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Buck and JD were sitting outside the saloon watching the world go by. It was late morning and there weren't too many people about.
Buck saw a rider coming up the main street. The horse was steered towards the hitching rail outside the general store and dismounted. Buck studied horse and rider with interest, the horse was dusty and sweaty as if it had travelled a long way. The rider stretched after dismounting, working the stiffness from his body. He slapped the dust from his clothes with open palms, sending clouds of dust in swirling pools around him. He wore a check shirt, black pants and red neckerchief. A black stetson shadowed his face, but something aroused Buck's suspicions. He looked closer, leaning forward in his chair, as the rider suddenly raised his head looking Buck square in the eye. The rider turned out to be a woman, a smile played on her lips as she looked at him.
JD had been watching Buck and laughed at the look on his face.
"She sure had you fooled for a while. She ain't the type you usually go for though."
"Any type's my type, boy."
The woman turned and entered the store still smiling. She had been aware of the intense scrutiny from the two men. She knew she looked more male than female. She hadn't much time for feminine things, in her work they weren't much use. Her outdoor life had hardened her features and she did nothing to make herself more attractive. She found the reaction from men towards her amusing. She ordered her supplies and arranged to have them delivered and then left to visit the livery.
Buck rose and intercepted her as she stepped off the boardwalk.
"Howdy Ma'am. Yer new in town, aren't you? Perhaps I can show you around."
She stopped and turned towards him.
"Thank you, Mr..?"
"Wilmington, Buck Wilmington at your service."
"Well, Mr Wilmington. I believe I will have finished my visit after talking to the livery owner. Thank you all the same." She smiled and turned to continue on her way. Buck wasn't to be dissuaded that easily.
"Are you just passing through or do you live nearby?"
She stopped short, looking down at the ground before answering. She turned to him again and raised her eyes, scrutinising him closely. He withered under her gaze, she seemed to look into his very soul.
The smile she gave softened her features as she said lightly, " My family have taken over the old Patterson ranch. Does that satisfy your curiosity?"
"Well Ma'am, I'm sorry to pry. I'm one of the peacekeepers in this town and we like to check on new arrivals," explained Buck.
"Mr Wilmington, why ever didn't you say how important you were."
Buck puffed up like a peacock, although he wasn't sure if she was teasing him or not.
"I assumed you were one of the many men who find me a curiosity. Men can't seem to accept a woman in pants and doing ranching work. Some women can't accept it either though, I grant you."
"Don't ya ever wear dresses then?" asked Buck.
"Well, have you ever tried herding cattle and mending fences in a dress?"
"No, can't say that I have," he laughed.
"Well perhaps you should try it sometime. I can just see you in a nice gown." She took a step backwards, narrowing her eyes and picturing the image in her head as she looked at him.
"Are you not married then, if you have to do the work?" asked Buck, changing the subject quickly, face reddening. "I thought you said your family lived with you."
"They do indeed, but my family consists of my parents and two young sisters. My father is not well, so it is up to me to run the spread. It's only a small outfit so I can't afford any hired hands. I've been raised to do hard work, and I'm not in the least bit feminine as you can see."
"Miss Matthews, I'll let you get on, nice to meet you. I expect I'll see you around."
She smiled at him and then turned and walked towards the livery, leaving him standing in the middle of the street watching her walk away.
JD came up beside him. "Well, she's certainly different."
"You can say that again, boy," Buck agreed turning back towards the saloon but keeping his head turned to watch the woman.
JD grabbed his arm and pulled him back to the chair he had been sitting in and pushed him into it.
"Stop staring Buck, it's embarrassing."
"How can two women in the same town resist my charms," Buck pondered. "I must be losing my touch."
"The only thing you're losing is your mind," replied JD insolently.
Buck slapped him on the back of the head.
"Hey, knock it off," JD complained.
"I will if you're not careful. You ought to have more respect for yer elders."
Jess left town and was not seen again for three weeks til she came to get more supplies. Buck was again sitting outside the saloon when she arrived. Seeing him, she walked her horse towards him and nodded a greeting.
She said, "I've got something for you, Mr Wilmington." She reached into her saddle bag and pulled out a sheet of paper.
Buck reached out and took it from her. Ezra had just exited the saloon and stood looking over his shoulder to see what it was. Buck opened out the sheet and when Ezra saw what it was he doubled over laughing. Jess smiled broadly and moved on.
Buck looked at the drawing she had given him. It showed him sat on a horse in a dress, wearing a bonnet and with an opened parasol resting over his shoulder. He was drawn still sporting his mustache. He was so flabbergasted by the picture his mouth hung open. The rest of the boys came out to see what the fuss was about after hearing Ezra laughing helplessly. JD snatched the picture from Buck and they all looked at it and then collapsed in fits of laughter.
