hear yourself talk, don’t you?”


John craned his neck to look up. “I have to entertain myself somehow, there’s so little intelligent conversation around here.”


“You may be a talkative sort, son, but intelligent you ain’t. Seems to me a rabid dog might have more meaningful things to say. And I mean no disrespect to the dog.”


“You’re out of your mind. You don’t seem to understand what it means to be a Nichols.”


“Oh, I understand, I’m just not particularly impressed by it.”


“You might wanna rethink that, old man.”


Josiah paused and cocked his head as if awaiting some sort of divine inspiration. “Nope, mind’s made, there’s no changin’ it now.”


JD grinned.


“As a Nichols, I’m a part of a family who’s respected and envied. Back home, folks would give their eyeteeth just to be near us. We’re strong, and powerful and capable of achieving any goal we set. My brothers and cousins want for nothing. My ma and uncle have done great things to secure our future so we can focus on making our family grow and prosper. It’s an empire; one that’ll last forever.”


“That’s quite a leap from family to empire.”


“You couldn’t understand.” He tried to raise himself to a more comfortable position.


“You’d be surprised. In the traditional sense families are usually created by the procreation of a man and a woman united in matrimony. It’s a blessed thing in the eyes of God. But I hardly think the Good Lord would be displeased by those families created through experience, likeness of spirit or even a common goal.”


Nichols scowled.


“Family are simply those people who put you before themselves; they protect you, support you, and jerk a knot in your tail every now and again just ‘cause ya need it. My good friend Ezra, the man your family took a knife and a whip to, he’s my family, as are Chris and Nathan and young JD here,” Josiah said as he squatted down to meet John face to face. “And when I hear someone bad mouthin’ ‘em I admit it really makes me angry, and I wanna forget I’m a man of God and permanently shut their mouth.”


JD couldn’t see the look on Sanchez’ face, but he knew it must have been intense because he could have sworn Nichols shuddered before he pulled away.


Josiah continued. “But I value my family and I wanna continue to share in the good fortune of having found it, so I control myself. There are times when it takes every ounce of my strength, but I do it.”


“Control is highly overrated.”


“It’s the only thing keepin’ you alive at the moment.”


John backed away even further. “You call yourself a family. There’s no blood between you, not like me and mine.”


“Oh, there’s blood between us, plenty of it, every time we fight -- for each other and for this town.”


“You know what I’m sayin’.”


“I’ll give it to you that you and the others all sprang from the same womb, but that ain’t all it takes to make people family.”


“We didn’t all spring from the same womb,” he answered smugly, “but our blood all comes from the Nichols line.”


JD came around the desk and neared the cell. “What d’ya mean?”


“Peter, Mark, Paul and Anthony are all my brothers. Matthew and Luke are my cousins, but they were both raised by Ma. Uncle Simon knew his wife couldn’t raise them properly so he put ‘em in Ma’s care. He always says she’s done an amazing job bringing them up.”


“Your uncle just took ‘em away from their mother?”


“She was too weak, too tolerant to raise ‘em right. Uncle Simon spotted it right off.”


“So what happened to their ma?” asked JD.

“My uncle kept her around for a while but she kept causin’ trouble. Didn’t take long for him to get a gut full and take care of her.”


“Take care of her how?”


Nichols cracked a devilish grin. “It’s probably best you don’t know. You don’t look man enough to handle it.”


Josiah watched his friend’s look of bewilderment, grateful the youth hadn’t been goaded into responding to John’s last statement. “JD,” he called, “why don’t you get back to that stew? It’d be a shame to let it get cold.”


The young sheriff followed his advice and returned to his place at the desk. In the meantime, Sanchez rose eyeing the smirk on his prisoner’s face. “You’re a lost soul, John Nichols.”


“No I’m not, preacher; I know exactly who I am and what I stand for.”


“Well I’m afraid you have your ma to blame for that,” Josiah replied and turned to walk away.


“They’ll come for me. My brothers, my blood, will come for me. They’ll show you what family is about!” John shouted just before he broke into a maniacal fit of laughter.


Josiah ignored him and took his seat on the bench then he pushed his half empty bowl towards the pot of steaming stew and motioned to JD. “Care to warm it up for me, brother?”


Dunne beamed when he caught the preacher’s meaning.




Vin had been searching the north end of town on his own for more than two hours before he decided to go by the jail to ask Josiah to lend him a hand checking the buildings lining either side of the main street. He banged on the locked door and waited for JD to let him in. “Everything all right in here?” he asked Dunne.


“Yeah, we’re good, what’s happenin’ back at the clinic?”


“When I left, Buck and Nathan had their hands full. Chris is worryin’ the hell out of ‘em and Ezra’s in a bad way.”


“How bad?” Josiah asked as he raised the light in the lantern.


“Bad enough. I’ll explain it all later, right now I need your help lookin’ for the Nichols. I can’t figure where they’re hidin’ but we need to find them before that wagon comes tomorrow.”


Sanchez double-checked his gun belt. “Good idea, it would be a shame for the brat to be all by his lonesome on his trip to Eagle Bend. Any idea where we should start? We’ve looked the town over three or four times and ain’t seen hide nor hair of ‘em.”


“We start at the beginning – the hotel. JD, you keep a close eye on our prisoner. If you even think his kin are makin’ a move to grab him, make as much noise as you can and we’ll come running. Don’t take any chances, got it?”


“I got it, Vin. Don’t worry about me. Just find the bastards who hurt Ezra.”


Tanner clasped a hand to the young man’s shoulder and silently promised he would do his best.



Part 19


Vin sat on the bottom step of the stairs leading to Nathan’s clinic and waited for Josiah to return from Joseph Hobson’s store. He noticed the preacher’s serious demeanor as he crossed the street and shook his head in disbelief. “No luck, hunh?” he asked, knowing the answer.


“Nah, Hobson’s like everyone else in town, worried and scared. It looks like nobody’s seen the Nichols since the shootout.” Sanchez removed his hat and fanned his face. The morning had long since passed and the temperature was on the rise.


“Last night was quiet enough, you suppose they snuck outta town?”


“Could be. I didn’t figure they’d leave the brat behind but maybe they don’t know he’s being moved today.”


“The whole town knows by now, it’s hard to imagine they don’t. I’m sure they were around after we grabbed Ezra because of those fires.” Tanner took the hand Josiah offered and pulled himself to his feet. “I don’t know, maybe they did move on to regroup.”


“I think I’ll have another look around the livery. I want to make sure the two men we set up to guard it are payin’ attention. Something tells me the Nichols are gonna want their buggy back regardless.”


