The Best Laid Plans
Chris leaned his head back and sighed. Things had come to a stalemate between the peacekeepers and the prisoners. He knew that, given time, he and the others could out-wait the men in the jail, but with the jewels and papers hidden in the building with the outlaws, he worried about their discovery. If they were discovered, it could drive the prisoners to new levels of boldness that, next time, they might not be able to repel.
Looking down the main street, he was relieved to see the fire had been doused. A cold chill ran through him at the sight of the blackened structure and thin wisps of smoke curling upward. Looking the other way, he spotted Ezra and JD, both behind cover and restocked with ammunition. The bodies around the bank had been removed, the undertaker and those helping him being careful not to be seen by the prisoners in the jail.
Ezra had reported that Nathan was guarding the back door, but Larabee couldn’t help the feeling Standish was keeping something from him.
Chris had managed to catch Buck’s eye earlier and the rogue had indicated it was his leg that was injured, but he was fine for now. Larabee knew his friend well enough to know that the pale color of Wilmington's face coupled with the indication he was fine meant that he was, in fact, in a lot of pain. Unfortunately with Josiah and Vin out of action, he didn’t see that he had any choice but to allow his friend to stay and fight.
Being honest, if he could have Ezra and JD out of the fight as well, he would be happy, but right now he needed every body he could get.
Once things settled down into a stand-off, Nathan had checked Vin more closely. Having taken a position next to the younger man had given the Texan a chance to sleep and now Tanner was insisting he was “fine”.
Deciding now was not the time to discuss the definition of the word “fine”, Jackson simply nodded and indicated he was going to see if he could get to Josiah to check him out and to find out how things were at the front of the building.
Earlier, Ezra had made his way along the back of the buildings and spoken briefly with Josiah. Nathan was hoping that he had passed along some information. Both of his patients needed food and water soon.
Crouching, he moved through the woods until he was parallel to Josiah. He felt his stomach clench at the thought that he would be running over open ground, but he had yet to find out how his friend was doing. Given the amount of blood Sanchez had lost in the cave, the location of the wounds and the painful journey back to town, Nathan could only marvel that the man was still standing.
Taking a deep breath, he started his dash from the cover of the woods to the cover of the crates behind which Josiah was sheltering. Halfway to his goal, a shot sounded and the dirt near his feet was kicked up. Several more shots sounded before he was close enough to dive behind the temporary shelter.
“Welcome to my humble sanctuary, brother,” Josiah greeted, his pale, strained face looking down at the new arrival.
“Josiah,” Nathan greeted, picking himself up and brushing himself off. Glancing around, he grunted in approval when he noticed Sanchez had brought a covered barrel over and was using it as a seat as he rested his feet on the edge of a nearby crate. At least the man had sense enough to stay off of his feet. Ignoring the long suffering sigh, the healer quickly evaluated his patient and examined the wounds, once again satisfied that none of the stitching had broken and there was no new bleeding.
“How fares brother Vin,” the ex-preacher asked, stifling a yawn.
“That’s what I thought,” Nathan said, noting the yawn Josiah was trying to hide. “Vin got some sleep and will be good for a few hours provided the fool doesn’t move around too much. You, on the other hand, are going to settle on the ground here and sleep while I take over your post.” He was only slightly surprised when Sanchez grinned and began to comply with the command. “But first you’re going to tell me what Ezra had to say.”
“Of course,” Josiah agreed, grunting slightly as he settled onto the ground. “It appears the fire is out, the bank is safe and we have a stand-off here at the jail.”
Nathan grunted. “Something’s gotta give,” he observed, his eyes focused on the rear of the jail.
“Reckon we’ve got another hour or so before that happens,” the injured man informed. “If the man behind this is half as devious and desperate as I think he is, we’ll be in for a third wave before too long.”
Jackson glanced down at his friend after this pronouncement and smiled at the sound of soft snores rising into the air. The smile faded, however, when he realized Josiah was right. There was something else coming and none of them knew who was behind it. All they knew is the man was well financed and well organized.
In a temporary camp some distance from town, a runner knocked on a tent post and waited for permission before entering. The boy had been hungry and desperate for food when he happened across this man. He was too weak to do much, but his quick mind and limited reading and writing ability had earned him a position as messenger. Now, six months later, as his eleventh birthday approached, he was hoping for bigger and better things.
“Sir,” he greeted before standing silently at attention.
“What do you know,” the rich, cultured voice asked.
“They managed to put out the fire, Sir. And the attempt on the bank didn’t go through, but our men who were in jail made an escape attempt but they’re caught inside the building at the moment, trading shots with those men.”
The man in charge leaned back in his chair, the index finger of his right hand rising to tap his lips. A satisfied smile began to curve his lips. “This could work to our advantage,” he said, softly. “Go get something to eat and send in Collins in ten minutes.”
Watching the boy leave, the master plotter stared off into space, contemplating the third phase of his plans. In truth, he was slightly surprised he had to use it. His opponents were proving far more resilient than he thought they would. Everything he had heard about the men who kept the town safe had proved true, so far. Still, every group had their limits and surely the Seven were close to theirs.
"Sir?" Collins asked, stepping into the tent. He tried his best to hide his nervousness, not only at being called into the tent, but at the fact his phase of the plan had become necessary. He failed.
Cold eyes stared at the nervous man. "Come in, Collins. You appear nervous."
"Just anxious, sir," the outlaw lied. A measured nod was his only response. It was enough to cause Abel Collins to swallow hard and contemplate a change of career. The evil dancing in the eyes of his employer was enough to cause him to shiver from the soul outward and decide that facing the seven men in town was, just perhaps, the safest option.
"Prepare your men," commanded the boss. "You ride in an hour - just at twilight."
"Yes, sir," Collins agreed, turning on his heel and leaving the tent.
The man behind the attacks on the town watched the tent flap close behind his employee. Taking into consideration the men he had remaining and the information he had available, he changed his mind about the fourth phase. If Collins failed, it would be best if he were as far away as possible. Rising from his chair he walked to the flap of the tent and lifted it enough to catch the eye of the boy who ran messages.
