Author's notes here.

by Katie

Twelve: Before His Judgment-seat

The raiding party arrived back at the saloon in the early morning.  At Chris's best guess, it was probably another hour until the first signs of dawn, but Stuart James and Guy Royal were still waiting at the saloon with their men.  The members of the raiding party who worked for the two ranchers went over to report to their bosses while Chris sent Ezra after Josiah and Buck.

On his way into the saloon with Nathan and Grainger, Chris suddenly found himself confronted by Mary Travis, her eyes sharp with a look he had come to dread.  Whatever it was that she wanted, when she got that look in her eye, nothing would change her mind.

"Chris, I saw the commotion over here and thought there was trouble.  What's going on?"

Chris frowned.  "What are you doing up this early?"

"I couldn't sleep.  I intended to work on typesetting the next edition, but then I saw all the men out here.  I was concerned that Mr. Evans might have done something to cause trouble."

Chris couldn't help but grin.  "More like us causing trouble."

"Chris," Nathan interrupted.  "Mrs. Travis knows more about that thing I was telling you about than I do.  Maybe we should fill her in."

Mary's face lit up, and Chris knew any wishes he had to keep her safely out of the situation weren't going to be filled.

"Come on in the saloon.  You can hear the whole story," he said with a sigh.

Mary glanced back at the batwing doors doubtfully, then raised her chin and walked in without a backward glance.  He shook his head.  He'd hoped, somewhere in the back of his mind, that the saloon would deter her.  Proper ladies had no business in there.  But Mary, proper lady though she was, would never let a simple rule like that stop her from uncovering a story.

Sighing again, Chris led Nathan and Grainger into the saloon.

Ten minutes later, he'd filled Mary in on the reason for the raid.  Josiah had shown up, but Buck was still missing.  Chris hadn't wanted to go into Nathan's discovery until everyone was present, but if Buck didn't show up soon, they were going to run out of time.

He was wondering irritably what Buck could have possibly found between Nathan's room and the saloon to distract him at this time of night when there was a disturbance at the door that seemed bigger than Buck's arrival should cause.  Standing, he rested his hand on his gun, but all he saw was Ezra, with Buck a few steps behind.  He frowned.  Ezra was supposed to stay with JD; why was he here?  Unless something had happened.

Chris started forward, his shoulders tightening in preparation.  Then Ezra stepped a little to the side, and Chris realized that JD was there, walking between Ezra and Buck.  The kid looked shaky; he was limping and holding his broken arm carefully to his chest, but his head was up and there was a determined set to his mouth that Chris was glad to see.

Chris looked at Buck questioningly.  Buck gave him a tiny shake of the head--it wasn't his idea, but he didn't want Chris to say anything.  Fair enough, for now.

"Dear God," Mary said suddenly from behind him.  "JD?"

The entire saloon had apparently noticed his arrival; Chris could hear the muttered conversations spreading from one group to another.  JD's eyes flickered nervously from one person to another.  Ezra pushed his way through to Chris, his expression a little grim, and Buck glowered at anyone who got too close.  Then Josiah fell in beside them, putting himself between JD and most of the saloon.

James gave JD an assessing glance.  "Hmph.  You're pretty lively for a dead man."

JD squared his shoulders, looking James in the eye.  "I didn't like the accommodations."

James snorted.  "Don't reckon I would, either."

"Hiding something, Larabee?" Royal asked.

Chris shrugged.  "Didn't seem to be any point in giving Evans a second chance."

Her face pale, Mary walked over and put a hand on JD's arm.  "It's good to see you, JD.  I don't understand how all this happened, but I'm very happy that it did."

She gave him a light kiss on the cheek, and Chris was pretty sure he saw JD blush before he ducked his head.

"Thanks, Mrs. Travis."

"So how is it that he," Royal nodded at JD, "isn't dead?  Is that the news you said you had for us?"

"It was another man that got killed, a Pinkerton agent here to investigate Evans and his boss."  Chris paused, figuring that was all they needed to know of JD's story.  He looked over at Nathan.  "As for the news, Nathan can tell you what he saw."

"When we were riding past the main house, I looked up on the porch," Nathan said.  "I saw two men.  One was Colter Evans.  The other was Jonathan Case."

"It couldn't be."  Mary shook her head in disbelief.  "He moved away years ago.  Why would he be involved in this?"