"She certainly silenced you, Bucklin," observed Vin smirking. "I've never seen ya speechless before. You'd better shut ya mouth before someone treads on ya bottom lip."
"She's caught your likeness to perfection," snorted Ezra trying to stop laughing but failing. "Even I could fall for you dressed like that."
"It's not that funny," complained Buck snatching the drawing back and stuffing it in his pocket before stomping off. He was actually having a hard time not laughing himself. He pulled out the drawing again and finally burst out laughing. He would steer clear of the others for a while, he didn't think he could stand the ribbing that this was going to cause.
Jess rode back by the remaining men and put a finger to her hat and smiled. She kicked her horse into a canter and rode out of town. The boys split up to get back to their jobs when they had recovered themselves. They weren't going to let Buck forget it in a hurry.
The next morning JD made his way to the jail to look through the new batch of wanted posters. The telegram operator came in and handed him a note, but wouldn't accept payment for it. JD read it and went to find Chris straight away. He headed for the saloon and found him at his usual table having breakfast.
"Chris, there may be trouble heading our way," JD said as he handed the note over.
"Right, get the boys together," Chris said after digesting it's contents. After the men had all been found, Chris gave them the details.
"There's a gang of murderers making their way in this direction. They never target towns, just the surrounding homesteads and ranches. They've already been around Eagle Bend and Bitter Creek. Eighteen people have been killed so far. We need to warn people and get as many to come into town as we can."
They got their horses and set off out of town to the nearest ranch. They decided to stick together as the gang they were up against was thought to be large. The first few ranches they came to were untouched and the owners made their way into town for safety. The peacekeepers then rode on towards Jess's ranch, not knowing that the gang were also headed there. Her ranch was one of the furthest from Four Corners.
Jess had left the ranch early in the morning to check on her stock. They seemed to have spread over a wide area and it took her til mid afternoon to find them all. She started on her journey home unaware of the horror that awaited her. As she neared the ranch she heard gunfire and screaming. She kicked her horse into a gallop although it was tired from the work it had already done. She saw the ranch in the distance and saw a gang of men in the front yard. She watched as her parents were dragged out and thrown to their knees in the dirt. A man walked up behind them and shot them both in the head. Jess was not close enough to do anything, not that she could have defended her family against the men. She pulled her Winchester rifle anyway and started firing at them, forcing her horse onwards. She also heard faint gunfire from another direction although she couldn't see anyone else. The men jumped onto their horses and rode away from the ranch coming fairly close to her. They fired in her direction and she felt a burning sensation along her side, though it didn't stop her from continuing to race to the ranch.
Jess reached the yard in front of the house and leapt off her horse. She ran to her parents but there was nothing to be done for them. She then looked frantically around for her sisters, she called their names but received no reply. She ran into the house and found their bodies left where they had been innocently playing in the kitchen. She dropped to her knees beside the youngest and gathered her into her arms. She rocked back and forth, whispering "Sorry" over and over while stroking the child's hair.
Chris and the boys had been riding towards Jess's ranch when they heard gunfire. They spurred their horses forward and came over a rise just in time to see two adults shot dead. They were too far away for accuracy, but they charged down the hill firing and shouting to try to drive the men away. The ranch was hidden from view for a while and they missed seeing Jess return.
Vin and JD took off after the gang to see which direction they headed in. The rest of the men stopped to see if there was anything they could do on the ranch. They dismounted and Ezra and Nathan went to the fallen victims in the yard. The other three men started searching for the two children and Jess. They noticed Jess's horse, saddled and reins dangling standing near the house.
"Jess, can you hear me, it's Buck Wilmington."
Chris followed Josiah into the house, while the others searched the outbuildings and back yard. Chris walked into the kitchen and was transported back three years by what he saw. His mind flew back to the time he found his wife and son in his burnt out house. He shook his head bringing himself back to the present. He couldn't afford to get bogged down in his own misery. There was someone else who needed his help.
He saw the bodies of the children, one of whom was being held by Jess. She gave no indication that she had heard them come in. Chris put a hand on Josiah's arm and moved in front of him. He took off his hat and put it on the table before walking towards Jess calling her name softly. Josiah moved to the other child and picked her up gently and walked back outside shaking his head sadly. Chris knelt down beside Jess although he didn't touch her.
"Jess, it's Chris Larabee from Four Corners. You need to put her down, there's nothin' you can do for her." He didn't know whether she heard him or not so he tried again.