"You need me?" the waif said, his eyes eager.
"I have a dangerous mission for you," the man informed.
Pleased by the attention and the fact his boss had enough confidence in him to do a dangerous mission, the boy straightened. With a gleam in his eyes, he replied, "I can do it, sir."
An emotionless smile curved the lips of the man in charge. "I'm sure you can, son," he encouraged. "I need you to get a message to the men in the jail, and I need you to do it before sunset."
The boy nodded his assurance he could get the job done.
JD shifted slightly and drew his arm closer to his body. Leaning his head against the wall behind him, he felt his eyes drifting closed. He knew there was no other option than for him to be here and, being honest about it, there was nowhere else he wanted to be. But, the truth was, he shouldn't be out there and he knew it. His flagging energy and sore body were drawing him ever closer to an exhausted slumber. If something didn't happen soon, he wasn't going to be any good to anybody.
Forcing his eyes open, he shook his head, angry with himself for drifting off and not realizing it. He was relieved to find nothing had happened and, since the position of the sun was the same, he hadn't been asleep for more than a couple of minutes. It had been a long day for all the Seven, but he almost envied Vin and Josiah being stuck in the clinic. Not that he wanted to be injured that badly, but right about now the thought of lying down in a bed, resting, sounded really, really good to him.
Sitting up straighter, Dunne focused on scanning the town. His eyes were drawn to the end of the road and he thought he caught sight of a puff of dust on the horizon. Blinking again and shaking his head to clear it, he looked again and smiled when he realized what that dust meant - the stage was coming.
Turning his head toward Larabee, he hissed, "Chris!" When he had the man in black's attention, he pointed toward the horizon and informed, "Stage."
JD watched as the blond brows drew down and green eyes sought out the road. It was easy for the Easterner to tell that Chris was thinking about what this meant to their plan.
"Stay here," Larabee instructed, his voice low and carrying only far enough for JD to hear.
Dunne watched as Chris began moving backward, keeping out of sight of the men in the bank. Soon Larabee was out of sight. A few moments later, the sound of a horse riding out of town caught his attention and he saw that the blond was headed out to meet the stagecoach and, quite possibly, Orin Travis. A small smile lifted the corners of JD's mouth as he whispered, "Storm's about to break."
Vin had been tracking the careful footsteps for several minutes. Whoever was approaching the jail was doing so very quietly, but they obviously hadn't been trained in stealth.
Crouching low, Tanner stilled his breath and waited behind a nearby bush. Had he been feeling better, he would have chosen different cover, but as it was, moving to the bush had almost been too much for him. With a patience learned the hard way, he closed his eyes and listened for the right moment.
Finally his prey was within range. Opening his eyes, he was about to make his move when he blinked in shock. He knew the person coming was walking lightly, but he hadn't been expecting a boy.
In an instant, his tactics changed. Dropping the gun, Vin reached out one hand and snaked it around the boy's mouth, hoping the lad wouldn't put up too much of a struggle. With a swiftness that seemed impossible given his physical state, Tanner was out from behind his cover and had his other arm wrapped around the boy, ignoring the pain the movement caused.
Satisfied he had a good grip on the youth, the Texan dragged his captive further away from the treeline to a point where there would be more cover and less chance of being overheard. With any luck, Nathan would have seen him moving around and would come over to find out what was happening.
For now, he needed to find out what the boy knew.
Chris slowed as he approached the stagecoach. Part of the reason for his slowing was his need to stop them before they reached tow; the other part was the four guns all aimed at him.
Lifting his hands in a gesture of peace, Larabee waited. He was rewarded a moment later by the sound of Judge Travis' voice. "Let him come," the man ordered.
As he lowered his hands, Chris moved forward slowly, nodding as he recognized the sheriff and two of the deputies from Bitter Creek. The fourth gunman had been the shotgun on the stage. "Judge," he greeted as the three other lawmen moved their horses around for the discussion they knew was coming.
"I take it you have bad news for me," Travis observed, his face grim.
Larabee nodded. "So far we've had two attacks on the bank, one at dawn, one a few hours later. We're in a standoff now with the prisoners. They were freed from their cells, but we got there before they could break out. JD has your papers hidden in the jail, but no one knows that yet. Vin and Josiah are down. Buck should be. Ezra and JD are recovering from injuries and need a break. I got a bad feeling that we're due for one more attack before it's all over."
A curse escaped Orin as his face hardened in anger. "Tell me exactly what happened today," he demanded of the blond peacekeeper.
Looking over his shoulder at the town, Chris felt his horse shift beneath him as if sensing his rider's need to get back to town. In his mind he knew he couldn't let these men ride into town blind, but his heart was telling him he needed to return. His mouth settling into a hard line, he turned to face the new arrivals and succinctly related the events of the past few days.
Buck rested his head on his arm. Allowing his eyes to close, he let out a sigh and turned his head to wipe the beads of sweat from his forehead. The pain in his leg was increasing and creating a nauseous feeling that he was finding harder and harder to fight. Spending the day on his belly in the sun certainly hadn't helped, but he needed to get that chunk of wood out of his leg, and soon.
Lifting his head, he scanned the street. Chris still hadn't returned from wherever he had gone, JD and Ezra still had good cover and he hoped Nathan was alright in back.
Satisfied that nothing seemed amiss and their standoff was continuing, Wilmington allowed his head to once more come to rest on his arms and his eyes to drift shut. As he shut the world around him out of his conscious thought for a few minutes, he hoped to see memories of his latest evenings spent with the ladies. Instead, he was assaulted by the sights and sounds of the day and the sinking, sickening knowledge that they probably had more to face before day's end.
The distant sound of hoof beats drew his attention back to the present.
Nathan frowned as he spotted some movement over in Vin's direction. Nudging Josiah, he waited for his friend to come to himself before hissing, "I need to go check on Vin. Something's up over there and he's in no shape to take anyone on."