"Who the hell is Jonathan Case?" Buck asked.

"A power-hungry son of a bitch who used to own pieces of half the businesses in this town," James said sourly.  "He wanted part of my ranch, too.  Always wanted me to let him 'invest.'"

"He was involved in bringing the railroad here," Mary said, frowning thoughtfully.  "He was run out by Wheeler and Elliot right before they made their bid for those land deeds.  But if he wanted to return, why would he be hiding?  Nathan, are you sure that's who you saw?"

Nathan nodded.  "It was him.  Looked a little older, but not so much that I couldn't recognize him."

"What's this about Pinkertons?" Royal said suddenly.  "Why was a Pinkerton agent investigating Evans?  And Case, if it's really him?"

Grainger stepped forward.  "Simon Blake, my partner, was here to discover whether Evans and his employer would have a detrimental effect on the progress of the railroad through this area.  As you can imagine, one man holding a monopoly on all the land and businesses could create a situation where the laying of the rails was essentially held hostage to that man's demands.  Central Pacific doesn't take kindly to such tactics."

"You're another Pinkerton?"  Royal frowned.  "Are there any more of you running around?"

"There will be when the report of my partner's death reaches Mr. Pinkerton's desk.  He will also be interested to know that Jonathan Case is involved.  We have a file on him as a suspect in several land scams, but until now, we didn't have any information that he was involved with this situation."

"Does it seem likely that knowledge of Mr. Case's presence led to Mr. Blake's demise?" Ezra suggested.  "You mentioned that he had believed he was onto something before his death."

"Only one way to find out," Chris said.  "We'll just have to catch this Case and ask him ourselves."

"Shouldn't be hard, seeing as how he's riding right toward you," a familiar voice drawled.

Vin pushed his way through the crowd to Chris's side, frowning as he spotted JD.

"They coming?" Chris asked.

"Headed straight for the bottleneck.  It took them a while to put out the fires and round up the horses, but I think damn near all of them are riding this way now.  I figure we've got a little less than an hour."

Chris looked around, seeing his own tension reflected in the other men's faces.  "Everyone know the plan?  Then let's ride."

As the men left the saloon, JD stopped in front of Chris.  His expression, Chris noticed, looked a lot like Mary's had earlier.

"I can fight."

"Like hell," Buck snapped, stopping just behind him.

Neither Chris nor JD looked at him, or at Nathan, who had joined the conversation as well.

"You don't have any business riding a horse with that knee all busted up."

But Chris was remembering another conversation, a kid so eager to be a man that he didn't care he was going up against nearly impossible odds.  He's young.  Proud, a voice whispered in Chris's mind, and he nodded slightly.  It was a damn good thing, too, or that kid might not have survived long enough to stand here today, the full understanding of what he was getting into in his eyes as he demanded his rightful place.

"Okay, kid.  Just make sure you don't fall off your horse."

Bright fingers of pink and gold stretched from the eastern horizon.  The sun had risen enough that it was possible to see the road, if only in a dim outline.  The group of men, over fifty strong, rode at an easy pace.

JD, somewhere near the back of the crowd, had spent most of the ride so far reminding himself how much it would hurt to fall off his horse.  Not that he was all that comfortable on the horse, but hitting the ground would definitely be worse.  The way his knee completely refused to grip the side of his horse made falling a distinct possibility, but the real problem lay in his arm.  Even though Nathan had insisted on putting it in a sling before he mounted up--muttering savagely about "damn fools" and "pigheaded stunts" the whole while--it still shot fire up his shoulder with the shock of every step the gelding took.

He wasn't going to back down, though.  He couldn't live his life afraid, hiding from every threat.  If he couldn't face the men who were responsible for hurting him, he would never be able to trust himself to watch the guys' backs.  He'd have to hang up his guns and go back East, and he just wasn't ready to do that.

Buck rode just ahead, the ramrod straightness of his back showing clearly how angry he was.  If Chris hadn't said JD could come, JD had no doubt Buck would have hog-tied him to the bed to keep him in town.  It had been a close call, anyway; Buck hadn't backed down until Chris pointed out that if they didn't get going, Evans was going to ride into town and shoot them all while they stood around arguing.  Buck hadn't said another word to Chris or to JD.  Knowing Buck, JD didn't figure that would last.

"Mr. Dunne?"

