The Best Laid Plans
Nathan looked out into the street. The silence after the gunfight was almost eerie, but not enough to keep him from seeing to everyone. He had seen the four men at the bank where Buck and Chris had taken up position. The escape of the fourth man and Chris' leaving to trail him had eased the healer's mind on that front.
Calling out to the others, they all checked announced they were well. A frown marred Nathan's handsome face at the strained quality of JD and Ezra's voices, but if one of them had been hurt worse, they would have said. The men he rode with might be stubborn, but they knew well enough that any wound left untended could prove deadly. He could check on his two injured friends in a little bit. First, as the only mobile member of the peacekeepers on the street, he needed to check the fallen and determine what, if any, help was needed.
JD called out that he was fine. His eyes were stilled locked on the perfect hole that was no more than an inch from where his head had been. During his time in this town, he had been shot-at, shot, stabbed and beaten, but none of that scared him as much as his recent brush with death.
Though immobile, he had been doing his best to fight as well as he always did. It had been while his attention was drawn away to the bank that a sound followed by a solid thump had drawn his attention sharply, and suddenly, in the other direction. The man who had shot at him never got a second chance to fire.
Once the fighting had stopped, however, Dunne had finally had a chance to look and see where the bullet that had drawn his attention had landed. Seeing how close he had come to dying the same week as Buck's other two friends, he could only say a prayer of thanks that the man had missed his target.
Shifting slightly, JD settled his back against the wall and stared out toward the street, unwilling to look at the hole the bullet had made.
Staring up at the clear, blue sky, Ezra Standish counted his blessings, which, at this point in time, were far more numerous than at any other time in his life. The only blessing he wished he could count was the one that eluded him - his health. In amongst the flying bullets he had somehow managed to remain intact, but the shifting he had been forced to do to remain so had strained his healing hip. With the adrenaline rush receding, the ache in his head that he had so successfully ignored the past days, reasserted itself with a vengeance.
Though he knew he should move and assist in the inevitable clean-up one of these conflicts always seemed to require, the energy to do so completely eluded him.
Mustering just enough energy to reply to Nathan's inquiry after his health, Ezra decided to remain exactly where he was and wait for assistance.
The door at the undertaker’s opened slowly, revealing two anxious eyes. Seeing the healer wave him over, the man paused only long enough to grab his measuring tape before exiting his office. Scanning the street from the walk outside his business, he could only sigh in resignation. Business had been busy since the Seven had arrived. A portion of him wished it weren't so, but, on the other hand, most of his recent customers had been the bane of society rather than upstanding citizens.
Business might now be brisk, but he knew it was for the greater good of the community.
Larabee paused at the end of the alley he had seen the man dodge down. A soft curse escaped his lips. That alley would lead to the stairs and up to Nathan's. The last he knew, Josiah and Vin were asleep in bed with their guns on the other side of the room. Knowing neither man was in any shape to move at all, he cursed his lack of foresight in not moving the guns closer to his friends, in leaving them unarmed with a gang that had more than once proved their ruthlessness headed into town.
Knowing what kind of chance he would be taking by revealing himself as he looked around the corner of the building, Chris knew he had no choice. He only wished there were someone who could cover him while he looked.
Almost as his thought finished, Buck came into sight on the other side of the alley. Allowing a wry smile to appear on his face and sparing a quick look Heavenward in thanks, Chris indicated their quarry had headed down the alley. Seeing his longtime friend nod his understanding, the blond waited for Wilmington to set himself before peeking around the corner.
The sight that met him was so unexpected, Larabee felt his jaw drop open slightly in disbelief, even as he unconsciously stepped out from his protective cover.
"What are you doing?" hissed Buck, clearly doubting his friend's sanity. It was only after Chris turned and looked at him that Wilmington saw the amusement dancing in the gunman's eyes. Taking a chance, he, too, stepped out and looked down the alley. The sight that met him caused his lips to twitch, once, twice and then open as he laughed.
There, sprawled in the alley, clearly unconscious, was their prey that had clearly run afoul of a chamber pot.
A moment later green eyes met blue, a thoughtful look in their depths. "What?" Wilmington asked.
"You ever known a chamber pot to fall into the middle of a street from a position on a porch?" Larabee asked.
Looking back at the scene before him, Buck's face grew contemplative as he took in the distance of the body from either building and then allowed his eyes to stray upward toward the closed door of the clinic. "Can't say that I have," he admitted, coming to the same conclusion as his friend.
"Reckon we need to check on our two injured friends," Chris observed, allowing his worry for his friends to override his thankfulness that they had stopped this man.
"Reckon we do," Buck agreed, his feelings coinciding with Larabee's. "What about him?" Wilmington asked, indicating the unconscious man.
His nose wrinkling slightly in disgust as the substances soaking into and staining the man's clothes and drying on his skin finally registered, the blond looked at the other man. "I ain't touchin' him 'til he's been cleaned off."
Fighting the look of disgust that wanted to appear on his face, Buck simply nodded his agreement. "He does look downright comfortable where he is. Don't suppose he'll be up for a little while yet."
"Nope," Chris agreed.
"Besides, we have us some sleeping friends to check on," Wilmington observed, a smile on his face
Deciding he had to move, Ezra fought against the pain and made his way to his feet. Taking in his surroundings, he saw that the town was coming alive. The undertaker was out measuring bodies, which were then being carried to his place of business. Nathan was tending the outlaws who had survived the confrontation and two of other storeowners were helping JD from his position.
"Are you alright, Mr. Standish," a voice asked from behind.
As he turned, Ezra quickly identified Dr. Bigsby. "I am fine sir," he assured. When his declaration was met with a disbelieving frown, he amended, "A tad stiff, perhaps, but nothing more."
"Very well," the man said, moving off to see about the others.