Sanchez rubbed a hand over his face, longing for the bed in the clinic, and nodded. With Jackson's help, he maneuvered back to his position and prepared to keep watch.
With Josiah settled, Nathan scanned the area and darted toward the treeline. No shots were fired and he breathed a sigh of relief as he took shelter behind the tree where he had left Vin. Frowning when he didn't see his friend immediately, he listened and caught the sound of soft voices. Making sure his gun was ready for use, he moved forward toward the voices and soon found his friend, and a surprise.
"You going to tell me who you work for?" Tanner asked his prisoner.
Jackson blinked at the scene, unable to stop his shocked question. "What's going on here?"
The injured man smiled slightly, though without warmth, and informed, "Seems whoever our enemy is, he has children on his payroll. I was just asking the boy here who he works for."
Slipping his gun into its holster, Nathan surveyed first the boy and then his friend. Vin had tied the boy so he couldn't escape, though much more loosely than normal. Whether that was due to the weakness caused by his blood loss and injuries or just because the captive was a boy, Jackson didn't waste time thinking about. His quick scan of Vin had shown the man to be even more pale than he had been earlier in the day. He needed to get both Vin and Josiah back to the clinic and in bed before they did themselves some permanent harm. The boy looked healthy enough, but the fear and defiance in his eyes tugged at Nathan. In the middle of a fight like this was no place for a boy, but it was too late to do anything about it now.
"I ain't telling you nothing," the boy said, a slight quiver in his voice.
Blue eyes met brown in a quick exchange. Vin set down his gun and slowly drew the knife he had tucked away. "Too bad," he said, quietly, coldly, fighting against everything within himself at the thought of terrorizing this boy. Heaven knew he'd been terrorized enough as a child that he didn't want to inflict that on anyone else.
Nathan swallowed back his own disgust at their actions and reached out to still Vin's hand. "Now, Vin," he cautioned, "I know you're good with your knife and all, but the boy is kind of small and your knife is big."
Tanner paused as if contemplating the words, well aware of the boy's eyes on them, well aware of the fear that had shot through the lad when he had pulled his knife. Nodding, he replaced his knife and looked into Nathan's face. "So what do you suggest, Doc?" he asked.
Nathan reached behind his shoulders and drew one of his smaller knives out. He twisted it so the edge caught a stray beam of sun and glinted. "Reckon a boy like this would need a smaller sized knife," he explained, his eyes apparently locked on the edge of the blade. "'Sides, it's my turn to do the cutting, " he added. Though he felt sickened by the words he was saying, he noted that they had the desired effect on the boy. All color had drained from the child's face and his body was now trembling.
Noting the effect of their conversation on the boy, Vin swallowed back his disgust at what they were doing and sighed. "I guess you're right," he agreed, his voice sounding disappointed, "it is your turn and you do have a touch for finer work like this." Forcing any pity out of his eyes, Tanner looked at the boy, "'Course, if'n he talks to us, I reckon you'll be out your turn."
His eyes never leaving the glinting blade, his body shaking in fear and terror, and tears spilling onto his face, the boy stammered out, "My name's James Maxwell. My parents died near on a year ago. I didn't have no one to go to so I ran away rather than go to the orphanage. Mr. Phineus found me and let me run messages between him and his men. I never did nothing but what he asked, honest!" The boy gasped in a quick breath, anxious to tell everything he knew so they wouldn't hurt him.
"What were you doing sneaking around back here?" Vin asked, knowing what it was like to lose your family, your world and try to make it on your own as a child. The boy had just fallen in with the wrong crowd was all.
"Mr. Phineus told me to run a message to the men in the jail and let them know to start a distraction just at sunset. That's when Mr. Collins and his men will be coming in to attack the bank," James explained.
Nathan exchanged a look with Vin before asking, "What exactly is Mr. Collin's plan?"
JD shifted again, trying to get comfortable, trying to find some way he could sit that would ease the dull ache the hours of immobility had caused. A sigh escaped the young man as he realized there was no comfortable position.
His eyes drifting along the road out of town, he felt some small measure of comfort as Chris reappeared on the road along with several other riders. The stage wasn't with them and Dunne could only assume that it was remaining out of sight and safe.
Before long, the riders reached the edge of town and disappeared briefly from his sight. It wasn't long before the first of the men made their appearance. JD saw Chris reclaim his position and another man make his way toward Buck's position. The men looked familiar, but Dunne couldn't quite place them. It was when one of them moved toward Ezra's hiding place that he identified the sheriff and deputies from Bitter Creek.
With a feeling of relief, his inborn optimism surged to the forefront along with an increase in his energy. Suddenly the dull ache didn't hurt so much and success was theirs for the taking.
Ezra smiled in greeting as Deputy Evans from Bitter Creek approached. Relief was in sight and he would, hopefully, find some rest, if his leg was up to the task. "Deputy Evans," he greeted softly as the man crouched down behind the cover. "How wonderful of you to join us."
Evans smiled at the greeting. He knew all of the men who kept the peace here and they got along well enough. Standish always seemed to come off as some sort of dandy, but the deputy from Bitter Creek knew that wasn't the case. "Judge Travis said you could use some help. Larabee said I should relieve you and let you get something to eat."
"He said that, did he?" Standish asked, his heart warming at Larabee's thoughtfulness. "Then far be it for me to disappoint the man," he added, smiling broadly enough to allow his gold tooth to catch the sunlight. Relinquishing his position, he kept out of the line of fire and decided to head toward the back of the jail to see how his friends were faring.
Josiah smiled and nodded to the Sheriff of Bitter Creek as the man made his way behind the jail.
"I thought you were in the clinic," the new arrival whispered.
"Was," Sanchez informed. "Heard the commotion out here and thought I'd join in the fun."
The sheriff dipped his head and chuckled. "Well, I'm here now so I reckon you better get yourself back up into your bed before Larabee finds out you're covering back here."
The former preacher smiled and nodded. "That does sound mighty tempting," he agreed, wincing slightly. "Just not sure I can manage it on my own."