"Jess, give her to me, I'll take care of her. I promise we'll find the men who did this."
He reached forward and had to literally pry her fingers off the child. He finally released her grip and took the girl's body into his arms. Buck appeared out of nowhere at his side and took the body from him and walked out. Jess bent forward leaning her head on her knees, not making a sound. She kept up the rocking motion, as Chris put his arm over her back and rubbed it comfortingly. He could feel her body wracked with shudders as she tried to keep her emotions in check. He continued rubbing her back and whispering platitudes.
The rest of the men gathered outside on the veranda. They couldn't believe what had been done by the gang. Vin and JD eventually returned after following the gang for some distance, they dismounted and joined the others on the veranda.
"Where's Chris?" asked Vin.
"He's inside with Jess. Those bastards murdered her whole family," Buck told him, voice shaking in anger.
Chris eventually felt the shudders in Jess's body subside to tremors. He coaxed her to her feet and moved his hand to her side to steady her and she hissed with pain. He felt moisture and when he removed his hand it was covered in blood.
"Jess, are you hurt?" he asked urgently.
Nathan heard him and made his way inside. Chris searched for a wound and found it above her right hip. Nathan took over and Chris walked outside for some air.
He knew how she was feeling emotionally from personal experience. He had taken his anger and hurt out on Buck and his other friends. He turned against people altogether really, becoming a gunfighter. It had been a dark time, which he was only now coming through. He wondered how Jess was going to cope with what she had seen.
"How is she?" Josiah asked.
Chris just shrugged, he really didn't know.
"Can you see to the buryin' of her folks?"
Josiah nodded. All except Buck accompanied him to start digging graves. Buck turned his attention to Chris. He knew he must be thinking back to losing Adam and Sarah.
"How are you holding up, pard?" he asked quietly. Chris looked at him and saw the concern in his friend's face.
"All I could see was Adam and Sarah. It brought it all back again."
"I know it can't have been easy for you seeing those kids." Buck put a comforting hand on Chris's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "It's shaken us all," he said before turning and following Josiah. Chris took a deep breath and went back inside the ranch house.
"Is she okay?" he asked Nathan, who was washing his hands.
"Yeah, the bullet just scratched the surface, more blood than damage." He lowered his voice and continued, "It's her emotional state that worries me more. She ain't said a word."
"Hell Nathan, everyone deals with things differently. Who knows how any of us would react in similar circumstances."
Chris went over to her and squatted down beside her. He laid one arm on the table in front of her and the other along the back of her chair to steady himself.
"Josiah's seeing to the buryin' of your kin. I expect you wanna be there," he said softly, looking into her face. She looked incredibly pale and shocked. He rose and she stood slowly with him, her head bowed. Chris felt her take a fierce grip on his lower arm with both hands. She gripped so tight it hurt, but he knew she was drawing strength from him so he didn't say anything. She had hold of a lifeline and she wasn't letting go. In time they moved outside and gathered at the newly dug graves. The men all removed their hats and Josiah said a few choice words. Jess stood close to Chris, still clinging to him for dear life. She didn't cry, just stood staring at the four silent mounds of earth in front of her. Chris could feel her shaking.
When Josiah had finished, the men walked away from the graves and waited for Chris to give his orders. JD had his hat in his hands where he turned it continually by its brim. Helping to bury the two children had affected him deeply. Buck moved towards him sensing his pain.
"Are you okay, kid?"
"How could they have killed those children, Buck? What harm could they have done?" his voiced cracked as he tried to keep control.
"There are some evil men in this world. We just need to make sure we bring them to justice." He put his arm around JD's shoulders. He tried to divert his thoughts and asked, "Did you find out which way they were headed?"
"Yeah, they seemed to be going towards the hills. Vin wondered if they had made their base there. He said there was a network of caves there that they could use."
"Well, that's a good idea. It gives us somewhere to start."
Chris called them together. Jess still kept close to him although she had now let go of his arm.
"We'll head back to town, it's too late to start tracking them now. We'll come back and start tomorrow. I need to wire the Judge and speak to the homesteaders that we sent to town anyway."
They mounted up and headed back to town. Jess accompanied them on her own horse, Buck riding next to her for support. They made a sombre party. Chris kicked his horse on until he was beside Nathan and Josiah.
"Could you two stay in town and keep an eye on things while we go after those bastards? I don't wanna leave the town unprotected."
"Sure, but you really mean keep an eye on Jess, don't ya?" said Nathan.
"Well, yeah that too. I'll ask Mary to try to get her talking. A woman's touch might help, someone who lost kin in a similar way."