“Yeah, they’ll need it for the old lady. Somehow I can’t picture her straddlin’ a horse.”


Josiah grimaced. “You comin’?”


“I’ll catch up, there’s somethin’ I need to ask Chris.”


“Alright, I’ll meet you back at the jail -- the wagon from Eagle Bend should be here before too much longer.” The preacher walked away.


Vin rested his mare’s leg on his shoulder and climbed the stairs.




Nathan tried again to get Chris to eat some of the broth he’d scooped out of Mary’s stew. In the past twelve hours, he’d reheated it three times and each time the gunfighter took a bite or two then pushed away the bowl. It was maddening trying to heal a man whose mindset was to protect even if it meant killing himself. For some insane reason, Chris’ brain refused to accept the fact his body was growing sicker; it was a fact it wouldn’t be able to ignore much longer.


He watched closely as Larabee dragged himself once again from the chair beside Ezra’s bed to the window overlooking the street. He had to hand it to him; he did a good job hiding the shaking in his hands and the stagger in his step, but he couldn’t control the flushness of his skin or the pinch around his eyes. There was little doubt his wound carried infection but he wouldn’t allow Nathan near enough to look.


Jackson was considering his options as a healer and a friend when he saw Vin enter the clinic. The tracker went immediately to Chris, doubtless to report his success, or from the look on his face, the lack of success, in hunting down the Nichols. Larabee lowered his head and turned away as he heard Vin say, ‘We’ll keep looking.’ Tanner left the brooding gunfighter and crossed the room to take a seat next to him. “How ya holdin’ up, Nate? Get any sleep last night?”


Nathan didn’t take his eyes off Chris. “Some. I take it you didn’t have any luck.”


“Nope, Josiah and I searched everywhere we could think of – even woke several folks up lookin’ around – but we came up empty. It’s like chasin’ ghosts.”

“Well, I hope we find ‘em soon. Chris ain’t gonna last much longer if we don’t.”


Vin followed Nathan’s eyes to where the gunfighter was propped. “He’s got ya worried.”


“Dang fool won’t listen. When he ain’t over there talkin’ Ezra out of his nightmares he’s keepin’ watch. Every time I turn around he’s on his feet. The only time he’s on his back is when he’s passed out.”


“I reckon he ain’t the best patient in the world, but you can’t change what he feels.”


“I may never get a chance to the way he’s goin’.”


Vin looked away, not knowing what to say.


“Look, I understand the guilt. I was there when those bastards started cuttin’ on Ezra. Every time he looked at me, I could feel him beggin’ me to make ‘em stop, and I should’ve been able to stop them. If I’d stayed with him…” Nathan paused as the memories began to overwhelm him. He didn’t speak again for several moments. When he did, he sounded disturbingly calm. “We got Ezra back and there’s a good chance he’ll make it. Chris needs to let himself mend so when we do catch up to the Nichols he can be there to see it done.”


“You did what you had to ta save Ezra. Chris means to do the same. He ain’t tryin’ to kill himself, he just can’t sit still while those men are still out there. There’s a lot more to the way he feels than he’s lettin’ on. I don’t think it’s just he feels responsible, I think he’s just gettin’ tired of evil walkin’ into his life and stealin’ away what little sense of normal he has. He was settlin’ into the idea Four Corners is where he’s meant to be and here comes the family from hell tryin’ to destroy what he’s built. He’s a fighter, it ain’t in him to lie down and take what comes. If you think about it, it’s probably that same stubbornness that keeps us all here; I wouldn’t care to follow a quitter. ”


“I know you’re right,” the dark man said with a sigh, “but he can sure try a man’s patience. He’s sick, Vin, sicker than he’s willin’ to admit.”


“You can’t stop him if he’s got a mind to do this.”


“Oh, I can stop him,” the healer mumbled.


Tanner tried to pretend he hadn’t heard the threat.


“I just wish I knew where that gang was holed up right now. It don’t seem right they been able to set all these fires and no one’s seen any sign of ‘em.”


“Ain’t nothin’ been right since they rode into town. While I was out this mornin’ I saw Mrs. Candler and her boys comin’ in with a wagon; they were bringin’ in the body of her husband.”


“Aubrey Candler? He’s the mill keeper, ain’t he?”


“Yeah. The Candlers live on a small homestead south o’ here.”


“What happened to him?”


“Seems his oldest son found him tied to one of those mills of his. He’d been beaten and left hangin’, just like Ezra.”


“The Nichols,” Nathan said flatly.


“Looks like it. I talked to Aubrey’s boy before the undertaker came. From what I can figure they must o’ come across him followin’ Ezra’s directions away from Chris’ place.”

“You plan on tellin’ Chris?”


“I was, but I reckon he’s got enough to think on right now.”


“Thanks. You add Candler to his list of folks to worry over and I’ll never get him off his feet.”


Tanner nodded and slapped a supportive hand to Nathan’s shoulder before he stood and moved to the foot of Ezra’s bed. “How’d he do last night?” he asked motioning to the gambler.


“Buck said he didn’t do well early on, kept fightin’ in his sleep. When I checked him this mornin’, he was shakin’ so hard I couldn’t keep ‘im still.”


“He ain’t movin’ now,” the tracker said as he moved closer and bent over to touch Ezra’s face.


“He stopped about an hour ago, hasn’t moved since.”


“He’s burnin’ up. Should he be that still?”


“He’s just asleep. It’s the best thing for him right now.”


“You sure? I mean he looks pretty bad.” Vin’s hand slid to Ezra’s fingers. He noted how cold they felt in comparison to the rest of him then spied the fresh bandage around his wrist. They threatened to take his hands? He just couldn’t get his head around it, it was inconceivable. Ezra must have been scared half out of his mind.


“He ain’t a pretty sight right now, but I do think he’s okay sleepin’. I’ll wake him in a little while just to be on the safe side.”


“I don’t reckon I’ve ever seen him like this before. He’s always movin’. Even when he’s sittin’ at the poker tables he’s talkin’ with his hands and constantly shufflin’ those cards of his. This just ain’t natural.” He stared at his friend and waited for him to breathe. He watched for what felt like an eternity trying to detect the tiniest of movements, and then finally a slow inhalation caused his chest to rise. That was it; that was all there was, just a slow, nearly undetectable rise and fall of the chest. It was too painful to watch, so he squeezed the cold fingers, covered them with the sheet and moved away from the bed.


Nathan watched him wander to Chris’ side. The gunfighter, who in his opinion leaned a little too heavily on his perch near the window, startled at Vin’s approach.


“Hold on, pard, it’s just me,” Tanner said, offering a steadying hand.