Watching the man go, it dawned on Ezra that the good doctor and their healer had never met. His lips pursed slightly in concern as he recalled Dr. Bigsby was not only from the South but was related to Mr. Conklin. While Conklin himself tended to hold the popular view regarding Indians and others, he had always seemed fairly tolerant of Nathan. Standish could only hope his brother-law-was as open-minded.
Both Josiah and Vin had made it back to their beds after dropping the chamber pot on the would-be bank robber. In truth, both were thankful to return to their beds and, were it not for the possibility of a continuing threat, would have quickly fallen asleep.
Instead, they sat, each propped up against the wall, guns across their laps. It had been on their journey back into the clinic that they had spotted their weapons resting on the table across from their beds. The fact that they had failed to see the guns earlier was a testament to their wounded state.
Struggling to stay awake, both men listened closely to the events outside, waiting for their friends to return. The fact that the others would be anything other than victorious never crossed their minds.
It was the soft, gentle creak of a stair that drew both men to full alert. As the blue eyes met and exchanged a look, each took aim at the door as best they could. Should their visitor prove to be anyone other than a friend, that person would never have the opportunity to do more than think about setting foot inside the building.
JD smiled at the men helping him up. He recognized them as local merchants, ones who had heeded his advice several days before and now were offering what aid they could. It bothered the young man that he felt as weak as he did, and even more so for it to be seen in public, but he was honest enough to admit to himself that without the added help, he would never have been able to get up.
Looking over toward Ezra, he caught the gambler's eye and nodded that he was all right. A smile of relief lit his face as he received a nod in return.
Scanning the tableau before him, JD knew the would-be robbers were not as fortunate.
"Thanks, fellas," Dunne said, as he settled onto the bench to which they had led him. A sound off to the side caught his attention and he noticed Mrs. Potter approaching carrying a mug and a sandwich. "Miz Potter," he greeted.
The older woman looked over the young man before her with the critical eye of a mother well versed in the practice of evaluating the relative health of those important to her. "Mr. Dunne," she greeted, her voice warm. "I brought you some lemonade and a sandwich," she informed as she passed it to JD. "Other than the coffee I brought you earlier, have you had anything to eat or drink?"
Blushing slightly at being treated like one of her children, the Easterner was unable to help his stuttered reply, "N-no ma'am."
"Hmph," the widow responded. "A brave young man like you just recovering from an injury needs his strength. You eat up and let me know if you'd like something else," she instructed, smiling at the blush that crept up the boy's cheeks. Walking over to the area JD had been using for cover, she retrieved the mug she had given the peacekeeper earlier that day, satisfied that all the coffee was gone.
The door began to open slowly. The well oiled hinges making little sound in the quiet. It was only by the patience of experience that the two wounded men were able to wait and restrain the natural urge to fire and remove the threat before seeing that threat face to face. Still, as the door continued to inch open, neither man wished to wait much longer, the delay serving only to strain already taut nerves.
When the door was open about six inches, the shadow of a man's head could be seen, backlit by the sun. It wasn't enough, however, to judge if the intruder was friend or foe. For that, they would need to continue their patient observation.
When the door had opened another six inches, the ex-preacher looked at the ex-bounty hunter. The younger man nodded and both men cocked their guns, the sound obviously carrying to the men outside. They watched as the door opened a little more swiftly and the shadow moved to the side, but not quite out of the line of fire.
A head appeared around the door a moment later revealing the grinning face of Buck Wilmington.
"Buck," Josiah said aloud as Vin released the breath he had been holding. Both men secured their guns and let their arms drop.
Sinking back against the wall, Tanner almost groaned in relief. He was exhausted, in pain and wanted nothing more than to fall asleep. Now that he realized the fight must be over, he could almost do that. He just needed to find out about the others and then tell Chris what he and Josiah had figured out while they had been waiting.
"Howdy, boys!" Buck greeted loudly and cheerfully, his smile growing as he noticed both men not only had their pants and boots on, but were holding guns as well. They were well and truly caught. Wilmington couldn't wait to see Chris' reaction and moved into the room, taking up a position opposite the two injured men, waiting to see the fireworks. He didn't have long to wait.
"Buck," Vin greeted, cursing the weakness and slight tremor in his voice.
"Brother Buck," Josiah greeted again.
Both men's attention was drawn back to the door which seemed to fill with a dark presence. Had Josiah and Vin not known it was Chris Larabee in the doorway and had they not known that any anger directed at them by the blond was motivated by friendship rather than maliciousness, neither man nor their weapons would have remained where they were.
As it was, both Josiah and Vin sank further against the pillows piled behind them and swallowed. They had both seen the blond when he was upset, had both been on the receiving end of his temper, but the wave of anger that washed over them as Larabee stepped into the room was accentuated by a powerful, underlying current of worry and occasionally allowed to surface flashes of fear.
The silence that pervaded the room as Chris stopped before the beds dampened even the normal sounds that seeped in from the world outside.
His face an unreadable mask, his eyes shuttered against what he was feeling, it was difficult to tell what the man in black's next move would be. His stance, to the casual observer would look relaxed, but to Josiah and Vin who knew the man in question, the apparent relaxed state was merely camouflage and meant that Larabee's true stance was more akin to a rattlesnake ready to strike than a man having a chat with friends.
The two patients exchanged a quick look and waited to see what the gunslinger would say, allowing Chris the first words.
A soft, flat whisper broke the silence. "Nice guns," the gunslinger observed. It had not escaped his notice that Josiah was holding Vin's mare's leg while Vin was holding Josiah's revolver. He was waiting for a reaction from the men, but received none. The two just sat and stared at him, a circumstance that did nothing to ease Larabee's anger.
In the background, Buck's eyebrow had gone up at Chris' opening foray. He, too, had noticed that the men were holding the other's gun. Being honest about it, he thought it a good move given their respective injuries. The fact that neither Josiah nor Vin responded to Larabee only piqued his interest more.