The new arrival frowned and took a good look at the injured man. "You are looking a might pale there," he agreed.
It was then that Ezra arrived, limping. "Perhaps I may be of some assistance," he offered, wishing he could lay down somewhere cool and rest rather than struggle up the stairs to Nathan's room, but it was easy to see the older peacekeeper was suffering.
A quiet hiss drew their attention to the greenery behind the building. They spotted Nathan waving. The sheriff and Ezra glanced at Josiah. The former preacher indicated they should go and he would cover them.
Bitter Creek's sheriff made it to safety first, with Ezra struggling behind him. When they reached cover, both men made their way toward the healer only to stop dead in their tracks at the sight that met them.
At some point Vin's strength had left him and he was now leaning against a tree, pale and in obvious pain. But what truly gave them pause was the small boy who sat on the ground beside the tracker, hands tied.
"And who is this?" Ezra asked, indicating the child.
"I'd like you to meet James Maxwell," Nathan said. "He works as a runner for a Mr. Rupert Phineus."
"The Rupert Phineus?" Standish asked, his eyebrow raising at the name. He was well familiar with the man. Maude had sighted him several years ago, but left him when she discovered how ruthless and despicable the man really was.
"You know Mr. Phineus?" the boy asked, seeing the hope of safety for the first time since he'd been caught.
Ezra looked into the boy's eyes and put his words together carefully. "I know of a ruthless, heartless man named Rupert Phineus who will stop at nothing to get his hands on what he wants - including murder." He saw the boy pale even more at the statement. The gambler took little pleasure in scaring the boy, but he wouldn't lie to the lad either. "If you're working for him, you should count your lucky stars you got away."
"That's not all," Nathan, added, pleased to see the boy was beginning to think beyond his loyalty to the man in question. "Seems Mr. Phineus has plans for us come sunset."
Turning his head slightly, the sheriff, observed, "Then it looks like we've got about an hour to prepare."
Jackson nodded. "Ezra, help me get Vin, Josiah and James up to the clinic. You rest there with them and I'll come back down. Sheriff, you think you'll be okay here on your own until I get back?"
"No problem," the man confirmed, watching as Nathan lifted Vin to his feet before allowing Ezra to take the man's weight. As he watched them make their way along the treeline, he saw Nathan dart out and over to Sanchez. Turning his attention to the back of the jail, the sheriff from Bitter Creek, could only hope that whatever plan Larabee devised would keep them safe and bring them to victory.
It was a rumble deep from within the earth that drew the Larabee’s attention away from the jailhouse.
The sound was inaudible, but the sense of it, the feel of it was enough to set everything within him on alert.
Lifting his head, he looked around and saw nothing, but somehow that didn’t alleviate the threat he instinctively sought out. With a quick check of the others, he could tell they had picked up on whatever this phenomenon was as well.
As the vibrations increased in intensity, a stray thought brought the word earthquake to Larabee’s mind. That thought only lasted a second, however, as another word took firm root in his mind. The faintly audible thundering sound in the distance only confirmed his suspicions. That confirmation was all it took to spur him into action. “Stampede!” he cried out, pushing himself to his feet and seeking the more secure shelter of a building’s interior while trying to remain behind cover, a feat not easily accomplished.
Safely tucked in the building across from the jail, Chris found his way to one of the windows as one of the visiting deputies dodged in, closing the door behind him. Peering outside, Larabee could only offer thanks that his injured men were safely off the street and in Nathan’s clinic.
As Chris moved back toward the closed portal, he noticed the door to the jail open and one of the men begin to exit.
Opening his own door, the blond found himself almost wincing at the significantly louder noise of the approaching animals.
Setting aside his concerns, he took aim at the criminal across the street and squeezed his trigger, taking no pleasure when the man dropped. A bullet came his way and embedded itself in the doorframe. Taking aim at the jail window he was about to pull the trigger when the first of the cattle came charging through the street. Soon the near-solid mass of animals clogged the way, their passage having kicked up enough dust to make sighting anything a problem.
Though he still attempted to contain the men in the jail, the presence of so many frightened animals made the prospect of firing a gun over them an unpleasant prospect. The fact that some of the cattle on the outside of the flow had made their way up onto the boardwalk didn’t help matters as Chris found himself forced to close the door periodically to prevent one of the creatures from entering the store.
While distracted by a particularly curious animal, he caught sight of something moving along the outside of the herd. Focusing what attention he could, he made out the shape of a man riding a horse headed toward the front of the jail. A further look showed him the shadow of a second mounted person moving toward the back of the jail.
Cursing the fact that he was trapped, he thought quickly about what he should do. Making a decision, he turned toward the deputy and instructed, “You try to keep them busy from over here. I’m going to see if I can get a better angle.” Seeing the deputy nod and move toward his current location, Larabee headed toward the back of the building, surprised when he found the owner of the store waiting in the back room with a rifle in hand and a box of cartridges ready for the gunman.
Taking the proffered offering, Chris nodded his thanks. “There a way to the roof from inside?” he asked as he slid his colt back into its holster.
“No,” came the reply. “But the front room upstairs should give you pretty good angle, Mr. Tanner’s used it before. Otherwise, there’s a window in the back you can use to catch the edge of the roof and swing up. Mr. Tanner’s done that too.”
With a quick nod of thanks for the information, Chris mounted the stairs to the second floor, making a mental note have a talk with Vin about the tracker's various methods for attaining rooftop perches.
As he reached the landing, he looked both ways, deciding he would try the front room first. Entering a comfortable looking sitting room, he made his way over to the open window and looked outside. Deciding the angle wasn’t quite right to allow a clear line of fire and protection, he moved to the other window and nodded in satisfaction to himself.
Flipping the catch, he opened the window and then checked his lines of sight one more time. Satisfied, he knelt next to the window and cracked the gun to see if it was loaded. It wasn’t, but that was a situation that was quickly altered.
