"Ya know it's not too late to do the right thing," Shelby said, canting her head to look upward at Booker, studying the man's face in the golden glow of firelight. It was hard to tell what a man's face was saying beside a fire. The features were distorted. Kind men looked suddenly demonic, wicked men were rendered harmless and rosy.
There was nothing harmless about Booker, but she couldn't help wondering if there wasn't still some remnant of a good man deep inside there. A man who wouldn't let a boy bleed to death in front of him while a Chinaman cook tried to save his life with herbs and other magical potions. She didn't have much faith in Hop Sing's skills as a doctor. He was one helluva cook but a doctor... she wouldn't have sent him in to save her own firstborn child, if she'd had one.
That was funny. She was never going to have a child, much less one like Adam. Ben Cartwright had done right by his boys, raised them the way they should be raised.
There had to be some way to convince Booker to let them get the boy out of here.
She met Hop Sing's eyes then by accident, started to let her gaze slide away, then riveted her eyes on him. He didn't make a gesture or a sound, simply stared at her with that intent, black gaze, and she understood.
Ben wasn't coming in to pay a ransom.
He was coming in for his boy.
The only thing that wasn't screwed up about this little shindig was the fact that he was inside with the fire instead outside with the rain.
Booker had just about had it with all of them and the situation as a whole. If there hadn't been a town full of people out there who would kill him the minute he walked out the door, he would get on his horse and ride, leaving the Idiot Gang well behind him.
This should have been a simple operation, just a bump in the road, pocket change to get them to the next town. Instead they had two frightened but obstinate women, a dying kid and now, God help them, a Chinaman, and the entire town waiting just outside the doors. It was just a little late for 'take backs'. Ah, why hadn't I lived an honest life, he wondered wryly. A little woman who maybe looked a bit like that Shelby, but without the bite. Three or four grubby faced kids running around barefoot like little Commanches.
Well, it was a little late for that. Hard facts were that he was a thief with a bounty on his head and a few dead men on his conscience. It was a shame that the boy lying there in the firelight was going to be another one, but that couldn't be helped now.
At least the kid wasn't dying alone.
Before this night was over there was going to be more blood shed in this little town.
Booker could feel it in his bones, smell it on the night air. As if on cue, lightning arced across the blackness outside and thunder cracked. The rain drummed the roof and battered at the windows as if seeking entrance. It was a hell of a night, Booker decided, and he wished they'd just moved on instead of stopping in this dirt-street town for that inevitable drink.
But there'd been no signs, nothing to indicate that it was all going to go bad, that things were going to degenerate into this farce. He should have just been able to relieve an angry Shelby of the night's take and ridden into the night while she fussed and fumed. But all it took was one dumb ranch kid to walk into a hastily fired bullet and everything was falling apart.
Sure, the town was supposed to be raising the money to buy their people back. But that was a plan just made to fall apart. More holes in that idea than that little graveyard he'd seen as they rode into town. Obviously they couldn't give up all their hostages when they got the money or they'd just be gunned down before they got outside the city limits. The town wasn't going to want to let go of the money bag unless their people were free.
How was that going to work?
And if they kept one of the hostages for safe passage... which one? Not the kid obviously. He would probably be dead before they cleared the edges of town. Shelby... she would be a nice addition, but she just wasn't that important to anyone that they could hold a whole town back from going after their money. That left Ruth.
Ruth, beloved wife, gentle, sweet woman, who probably had a lot of friends here besides that husband who wanted her back.
So Ruth it was.
Ben started the walk toward the saloon and was amazed at how far it seemed, how the closer he got, the more he expected a shot to ring out and drop him where he stood. The bag of money was heavy in his hand and rain slashed at his face, icy and relentless. It seemed like it had rained for a week.
Each step, a separate trudge closer.
He was terrified at what he'd find inside.
They had no guarantee that Adam was still alive, that he hadn't died since Jack had left. No guarantee that when the firefight started that one of the innocents wouldn't be caught in the crossfire. But no one had come up with a better idea. There was no way the men inside would free the hostages, whether they received the money or not. Best case scenario, they only took one hostage with them after they got the money, but Ben wasn't about to be the one to try to determine which hostage was worth what.