“Sorry,” Chris muttered.


“You know sleepin’s easier when you’re lyin’ down.”


“I’m not sleeping, I’m thinking.”


“About the Nichols?”


“Them… and Hank.”


“Yeah, I’m real sorry about Hank. I don’t know what made him go after ya like that. I was sure ya’ll had settled your differences when we put him on the trail to Mexico.”


Chris pushed himself to one side of the dresser he sat on and made room for Vin. “I was too. I have to admit it felt kind of good thinkin’ we’d put the past behind us, but I reckon a past like ours is never really put to rest.”

Vin propped a leg on the dresser and looked down at Chris’ hands. They both revealed uneasy tremors as they fidgeted nervously with the hem of his open shirt. “It’s hard to say, but I do think Hank was enjoyin’ the peace you’d made too, even if it was for just a little while. If his mind had been right, he’d of gone to Mexico and probably moved on with his life.”


“But instead, he’s a dead man.”


“What happened to Hank wasn’t your fault, you do know that.”


“He was Sarah’s father.”


“That don’t make him your responsibility.”


“Sure as hell feels like it.”


“I know, but you need to let it go.” Vin watched Chris’ hands cross and move beneath his shirt as he literally tried to hold in his grief. “There’s somethin’ I need to ask ya.”


The gunfighter didn’t look up. “What’s that?”


“Hank’s body is still at the undertaker’s. You got any idea where he should be buried?”


Chris blanched and his head dropped further.


“You alright?”


He didn’t answer.


“I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have brought it up.”


“No, it’s not that. It’s…”


Vin waited.


When Chris raised his head there was a look of alarm on his face. “It’s just I have no idea. I ain’t heard from Hank since Sarah and Adam died. I know his wife passed on a long time ago, but I have no idea where she’s buried. The old man moved his family around quite a bit… I just don’t know.”


Tanner could see a different kind of panic rising in the eyes of his friend. “It’s alright, Chris, we don’t have to decide on it now.”


“Yes we do. I don’t wanna leave him at the undertaker’s like that, it ain’t decent.” He stirred from his seat and tried to rise. When he did, he felt his stomach muscles clench around a sharp pain in his side.


Vin’s hand shot out the moment he caught the look on Chris’ face and grabbed him by the elbow. “Hang on, I’ll get Nathan.”




“But you…”


“I said no.”


The tracker looked over his shoulder to see Nathan standing at the cabinet where he stored his medicines. There was a troubled look on his face, but he couldn’t tell if the healer had seen Chris’ moment of pain or not. Vin drew himself up when he realized he was behaving like a schoolboy hiding something from the teacher. “You need to get some rest, Chris. Nathan’s right about that.”


“After the Nichols are caught.” He blew a long breath past his lips and sat straight as a board. “I can ride it out.”


Vin looked again at Nathan and saw him mixing herbs in some hot water, no doubt for pain. He smiled at the healer until he saw him reach for a small brown bottle on the top shelf of the cabinet.


Chris shuddered then slowly began to collect himself.




“Yeah, it just sneaks up on me.”


“Large holes in your gut’ll do that.”


“Shut up, Vin.”


Tanner eyed his friend closely, sparing only a glance at Nathan who had replaced the tiny bottle in the cabinet unopened.


“I’m sorry,” Chris said after a moment or two of scrutiny. Feeling decidedly uncomfortable, he changed the subject. “About Hank – I think we should bury him with Sarah and Adam.”


“You sure?”


“I don’t hold what he did against him. He could be a hard ass, but he was Sarah’s father and she loved him. Every man should be buried near family.”


“I’ll take care of it for ya,” Vin said. He rose from the corner of the dresser, strode to the window and looked outside. The sun had reached its peak in the sky and its position made him feel oddly calm. There were no long sweeping shadows to distract, no lazy pools of shade in which a man could hide. The sun’s brightness brought the whole town into focus at once and he felt compelled to take advantage of the spotlight it offered. “I should get back out there.”


“I’m goin’ with you,” he heard Chris say.


The statement took him by surprise and he wondered if he’d misunderstood, but when he saw Buck enter the room with the same look of disbelief on his face he knew he’d heard right.


“You’re what?” Buck asked.


“I’m gonna help,” Chris repeated as he levered himself off the heavy dresser and moved to grab his gun belt from a nearby table.


“I think that fever you’ve been brewing has settled in your brain. You ain’t fit to be goin’ after three armed killers.”


Larabee wrapped the belt around his waist and buckled it low on his hips. “I don’t want an argument, Buck.”


“Well that’s just too damn bad because you’re gonna get one.”


Vin stole a fast look at Nathan. The healer took the brown bottle from the cabinet again and tipped its contents into the tea he’d been steeping. Tanner turned to the gunfighter as he began buttoning his shirt. “I think you’re gonna want to rethink this, Chris.”


“Would you two knock it off? I’m going.”


“Chris, you’re in pain…”


“And if you’re in pain,” Nathan interrupted, approaching Larabee with a full cup of tea, “you take somethin’ for it. Don’t fight with him, Vin, you ain’t gonna win.”


“You can’t be serious,” Buck hollered.


Nathan gave Tanner a knowing look before he answered Buck. “I ain’t arguin’ with him any more. The man wants to drop dead in the street, I can’t stop him.”


“But,” Wilmington began as he watched Chris down the warm tea in a single drink. “I don’t believe this.”


“I’m going, Buck, believe it,” the blonde said firmly.


“Just stay close, Vin. Maybe you can catch his stubborn hide before it hits the dirt,” Jackson advised.


Vin stepped nearer.


Chris paused and scanned the room – he needed to reload his weapon but decided he could do it at the jail since he needed to go there to grab an extra rifle. He blinked his eyes against the growing ache in his head and only just noticed the worried faces staring at him. For some vague reason he felt the need to explain his decision to leave the clinic but decided his men knew him well enough to already know the answer. It was then his eyes trailed to Ezra’s idle body on the bed. He wanted more than anything for the gambler’s motionless form to jerk or twitch or show any sign of life at all, but nothing happened. He brought a hand to his temple. “Nathan?”




“Ezra, he…”


“I don’t know, Chris.” Jackson saw the sadness in his friend and knew how deeply it ran. Vin was right – he truly wasn’t trying to kill himself. He simply had had enough of the evil that flowed through his life. In that instant, the healer almost regretted his actions – almost.


The gunfighter swayed and stumbled as he turned to leave but Nathan didn’t know if it was because of the drug he’d just dosed him with or because his body was finally giving out. Regardless, he moved closer and waited.