"As I recall," the blond continued, "they were on the table across the room and you were both told to stay in bed so you wouldn't aggravate your injuries."
The flat voice that had made the first comment now carried with it notes of anger and worry. Both Sanchez and Tanner understood the presence of these emotions. In the time the Seven had been together, they had too often come too close to losing one or another of them. Finding two of their number injured in the wilderness, fevered, suffering and unconscious would have been enough to shake the stoutest of hearts. For a man just discovering he still had a heart, it was even more tortuous. Seeing those same, still injured friends risking reopening their wounds, risking fever, risking death when there was no need, could only reawaken the barely calmed fear of loss. It was this knowledge that caused the two patients to hold their tongue still.
"We had a plan," Larabee continued, a quaver in his voice, though, whether from anger, fear or worry none of the three could tell. "You both agreed it was good and you would stay out of it." Seeing no response was forthcoming, he continued. "We nearly lost both of you a few days ago. You both could have..." his voice trailed off.
Sensing things were getting too serious and too close to emotions none of them needed right now, Buck stood from his leaning position and walked up to his oldest friend, clapping him on the shoulder. "What Chris here is trying to say," he interrupted, " is, what the hell were you thinking? Don't you have the sense God gave a water bug? Good grief, even the greenest greenhorn has more sense than to do a fool thing like go outside and drop a chamber pot on an armed man when he can't walk or fire a gun."
The interruption and the lighter tone Wilmington used diffused the intensity of the situation, without taking away from the seriousness of it. Josiah and Vin needed to be resting in bed; pain, blood loss and the healing wounds dictated that. Both men were well aware of the dangers extra movement and exertion could cause in their state. The two old friends just wanted to know why the men had taken such unnecessary risks. And Buck was also curious about who thought of dropping the chamber pot on the outlaw. That was one story he knew he could get some mileage from.
Silence continued for several seconds, two men waiting for an answer and two not willing to give one. Finally, Tanner broke the silence. "A man should be able to die with his boots on," was all he offered, locking eyes with Larabee.
Allowing the intense emotions to slip away from him, Chris had to admit that Vin had a point. Put in the same position, he knew he would have done no differently than his friends. "Only ones likely to kill you would be me or Nate," the blond informed, letting both patients know they were forgiven for now, but not to pull such a stupid stunt in the future.
Tanner nodded his understanding and felt some of the tension ease from his body. "How many men were there?" he asked, wanting the information to see if it agreed with what he and Josiah thought.
"Not sure," Buck said, looking toward his oldest friend who just shrugged. "Ten, maybe. Less than twenty probably."
The former preacher's lips pursed and he turned to look at Vin. Tanner's face was serious and he nodded for Josiah to share what they had worked out while waiting to see who would win the fight. "That's not the end of it," he said.
Nathan looked up as a man crouched down next to him, frowning when he failed to recognize him. "Help you?" he asked.
The stranger looked Jackson in the eye and then looked down at the man he had been helping. "You the healer I've been hearing about?" he asked.
"Reckon that'd be me," Nathan replied cautiously.
Nodding his head, the man held out his hand. "Dr. Hiram Bigsby," he introduced.
"Nathan Jackson," the man said, feeling a combination of excitement, gratitude and dread growing inside. He was thankful for the man's help in healing JD and Ezra, and excited to have an opportunity to work with and speak with a real doctor, but he couldn't help the apprehension he felt wondering how this man would judge him.
"I've heard quite a bit about you from your friends," he informed. "They say you've got a talent for healing."
Flustered by the praise, Nathan felt his cheeks color before replying, "I do what I can."
Nodding, the man continued, "And I understand you do it quite well." A smile appeared on his face as he realized Nathan was flustered. "Come now, its not that unusual," he added. "I've known many a slave and former slave who seemed to have an ability to aid those with simple needs."
There it was, the judgment. The condescending tone the man used when he mentioned the word slave caused Nathan to bristle despite the man's admission that they had talent for healing.
Unaware he had caused offense, the man turned his attention toward Nathan's patient. "You're doing good work here," he praised. "Though, you should probably check again for pieces of cloth or other residue in the wound," he continued, falling into diagnostic mode and losing track of everything else around him.
Shaking himself, Nathan tried to throw off the disconcerting feeling he had, look past the man's views and learn what he could. After all, this man would be leaving soon and any new knowledge could only help Jackson's patients.
"What do you mean it's not over?" Larabee demanded, eyes flashing. Hadn't they been through enough? Hadn't the battle they just finished been enough? He did not want to believe what his friends were saying, but somehow, deep inside, he knew they were right.
Looking around the clinic at his assembled friends, Josiah took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He knew when the realization came to him and Vin that the others would not enjoy hearing their knowledge any more than they had when they realized it.
"That fight was anything but easy," Wilmington stated. He and Chris had the most time to digest Josiah's statement, but it still didn't sit well.
After Josiah had made his announcement, he suggested that they wait until everyone was together before going into more details. So, after the bodies were taken care of, the injured tended and the man from the alley washed and dressed in some borrowed clothes, the peacekeepers locked the jail, left one of the townspeople outside to keep an eye on things and met in the clinic. Josiah and Vin had taken the time to give in to the demands of their bodies and sleep.
"We didn't say that was too easy," Vin said, his voice even. "We said that wasn't all there was to it."
"How did you arrive at this conclusion, gentlemen," Ezra asked, not pleased to hear the featherbed he longed for was still just a dream.
"Think about what happened to us," Vin said. "To all of us," he clarified.
"A lot of planning and forethought went into everything that led up to this point," Josiah said.
"We've been hearing about the bank robbers for more than a month. What Vin and I ran into in Roweville took time and planning. And from what we could see, those men had been there a while. The only thing that went wrong there is that we survived."
"The ambush waiting for Chris and Nate," Vin pointed out.