In a little over a minute, Chris had gone from a revolver at the front door to a rifle and the high ground. The rider he’d seen approaching the front of the jail had arrived at the door, and left his horse blocking the opening. Larabee assumed the man was inside the building.
The shadows he’d seen headed toward the back of the jail were nowhere to be seen.
Scanning the area outside, his eyes were drawn back to the area near the bank. Between the cattle beginning to mill about the town rather than continuing through it and the growing shadows, he couldn’t be positive, but he thought he caught movement in that direction.
With his attention focused on the area near the bank, he was startled when he heard shots being fired behind the jail. Though his worry increased for the men who he knew were fighting back there, he felt some relief that the cattle were moving again. Hopefully they would clear entirely.
Glancing toward the small building, he felt only frustration at the rapid fire and his inability to do anything about it. With great effort, he forced his concern out of his mind and focused back on the bank.
It was only moments later when he saw the movement headed toward the now-shadowed door of the bank. Hoping that Nathan and the deputies from Bitter Creek had enough common sense to be elsewhere, he settled the gun against his shoulder and took aim.
His attention on the bank, Larabee failed to notice a rifle barrel appear in the window of the jail. The flecks of wood and the sound of the bullet hitting the wall above him were his first indication that he had become a target.
Releasing a low curse, Larabee pulled back and scanned the jail. He couldn’t make out the figure, but did, finally, catch sight of the barrel of the gun. It was still aimed upward at him. With a flick of his eyes toward the bank, he was just able to make out his previous target attempting to move one of the remaining animals from in front of the door.
Quickly deciding on a course of action, he dropped to the floor and crawled beneath the window to the other window, the one he had initially decided against. With a fluidity and confidence borne of experience, he hefted the borrowed rifle and aimed just above the barrel of the weapon protruding from the jailhouse window. Applying pressure to the trigger, he felt the recoil of the gun and watched as the rifle barrel hit the bottom of the window before disappearing inside.
Satisfied with the results of his diversion, Chris quickly returned to his previous position in order to have a better line on the man by the bank. As he peered into the dust and gathering gloom, he was just in time to see the bank door swing shut.
Nathan crouched behind the same tree he had used earlier in the day, waiting for the next foray of the men in the jail, wishing the outlaws would just give up and wondering exactly how many of them were still alive.
After ensuring Vin and Josiah were sleeping in the clinic, that Ezra and JD were just exhausted and that the boy would be able to keep an eye on Buck, Jackson had returned to the fray and taken up his position at the back of the jail only moments before Larabee’s call of “stampede!” echoed in the now nearly quiet town.
The sound of the cattle racing into the town had filled the air. It was quickly joined by the sound of gunfire. At first that gunfire had been sporadic, barely heard over the pounding hooves of the cattle. As the panicked animals calmed somewhat and the rumbling faded, the men in the jail had tried to make a break for it, causing the air around the back of the building to become hot with the flying bullets.
Three men had tried to get out the back door, staying low to the ground. Nathan and the deputy had quickly ended their escape attempt and found themselves seeking shelter as the bullets continued to fly at them from inside.
Though the gun battle seemed to take hours, Nathan knew only moments had passed since the chaos had begun. He vowed to himself that when this was all over, he was going to go somewhere nice, quiet and as far away from cattle, guns and violence as he could find. Maybe he could visit Rain.
Turning, he peered at the back of the jail, shaking his head at the number of holes he saw in the building. There would be some repairs needed when all was said and done.
He was just about to look for the deputy when the slight movement of the door caught his attention. In the light of the setting sun, he couldn’t be completely sure about what he saw, but he knew there was little time left if they were going to wrap things up before full dark.
A low hissing sound caught his attention and the compassionate brown eyes swung around to glance at the corner of the building. Nathan focused on the deputy who had been trying to catch his intention. With crude hand signals, the man from Bitter Creek was able to communicate that he would approach the door. Obviously the peace officer was as anxious to end this as Nathan.
Nodding his understanding, Nathan took a deep breath and aimed at the door in question, ready to offer whatever help he could. The deputy’s stealthy movement along the wall of the jail allowed him to soon achieve his goal.
Reaching out a cautious hand, he pushed the door, only to have it stop after opening a few inches.
Nathan saw that the door hit an obstruction and guessed it to be one of the gang.
The obstruction accounted for four men. He could only assume a few others had been taken care of by his friends up front. Making a quick decision, Jackson crouched down and quickly ran to the opposite side of the door.
With a quick tilt of his head, he indicated that he would take a look inside. Seeing the nod of understanding. Nathan offered a quick prayer and pushed the door, forcing the obstruction to move several more inches and allow him a view of the interior.
The object that had been blocking the door was, indeed a dead body. In the waning light, a quick scan of what he could see of the jail revealed a bloody scene. There was no movement from within.
Pushing harder, Nathan soon had an opening large enough for him to squeeze through. A look back assured the healer that the deputy was following him, ready for whatever awaited.
As the two men stepped into the main part of the jail, they scanned the area and the cells, quickly determining they were the only living things in the building.
Heading toward the back door, the two men stopped mid-step when a shot rang out. Their eyes meeting, they could only hope that the sound signaled the end of the chaos.
In the clinic, six sets of eyes exchanged anxious looks. The five injured peacekeepers had fought fierce battles within themselves to avoid joining the fray.
When first the sound of pounding hooves reached them, Vin and Josiah had wakened from the exhausted sleep that had subdued them. James had been sent to the door of the clinic and reported back that it looked like a stampede was coming through town. He then reported that some of the cattle were beginning to mill about rather than seek a way out of town.
When the first gunshots were heard, Ezra instructed the boy to come away from the door. He then began questioning the boy as a distraction both for the child and for the men. None of them liked the idea of Chris and Nathan in the midst of battle with only deputies from Bitter Creek as backup.