“Take care of him, Nate,” Chris slurred as the room reeled around him. He took three steps and then staggered. A hand appeared from nowhere, offering support, and he blindly grabbed hold.


“Chris?” Vin called.


“I’m alright. I told you, I can ride it out.”


“Sure you can, but maybe you should do it sittin’ down.”


He pulled away in frustration and aimed himself at the door. “It’s time to put an end to this.”


Tanner watched his friend clutch at his belly with one hand and grab for the dresser with the other. It was a full minute before he straightened and reached for the door knob. It was then Vin spotted the blood on his fingers. “Chris, you’re bleedin’ again.”


“It’s… ‘salright… let’s g-go.”


Buck suddenly became aware his friend was on the verge of passing out. He slid himself between Chris and the door and hooked him under the arms. Without waiting for permission, he dragged him backwards to the cot and sat him down. “Damn it, Chris, this is crazy,” Buck barked.


Larabee watched as his friends’ faces floated in front of him. They were speaking to him, well actually yelling at him, but he was to the point he didn’t care. He knew what he had to do, why couldn’t they understand? He tried to push himself up again, but there were hands all over him pushing him back down, and despite his best efforts he couldn’t resist. His brain had lost control of his limbs and no matter how he willed it there was no getting that control back. There was a feeling spreading across his body, a feeling he recognized from times past, and it suddenly dawned on him it wasn’t his body betraying him. It was something else, someone else… “N-Nathan,” he managed to say despite the numbness around his mouth. The healer’s face came close to his and he could feel warm hands holding his head up. “W-what did you do?”


“Take it easy, Chris, just rest.”


“You tricked… me… lied…”


“No, I didn’t lie to ya. I told you I wouldn’t mess with you if you didn’t mess with me.”


His mouth was beginning to fail him. “D-didn’t m-mess… you… son-m-btch.”


Buck came to Jackson’s defense. “No, you asshole, Nathan likes it when the men in his care try to kill themselves. Now shut up and go to sleep.”


Chris thrust his hand forward and tried to grab something with which to hoist him off the cot.


Buck easily swiped the hand aside. “No, pard, you’re gonna rest.”


The blackness skirting his vision slowly crept inwards and took away the light, his friends and his consciousness.


Seconds later, Buck watched as Chris slumped to one side and drifted into oblivion. “Thank God,” he said as he straightened the gunfighter’s body on the cot. “He’s the most stubborn man I’ve ever known. I was…”


FIRE! Someone yelled from the street. There’s a fire!


Vin snatched his weapon by the door and headed out onto the landing. He could see Josiah come running from the livery and meet up with Joseph Hobson in the street, who was apparently the person doing the shouting. Tanner hurried down the stairs.


“There’s a fire down at the newspaper office,” gasped Hobson.


“Oh crap,” the tracker said before he and Josiah broke into a run towards the Clarion.



Part 20


“I don’t believe it,” Buck complained. “How the hell did they get away with settin’ a fire in broad daylight?”


Nathan watched through the window as Vin quickly descended the stairs and took off up the street. “I got no idea, but they seem to be takin’ bigger risks.”


“Maybe Vin and Josiah’ll come up with something.”


“Maybe, come on we need to see to Chris right now.” With Larabee asleep, Nathan could finally get a look at the bullet wound in his side without protest. Every effort he’d made to treat the gunfighter’s injury since his surgery had been met with colorful language and hands pushing him away. Unless he planned to keep Chris drugged until he was well, this would be his one and only chance to get his hands on the man.


Buck brought an extra lantern to the side of the cot where Nathan was kneeling. “You know he ain’t gonna be real happy with you for puttin’ him to sleep.”


“I’ll worry about that when he wakes up. Right now, I’m more concerned about this wound.” Jackson felt the bandage resist its removal. “Hand me a wet rag, will ya?”


Wilmington did as he was asked, then lowered himself to the floor next to the cot. He watched the healer lightly moisten the bandage before he tried to pull it away again. A minute or so later the blood-caked cloth let go and Nathan set about cleaning Chris up.


“How’s it look?”


“Not good. He’s torn it open and set it to bleedin’. It’s also infected. Dang it, I thought I had it cleaned out.”


“You did the best you could but that bullet passed through several things, including Ezra, before it ever hit him. Not to mention he hid it from us for several hours with a dirty rag.”


Jackson rocked back on his heals. “I’m gonna get some soapy water to wash this again then mix up some carbolic acid to work into the bullet hole. I’ll sew it up when I’m done. That stuff I gave him ain’t gonna keep him out long so I best get to work. As soon as he wakes up, I’ll make some more tea to help with that fever of his. I just wish I could get more of it down Ezra.”


“He’ll come around again and I’ll see to it he gets some. Right now I’ll get that water for you.”


“Thanks,” Nathan replied as Buck left the room. It was hard to understand all that had happened in the past few days, but the healer was the first to appreciate the toll it had taken on his friends. Chris was running himself into the ground and Ezra, well, he had no idea how the gambler was doing really and wouldn’t know until he could talk to him without the interference of a raging fever, unbearable pain and well-meaning friends.


His thoughts were interrupted when Chris began to moan and shiver. As he’d mentioned, what he’d given the gunfighter wouldn’t keep him out long, but it should have put him under enough to stop him feeling pain. He felt as if he had failed again. He had planned to stop his friend from killing himself, but it looked like all he’d done was slow him down. Leaning closer, he mumbled softly, “I’m sorry, Chris. I’m so damned sorry.”




Vin skidded to a stop in front of the newspaper office. “Mary!” he shouted when he spotted her rounding the corner from the bathhouse lugging a large bucket of water. He took the heavy pail from her and pulled her into the street. “Mary, are you alright?”


The fear in the young woman’s blue eyes became clear the instant she brushed the disheveled hair from her face. “Yes, I’m fine. I just… I…” 


He took her by the elbows when she faltered and moved her further away from the fire. “Take a deep breath,” he instructed her gently.


“No really, I’m alright. It’s just the Clarion, we’ve got to get this fire out before it’s destroyed.”


“Josiah and I will help put out the fire. You need to get away from here.”


“No, I’m not leaving.” She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “Archie and some of the others have started a waterline from the bathhouse, we need every hand we can get to keep it moving.”


“Archie,” Vin said shaking his head, remembering the man present and accounted for at every fire the Nichols had set. “We should really make him Fire Chief.”


Mary didn’t hear him. “Why, Vin, why the Clarion? Why are they attacking so many people who’ve done them no harm?”


“I think it was random in the beginning but you, Mary, I think they probably chose the newspaper because you helped us.”