"Whoever planned this knew what you would do and exactly how to set it up. They knew if they led you the way we were going, that you'd worry about us. Only they failed to realize that having you think we were in danger would sharpen your instincts and reactions, not dull them," Josiah added. "They knew us well enough to know that splitting us up would be their only chance."
"Whoever is behind this has a lot of men working for him," Tanner pointed out. "A lot of men means a lot of money and that means whatever they're after is big."
"I can't see that a man, or men, who would so carefully plan everything up to this point would suddenly risk everything on one run on the bank," Sanchez finished.
Silence reigned in the room as each man contemplated what Josiah and Vin had said.
Larabee stood staring out the window, his hand absentmindedly running through his hair. Finally he shook his head. "You're right," he finally admitted. He had known when the charge against the bank was made it wasn't the end of it, but he didn't know why. Now he knew the answer for his feeling, but he didn't know what to do. Turning to face his men, he asked, "So how the hell do we figure out what to expect next?"
Before anyone could answer that question a cry of "Fire!" rose to the room from the outside. Ordering JD, Ezra, Vin and Josiah to stay put, Buck, Chris and Nathan raced out the door. The four men left in the room stared at each other.
"Phase two has begun," Ezra intoned. His statement was met with grim agreement.
Racing down the stairs, the men had no need to ask where the fire was. Flames licked out of windows and around the frame of the old tailor’s shop. Fortunately the building had been abandoned over a year before. Unfortunately, it was close to several other shops.
The threat of the fire spreading to those occupied shops, two of which had living quarters attached, had activated the whole town to start a fire brigade. Every able-bodied person was involved in some way or another.
They had caught a break in that the large barrels of water they stored for just such an occasion were located on the opposite side of the street. Still, the fire was burning quickly and was becoming a greater and greater threat to the rest of the town.
With a single-minded desperation, Chris Larabee grabbed bucket after bucket of water and threw it on the fire. It was instinctive to him - fire was the enemy. Fire killed. Fire destroyed. Fire...
"Chris!" Buck shouted, clamping a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Larabee!" he shouted again, reaching out with his other hand and forcibly turning the man to face him. Giving him a shake, he waited for the eyes to focus on him.
Blinking several times, Chris shook his head as Buck came into focus. "Buck?" he asked, embarrassed by his friend's actions and not understanding them.
"It's a distraction," Wilmington informed.
Blond brows drew down as the man in black puzzled over this statement. The pieces came together slowly and Larabee let out a violent curse. Moving swiftly away from the fire, he checked his gun to make sure it was loaded and then looked for Nathan.
Seeing the man over to the side tending to one of the townsfolk, he waited until the brown eyes met his and then tilted his head indicating they needed to go.
Leaving his patient, Jackson jogged over to where Buck and Chris were heading away from the fire. "What is it?" he asked.
"Fire's just a distraction," Chris said, his face grim, his stride long and quick.
Nathan cursed as he realized the truth of the statement. Reaching for his gun, he checked hi ammunition and then quickened his own pace.
The three peacekeepers were about halfway to the bank and increasing speed as they branched off to cover more area when a run-away wagon with a trail of dust behind it came charging into town from the other direction.
At first, they assumed that the wagon was driverless, but as it got closer, they saw the driver standing on the bar between the two horses. He pulled the pin connecting the horses to the wagon and urged the horses forward.
Horror swept through the men as they realized there was nothing to stop the wagon from running right into the people fighting the fire at the other end of the street.
That realization had little time to take root, however, as a moment later, they realized what they thought had been dust was actually smoke. It took their minds only a split second to realize that there might be explosives in the wagon and only one second longer for the wagon to explode.
In the echo of the explosion, no one heard the gunshots coming from the bank.
Ezra cursed as he threw himself back against the wall. Why hadn't he seen it? Of all of them, he had the most practice in dealing with cons and schemes, yet it had been Vin and Josiah who had been able to see the bigger picture. Of course, the fact that they not only had each other to talk to and help work it out combined with the time to look at the situation, was hardly an excuse.
Standish flinched as a bullet tore into the wood on the corner of the building, sending splinters shooting in his direction. "A dollar a day doesn't even pay for my bullets," he grumbled. He had used the lack of payment as one more reason to not ride with Larabee to the Indian village. Now, however, that statement was true. He reached into his pocket and cursed at the dwindling ammunition supply.
As Nathan, Chris and Buck had rushed out of the clinic, something about the call of 'Fire!' had bothered the gambler. He had easily identified the voice as that of one of the town merchants, but, on the tail of the revelation about the first battle being too simple a response from their adversary, the incident set off a warning bell in his mind.
It was too late to call his friends back by the time he realized the fire would be the perfect distraction and that meant that he and JD would need to go to the bank and watch for an attack there.
The two recovering men had made their way as swiftly as possible to that location, thankful they had the foresight to grab some more ammunition before leaving for the bank.
Crouching low, Ezra chanced a look around the corner and spotted two men making their way toward the bank. With great care, he took aim, knowing he would have to make his shots count. Just as he pulled the trigger, an explosion sounded behind him. The shock wave from the explosion nearly knocked him off his feet.
JD shook his head to clear it slightly. The explosion had startled him and he had turned into the wall of the building nearby instead of away as he had intended. A bullet landing about waist level in front of him drew his attention back to the issue at hand. Crouching behind a nearby water barrel, he scanned the street, his mind reviewing the events that led him here.
He had been about to follow his friends to help fight the fire, when Ezra stopped him by grabbing his upper arm. Startled by the other man's action, Dunne had turned to see what was wrong. As Standish explained his concerns and Josiah and Vin both agreed, JD found himself torn. He knew that what they were telling him was true, but another part of him wanted to go with Buck, Chris and Nathan, to watch their backs and help keep the town from burning.
After a moment's thought, however, he realized that he had no choice in the matter. He had to go with Ezra. There was no way he could allow the bank to be robbed. So, despite his pain and fatigue, he had checked his guns, found more ammunition and headed out of the clinic and back toward the sight of that morning's activities.