The voice interrupted his thoughts.  JD looked around and saw the Pinkerton agent pulling up beside him.

"I'm Ned Grainger, Simon Blake's partner."

He was a thin, well-dressed man, not as obviously Eastern as Simon had been, but no one would mistake him for a cowhand, either.  Simon had spoken of him a few times; JD knew they'd been friends as well as partners.

"I'm sorry," JD said, even though he knew that wasn't enough.  "He was a good man.  I wish I could have--"

"There's no need, Mr. Dunne.  Mr. Standish has filled me in on what happened.  I feel confident that you did everything you could for Blake.  I just wanted to express my appreciation for your efforts."

JD winced.  He would have felt better if Grainger was angry, accusing him of being too slow, too inexperienced.  He'd done nothing to deserve anyone's thanks.

"I also was hoping I could ask you a few questions about that night."

Trying to keep his expression blank, JD nodded.  He didn't really want to think about it, but he owed Grainger something.

"Primarily, I was wondering about the identity of the men who attacked you and Blake," Grainger said.  "I know Arnie Sykes was one of them, but no one has ever mentioned the name of the other man."

"Slim Chapin."  JD let out a slow breath, relieved that he was getting away with so little.  "I don't reckon that's his real name, but that's all I ever heard anyone call him."

Grainger nodded.  "Thank you.  And, one more favor, if I may ask?"

JD's gut tightened, but he nodded again.

"Should you happen to spot Slim Chapin at any point today, would you mind pointing him out to me?"  Grainger's expression stayed pleasant, but suddenly his eyes were intent.  "I have some unfinished business with him."

JD glanced up toward Buck, but the older man didn't seem to have heard.  Good.  He wouldn't approve at all.  "I'd be happy to, Mr. Grainger."

"Thank you, Mr. Dunne."  Grainger tipped his hat and sent his horse forward.

The sun was halfway over the horizon by the time they reached the ambush point.  The road cut through two hills, a natural pass that saved riders at least an hour of picking their way over rocky outcroppings.  The hill to the left jutted down into a sandy arroyo that threatened to break the legs of any horse unlucky enough to wander into it, and the one on the right ended up against a larger, rockier hill, leaving the road as the only logical passage.  There were other ways around, but the time and effort involved almost assured that anyone traveling to town from that direction would go by way of the road.

It also created the perfect set-up for an ambush.  Rocks and scrub thickets dotted the two hills, giving perfect cover for attackers.  The hills themselves were tall and wide enough to obscure mounted riders from anyone approaching on the other side.  There was even a short ridge on the side opposite from town, just big enough to hide four or five men until they were ready to close in behind a party of riders and hit them from the flank.

JD looked over the steep climb up either hill and decided he was going to stay on his horse.  Plenty of men were taking cover behind the rocks and bushes; he wasn't needed.  Besides, he wasn't entirely sure he'd be able to mount up again once he got off.

Buck pulled up beside him, expression still thunderous.

"Have you considered," he asked acidly, "how you're going to hold a gun and your reins at the same time?"

JD frowned, but he wasn't about to admit that he hadn't even thought about it.  Shooting Buck a glare, he slid the sling off his arm and grasped the reins with that hand, then drew his gun with the other hand.  With luck, he'd be able to keep the gelding still; if not, well, he'd already had his arm broken twice in one month.  He was used to it hurting.

Buck sighed.  "Listen, son, stick close, okay?  You're not back in shape yet, and acting like you are won't prove anything but that you're stubborner than a Mississippi mule."

"I'll be right beside you," JD promised, then grinned.  "There's only room for one jackass in town, anyway."

Buck snorted.  "You're short, kid, you don't take up that much room."

The low call of a dove made JD sit up straight; that was Vin's signal that he'd spotted Evans and his crew.  Buck gave him a long look but didn't say anything.  Voices sometimes echoed among the hills.  If Evans' crew heard them, they'd be ready for attack.

The plan was to trap Evans, Case, and their men with as little bloodshed as possible.  Once they rode in between the two hills, Josiah would lead his group from behind the ridge to flank them, and the riders JD was with would box them in at the front.  The men up on the hills would have the drop on Evans' crew; it was possible that they'd manage to capture all of Evans' men without a shot being fired.