And his heart only cared about his son. He felt guilty about that, sorry about it. But he couldn't change it. That was his child in there. Adam was grown now, or at least nearly grown, Ben knew it was hard for him to relinquish control, see the man in the boy. But Adam was still the inquisitive, sensitive little boy he and his wife had brought into this world as their own small miracle. He couldn't imagine losing the boy as he'd lost his mother. If it was wrong for his heart to be murmuring his son's name with each step, then so be it. He would be wrong.
Finally, he hit the boardwalk, felt his boot strike against wood, and stepped up. Just as he did, the doorway swung open and the man called Booker stared at him from the safety of the dry room as Ben stood there, rain streaming down his face.
"Did you bring what you were supposed to bring, my friend?" Booker asked simply.
"I have the money," Ben said, the words equally simple.
Booker gave him a smile, pulled the door open. "Then by all means, come on in."
Soaked to the skin, Ben stepped inside the saloon, his eyes automatically searching for the one thing he had to see right now. He found it, by the fire, his oldest son, huddled on the floor, covered by blankets, his face sweat-speckled and his skin sallow. Adam's breathing was shallow, as if it hurt to merely draw in air.
Ben dropped the bag of money where he stood, abandoning it on the floor as if it had no value... for now, for him, it no longer did. It had gotten him inside with his son, it had served its purpose. He had no idea if it would get them outside these doors, ever again.
He ignored the drawn guns, Booker's barked, "Stay still," and knelt beside his son, his hand going to Adam's forehead, feeling the heat of sickness there. Hop Sing placed a hand gently on his shoulder. Ben met Ruth's eyes, then Shelby's. Ruth merely stared at him with a single tear tracking down her pale cheek. Shelby shook her head, unable to speak the words.
Ben brushed the damp hair out of Adam's face, stroked his forehead, then said softly, "You'll be all right, son. You're going to go home with me. Don't be afraid. I love you, Adam."
"Now ain't that touching," one of the men lolling by the fire sneered, then looked up at Booker. "Well, ain't you even going to count the damn money? Who knows what's in that sack, it could be torn up newspaper for all we know."
"No," Booker said, not making a move to retrieve the bag. "It'll be there. It'll all be there, won't it, Mr. Cartwright. He's not going to sell out a single hair on his boy's head. Not just for money."
Finally Booker shoved his gun back in the holster and leaned over to pick up the bag.
His hand never reached it.
Jack burst up through the floor like Satan, himself, ascending, the glow from the fire casting scarlet and amber across his features and he was yelling insanities as he came up, two guns drawn. By sheer chance and a calculation of the odds, one barrel was pointed straight into the face of one of the men by the fire.
Reaction caused the three men at the fire to scatter, but the one caught in Jack's sights like a pinned moth squawked like a demented chicken and scrabbled for his pistol.
The back door exploded in a shower of splinters as Big Dan crashed his way through, a rifle raised to his shoulder, filling the entire doorway. Ben flung himself over Adam's body, trying to shield as much of his son as he could, one hand dragging Ruth down with him.
For that one moment, time and everyone in it, stood dead still. It could have gone either way. No one had to die, no more blood had to be shed. Then glass exploded upstairs and men with rifles appeared at the head of the stairs and along the railing and the outlaws panicked.
The man in Jack's sights couldn't possibly be stupid enough to draw on him. But stupid he was, and a part of a second later, he was also dead. The other two who had been standing at the fire, eager to count the money, tried to dart for the door, shooting upward as they went. The men upstairs were careful. They hardly wanted to be tossing lead around like it was the Fourth of July with two women hostages and an injured boy down there on the floor, but that didn't make them hesitate to take the shots they could get.
From the wild firing of the two men trying for the door and the returning shots from those above, the room swirled with smoke and the acrid scent of gunpowder. A stray slug hit the fireplace and the fire jumped its bed, catching the hem of a curtain beside the fireplace, sending it up in a burst of flame and smoke. Hop Sing lunged for the curtain, yanked it down and stomped the fire out of it before it could do more than add smoke to the already hazy room.
One of the men upstairs yelped as a bullet creased along the outside of his upper arm. Then one of the outlaws spun as in an awkward ballet, a crimson blossom exploding in the center of his chest, and went down. The other tried for a mad dash for the door, but two bullets cut him down before he was halfway across the room.