Now, seeing the men sneaking toward the bank and trying desperately to find the ones who were keeping the gambler and himself pinned down, he took a deep breath and gathered himself. He had a job to do and he was man enough to do it.
Ignoring the thunk of a bullet hitting the barrel in front of him, he took aim at the second figure heading toward the bank door. With a steady hand, he squeezed the trigger and watched the man drop. His aim had been true, but he took no pleasure from the job well done. Shooting a man was never something in which to take pride.
Bullets continued to be hurled his way and the young peacekeeper shifted his attention from the bank to the rooftops and alleyways that might be hiding their foes. His focus was rewarded when a slight movement caught his attention. Lifting his gun and taking careful aim, he waited with a patience not normally attributed to him for the man to reveal himself again. Eventually his target showed himself and the bullet was on its path before JD fully realized he had fired his gun.
The realization that the fire was nothing more than a distraction came to Vin and Josiah only a split-second after Ezra figured it out. Watching their recovering friends rush out of the room, the two men eyed each other.
“Jail?” Tanner asked, already gritting his teeth for what he knew would be a long, slow, painful journey.
“That would be the next logical choice,” Josiah agreed, already forcing his exhausted body into a sitting position. “You up to this?” he asked, his eyes clenched shut and his jaw tightened as he struggled against the pain and blackness that threatened to overwhelm him.
“Hell, no,” Vin ground out, his voice tight with the pain that reasserted itself at his movements. After a moment’s pause, when he had better control of his breathing, he opened his eyes and looked at his friend. “Don’t reckon we got much of a choice,” he added.
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Josiah grunted with the effort. “Nope,” he agreed, determination winning out over his own weakness. “Reckon we don’t.”
With considerable effort, the two wounded men managed to once more leave their beds and dress to go outside. They had exited Nathan’s room and were at the top of the stairs when an explosion rocked the town.
Grabbing onto the nearby railing, Josiah managed to keep both he and Vin upright. When the explosion had died down and he was sure of his balance, the former preacher looked over at his friend to make sure he was still ready to go through with this. He was met with a pair of blue eyes that revealed worry for their friends and a determination to help them. Nodding his understanding and agreement, the two men helped each other to the stairs.
Eyes clamped shut, hands covering his head and neck, Nathan waited for some sign the shelling had stopped. In the distance he thought he heard voices calling and the sound of gunfire. He had to get up, he had to get back to work, there would be wounded who needed to be carried to the hospital tent.
Forcing his eyes open, Jackson took a look around and felt a moment of disorientation. Before him was a town, not a battlefield. There were no bodies strewn about. It took only a moment for his mind to adjust to this reality and recent events to flood his memory.
With a soft curse, he quickly performed a mental inventory. There were no sharp pains that would indicate a wound, but there were a few sore places where something had hit him and where he knew he would have some spectacular bruises. Still, he was cautious in his movements as he straightened from his protective curl.
When he had straightened and risen to a sitting position, he blinked his eyes and looked around. Sounds were dulled and distant, but he could make out the sound of gunfire coming from the direction of the bank and hear the vague cries of the townsfolk at the other end of the street. It was with relief that Nathan noted none of the people fighting the fire had been injured.
Scanning the street to his right, he caught sight of a black-clad form shaking his head and pushing himself upward. Turning toward his left, he tried to find Buck. Panic began to rise when he failed to find the lanky gunman. The panic eased to concern as he spotted two booted feet sticking out from behind some barrels. Obviously Buck had been able to find some cover.
As he rose to a standing position, Jackson glanced toward the bank and cursed as he caught sight of both Ezra and JD firing at the building. Taking a step in that direction, a slight movement caught Nathan’s eye causing him to turn back to where Buck was laying. A quick glance told him that it had simply been Wilmington's foot moving that had caught his eye. When he noted that the feet hadn’t seemed to move, concern for the mustached peacekeeper grew and Jackson changed his course.
Approaching the barrels, a soft curse escaped the healer as he saw the reason for Buck’s immobility. A ragged piece of wood about a foot long and three inches wide was imbedded in the man’s calf.
As he reached Buck’s side, he was relieved to see no other visible injuries. Debris rested on the back of Wilmington’s coat, but nothing else seemed amiss.
“Want to tell me why my leg feels like someone stuck a knife in it?” a pain-filled voice asked.
Letting out a small sigh of relief that Buck was conscious and coherent, Nathan pulled one of his knives and reached for the pant leg to cut it away so he could get a better look at the injury. “Ain’t no knife,” he assured, his voice professional. “Got a chunk of wood stuck in your leg, though.”
Wilmington cursed. “Ain’t got time for this Nathan,” he insisted, hearing the gunfire heating up.
“Ain’t got time for nothing else,” the healer disagreed. “I’ve got to take a look at this and see if I can get it out or not,” he informed cutting the cloth around the wood.
“Not my lucky pants,” Wilmington whined as he heard the sound of cloth ripping.
Jackson grinned, knowing Buck was trying to keep his mind off of the pain he was in and the pain Nathan would be causing him as he tended this wound. “Way you tell it, all your pants are lucky pants,” he teased back, studying the wound more closely now that it was exposed. Biting back a curse, the grin faded from Jackson’s face. It was impossible to tell how deeply the wood had penetrated, but given the ragged condition and the few threads attached to the wood, he knew it would be anything but a clean wound. This needed his attention and his tools at the clinic if he was going to get it out and hopefully prevent infection.
Unable to see the concern on his friend’s face, Buck chuckled softly at Nathan’s observation. Far be it for him to disabuse his friend of that notion. “Well, I certainly can’t disagree with you there,” Wilmington agreed. “But that’s not so much a case of the pants as it is my animal magnetism.” The final word of the sentence came out in a gasp as pain shot up his leg. “What are you doing back there?” the rogue demanded, trying to turn his head so he could see.