“Helped you? I don’t understand.”


“You brought food to the clinic and the jail and they saw it,” he answered. Then he turned to look over his shoulder. “Which means they were watching from some place between here and Nathan’s.”


“They were watching me?”


“More like they were watching us.”


“Then they’re probably still watching,” she replied, her eyes following his.


“That’d be my guess.”

Josiah ran past him carrying two large buckets and took a place at the head of the waterline. He spread the water with a sweep of his large arms then reached back to grab the next load brought his way.


“Come on,” said Vin, “let’s put this fire out.”


“What about the Nichols?”


“When I’m done here, I’ll find them. I swear to ya, if I have to take this town apart board by board, I will find ‘em. Are you sure you’re alright?”


“Yes,” she answered, lightly patting the hand still holding her elbow.


He nodded sharply, let her go and ran towards the bathhouse. Mary followed, more determined than ever.




“So what d’ya think?” Buck asked, looking over Nathan’s shoulder.


Nathan leaned back from the cot, holding his bloody hands open on either side of Chris’ wound. “I think I’ve done just about all I can. I had to cut into him to clean deep enough, but he should heal better now. Good Lord willin’, I got to all the infection.”

“You did a fine job there, Nate. I’m not sure I’d’ve had the nerve.”


“I set him up for this by not doin’ a better job when I took that bullet out.”


“You kind of had your hands full before.”


Jackson sighed. “That ain’t a good excuse. It’s gonna take him a lot longer now to get back on his feet.”


Buck clapped him gently on the back. “You know Chris; he’ll be up and around before he has a right to. I ain’t seen a fever yet that can keep him down long.”


Larabee moaned and tossed his head restlessly.


“See, he’s at it already.”


The healer moved to Chris’ head and raised an eyelid. “Dang it, how in the world is he doin’ that?”


“Doing what?”


“Fightin’ the medicine I gave him. He should be out cold. Instead he’s actin’ like he’s comin’ round.”


Buck eyed the open wound in his friend’s belly with worry. “We’d better get a move on then and stitch him up. Is there anything I can help ya with?”


“Yeah, I’m gonna need more bandages. Grab that package Vin brought from Hobson’s store and let’s see what he got.”


Chris groaned again, louder this time, and Buck hustled to the bedside table.




“Hurry, Vin!” Josiah shouted above the many raised voices around him. “We’ve gotta get a handle on this before the flames take out any more of the office!”


No less than twelve people had been working for nearly half an hour to slow the fire down, but the consumption of paper and ink had kept it burning despite their best efforts.


Vin squinted against the smoke and tried to see the direction of the blaze. “We need to get behind it! I can see several bundles of paper back near the presses. If the flames reach them, we’ll lose control and there’ll be no gettin’ it back.” 


“Any suggestions how to do that?”


The tracker eyed the bucket of water in Josiah’s hands. “Only one.”


Sanchez glanced at the bucket himself and asked, “Are you sure?”


Vin spread his arms. “I’m sure. We gotta do something quick or Mary’s gonna lose her paper.”


Josiah hefted the water and quickly doused his friend. Then he lifted another container over his own head and soaked himself as well. “Work your way through on this side,” he yelled, pointing to the wall nearest the bathhouse. “I’ll move the line to the window and bring the water to ya! And keep an eye on the ceiling. You’ve already had one experience with fire overhead.”


Vin felt the tug of burned skin on his back and agreed to be careful. He then grabbed more water and headed into the burning building.



Buck sat on the edge of Ezra’s bed as he cut the cord tied around the package of medical supplies. He was about to unwrap the brown paper when he noticed the gambler silently staring at him. “Hey, you’re awake,” he said softly.


Ezra didn’t move.


“Can you hear me?”


He didn’t answer.




He simply stared, making absolutely no effort to acknowledge there was anyone with him.


Despite the lazy gaze of open green eyes, Buck saw clearly Ezra wasn’t awake. In fact, the stare was so unnerving he called Nathan over and gestured nervously towards the gambler. “What’s the matter with him, Nate?”


The healer knelt down and ran a dark hand alongside the blank face. “Ezra?”




“Ezra, it’s Nathan, can you look at me?”


Obviously he couldn’t. Weary eyes fluttered closed, effectively ending the brief opportunity to reach his conscious mind. His head lolled deeper into the pillow and he was out.


Buck drew back in wonder. “What the devil was that?”


“I’m not sure. Some part of him might have felt you were near and he needed to see for himself. He doesn’t have the strength to talk to us, but I do think this could be a good sign.”


Wilmington rubbed Ezra’s arm. “I sure hope so. I can’t stand seein’ him like this.”


“I know. Let’s just let him rest.” Nathan got to his feet. “So, what did Vin get us to work with?”


Buck looked down at the package he held and pulled open the paper. “Looks like we got bandages, some makings for those awful teas of yours and...” Something heavy slid from the parcel and fell to the ground. He bent over to gather the fallen item and stared in disbelief as he hefted it in his hand. “What the hell? How did this get here?”




“This.” He raised his hand but Nathan never got a chance to see what he was talking about. A large explosion sounded from the street and both men ran out the door and onto the landing. “Damn,” Buck cried. “What was that?”


A second explosion resonated through the street.


Jackson ran back inside the clinic and grabbed Buck’s sidearm and rifle. He came out shoving the weapons at his friend and shouting, “I don’t know what’s goin’ on but you’d better get down there and give the others a hand.”



“Go, Buck, I can handle things here!”


He didn’t have to repeat himself. Buck ran down, taking the stairs two at time, and headed towards the chaos at the center of town.



Part 21


JD actually heard the jail heave a pitiful groan as a large portion of the wall facing the street exploded. The force rocked him off his feet and sent him staggering into the cell holding John Nichols. He looked back to see his prisoner roll himself off the cot and onto the floor.


“They’re here!” John shouted as he wriggled his way towards the front of the cell.


JD eyed the young man as if he had lost his mind. “Get down, you idiot!”


“My brothers are here to get me out!”


“If this is how they’re tryin’ to save you it’s a danged fool way to go about it! They could’ve killed us both!”


John pushed against the bars. “No, no, it was Luke who set that blast; he’s the best I’ve ever seen with dynamite!”


Oh great, JD thought, they’re coming at us with explosives now. The ceiling overhead creaked. “You better hope they don’t try that again. One more explosion and that roof’s liable to cave in.”


“On you maybe. I’m thinking these bars’ll protect me just fine.”


Sliding himself along the bars, out of John’s reach, JD replied, “Are you willin’ to bet your life on it? Better yet, are they?” He stared at the large hole at the front of the office, hefted the two guns he held and waited for the Nichols gang to come charging in.