“Cards can do many an interesting thing,” Ezra began as he fanned the cards and the ace of spades seemed to magically rise so it stood a half-length taller than the others, “in the hands of one who knows how to use them,” he finished, squaring the cards and then turning over the top one to reveal the same ace of spades. He heard the gasp of amazement and glanced up see the wide, awed eyes of the boy. Standish offered a smile of gratitude at the reaction he received and went back to running the cards through his hands. “Some people, like me, are quite adept at manipulating cards,” he advised, causing the cards to dance in his hands. Looking up, he locked eyes with the prisoner before continuing. “Others are quite adept at manipulating people,” he advised seriously, seeing he had caught the boy’s attention, “especially young men.”
James swallowed as his eyes remained locked on the green eyes of the man in front of him. Something about the way the man looked at him made James think that maybe, just maybe, the man with the cards understood. “I didn’t know I was doing anything bad,” he admitted quietly. “Mr. Phineus was nice to me. Took me in, gave me a job, food, someplace to sleep,” he admitted.
Ezra had to fight his own instinct to try and soothe the child. He knew many children did not have an easy life, especially here on the frontier, but it never lessened the pang of regret and longing he felt at the thought of other children going without the love he had always desired for himself. “There is more to life than just a bed and food,” Ezra informed, holding the boy's gaze. He was rewarded several seconds later with a slow nod of understanding. "Is there anything you can share with us of your Mr. Phineus?" he asked carefully.
Nodding, James recited, "Mr. Phineus is from back East. St. Louis, I think. He has lots of money. He's got a bunch of men working for him, but only one he trusts real good. I think he was getting ready to go back East when I left, but I'm not real sure."
"That's fine, James," Ezra soothed, seeing the boy was still nervous and not wanting to lose his fragile trust. "If you think of anything else, please tell us. In the meantime, why don't we play a game of Go Fish?"
The game, which eventually involved Ezra, James, JD and Buck proved an excellent distraction for the boy. At least it was an effective distraction until a violent flurry of gunshots filled the air, drawing everyone's attention to the outside once more. The sound of gunfire died down and the five peacekeepers stared at the door, each wanting to go out and check, all knowing their presence could cause more damage than assistance.
As one final shot sounded, the men exchanged worried looks, each praying that it signaled an end favorable to their friends.
It had been nearly an hour since the final gunshot sounded and the five men were becoming increasingly anxious about their friends. Each time one of them would begin to head for the door, however, the others would stop the man in question. After all, not knowing what was happening outside, opening the door could leave the entire group vulnerable. This was especially true because Josiah, Vin and Buck were in no condition to protect themselves, which meant either Ezra or JD would have to stay to watch over them. Both of those men, however, were exhausted from the day's events.
When James had offered to find out what was happening, all five men had instantly denied the offer. It was one thing for an armed man, fully cognizant of what he might be getting into to step outside, it was quite another for an unarmed boy who had never seen this sort of fight to take that risk. So the group remained in Nathan's room, tension mounting and the need to know how their friends fared growing with each passing moment.
Not long after JD's latest attempt to go outside and see what was happening, the sound of footsteps sounded on the boards outside Nathan's room.
Six anxious faces and three guns were fixed on the door as it began to open. Five sighs of relief were released when two familiar figures appeared in the opening.
Smiles seemed to be the order of the day for the men in the room. The boy simply sought out a dark corner in which to hide, uncertain of his place and his future.
"It's done," Chris announced as he stepped into the room. He watched as relief flooded the faces of his injured friends and felt his anger begin to rise at the sight. His friends had been attacked, some nearly killed and for what? For a few pieces of paper.
"It's done, Chris," Tanner said softly, drawing the other man's attention to him. Both men knew it wasn't completely over and it wouldn't be until the man behind the attacks was caught, but for now there was nothing more they could do. He held Larabee's eyes until the blond's anger abated.
Nodding his thanks, Chris waited for Vin to settle back on the pillows behind him. As his eyes roamed over his friends in various states of repose, Larabee tried to push away the anger that threatened him and focus on the fact that all of his friends were still alive and would heal.
"Any more attacks possible?" Nathan asked as he wearily sank to the floor between where Josiah and Vin lay.
"According to our young friend," Ezra replied, tilting his head toward James, "we have weathered the storm."
For the first time, Chris focused on the small form. Moving toward the boy, he crouched down before the huddled figure and asked, "What's your name, son?"
"J-james Maxwell," the boy stuttered. He was terrified.
Seeing the fear in the boy's eyes, Chris held out his hand, "Chris Larabee."
His manners too ingrained to ignore, James reached out and shook the man's hand, mumbling, "Nice to meet you, sir."
Nathan cleared his throat, drawing everyone's attention to him. "James is the one who gave us the information I shared with you," he interjected softly.
Chris turned back and eyed the boy. "That so?" he asked.
"Y-yes, sir," James replied.
Holding out his hand once more, the gunslinger said, "Then I owe you a great debt of thanks, James." Seeing the boy's eyes widen in surprise, he continued, "Without the information you shared with us, a lot of good people might be dead including myself and all my friends here."
Surprise turning to amazement, awe and then pride, James shook the blond's hand again and drew himself up straighter. It felt really good to have this man address him, to know these men listened to him. With Mr. Phineus and his men had barely looked at James when he'd been there. The only time they seemed to notice was when they had a message to run or some other job to do and they never thanked him, never made him feel important. "You're welcome," he said softly.
With a glance over his shoulder, Chris noticed that Nathan had dragged himself up and was beginning to gather supplies. Taking in the appearance of the others, he saw how ragged his friends looked. The chunk of wood sticking out of Buck's leg decided his course of action. There was no way James needed to see that removed. "Why don't you come with Ezra, JD and I while we get something to eat," he suggested to James. "We can figure out where you'll be staying then."
The course of action set, the three men and the boy left. Chris met Nathan's eye on the way out, the worry in them clear. Nathan offered a smile of reassurance. With the threat passed, everything would be fine.
The next morning found the seven men once more in Nathan's clinic, door and windows open to allow fresh air into the room. Upon Vin's advice, Chris had had a word with Mr. Watson. The store owner had readily agreed to keeping the boy. He would provide a home and family and James would be someone to whom he could leave his business, Virgil's own son having died in the war.