“Stay still, Buck,” Nathan commanded, his voice serious.
Fear lanced through the injured man. It was never good when the healer’s voice took on that particular tone. “How bad?” Buck asked, all lightheartedness gone from his own voice.
Jackson sighed and sat back on his heels. Rubbing a hand across the back of his neck, he answered, “There’s a piece of wood sticking out of your leg. It’s about a foot long, three inches wide and maybe a half-inch thick. It’s not a clean piece…”
“So there’s going to be debris in the wound,” Wilmington finished, letting loose a string of curses. Another volley of gunshots drew his attention down the street. “Doesn’t sound like we have time to clean it now,” he observed, his voice hard as steel. “Think it can keep until after this business?”
Nathan was torn. Every instinct he had was telling him to get the wound cleaned and tended as soon as possible to avoid infection, but his heart was telling him his friends needed them now. This time his heart won out. “I’ll take the wood out and bind the wound tight. But the second, and I mean the second, this is over, you are in my room, no argument. This isn’t something to play with Buck. If it gets infected or is too deep, you could lose your leg.”
Better my leg than JD and Ezra’s lives, Buck said to himself even as he shuddered at the thought of losing his leg. “Do it,” he commanded, preparing himself for the inevitable pain.”
Nodding, though he knew Wilmington couldn’t see him. Nathan steeled himself and reached for the wood. “Ready?” he asked, reaching for the wood. His only reply was a grunt of agreement. As he grabbed the wood, he felt it crumble in his hand. Jerking away quickly he let out a curse.
“What?” Buck asked, pain and fear making his voice short and harsh.
“Wood’s rotted,” Nathan replied, rubbing his hands on his pants as a new option presented itself. Licking his lips in nervousness, he quickly made his decision. “This wood’s pretty soft. I can probably cut most of this off and bind the rest to keep is stable until I remove it,” he explained.
“You want me to walk around with a chunk of wood in my leg?” Wilmington demanded, disbelief evident in his voice.
“Just hear me out,” Jackson soothed. “I told you this was going to be a dirty wound and I don’t know how deep it goes. The best thing to do for this when I pull the wood out is to let it bleed for a while and clean out the debris naturally. If I leave a portion in, then it should be stable until all this is over.”
Gritting his teeth, the rogue’s attention was drawn down the street as another volley of gunfire sounded. He disliked the idea of leaving the wood in almost as much as chancing infection, but time was not on their side. “Do it,” he commanded. “But do it fast.”
Nodding, Nathan retrieved his knife and rested his other hand around the wound and wood, hoping to keep the process as painless as possible. “This is going to hurt,” he advised and he began working on the wood.
Chris pushed himself slowly into a sitting position, his ears ringing slightly from the sound of the explosion. Shaking his head to clear it, he winced slightly as the dull throb he had failed to credit as an injury flared to life, causing him to close his eyes and hiss in pain.
Reaching to the back of his head, he was relieved when he failed to encounter blood. Still, he winced at the tenderness and realized he could possibly have a concussion.
The sound of gunshots drew his attention down the street. An odd combination of worry and relief flooded him, worry over his friends who were firing and relief that the movement failed to cause any dizziness or nausea.
Carefully pushing himself to his feet, he made his way to the boardwalk on the opposite side of the street from the bank. Crouching down to maintain cover, he was making good progress when gunshots from the jail caught his attention. With a curse, he realized he was almost across the street from the jail. The windows in the front had been blown out and the door was off its hinges. He could see inside and saw a man opening the cell doors to release the prisoners.
Another curse escaped as Larabee recalled that the papers the men were most likely after were also in the Sheriff’s office. All the prisoners would have to do to find them was remove the rifles and shotguns from the gun cabinet. Turning a table onto its side, he ducked behind it and took careful aim at the man opening the cell doors. Squeezing the trigger, he watched as his bullet hit his mark. The man’s arm flew out, flinging the keys to the other side of the building.
Spinning on his heels as he pressed his injured arm to his side, the outlaw pulled out his gun and aimed it across the street. That was all the opening Chris needed as he squeezed the trigger one more time and watched as the man crumpled to the ground.
Turning to look at the bank, he could see both Ezra and JD hunkered down, trying to keep the bank safe. A sound drew his attention back to the jail and he let out another curse as one of the cell doors swung open. Obviously the keys hadn’t gone as far away from the prisoners as he thought they had.
With precision that came from experience, Chris was able to cow the prisoners back into the cells with a few well-placed shots. Quickly emptying the used shells from his gun, he began reloading, frowning when it seemed to be going too slowly.
Darting a look at the jail as he finished filling the last chamber of his gun, he let out yet another frustrated curse. The men had realized he was reloading and were moving through the small building toward the rifles.
Checking to make sure his gun was ready to go, he took aim once more and fired. Taking some satisfaction when the men froze in place.
Renewed gunfire from the direction of the bank called to him as worry settled into his gut. Ezra and JD needed him down there, but there was no way he could leave his current position, not with the men threatening to escape and discover the papers. Glancing in the opposite direction, he gritted his teeth when he failed to spot either Nathan or Buck. “Where the hell are you, boys?” he hissed.
How they managed to get to the bottom of the stairs, neither man would ever understand, but they were now on the ground. As they stood at the base of the stairs catching their breath, they listened and realized the sound of gunfire had changed slightly. There was some coming from further down.
“Jail,” Josiah panted, making it a statement not a question.
“Back way,” Vin replied, equally breathless.
Knowing they had no choice but to help their friends, the two men struggled around the side of the livery to the alley that ran behind the buildings. As they turned the corner, the duo stopped and pressed themselves to the side of the building, unable to duck for cover.
From their vantage point, they could see several nervous horses tethered nearby and could clearly see two of the outlaws.
“Horses,” Vin hissed, drawing the knife he had taken with him from Nathan’s room.