"Hold your fire!"
Amazing how some voices seem to carry over chaos.
Not a man in the room failed to hesitate at the barked order. Then as the smoke began to clear, they stilled even further.
Booker stood in the center of the room with one arm around Shelby's throat and the barrel of his pistol prodding into her temple.
Even Frenchy, who had come in through the front doors couldn't take a shot from behind. There was too much chance the bullet could go through Booker and into Shelby as well. Bullets were like that, Frenchy knew, they went through things you didn't want them to go through and just pinged off those things you did want them to pierce. So even Frenchy held his fire.
"Let it end," Ben said softly, knowing that Booker could hear him very well in the sudden silence. Willing the man to stop the bloodshed now that there was no hope for his plans; there simply was no need for him or Shelby to die.
Adam's hand twitched within his own, tightened, and he automatically looked down at his son. Blue eyes stared blankly up at him and Adam licked dry lips, then tried to speak. "Wan'... wan'..."
The entire room seemed suspended in a cocoon of silence waiting to hear what the young man was trying to say, even the outlaw and his hostage.
"Wan' go 'ome," Adam finally managed.
Ben squeezed his eyes shut, then placed a hand on his son's face. The skin was warm beneath his touch. He looked back up at Booker.
"Take your kid home, mister. Get him well," Booker said. "Me and Shelby, we'll go for a little ride, I'll let her go, unharmed, after a while, if I don't have no company on my trail. Nobody gets hurt, at least no worse than they already are, and we all go back to our lives. I ain't even asking for the money."
"I'm sorry," Ben said, "you know I can't do that. There's no need for you to die here, mister, and there's certainly no reason for Shelby to be hurt. There's a time when it's over. Don't die here."
"You going to sit there and talk while your boy dies, sir?" Booker asked with an odd sort of courtesy.
"Let him go," Shelby said then, her voice a little strangled from the hold on her throat. "Let him go, Ben, take Adam home. He'll let me go. He's a son of a bitch, but he'll keep his word." Booker eased his hold on her and she nodded. "I'll go with you, don't you worry about that."
Adam hitched in breath again and Ben's heart broke. He met Shelby's eyes, started to shake his head, but something there stilled him. She wasn't being foolhardedly brave, or simply resigning herself to her situation. She was handing him his son's life and she knew it. After looking into her eyes, he knew it too.
"No harm will come to her," Ben said and it was half demand, half question.
"No harm," Booker agreed, and backed the two of them out of the saloon. Word had already passed its way to the street and people backed away from the both of them as rain slashed down on their heads.
Booker snagged the reins of two horses from the hitch rail, handed one pair to Shelby and mounted his own horse. Shelby complied with the unspoken order and together they kicked their mounts into a gallop into the pouring rain.
Within fifteen minutes a ragtag posse was on their trail.
In the end it was one of rancher Hanson's summer hands who did the deed. He was little more than a youngster, not much older than Adam, and the thrill of riding a man to the ground had the blood rushing through his veins.
Being young, being foolish, he didn't take the precautions that the other men in the posse did and that was what inevitably spilled blood that night.
When the posse came within gun range of Shelby and Booker, their horses were blowing hard and they were too. Excitement had given way to anger and anger had left for rage. If it had turned out another way, there might have been a hanging that night.
As it was, young Malachi Kittering jerked his horse to a sliding halt, rain sluicing through his face, blurring his vision even with the protection of his drenched hat. When Shelby raised a hand to the posse and yelled out, "Wait! You men wait right there!"
Malachi didn't even hear her. He saw a bad guy and glory and that Peterson girl who would look at him all googly eyed when she found out that he was the one who brought down the man who killed Adam Cartwright.
Booker had just turned away from Shelby when the bullet caught him full in the chest. He only had a fraction of a second to look startled, then the impact drove him backward into a tree. He hung there a moment, then slid almost gracefully to the ground, his eyes already closed in death.
Shelby stood there in utter shock, staring at Booker, then went to one knee beside him, spoke his name, gently, as if he were simply sleeping. When she touched his cheek, only ice met her fingers.
Turning to face the posse, her tears obscured by the insistent rain, she yelled, "You son of a bitch, he was surrendering!"