The store owner and boy were just getting to know each other now and seemed to hit it off immediately.
"So you're really going to let Mr. James keep all the cattle?" JD asked, amazed.
"None of them were branded and it was his hands that rounded them all up," Chris defended of his decision.
"And a little goodwill certainly won't hurt in keeping things calm around here while we heal," Ezra advised, thinking of the larger picture. Chris rewarded him with a small smile.
"The townsfolk have already begun the repairs.
"Did we ever find out what was in those papers?" Vin asked from where he sat propped up in bed. He nodded his thanks to Chris as the blond handed him a glass of water.
"Land deeds, mineral rights and the like, according to Judge Travis," Nathan supplied, swatting away Josiah's hand as he tried to change one of the older man's bandages.
"What's so important about that stuff?" JD asked, puzzled. Sure, he understood that land was valuable, but why would someone risk so much to get a hold of it. Unless there was something even more valuable on it. "Gold?" the young man asked.
"Not unless Rupert Phineus has added alchemy to his many list of accomplishments," Judge Travis replied from the doorway.
The seven men greeted the new arrival. Ezra rose from his seat and offered it to the Travis, but the judge refused, signaling Ezra should reclaim the chair.
"Alchemy?" Vin asked, trying to remember where he had heard the word before.
"A branch of science most noted for the attempt to turn lead into gold," Josiah supplied.
"So all this was over lead?" Nathan wondered aloud.
"Not just lead," Travis corrected. "Rupert Phineus owns a minority share of a gun manufacturer back East. He also is the sole owner of a cartridge manufacturing plant. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if some of the bullets used in yesterday's adventures were from his factory."
Buck looked a little puzzled. "Okay. I get that he makes bullets and needs lead for that, but why go to so much trouble just to get the land?"
"He is eliminating the middle man, my dear Mr. Wilmington," Ezra supplied. When everyone turned to look at him he shrugged and said, "If you are going to produce a large quantity of product, it makes sense to deal with as few people as possible since each pair of hands the material passes through adds his own charge. Thus while it might cost him almost nothing to gather the raw material he needs himself, to buy it from someone else he might have to pay two or more times that amount for the same item."
Nodding his head slightly as he digested the information they'd been given, Chris still wasn't satisfied with the answer. "I understand he might want to save a few dollars," Larabee said, "but this seemed to go way beyond that."
The judge released a sigh and, for a moment, allowed his age and fatigue to show. This had not been an easy trip for him. "Rupert Phineus was recently awarded a large government contract to supply bullets to the army," he informed.
"And such a contract, if well met, could lead to many more lucrative deals," Ezra interjected.
"So, all this death was just to line someone's already gold-plated pockets," Vin observed in disgust. There were many things he knew were worth fighting for - family, friends, life - but money was not among them.
"I'm afraid so, Mr. Tanner," Travis agreed, his weariness evident in his voice. When silence filled the room for several seconds and it seemed no one else had questions, the judge moved slightly and said, "My most recent reports are that Rupert Phineus boarded an eastbound train yesterday evening. By this point in time, he should be several states away." When the silence continued even after his announcement, Orin sighed and informed, "I'll be taking my leave of you now. I'm going to spend the day at my daughter-in-law's recovering from my trip if you should need me." With that, he turned and left, leaving the seven men alone to think about his revelations.
The silence continued to weigh heavily in the room as each of the men contemplated what they had been through, the planning and trouble involved and how close they had come to losing each other.
As he finished changing the last of Josiah's bandages, Nathan stood and let his eyes travel over the other six men. It had been close this time and a portion of him was furious at that. Mostly, though, he was thankful they had survived and that they would still be riding together. Looking down at Josiah, Jackson smiled. Reaching out, he squeezed Josiah's shoulder.
Looking up into the healer's compassionate eyes, Josiah returned the smile, reaching up and squeezing Nathan's hand before looking over his friends. He had spent a lot of years alone, a lot of years hurting and hating, a lot of years searching, but only with these men had he found some sort of peace. Each of them was flawed, each had their weaknesses and failings, but together, they complimented each other and overcame the odds time and again, even when they didn't know who they were fighting.
From his perch on the side of Vin's cot, Chris watched each of the men, wondering when he had let them get so close to him. They were more than co-workers, even more than friends. Through their time together they had seen the worst each had to offer as well as the best. Together they were better men than any of them could be on their own. It had been too close this time. Much too close. Obviously they had gotten comfortable and somewhat lax. He would make sure that didn't happen in the future.
Vin felt his disgust grow. He never understood people's love of money. Maybe that was because he'd done without for so long, but it seemed all large amounts of money did was cause problems. Taking in each of his friends, he was relieved that they would be alright. A chill ran through him when he met Josiah's eyes, thinking of how close they had both come to dying. Finally his eyes met Chris' and a smile tugged his lips. A person didn't have to know Larabee really well to understand what the man was thinking. He was plotting ways to keep them safe, vowing to make sure this never happened again. Amusement danced in Tanner's blue eyes, knowing there was no way to keep all of them safe. The injured Texan was soon rewarded with one of Chris' wry smirks as the older man realized the futility of his promise. Two arms reached out and locked in a grip of friendship.
JD stared at his boots. He had been around rich people all his life, had seen how they lived, how they treated each other. He knew that they were mostly like everyone else, some good, some bad. But he also realized that they faced a lot more temptations than those who were only comfortable or who didn't have money. He would never understand it though, how when someone already had so much they sought out more and didn't care how they got it. Raising his eyes, he saw Nathan cleaning up the old bandages he had finished changing, Nathan, Josiah, Chris and Vin were sitting quietly with looks of contentment on their faces. Obviously they had made some sort of peace with the information. Ezra appeared to be still studying everyone in turn. And JD could see Buck was still thinking as well. It struck the young man, then, that he could read these men easily, something he'd only seen done in families. That thought brought a smile to his lips and instantly lightened the weight he had been bearing. He, JD Dunne, had family again.