“Men,” Josiah whispered, acknowledging the division of duty.
Waiting another moment to be sure the outlaw’s attention was elsewhere, Tanner shuffled away from the wall toward the nervous animals, whispering soft, soothing words as he went. Holding up his hand to the first horse he found, he allowed the animal to sniff him thoroughly smiling when it shook his head after sniffing a bandage.
A gentle laugh escaped the tracker. “Reckon I don’t much appreciate the smell neither,” he soothed, patting the horse’s neck. “But ‘s long as it does its job, I’m not going to complain too much.” Taking the horse’s reigns and making sure they were well out of the way, he moved on to each horse gathered there and proceeded to do the same thing.
When all the horses were free and their reins secured in a way that wouldn’t interfere with their running, Vin walked back to the first horse and slapped it on the rump. He moved out of the way and smiled when the other horses followed the first without his interference.
Seeking shelter from a nearby tree, Vin leaned back against it and closed his eyes, waiting for the dark spots that were now plaguing his vision to clear. The last thing he and the boys needed was for him to faint dead away in the middle of a fight.
After several minutes of deep breathing, or at least as deep as his wounds would allow, he opened his eyes, pleased when the black spots were not longer present.
Turning his head slightly, he took in the scene at the back of the jail, trusting that Josiah would have removed any threat behind the bank. Seeing no one back there, Vin began making his way toward the Sheriff’s office, keeping to the sparse shelter offered by the trees.
Josiah, for his part, had found some small shelter at the far corner of the livery. The only problem was, to get to it, he had to remove the man firing down the alley. Whispering a prayer for forgiveness, he took aim and fired.
The man he had targeted cried out and sank to the ground, clutching his injured arm. Down, but not out, the man quickly spied his adversary and raised his weapon.
Any doubt Josiah had about the necessity of killing the man faded when he met the villain’s eyes. They were cold, hard and dead; the eyes of a killer. Firing his own weapon before the other had a chance, he saw his aim was true. The killer’s head snapped back and a perfect hole appeared in the man’s forehead.
“Forgive me, Father,” he prayed, hating to take a life, even one such as this man’s. Looking around, he saw his opportunity and made his way to the corner of the livery, slipping behind a stack of crates there.
Looking down the alley toward the main street, he was able to see another of the outlaws firing from behind cover. Unwilling to shoot the man in the back, Sanchez aimed for the wall near the man. Unfortunately, his shot seemed to coincide with a move by one of the other peacekeepers that had the outlaw jerking back, straight into Josiah’s line of fire. “No!” the former preacher gasped, as the bullet entered the man’s back, causing his shoulder blades to pull together in pain. The form slumped forward to the ground. The rapidly spreading pool of blood underneath the fallen body confirmed he was no longer a threat.
Resting his head against the wall behind him, he closed his eyes, praying once more for forgiveness and also for the soul he had taken in such a way. In the heat of battle it sometimes happened that a man was shot in the back, but it still offended Josiah’s sense of justice.
By this time, he realized he had gained the attention of the outlaw at the back of the next alley and was building his energy and resolve to cross to the other side of the alley in which he was sheltering when several horses went running past.
Taking the opportunity the passing horses presented, the former preacher lunged for the other side of the alleyway, thankful when he made it. Now he just needed to remove the threat in the back alley before he passed out from pain and exhaustion.
Ezra heard the gunshots to the side and saw Chris firing into the jail. A desire to help his friend rose within him and was quickly set aside as a bullet impaled the wall beside him. Ducking a little more, he waited for an opportunity to fire. He heard a gunshot that sounded like it was coming from the rear of the bank, quickly followed by another.
Realizing he had not seen either Buck or Nathan, he assumed they had worked their way behind the bank. That theory failed a moment later, when he noticed the healer slip around the corner of a building. He frowned when shortly after Jackson’s disappearance, the ladies’ man staggered and stumbled forward toward the jail, taking cover just outside.
His attention was drawn back to his own situation by a flash of movement. Grim satisfaction filled him as he realized his opponent had made a fatal flaw. Aiming, he released a shot, cursing when he saw the man moving to avoid his bullet. A moment later, however, the outlaw fell to earth, unmoving. Blinking at the sight before him and knowing his bullet had missed, it took Standish only a moment to realize his gunshot had been louder than it should have been. Seeing a form that could only belong to Josiah flit across the back of the alley, confirmed that it had not been the gambler’s bullet that brought down the man.
A violent curse escaped the Southerner a moment later, however, as he realized what Josiah’s presence meant. Neither of his friends was in any shape to do battle. Wanting to do nothing more than run to the back of the alley and drag the injured men back to the clinic, Ezra pushed aside that desire and focused his attention on the situation before him. For now, Josiah and Vin would have to take care of themselves.
JD leaned back and closed his eyes, trying to renew his flagging energy. He was better than he had been, was healing nicely, but the blood loss and the healing muscles were quickly sucking away his energy.
After a brief exchange of gunfire, there was silence to one side. Eyes flying open in fear, he released a sigh of relief when he spotted Ezra alive and well. A motion at the edge of his sight drew his attention back to his opponent just in time to see the man try and dodge from his current cover to another.
Without giving it conscious thought, Dunne aimed and pulled the trigger of his Colt and watched the man drop, wounded, but not completely out of the fight yet. Keeping his attention on the man before him, he fought the urge to turn and look to his other side to see what it was Chris and Buck were firing at, for he had recognized the sound of both guns.
Chris watched Nathan slip around the corner of the building and head toward the back of the buildings. He mentally applauded the healer’s move. Flanking this group would give them an advantage.
A few moments later, his feelings changed again when he saw Buck shuffle forward, obviously injured. Cursing aloud, Chris tried to see how badly his old friend was hurt. Since he couldn’t see the bandage and Nathan had left Buck on his own, Larabee could only assume the wound was minor.