“My brothers will do whatever it takes to free me.”


“Are they plannin’ on doin’ it in this life or wait until they send you into the next?”


“You’re talking out your ass, lawman,” John spat out sarcastically. “I told you before, they’re my blood. They wouldn’t risk my life…”


Another explosion shook the building, this time blowing a large section from the back of the jail. JD’s prediction came true -- one of the large support beams slid sideways and several heavy planks of wood fell from above. He crossed his arms and buried his head beneath them but the move wasn’t enough to stop the boards sending him to the floor in a heap. The heavy beam which had been blown out of place shifted again and tumbled down on top of him.


John was thrown to the far corner of his cell, and although nothing fell from above, several chunks of debris were blown in his direction. Splintered wood and sizeable pieces of stone struck him hard across his back and shoulders. He could do little to protect his injured arms except turn away, huddle against the bars and wait for the dust to settle. The pain in his arms was the first thing to strike him when the numbing effects of terror wore off. He realized he was actually lying on his broken limbs and quickly rolled himself into a sitting position. Heaving in several smoke-filled breaths, it took a moment for him to notice the grunting coming from beneath the large pile to his right. “You still here, lawman?” he choked out.


Several curses could be heard before an answer came. “Sorry to disappoint you, Nichols, but yeah, I’m still here.” JD managed to raise himself enough to look over the beam pinning his legs to the floor. Surprisingly, they didn’t hurt, but the pressure bearing down on them was rapidly becoming uncomfortable.


“I’m not disappointed at all,” John huffed, “I want you to be around to see my rescue.” He motioned towards the back wall.


Dunne looked at the back of the jail and saw the second explosion had created another hole. It was a fairly large opening that spanned six feet on the outside of the cell and another two feet on the inside. It was too high for John to reach on his own with two broken arms, but it was large enough for someone to eventually crawl inside and help him. It was obvious that was what Nichols was hoping for. JD knew it was the last thing he could allow and pushed at the beam crossing his knees with every bit of strength he could muster.


“John!” someone called from behind the jail. “John, you alright in there?”


The young man struggled to gain his feet. “Peter?” He made it up and staggered to the opposite corner of the cell. If he stood close enough to the bars, the hole on the other side was low enough to see into the alley. “Is that you?”


His brother’s face came into view. “It’s me. You alright?”


“I’m good, just ready to leave this rat hole.”


The older Nichols straightened his shoulders and announced, “Well, you’re going to have to hang on just a while longer.”


“What? No, come on, get me out of here.”


Shouting voices sounded in the distance and JD again elbowed the weight across his lap. Peter Nichols, the man who had whipped Ezra, was standing within twenty feet of him and he wanted more than anything to catch the bastard before he slipped away. He looked for his guns but as luck would have it they were lying halfway across the room.


“We’ve got a job to do,” Peter said firmly, “so you’re going to have to wait ‘til we come back for you.”


“No, you can’t,” John whined.


Luke Nichols appeared in the opening. “Maybe we should try to get him out now,” he said.


John saw him and quickly agreed. “Yes, Luke’s right. Get me out.”


The shouts in the distance were getting closer.


“No, there’s no time, you know what Ma said,” Peter insisted. “Let’s go.”


John’s eyes grew wide with disbelief as his kin walked away. “What’re you doing?”


“We’ll be back for you,” Peter said calmly.


“No, don’t leave me!”


Luke stared at John’s face with a flicker of concern before he asked Peter, “Are we really going leave him there?”


“Ma gave us our orders. He’s safe enough where he is for now. We’ll come back for him later.”


“But that sheriff from Eagle Bend is supposed to be coming for him.”


“I know that. Look, Ma made herself clear and I’m seeing she was right. We have a job to do and there’s no way to do it if we’re babysitting John in the condition he’s in.”


The large man tilted his head, not entirely convinced. “What about the condition you’re in?” He pointed to Peter’s leg.


“My leg’s fine; Larabee’s bullet didn’t do any real damage.”


“I don’t know, Peter, leaving him doesn’t seem right.”


“Luke, we’re not even supposed to be here. Ma warned us about trying this too soon, and I have to admit it wasn’t the best idea you and I ever came up with to use this as a way to keep those lawmen busy. We’ll get him later. Don’t worry about it. Ma hasn’t steered us wrong yet, has she?”


Luke pondered a moment longer then nodded his agreement.


“No!” John yelled when he realized he was being abandoned.


“Someone’s coming, we have to go,” Peter said, dusting himself off. He gave his younger sibling a casual wave before he turned his back and hurried away.




Luke merely shrugged and followed Peter down the alley.


“No!” John cried again.


JD tried again to push the beam aside when he saw the two men were getting away, but there was simply no moving the weight on his own. He slammed a fist to the floor in frustration then watched as John fell against the wall and slid to the floor. “Nice brothers you’ve got there,” he remarked snidely.


Nichols raised his chin but didn’t comment.


“Seems like that whole ‘blood’ thing you were counting on didn’t really work out for ya, did it?”


John opened his mouth to argue but quickly shut it when it dawned on him he didn’t actually know what to say. The arrogant chin lowered to his chest and for a brief moment he felt something he had rarely known before -- fear.




Nathan leaned back in the chair he had dragged next to the cot. He’d managed to finish stitching the gaping hole in Chris’ stomach and was just wiping his hands on a wet cloth when he got the distinct feeling he was being watched. He twisted around to look at the bed in the middle of the room and saw two green eyes trying to focus on him. The healer slowly realized he was seeing two green eyes instead of one. The swelling in the gambler’s face had gone down so slowly he hadn’t really noticed it until it was nearly half gone. Walking to the bed and leaning over his patient, he called in a gentle voice, “Ezra, you awake?”


Ezra’s eyelids blinked but his mouth remained still.


“It’s alright, you don’t have to talk.” He brought a hand to the fevered face and reached for the recently brewed tea on the bedside table. He placed the cup to the Southerner’s lips and waited for them to part. When he didn’t move to drink, Nathan slid a hand beneath his chin, raised it up and nudged the cup closer. On some level his weary brain understood the movement and his mouth opened. It was probably the messiest attempt at drinking the healer had ever seen him make, with half the tea dribbling onto the pillow when he couldn’t properly coordinate a swallow, but Nathan was nothing if not patient. “That’s good, just take it slow,” he said encouragingly until the cup was finally drained. He let go Ezra’s chin and then gave him time to catch his breath before he pulled the sheet to his waist to check his bandages and sling. Once he deemed everything secure he moved to check his bruised face. The swelling had indeed lessened, but the purple mottling had darkened so severely it gave him an even more frightening appearance. Nathan looked into weary, green eyes. Although they were still a bit glassy he did notice movement in them as they slowly surveyed the room. “Can you hear me?” he asked, wondering if the Southerner was more aware than he first thought.