Or, JD thought, it could just as easily end up being a bloodbath.  He wasn't sure which he'd prefer.  He'd seen too many gun battles to want one just for the supposed glory of it, but there were men riding toward him who deserved to die.  Chapin, for sure.  Evans and Case, too, if they were the ones who had ordered Simon Blake's death in the first place.  JD didn't plan to shoot them on sight, but if a gun battle started, he'd keep his eyes open for them.

"Get ready, JD," Buck whispered, faintly enough that JD only just heard him.

Hoof beats coming forward at a steady pace echoed off the hills, and then the men around JD were surging forward.  As promised, JD kept close to Buck, his gelding following the familiar horse without much urging from him.  They were close enough to see Chris, Ezra a few paces behind him, draw up in front of Colter Evans.  Next to Evans was an older man who wasn't dressed like a cowhand.  Case, JD thought, and he scanned the other men, looking for one particular face.  Chapin, two men down from Evans.  Chapin reached down for his rifle; JD recognized the unusual shape of the stock even from a distance.  Simon had been very proud of that rifle.

JD looked around.  Spotting Grainger a few feet away, he pointed to Chapin and nodded.  Grainger's eyes narrowed as he looked at Chapin, down at the rifle Chapin hadn't drawn from its boot, and back up.

"What's all this about?" Case snapped.  He was looking from one face to another angrily, but his expression turned slightly uneasy when he saw Stuart James and Guy Royal sitting beside one another a few feet from Chris.

James shook his head disbelievingly.  "Case, you son of a bitch, it is you.  What the hell are you doing back here?"

Case glared at him.  "It was my town, James, until the ungrateful bastards who live there ran me out.  I'm here to take it back, and I intend to make sure everyone involved knows exactly what it feels like to lose everything you spent your life working for."

Chris cocked his gun.  "It's my town now, mister, and I don't appreciate the trouble you're causing it.  I intend to put a stop to it."

Evans looked at the men in front of him with a sneer.  "Just how do you plan to do that?  We outnumber you two to one."

Chris grinned.  "Hey, Vin!"

At Chris's yell, Vin stood from where he'd been concealed at the top of the hill.  Seconds later, another man stood, and another, and another, until both hills were spotted with rifle barrels gleaming in the early morning sun.  JD felt a sharp rush of satisfaction as the sneer dropped from Evans' face.  The man was starting to be afraid.

"What are your conditions?" Case asked.

Chris raised his voice, making sure all the men could hear him.  "Most of you, I don't got a problem with.  You turn around and ride out now, make sure you never come back, and I'll guarantee you safe passage.  But I've got a federal judge who'll be wanting to talk to Evans, Case, and Chapin."

At the sound of his name, Chapin started, then kicked his horse forward as if he thought he could get away.  Without hesitation, Grainger lifted his rifle and shot.  Chapin fell to the ground, obviously dead.

In the sudden silence, JD could only stare at the corpse of the man who had caused him so much harm.  He would have thought he'd be happy to see Chapin dead.  Instead, he felt strangely numb.

He wasn't given time to understand what he was feeling.  Most of Evans' men had drawn their guns and were scrambling for cover, firing wildly into the mass of men in front of them.  JD saw a couple of Royal's men fall, and then Buck pushed forward between him and the fighting.  The sickening image of Buck getting shot trying to protect him flashed in front of JD's eyes.  With a yell, he kicked his horse forward, determined to fight shoulder to shoulder with Buck.

But the gelding was hard to control with a broken arm and one bad leg.  Somehow in the fighting JD lost track of Buck.  He found himself surrounded by faces he didn't know and realized that he wasn't sure if they were on his side or Evans'.  Most of them didn't seem to be shooting at him, though, so he kept his head down and tried to spot one of his friends.

Then he was face to face with Colter Evans.  How, he didn't know, but he had the presence of mind to level his gun at Evans' face and cock it, even though he was almost breathless with anger.  And fear, too, but he wasn't going to think about that.  Not with Evans right here in front of him.

"Don't move," he warned, and was amazed that his voice sounded steady.

Evans stared at him.  "You're supposed to be dead."

JD couldn't stop a laugh.  "I'm not."

Around him, the sounds of battle were dying, but he didn't pay much attention.  He had Colter Evans in front of him, the man who had wanted him dead.  The man who had ordered Simon Blake's death, who had started this whole nightmare.  All he had to do was pull the trigger.