"We'll do our best. You concentrate on catching the bastards."
When they reached town, Josiah and Nathan took Jess to the clinic to recheck her wound. Chris headed off to wire Judge Travis and then to find Mary. The rest of the men went to the saloon for a drink, they needed one after the day they'd had. After explaining the situation to Mary and leaving her with Jess, Chris, Josiah and Nathan joined the others in the saloon. Chris retreated into his own mind, going over the days events and inevitably thinking of his own tragedy three years before. The others all sat quietly too, each dealing with their own thoughts.
Chris snapped out of his reverie and asked Vin, "Do you know where they were headed?"
"Figure they're holed up in the hills. There's a network of caves they could live in indefinitely."
"Do we stand a chance of fighting them there?"
"Won't be easy. They'd have the advantage as they know the area well."
"So we need to catch them outside. We'll head back tomorrow at first light and see if we can find a good place to ambush them."
The group broke up and left to get some rest as they would be up early the following morning. Ezra headed off to find a card game, he needed to relax before heading to bed. He quite often stayed up all night and was still ready for a days work the next morning.
The men gathered in the early light of dawn. Mary approached Chris and handed him some paper. Chris opened it after looking at her curiously.
"Jess drew these last night, she thought they might help. She got a fairly good look at two of the men as they rode off yesterday."
Each sheet contained a drawing of a man's face. Not overly detailed but good enough to recognise them again.
"She's a good artist, isn't she?" Mary commented.
"Yeah, we've seen an example of her work before," agreed Chris thinking back to Buck's caricature. He smiled remembering Buck's expression.
JD was standing nearby and had heard Chris's answer. He burst out laughing as the picture re-entered his mind. Mary looked at him quizzically, she would have to ask him about it later.
"How's Jess?" asked Chris.
"She didn't get much rest. Every time she got to sleep she woke soon afterwards from some nightmare. It must have been awful to see what she did."
"Yeah, it was pretty bad. I know how she feels," Chris replied.
"I'm sorry, it must have been hard for you," acknowledged Mary.
"Thank Jess for these, they'll come in useful." He turned to his waiting men. "Right boys, let's get moving."
They had packed some supplies including extra ammunition and gunpowder. They didn't know how long they were going to be gone. They mounted up and headed back to the ranch where Vin took over the lead and followed the tracks left by the gang. Every so often he dismounted to take a closer look. The horses hooves kicked up pools of dust as they walked. It hadn't rained in the area for two weeks and the sun beat down relentlessly making the job hot and demanding. The men continually wiped their brows and soon became covered in dust and sweat.
"I won't go any nearer, but the tracks head straight for the hills," said Vin as he took his spyglass out to look into the distance. He passed it over to Chris when he had finished. After studying the area in detail, Chris sat deep in thought, his hands crossed over in front of him and resting on the pommel of his saddle. There didn't seem to be too many places to use for an ambush. Was there any way to use Jess's survival to lure the men out? Could they take over one of the other ranches in the vain hope it would be attacked? The gang had to be getting supplies from somewhere. Would they risk going into a normal town or head for somewhere like Purgatorio? He came to the conclusion the latter would be the most likely.
He passed his thoughts onto the others to get their opinions. It was decided that they would go to Purgatorio and Vin would keep watch outside town for the gang. The others would wait further outside and the tracker would come and alert them once the gang was sighted. They urged their horses onwards in the direction of the bandit town. Vin split off near the outskirts and found himself a good spot to watch from. He could see the whole town and surrounding area. Chris gave Jess's drawings to the sharpshooter before leaving. They then went on into town to get a drink and something to eat. They also made sure the gang weren't already in town. After satisfying their appetites they made their way back to a small wooded area they would use as their camp. They left their horses saddled in case they were needed in a hurry.
After several hours Buck asked, "Now Chris, tell me, how long are we gonna wait before deciding they're not coming."
"How the hell should I know? They could have enough food and ammunition in those caves to keep 'em going for weeks for all we know. I'm hoping that they'll want some female company and this seems the best place for them to get it. The law won't come within spittin' distance of town. They'll feel safe and hopefully get sloppy. We'll give it a day or two at least."
"So we're going to have to sleep out here?" Ezra observed, resignedly sighing. He liked his creature comforts and hated this sort of expedition.
"'Fraid so, Ez. They're more likely to come late in the day, so the earliest they'll be here now is tomorrow."
"Oh joy. I'm already covered in half the dust this godforsaken place has to offer. I could just do with a nice relaxing bath, a game of poker with some unsuspecting victim, and a good night's rest in my feather bed," he said wistfully, counting his wishes off on his fingers.