Ezra frowned.


Nathan wasn’t sure if it was in response to his question or if he was simply finding it difficult to get his bearings, but it was a reaction nonetheless and it gave the healer hope. “You’re at the clinic.” He waited for the information to sink in. “You’re a little worse for wear, but you’re gonna be fine.”


The survey of the room continued.


“Ezra?” He touched the side of his friend’s head and suddenly the wandering eyes turned on him, revealing an intense, not completely unexpected, combination of anger and terror. Nathan remained calm and left his hand where it lay. “Take it easy now.”


The gambler squinted and tried to focus, and although his eyes were still glazed, eventually found the healer’s face. He made several attempts to speak before he managed to whisper, “Nathan?”


Jackson grinned. “Yeah, it’s me. How’re ya doin’?”


The frown returned. “Hurt.”


“I know. I just gave you somethin’ that should help.”


The look on his face clearly revealed he didn’t remember drinking one of Nathan’s teas. He shifted as if he wanted to sit up but was caught short when a sharp pain doubled him over.


“No, no, don’t be movin’ now,” Nathan warned. “You need to lie still.”


“I can’t…”


“You ain’t got much choice. Your body’s been through too much.”


The gambler tried to push Nathan away but couldn’t manage it with his limbs pinned. He looked down on himself to find one arm wrapped in a sling and the other twisted in a sheet. A spark of memory sent cold dread into his chest. “Oh God,” he moaned. “They did it… Nathan…”


Jackson knew exactly what he was thinking. “No, Ezra, wait. They didn’t take them.”


“But I can’t feel,” he swallowed hard, “I can’t feel them!”


“It’s alright. Your hands are still there.” Nathan glanced down and saw the knotted sheet. He pulled away long enough to unwrap the cloth from his arm and raise the hand for him to see. “They cut your wrist, but they didn’t take your hands.”


Uncertain eyes darted to the sling.


“Your shoulder got dislocated when the Nichols had you, so I put the sling on to keep you from hurtin’ it in your sleep.” He rolled the edge of the sling back to reveal the lost hand. “See, they’re still there.”

“They told me…” He gagged on his panic.


 “They didn’t do it,” the healer replied emphatically. “Lord knows they hurt you bad, but they didn’t cut your hands off.”


Standish’s chest heaved out of control a minute longer before his head dropped forward in undeniable relief.


“Just try to calm down.”


“I don’t understand,” he gasped. “How?”


“You don’t need to think on it right now,” Nathan said evenly, trying to draw Ezra back from the memory of the Nichols.


“My h-hands or his life…”




Fever-bright eyes turned away and fell on a shadow across the room. “Oh God,” he said with such sorrow it made Jackson turn and look. “No, no, no,” he repeated as he slowly pulled away.


Nathan saw what caught the gambler’s attention -- Chris Larabee, as pale as ghost, a large bloody wound in his abdomen, lying as still as death. Damn, he thought and silently kicked himself for not bandaging the gunfighter’s injury right away.  “Ezra, listen to me,” Jackson said, but his friend wasn’t hearing him.


“I’ve killed him,” Ezra muttered, staring at his numb fingers with alarm.




“I don’t understand. I chose… but it wasn’t what they wanted to hear,” he cried. “They kept coming back. They wouldn’t stop.”


“Stop what, Ezra?”


“They said I had to decide.” He looked to the cot again. “I did.”


“Easy now.”


“No… my hands or Chris’ life… they made me choose.” He tore his eyes from the lifeless body. “I did. He shouldn’t be dead, Nathan. He shouldn’t be dead.”


Jackson’s mouth fell open when he realized what he was saying – Chris shouldn’t be dead because Ezra decided to let those butchers slice off his hands rather than give up a friend. Nathan felt his stomach turn.


“Something’s wrong… I must’ve told them… I killed him,” the gambler choked out.


“No, Ezra, you have to listen to me. Chris ain’t dead. I just gave him somethin’ to make him sleep,” he said wishing more than anything he hadn’t. “I swear to ya he’s just asleep.”


“I don’t remember telling them… I don’t remember…” The gambler drew his free hand to his chest and rolled deeper into the pillow.


Nathan tried again and again to persuade him he hadn’t betrayed their friend but there was no getting through to him. He would have to wait for Chris to wake up before he would be able to convince the delusional gambler of anything. Fortunately from the sound of Larabee’s irregular breathing and quiet groaning that wouldn’t be too much longer. Unfortunately, Chris waking up earlier than expected meant he had very little time to finish tending his injury. He patted the back of the gambler’s head and rose from the bed. “You rest now and let that medicine I gave you work.”


Worried, he headed towards his supply cabinet. He gathered the last of his prepared bandages and was about to search the parcel Buck had opened earlier when a loud crash at the door turned him around. A dark figure rushed him, knocked him off his feet and sent him sideways into the foot of the bed. More from instinct than conscious choice, he made a grab for the holster he’d left hanging on the post. Regrettably he received a boot to the back before he could actually pull his gun.


“I see you’ve been a busy man, healer,” someone said.


Large hands gripped his shirt and spun him around to see Peter Nichols looming at the doorway.


“Yeah,” added the man who tackled him, “It looks like he’s been doctoring these two real good.”


“Well now that’s a real shame,” Peter replied, “It’s such a waste to put so much time and effort into saving men who’re already as good as dead.”


Nathan felt a shiver run through him just before something hard smashed against his skull.



Part 22


“Vin, get outta there!” Sanchez shouted as he hefted another bucket and spread its contents over the flames consuming the Clarion.


“Just a little more, Josiah,” Vin answered hoarsely.


“No, no more. It’s time for us to leave!” The preacher looked up. Although they had managed to slow the fire’s progress towards the back of the newspaper office, they hadn’t been able to stop it finding a new path to travel.


“I think I can work my way ‘round. Keep that water comin’!”


The smoke was so thick Josiah could barely see. “The fire’s climbed its way into the rafters!”


Tanner stubbornly made his way deeper into the office and disappeared.


“Vin, we gotta go!” He waited but the tracker didn’t answer. “Vin!” Fearing the worst, he ran to the water bearer near the door, grabbed the bucket he was offered and rushed to where he’d last seen Vin standing. “You better answer me, son, or I’m comin’ in after ya!” His heart beat hard in his chest as he prepared to enter the dense smoke. Just as he drew the bucket back to toss the water, he heard a hacking cough.