Buck accepted that there were greedy men in the world who would stop at nothing to add more to what they owned - more money, more power, more women... He'd grown up watching men from all walks of life and knew there were good men as well as bad ones of every social level. That the seven of them had come so close to losing each other was a result of the life they had chosen, no more, no less. With every choice came risks. The choice to defend an Indian village from former soldiers, the decision to stay and protect a town for thirty days, the need to stay on after that first term was done, each of these choices led he and his friends down a dangerous path that would, most likely, see one or more of them dead before they reached old age. But Buck knew himself well enough to know that he wouldn't trade one moment of this time for anything else.
Ezra looked at these men and wondered when they had come to mean so much to him. For the most part, he went through his days and just accepted their camaraderie on an unconscious level. Every now and then, however, something would happen and he would realize exactly how much these men had come to mean to him. Shying away from those thoughts, Standish tried to think of some way to break the oppressive weight of silence that had fallen upon the men. He was saved from having to do anything when he noticed the corners of Buck's mustache twitch and the gleam in the ladies' man's eyes. Raising an eyebrow in question, Wilmington simply winked back.
A moment later a loud yelp was heard almost exactly in time with a loud thud. All eyes turned to see JD sitting on the floor where he'd fallen when Buck pushed him off the edge of the cot.
A few snickers soon turned into guffaws and then true laughter as JD tried to protest his treatment and the others allowed the tension and worry to flow away. JD finally gave up his protest and joined in, relieved that things were already getting back to normal.
In his private rail car, Rupert Phineus was just finishing his breakfast. Allowing his butler to remove the food, he stared out the window at the passing scenery, thinking of what had happened to his plans.
It shouldn't have been such a difficult thing to accomplish, not with all his research and planning. His opponents had bested him and he now would have to find another way of doing what was needed. He would succeed in this venture and reap a tidy profit one way or another. Of that, there could be no doubt.
But he did so hate losing.
Three Weeks Later
Five men approached the other two slowly, some by choice, some by necessity.
"Going somewhere?" Buck asked of the two men preparing their horses to leave.
"Yep," came the short reply from the man in black.
"Were you planning on letting us know?" Ezra asked next, wishing he didn't feel that little, niggling worry within.
"Soon as we were ready," Larabee replied.
"Why are you going? Why now?" JD asked, nervous for his friends. This was the first time the seven would be split up since Rupert Phineus had come into their lives. He knew he was being foolish to worry about these men, each of whom was more than capable of taking care of themselves, but he couldn't help it. "Why don't you wait a little longer until we can all go with you?"
Larabee let out a sigh as the other man just chuckled. "Because we need this, JD," he explained.
"Give my regards to Rain and the Chief," Vin said quietly, reaching out to take Chris' arm and nodding to Nathan.
"We'll be fine here," Josiah assured the two men. "After watching the town and tending us, you've both earned this break."
"Thanks, Josiah," Nathan replied, shaking his friend's hand before mounting his horse. Looking over the five healed and healing men, he admonished, "Just don't overdo it or get hurt while we're gone."
"We'll be fine, Nate," Vin assured with a smile. None of the men was about to do anything to put themselves or each other in jeopardy, at least not yet.
"We'll be back in a week," Chris informed, bringing his horse up to stand next to Nathan's.
"Watch your backs," Buck advised as the Chris and Nathan set out on their well-earned break.
When the two riders were out of sight, Ezra took a deep breath and informed, "Well, I do believe there is a new arrival in the saloon with whom I am unacquainted."
"With whose pocketbook you are unacquainted you mean," Josiah teased lightly.
Standish just smiled broadly, his gold tooth glinting in the sun. With a tip of his hat, he stepped off the boardwalk and crossed the street to the saloon.
"Reckon I should go keep him out of trouble," Josiah sighed before beginning his slow trek across the street. They all knew Ezra would have an easier time convincing the man to play cards with him if there was someone else involved as well. Besides, even after all this time, Josiah was still amazed with Standish's skill and luck, knowing the man no longer cheated with them, if he ever had.
Vin looked off toward the horizon, longing to shed the walls of town for the freedom of the unsettled land, but knew his body wasn't up to that just yet. With a sigh of regret, he turned toward the livery and informed, "I'm going to go see to my horse. He's probably pitching a fit since Chris' horse got to go out and he didn't." With a nod to the remaining two men, Tanner began his slow journey to the livery.
As Buck started to move off as well, JD asked, "Where are you going?"
"Well," Wilmington began. leaning on the cane he didn't really need anymore. "Miss Daisy offered to cook up a fine breakfast for me, to help me continue to regain my strength," he informed.
JD smiled and shook his head, only Buck. "Wasn't it Miss Gloria yesterday?" he asked, knowing full well Buck had been with one lady or another ever since he was able to leave the clinic.
"Who am I to deny a lovely lady the opportunity to aid me in my time of need?" he asked, acting wounded. Dunne's light laughter was the only response he needed. He felt the last bit of worry he'd held onto ease from his heart. JD was here, he was safe, and Buck realized the kid wasn't about to leave him like Davey or Keith. No, Dunne had proven himself more times than he should have needed to. Buck could finally begin to put those ghosts to rest.
"You're so full of it," JD laughed, giving Buck a playful shove, though not too hard since Buck still wasn't one hundred percent.
Taking a deep breath, Wilmington puffed out his chest and replied, "Full of animal magnetism and enough love to go around." At JD's laughing response, Buck broke out into a full smile and headed off to Miss Daisy's.
JD watched his friend go and shook his head. He was lucky, they all were. It wasn't often in life you found these sort of men to become your family. Yes, he was a very lucky person indeed.
Looking around the town, he realized how long it had been since he'd last done his rounds. Turning from the newly repaired jail, he headed down the boardwalk, ready to greet the people he protected and keep them safe.
"The Best Laid Plans" main page
Alphabetic Story Index
Meredith's M7 Old West Page
Meredith's M7 Fic Main Page
Meredith's Main Fanfic Page