"In ya dreams, Ezra," laughed Buck "I agree with you needing a bath though. You're a bit ripe, I can smell ya from here."
"Just look at my apparel," Ezra resumed as if Buck had not spoken. "I'm not fit to be seen in polite company.
"Well that's alright then 'cause yer with us. So quit ya griping," said Chris smiling.
They took turns on guard through the night. They had to beware of all the others bandits that visited Purgatory, not just the ones they were after. They didn't light a fire to attract unwanted attention. They made do with cold, dry foods much to Ezra's disgust. The next day passed slowly and Chris wondered if he had made the right decision. What if they had attacked another ranch while they were waiting here. By the reports he had received from other areas affected, the gang didn't strike everyday. They seemed to attack once and then not again for a week or so. He hoped they stuck to their usual timetable.
Buck went to check on Vin. He knew the tracker didn't mind being on his own as he had spent most of his life in a solitary existence. He just wanted to make sure he had enough food and ammunition and get an update on recent arrivals in town.
"Hey Vin, it's me," Buck called as he entered Vin's camp.
"I know, heard ya coming ages ago. Buffalo are quieter than you."
"I thought I was being pretty quiet."
"So did this rabbit 'fore I caught it," said Vin wryly holding up the rabbit for Buck to see.
"Any news to pass on to Chris?"
"No, I ain't seen any men that match Jess's drawings. Pico Chavez and his gang are in town though."
"Chris thinks they're more likely to come in late in the day, if they come at all."
"Well, I'll let ya know if I see 'em. How's Ezra bearing up, moaning as usual?"
"Yep. I'm sure he enjoys camping out really. He just enjoys moaning more," Buck chuckled. "Right, I'll leave you to it, unless you want some company."
"Nah thanks, Bucklin. I enjoy our little chats, but I don't wanna be talked to death at my age." he ducked as Buck swung a playful fist at him.
"Just don't say I didn't offer when you decide you're feeling lonesome," said Buck as he left.
Vin settled down to start his observations again. Buck mounted up and headed back to Chris and the others. Ezra had started a game of poker to pass the time and Buck joined in on his return. Ezra ended up with the biggest pile of money. Not that there was any other likely outcome. Buck snorted in disgust as he lost the last of his wages.
"Can I loan you some money to continue playing, Bucklin?" Ezra enquired.
"Not if yer going to charge interest on it," Buck growled.
They were stopped from any further play by the arrival of Vin.
"They jest arrived in town. Ten in all. Both men Jess drew are with 'em."
"Which direction did they come in from?" asked Chris.
"West. There must be another way into their base that we don't know about. I scouted the area and there's one good place for us to take 'em. That's if they go back to their base."
"We'll have to assume that they will. I think it's too late in the day for them to go on the rampage again. Where do you want us to set up?"
"'Bout a mile from town, there's a small canyon. The walls are fairly close together and if we took up positions on the top we would have the advantage. They've gotta ride through Indian file or in pairs at the most 'cause it's so narrow. If we set powder at one end to stop 'em escaping that way we should be able to take them."
"That sounds as good a plan as any. Okay, we'll move there now and get things set up. You join us when they leave."
Chris grasped Vin's arm in an armshake and said, "Watch ya back."
Vin nodded and replied, "You too." He put a finger to his hat brim and rode back to his camp.
Chris and his team broke camp and followed Vin's directions until they found the canyon. After studying the terrain, Chris sent Buck and JD to set the powder at the end of the canyon nearest Purgatorio so the gang couldn't head back in that direction. He found he had enough powder to put some at the other end too, effectively blocking them in. He took Ezra with him to set it at that end. They worked quickly although it was unlikely the gang would return too soon. Once all the powder had been set they made their way to the canyon rim. They could detonate the powder with one accurate shot. He would let Buck and Vin do that as they had once before, when they had been accompanying a wagon train. Chris distributed the ammunition so each man had a good supply. They hid the horses well away from the action. Each man took his designated position and dug in to wait. They were all covered in dirt and trying to wipe it from their clothes only smeared it in more.
It was getting towards early evening when the sharpshooter came cantering in. "They jest left town, heading in this direction."
"Good, we've got powder set at each end of the canyon. Buck's at the far end, if you can go to the other and set it off on my signal. I'll show you where it is exactly, we can't afford too many attempts at setting it off and giving them the chance to get back to town."
Chris took him to the end of the canyon and pointed out the powder charge. It was a tight angle but he knew Vin could handle it. He was the best rifle shot Chris had ever seen. Vin got into position and sighted his rifle.