Glancing back at the men in the jail, he cursed as he realized several of them had ducked below the level of the windows, thus preventing him from keeping them in place. The only thing that kept his frustration in check was the fact the men seemed to be going for their own guns rather than the weapons stored there. Larabee also hoped that Nathan would be able to stop them from escaping out the back. He had a bad feeling that’s where all the action would be.
Buck cursed his bad leg and the bad angle he had. Unable to cross the road, he was stuck on the same side of the street as the jail. His position, lying flat on his stomach behind a low crate, allowed him to view only a small portion of the building’s interior. The only benefit of his position was the outlaws in the jail wouldn’t be able to get a good angle on him.
Watching, he carefully took aim as he spotted one of the prisoners reaching for his gun. As he squeezed the trigger, he could only smile as his bullet gouged out a chunk of wood next to the man’s probing hand.
Shifting slightly, he bit his lip to hold back a cry of pain and made a mental note to move his leg as little as possible. Hearing the shooting continue down by the bank, he scanned the street and noticed JD was still firing. The kid was looking ragged, but he was gritting it out. Fraternal pride flared within the rogue’s heart as he was once more presented with the proof that Dunne was a man anyone would be proud to call brother. That’s not to say he still didn’t have a lot to learn, Buck soothed, unwilling to relinquish his role as mentor just yet.
His attention was returned to the jail when he caught sight of a gun slipping out the window nearest him. Waiting patiently, it seemed an agonizingly long time before a rough, tanned hand presented itself a target. Vin might be the sharpshooter of the group, but from this distance, there was very little chance Buck would miss.
Steadying his hand against the side of the crate, he squeezed the trigger and watched his bullet hit its mark. The gun dropped and the hand retracted back inside in perfect time with the howl of pain.
A grim smile lit Wilmington’s face, one down, hopefully only a few more to go.
Nathan slipped around the side of the building and headed for the door at the back of the jail. After Chanu escaped, the peacekeepers kept it locked and some crates in front of the door, precautions that would slow a man trying to escape, but not stop a desperate man for long.
As he approached the rear of the building, he was greeted with the sounds of gunfire. A string of curses streamed from his lips as he recognized the sound of Vin’s mare’s leg and Josiah’s revolver. What those two were doing out of bed, let alone down here in the middle of the fight, was a question that would have to wait for later. For now, he was just grateful to have the extra guns.
Pausing at the corner of the building, he crouched down and peered around the corner. He could see a slumped body half in and half out of the jail. A moment later it was unceremoniously pushed out the door and left sprawled on the ground. From the placement of the two bullet wounds, Nathan easily identified both Vin and Josiah’s handiwork. Vin always seemed to hit between the eyes and Josiah the heart or the arm.
The slam of the door drew his attention back to the rear of the building. Looking further down the alley, he spotted the injured ex-preacher at the other corner of the building. Looking around, he was unsurprised when he failed to spot Vin.
Catching Josiah’s eye, he made no effort to stop the glare of disapproval he knew he was giving the man. He was only slightly mollified when he saw the sheepish _expression and shrug his friend returned. Jackson knew he could only expect the same from Vin.
Thinking of Vin, Nathan began scanning the area again. Sanchez must have guessed what his friend was looking for and tilted his head toward the nearby trees. Nodding his head, Nathan gauged the distance from his position to the trees that would offer him a better angle at the back door to the jail, and, maybe a chance to check on the Texan.
With a wave of his hand, Nathan caught Josiah's eye and indicated his plan to go to the woods. Sanchez nodded that he understood and leveled the mare's leg to provide some cover.
His eyes trained on his goal, Nathan took a deep breath and then sprinted toward the trees. He reached the shelter of the greenery without a shot being fired in his direction. While he had heard the boom of the mare's leg, he had failed to hear much in the way of return fire. Perhaps that was a good sign.
As he scanned the area, it took his eyes several minutes to find the wounded sharpshooter. A concerned frown appeared on his face as he took in Vin's posture. The sharpshooter was sitting on the ground, his head leaned back against the trunk of a tree and his hands resting in his lap. In the shade of the woods, it was impossible for the healer to tell if Vin had been injured again or was just suffering the effects of his existing wounds.
Eyes shifting to take in the back of the jail, Nathan questioned whether it was safe for him to move closer to the tracker. When gunfire erupted at the front of the jail, he offered a quick prayer for his friends up front and then ducked and scrambled over to his patient.
Arriving safely at Vin's side, Jackson scanned the area one more time before setting his gun on the ground next to his foot. "This don't look like the bed where I left you," he admonished.
"Town seemed a bit lively," Vin replied, his voice soft and strained with pain. "Thought I'd join in."
Nathan grunted in reply as he lifted the bandage on Vin's shoulder to check the wound on his back. The stitches seemed to have held together and there was no blood. Looking over the other wounds, he was relieved to see Tanner hadn't reopened any of his injuries, or, worse, added any new ones. "Would have thought one of the two of you would have enough sense to stay put. Shape you're in, you're lucky you're still conscious. I have no idea how Josiah's still standing."
Then, feeling his worry burst into a flame of anger, he snapped, "What the hell were you thinking?" Ashamed of his outburst as soon as the words left his mouth, Nathan lifted his brown eyes, full of apology, to meet the blue ones of his friend. It took him only a heartbeat to read the deep friendship in them and the need to protect those few who had become family. With a huff, Jackson, picked up his gun and turned his attention back to the rear door of the jail. "Yeah," he admitted. "I wouldn't have stayed put either."
Knowing the healer had admitted more than he could have hoped, Vin smiled and closed his eyes.
A small smile curved Nathan's lips as well. These men might not always seem to have the sense God gave a flea, but he couldn't fault their hearts.
Concluded in parts 31-Epilogue
Meredith's Magnificent Seven Old West Page
Meredith's Magnificent Seven Story Index
Meredith's Magnificent Seven Fanfic Main Page