Someone rode up behind him, but he didn't look.  He couldn't take his eyes off Evans.

"JD."  Chris's voice was commanding, but he still didn't turn.

"Damn it, JD, I said stay close," Buck's voice was on his other side, then, flatly, "Evans."

Out of the corners of his eyes, JD saw the others move in: Nathan and Vin on one side, Josiah and Ezra on the other.  Restively, his horse moved under him, but still he held the gun steady.  Evans looked from him to the gun and back, his face pale.

"JD, we'll take him in," Buck said, the gentleness in his tone not quite hiding its urgency.  "The judge will make sure he gets what he deserves.  Put the gun down."

"His choice, Buck," Chris said softly.

JD listened, but it felt as if they were somewhere else, talking about someone other than him.  His own world had narrowed to himself and Evans and the gun.  He could pull the trigger.  It wouldn't be hard, and a part of him wanted to more than it wanted anything else on earth.

But he remembered the sight of Slim Chapin's body.  How he hadn't felt any different, any better, seeing Chapin dead.  How Ned Grainger hadn't looked any happier, or any less alone.

If he pulled the trigger, Evans would be dead.  But Simon Blake wouldn't come back to life.  JD's arm would still be broken, and his knee would still ache.  He would still have the memories of those weeks in the wild.  He wouldn't gain any of the things he really wanted.

He'd just lose the respect of the men he admired most in the world.  He had no doubt that Buck, Chris, Vin, all of them would choose to take Evans in, even if they'd been through what he'd been through.  None of them had ever, in the time he'd known them, shot a man in cold blood.  In self-defense, yes, and in the defense of others.  But not just for vengeance.  They'd understand if JD pulled the trigger, but they wouldn't respect him for it.

Slowly, he lowered the gun and slid it into its holster.

"You're not worth it," he said to Evans, and turned his horse away.

He didn't go far, just past the edge of the rocks, far enough away that he didn't have to look at Evans.  Buck pulled up beside him and just sat, a silent reminder that he wasn't alone.  He was suddenly tired, so tired he could have fallen asleep right there, if the ground just hadn't been quite so far away.  The pain was starting to come back from wherever it had hidden in the heat of the battle, leaving him very close to throwing up.

"You ready to head back?" Buck asked.  "I think everyone's about done here."

JD looked around, forcing his eyes to focus on his surroundings.  It looked like most of Evans' men had taken off, except for a few who were too hurt to ride.  There were some dead, as well, although JD suspected a few of the bodies belonged to either James' or Royal's men.  He saw Nathan, Josiah, and a couple of men he didn't know tending the wounded.  Ezra and Vin stood guard over Evans, and there were a few men working to collect the bodies and strap them to horses for the ride back to town.

Chris had stopped next to Royal and James, who were standing together, looking down at one of the bodies.  As Buck and JD started toward them, JD realized that the dead man was Jonathan Case.

"Stupid son of a bitch," James said, shaking his head.  "All that trouble to get revenge on people who didn't even know he was back in the territory."

"And all he ended up getting," Royal added, "is dead."

"Sounds like justice to me," Chris said, and sent his horse forward to meet Buck and JD.  Looking at JD sharply, he said, "Kid, now's not the time to fall off that horse, either."

JD couldn't take his eyes away from Case even though the sight was making him even more queasy.

"I'm not . . . "

Things went dark for a second.  When he could blink again, Buck had an iron grip on his good arm, keeping him in the saddle.  Chris had moved closer on the other side.  JD's knee felt like someone was shoving a hot poker through it, but he felt strangely distant from the pain.  He frowned at Buck, wondering why his friend looked so far away.

Buck sighed.  "Come on, son, let's go home."

Epilogue: Read His Righteous Sentence

A sunset, a sea of glowing crimson and amber, of towering blue-shadowed clouds and vast stretches of molten gold.

A cemetery, where a thin man stands by a still-fresh grave.  Carved into the simple wooden cross, the inscription: Simon Blake, 1840-1867--He always got his man.

A boarding house, where a young man lies in drugged and exhausted slumber.  On the table next to his bed, left by a friend who moved quietly so as not to disturb his slumber, a small pile of belongings: three dog-eared dimestore novels and a small wooden box.

A newspaper office, where a woman sits lost in thought.  Written on her paper, the headline for the next day's newspaper: Sheriff Alive, Murderers Brought to Justice.

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