The outlaw gang came nearer and entered the mouth of the canyon. Chris let them get a good way in before signalling Vin and Buck. They both shot simultaneously and huge explosions split the air. The men below fought to control their horses while drawing weapons and searching for their attackers through the clouds of smoke. As the cloud lifted Chris and his men started picking off the bandits, who milled around in confusion below them. Eventually they spotted Chris's men and started fighting back. Several of the gang had already fallen dead or injured under the hail of bullets from above. The odds were turning in Chris's favour.
One bullet from below ricocheted off a rock by Ezra's face, causing shards of stone to fly up towards him. He flinched, moving backwards, but not before several cuts had opened up on his cheek and forehead. Blood ran from one cut obscuring his vision. He angrily wiped it away with the back of his hand, cursing as he did so as it stung like hell.
JD had both his pistols out and was blasting away for all he was worth. He had the picture of the two dead children in his mind and he fought like a man possessed to avenge them. It did not make him act rashly, he kept his head, firing accurately and fast.
Chris and Buck picked off their opponents with precision, ducking back into cover when any bullets from below came close. The number of bullets from their opponents grew less and less. Vin had worked his way to the bottom of the canyon unobserved and made his way towards the remaining men. Chris did the same from the other end, keeping to cover until every last man from the gang lay either dead or wounded.
The others joined Chris and Vin and started checking the gang to see who was still alive. They collected the surviving members together and tied them so they couldn't escape.
"What'll we do with the dead?" asked JD.
"Leave 'em for the buzzards," said Chris. "Grab some horses and we'll take the rest back to town for trial."
They tied the four surviving gang members into the saddle and then each of their horses was tied to one of the peacekeeper's horses. Chris took charge of the pack horse and they set off back to Four Corners.
"Are you alright, Ezra?" Buck asked, noticing his bloodstained face for the first time.
"Oh yes, this was just the icing on the cake," the gambler replied morosely, pointing at his face. "What woman in her right mind will even so much as look at me in my present state. I feel I need scrubbing from head to toe with a curry comb. I don't think I shall ever be clean again. I'll be finding dirt in every orifice for months to come"
"Well, yer still moaning so I guess you're okay," laughed Buck.
The tired men got back to town just before midnight. Josiah was in the jail and he came out to greet them. Each man took their prisoner inside and deposited them in a cell.
"Ezra, you'd better pay a visit to Nathan. We don't want your good looks ruined by unsightly scars," said Buck. "I'll come with you, as he'll likely not recognise you and shoot you on sight being so dirty and all."
The others headed to the saloon for a drink.
"Did you get them all?" Josiah enquired.
"We got all the ones that we saw, whether that's the whole gang or not I don't know. No-one's ever lived to tell how many were in the gang, except Jess, and there certainly weren't ten men in the group that hit her ranch."
"How is she?" Vin asked Josiah.
"Still plagued by nightmares. She's helping Yosemite in the livery though to keep herself occupied. She says she prefers the company of horses to people at the moment, she even sleeps there in the haystack."
"Do you think she will go back to the ranch?" asked JD.
"I couldn't say, son. She may find it a comfort to return or it may hold too many bad memories, who's to say."
Ezra and Buck joined the men at the table. At least Ezra's face was clean although the rest of him was still covered in dirt. After a few drinks they started drifting off to bed leaving Josiah to return to the jail.
In the morning the boys gathered for breakfast in the saloon. Chris had already wired the Judge with news of the capture of some of the gang. Some of the homesteaders had also heard the news and decided to return to their homes.
The batwing doors opened and Jess stepped inside. Ezra saw her and pulled up another chair.
"Why Miss Matthews, how delightful to see you. Do join us."
She took the proffered chair and Inez brought her some breakfast.
"I just wanted to thank you for all you've done. I owe you a debt. I don't know how I will ever repay you."
"All in a day's work, my dear," Ezra modestly assured her. Jess's eyes had glazed over as he spoke, her mind yet again returning to her dead family. Meanwhile Ezra had launched into an account of the gangs capture which seemed to have him tackling them single handedly.
"Now hold hard there Ezra. I seem to recall all you did was moan continuously, you ornery cuss," contradicted Buck.
Chris was watching Jess, he wasn't sure if she was up to one of Ezra and Buck's arguments. It was after all less than a week since her family had been killed. He kicked Ezra under the table and when Ezra looked at him enquiringly he imperceptibly shook his head. Ezra flicked his gaze to Jess and didn't answer Buck. Chris knew his men needed to let off steam, but they could do it after Jess had left.