“I’m here,” Vin choked out, then stumbled forward, rubbing watery eyes.


“You okay?”


“Yeah, it’s just hard to see. You’re right about the flames; we need to stop ‘em reachin’ the roof.”


Josiah took his arm and pulled him toward the door. “Come on. Let’s clean those eyes out.”


Vin didn’t protest as he was guided from the building and leaned over a bucket of clean water.

“Mr. Tanner, Mr. Sanchez!”


Both men turned to see Archie run from the bathhouse.

“Mr. Tanner, there’s been an explosion!”


Vin wiped the water from his face. “An explosion? I didn’t hear anything.”


“It happened while you were inside. It was probably too noisy in there to hear anything. A couple of men have already gone to take a look.”




“At the jail. You’d best hurry; it’s most likely those men you’re lookin’ for.”


“Damn it! Will you take over here?”


“You know I will. Just be careful. We don’t wanna see any more of you boys gettin’ hurt.”


“Thanks, Archie,” Vin replied and ran with Josiah towards the jail.




Peter stepped over Nathan’s unconscious body on his way to the bed in the middle of the room. He bent close to Ezra and whispered, “I told you you’d never get away from me,” but the gambler was beyond hearing. Lying on his side, fist twisted once again in the sheet, he stared blindly as his shattered mind tried to comprehend what had happened. 


“Hey,” Luke said, “Look at this. It seems our little spy was telling the truth. Larabee was hurt back at the hotel. It looks like he took a bullet to the stomach.”


Peter scowled at Ezra before he left the bed. “Good. It’ll make our job a lot easier.” He stepped close to the cot. “Ma wants him dead… so do I.”


Luke drew his gun and aimed it at Chris.


“No, wait,” Peter said and pushed the gun away.


The gunfighter groaned. His eyelids came open for just an instant then closed despite his best efforts to keep them open. Another moan and his hands twitched restlessly at his side.


“He’s coming ‘round.”


“Well then let’s just shoot ‘em both and get out of here,” Luke said.


“Nobody’s shooting him,” Peter replied, pointing at Ezra, “he’s going with us.”


“What’re you talking about? Why would you want to take him outta here?”


“We have unfinished business.”


“Listen, ma didn’t saying anything about kidnapping that gambler.”


Peter narrowed his eyes. “I’m sayin’.”


Luke shook his head but knew better than to argue. “Okay, so we haul him outta here. What about this one?”


“I think we should give Mr. Larabee here a little taste of the hereafter.”


Luke caught the glint in his brother’s eye and smiled. “Well now I reckon it’ll have to be a mite warmer in here for that.”


Peter eyed the lantern. “Yes, but we wouldn’t want him to miss anything.” He stepped closer to the cot and struck the gunfighter hard across the face. “Time to wake up, Larabee!”


Chris’ drug-induced stupor slowed his reflexes but his twitching hands instinctively came up to protect his face.


The younger of the Nichols leaned around Peter to get a better look. “I don’t think you’re getting through to him.”


“Then I’ll just have to try harder,” Peter replied as he reached for the rifle Nathan had propped against the back wall.


“I thought you didn’t wanna shoot him.”


“I don’t.” He raised the weapon over the cot, aimed the stock at Chris’ bullet wound and hammered it home. The action had the desired effect; the semi-conscious man bolted upright and came awake with a howl of pain that satisfied Peter to the core.




JD fell back to the floor and pounded his fists against the heavy beam across his legs. He had pushed until he simply couldn’t push anymore. He wiggled and squirmed but still couldn’t pull himself free. The weight on top of him felt as if it had tripled in the past few minutes and a serious ache was beginning to replace the numbness in his legs. “Damn it,” he swore as he twisted at the waist to search for something he could use as a lever. There was nothing, absolutely nothing within his reach. He would have to wait for help, but how long would that take? How long before…


“JD!” He heard shouted from the street. It was Buck.


“I’m here,” he cried, “back here!” He craned his neck around and saw long legs climb over the debris to reach him.


Wilmington hurried to his side. “JD, are you alright?” He ran a hand over the young man’s head.


“I’m okay. I just need to get this danged pile of wood off of me. I tried to move the beam, but I think something’s holding it in place.”


“Is anything broken?”


“I don’t think so. My legs feel kind of funny, but it’s more like pins and needles.”


“This thing’s cut off the circulation,” Buck said, patting the large piece of timber. “Let me check it out.” He did a quick inspection and found JD was right – two big crossbeams straddled the rafter, clamping it to the floor. The other end had driven itself into the softer wood of the walls. The best approach would be to free the lower end, but he’d have to be careful.


“How’s it look?” Dunne asked with a grunt.


“Not too bad. I’ll have you outta there in no time.”

JD raised himself and caught the look of doubt on Buck’s face. “Yeah? You and what army?” he asked nervously.


“Will we do?”


Buck drew his gun but quickly lowered it when he saw Vin and Josiah enter the room. “Perfect timing,” he answered, greatly relieved to see the two men.


Josiah helped Buck loosen the end of the rafter pinned to the floor while Vin sheltered the young sheriff from falling rubble loosened by the removal of the crossbeams. Once the heavy timber was hefted a few inches it was a simple matter of sliding JD clear. Vin settled him against the wall and carefully examined his legs. Aside from a few scratches and bruises, they appeared to be unharmed. “You look okay,” he announced.


“That was close,” Dunne said just loud enough for the tracker to hear.


Vin felt him shake and put a reassuring hand on his arm when he noticed JD was fast losing the rush of adrenaline he’d used to survive the attack. “It’s okay, you’re alright.”


Dunne swallowed hard and looked at Vin in astonishment. “They’re crazy!”


“JD?” Tanner felt a hard shudder beneath his palm.


“Who the hell blows up a jail with their brother inside? They didn’t know where he was, they just started blasting!”


Wilmington moved fast to squat next to his friend. “Take it easy, JD.”


“No, you don’t understand.”


“I do understand. You just had the life scared outta ya!” He took hold of the young man’s fisted hand but JD snatched it away.


“Buck, stop it and listen to me. The Nichols aren’t just mean and evil… they’re insane!” He looked back and forth between his fellow lawmen. “How the hell do you fight something like that? How do you stop people who are absolutely out of their minds?” He waited for an answer. Several panicked breaths later, he was still waiting.



/ PARTS 7-12 / PARTS 13-17 / PARTS 23-28 / PARTS 29-33 / PART 34




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Jordan McKenzie 2009