Chris laid a hand on Jess's arm and asked softly, "Are you alright?"
She sat pushing the food around on her plate, she hadn't actually eaten anything. She flinched at his touch and suddenly stood jerking her arm from his grip, leaving the saloon quickly. Nathan rose and followed her.
"I hope she didn't think I was trivializing matters. I was just trying to lighten the atmosphere," Ezra said worriedly.
"I don't think she even heard what you said, Ezra, forget about it. She's got other things on her mind. We'll just have to watch what we say around her in future."
Nathan caught up with Jess. She had stopped outside the livery and leaned against the door looking heavenward.
"Sorry," she said. "I just needed some air. I can't get the image of what happened out of my head."
"Give it time. I know it's easy for me to say but things will get better," Nathan assured.
She took a deep breath and said, "Thanks Nathan. I'm sorry for burdening you with my problems." She took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. "Well, I've got some horses to deliver to Eagle Bend. I'd better get to it. I'll see you around."
She peeled herself slowly off the door and made her way inside to saddle her horse. Nathan returned to the saloon.
"She okay?" asked Chris.
"As well as she can be, I s'pose. She's going to Eagle Bend with some horses. It'll probably do her good to get away for a bit."
The telegram operator came in and handed a note to Chris who tossed him a coin in return.
"Judge Travis will be here on Friday for the trial," he read. "Good, perhaps Jess will be able to get on with her life after that."
"I agree, Mr Larabee, but first she must be emancipated from the guilt she must be experiencing at being spared the unfortunate fate that befell her family," Ezra said.
Once he had sorted out what Ezra had said, Chris stared at him in wonder.
"That's very perceptive of you, Ezra. That describes exactly how I felt when Sarah and Adam were killed too. Guilt for not being there to protect them and guilt for being alive when they died so horrifically. Reckon that's why I became a gunfighter, unconsciously hoping that someone would kill me and put me outta my misery as I didn't have the guts to do it myself."
"Au contraire, my friend. I believe it takes more guts, as you so quaintly put it, to live through the dark times and emerge battered but unbowed to keep the memory of your loved ones alive. Nil desperandum.(never despair) as they say."
"Amen to that brother," agreed Josiah.
"Carpe diem, you mean? (live for the day)," queried Chris smiling.
"Yes indeed, and touche, my friend. I never knew you were so educated," Ezra laughed.
"Well, who's on patrol with me?" asked Chris, changing the subject. He didn't often speak of his loss to the others, it unsettled him too much.
"I am," Vin replied.
"Okay, let's go and check on the homesteaders who went back home. The town's all yours Buck. Try to keep it intact for my return." Chris left with Vin to collect their horses and were just in time to see Jess head out of town with five horses. Buck and JD headed to the jail and Nathan returned to the clinic. Josiah and Ezra did a tour of the town but nothing was amiss.
Jess delivered the horses to a stagecoach relay station and hostelry well outside Eagle Bend. She slept in the hay loft and was woken at around midnight by voices. A group of men had arrived and put their horses in the livery below where she slept. They were talking amongst themselves when Jess suddenly heard Chris's name mentioned. She listened more intently trying to hear what was said.
"He's a peacekeeper in Four Corners along with six others. We'll need to stop them from interfering. I'm looking forward to killing Larabee, for murdering my brother. He'll regret he ever heard my name."
Jess tried to see the mens' faces through a crack in the floor, but they had their backs to her. She waited until they had gone and then quietly went down to take a look at their horses. It would be the only way she would be able to identify them. She took a lantern down from the wall and held it so she could see the horses. As an artist she had a very good memory for details, so it was easy to remember the horses colouring/markings etc. She then saddled her horse quickly and led it from the livery. She hoped any noise it made would not be noticed above the sounds of the other horses milling around in the corral outside. Once clear of the buildings she mounted and made her way as quickly as she could in the dark back to Four Corners.
She went to the saloon when she got back to town in the early light of dawn, but Chris was not there. She ran along to the jail where a light showed in the window. She went in and saw Josiah sitting behind the desk. He had his feet up on the desk with his hat tipped over his eyes, snoring softly. At her noisy entrance he sat up, startled and looked to see who had come in.
"Where's Chris?" Jess blurted out before Josiah could speak. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other in agitation.
"I thought you were in Eagle Bend," Josiah said in a puzzled voice.
"I was, but I need to find Chris. Some men are coming to kill him. Where is he?"
"He's out on patrol with Vin. They could be anywhere. Don't worry, I'll send Buck and JD to find them." He stood and walked hurriedly out the door, Jess on his heels.
"Did you get a look at them?" he asked.
"No, I couldn't see them from where I was, but I know their horses. There are two bays, a black, a grey and a paint. One of the men said something about Chris killing his brother."
Josiah found Ezra first and left Jess with him. He quickly explained what had happened.
"It never rains but it pours," Ezra observed dryly. He sat down with Jess outside the saloon to keep a watch for the men's arrival. There was no way of knowing how or when they would arrive. They may come as a group or separately so as not to arouse suspicion. Buck and JD were dispatched to find Chris.
They found them fairly quickly as they were making their way home. Chris saw the two riders coming towards them and identified them as the ladies man and the kid.
"Maybe there's trouble in town," he said to Vin. "What's up?" he asked Buck, when he drew near.
"Jess came back from Eagle Bend with word that there's someone heading to town gunning for ya."
"Well, I wouldn't want to disappoint him. Did she know who he was?"
"No. There's a group of five of them. She didn't see any of their faces but she got a good look at their horses."
They headed back to town and pulled up outside the saloon.
"Gentlemen, I see you located our wandering gunslinger," Ezra said in greeting.
"Anyone come in?" Chris asked him.
"No-one yet. I shouldn't think they'd be here until this afternoon, but they may come early."
"Vin why don't you take position on the church. Buck go to the blacksmith's. Ezra stay here with Jess and identify them as they come in. Josiah, Nathan take the store and the jail. I'll go and wait in the hotel. If they call me out I'll go, but be ready to take the backup men outta the equation. I'll deal with the main man myself as that's what he wants. We'll wait until they arrive before taking up positions, because we won't know who we're dealing with til Jess identifies them. We can go out the back of the saloon to take up positions then but Vin, I want you up there now."
Ezra and Jess sat outside the saloon again and just after 1pm she saw the first man arrive. She nudged Ezra in the ribs and inclined her head towards the man in question. Ezra coughed loudly and JD came out from the saloon making it look as if he had just come out for some air. Ezra crossed his legs pointing out the man with his toe. JD stretched and ambled back inside and relayed the news. The man made his way along the boardwalk opposite and leant against a pole, lit a cheroot exhaling a cloud of smoke before surveying the street. Buck left the back of the saloon and circled round so he came out further down the street. He made his way to the blacksmiths from where he would be able to deal with the man. Ten minutes later another two members of the gang rode in together, dismounting in front of the hotel. Jess and Ezra went through the same routine again. This time Nathan and Josiah left, keeping their prey in sight as they went to their positions. Finally the last two arrived, albeit at the same time but from different ends of town.
JD who had been looking out the saloon window saw Jess nudge Ezra and he came out before being called and made his way to the jail. Ezra accompanied Jess into the saloon while Chris sneaked out the back and went across to the hotel. He had recognised one of the men who he assumed was the leader of the gang, his name was McCafferty. Chris had killed his brother while stopping him robbing a bank. It had happened a year ago before he had come to Four Corners. He was fast and would be a difficult opponent.
McCafferty looked up and down the street to make sure his men were all there. He then stepped out into the street and shouted, "Chris Larabee, prepare to meet your maker. Come out and face me if you've got the guts."
The citizens of Four Corners ran for cover knowing what was about to happen. Chris walked out of the hotel behind him and out into the street.
"You called? Do you want me to send you to join your brother?" he spoke quietly but his voice still managed to sound deadly. McCafferty whirled round.
"Reckon it will be you not me who'll be eating dirt."
"Stop jawing and get on with it or are you trying to talk me to death?" Chris snapped sarcastically before giving a high pitched whistle signalling his men to take out McCaffertys' gang.
"Just you and me," Chris said menacingly.
McCafferty's gaze flicked from Chris's face to his disarmed men. He really hadn't planned on facing Chris alone. How had he found out about his plan? He knew Chris was fast but he was sure he could match him.
Chris watched McCafferty's eyes, knowing they would give the first hint of him going for his gun. He had learned never to watch his opponents' hands, always the eyes. Chris saw the telltale flicker and his hand dropped and drew his gun. McCafferty was fast and both shots went off simultaneously. McCafferty's body jerked and he fell where he stood. Chris was spun round as the bullet caught him in his shoulder, but he managed to keep his feet. He saw his foe was down and he clamped a hand over his wound and walked towards McCafferty, still holding his gun outstretched. He poked him with his toe to make sure he was dead. Nathan ran over and steered him away to the clinic. Jess had come out of the saloon after watching the gunfight with baited breath. She stood on the boardwalk as Chris was led away.
"Debt repaid," Chris said as he passed her, putting a finger to his hat in thanks.