Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: these aren't my characters. I'm only borrowing them, and will return them (relatively) unharmed once I've finished with a bit of um, typing practice. Yeah, that's it, typing practice. (Hey, the quick red fox and the lazy brown dog get real boring after a while, okay?) Based on characters and situations from the TV show Magnificent Seven and the movie Blazing Saddles. Originally published in the fanzine Let's Ride #13, from Neon RainBow Press.

Trouble Rides a Black Horse

Blazing Saddles/Magnificent Seven

Susan M. M.

'Twas a sunny November afternoon in Four Corners, Arizona Territory … which meant it was merely warm instead of hot. Two strangers rode down the main street of town. One had curly blond hair and rode a black stallion. The other, a Negro clad in buckskin, rode a palomino gelding.

Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner stood in front of the Clarion's office. Buck, a tall wrangler with dark hair and a mustache, was reading the newspaper posted on the wall and humming off-key. Vin leaned against the wall. "Vacant Chair," a haunting Civil War lament, poured forth from his harmonica. The long-haired tracker suddenly stopped playing.

Vin indicated the strangers. "Black clothes, black horse, blond hair. If his hair were a shade lighter, and not so curly, he could pass as Chris's brother."

Buck looked up at the pair riding past. He swore softly. "Find Chris. Tell him we got trouble, then stick with him. He'll need someone to watch his back. I'll go find the others."

"What's up?" Vin slipped the harmonica into his pocket.

"Trouble." Buck hurried off in search of the sheriff without another word.

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The two strangers walked into the saloon and sat down at the bar. The blond placed a coin on the countertop. "Two beers."

The bartender drew two beers from the keg and placed them in front of the man in black. The stranger nodded his thanks, then pushed one over to the Negro. "Here you go, Bart."

"Hello, Jim."

The strangers looked up. Chris Larabee sat at the end of the bar. Vin stood behind him, guarding his back.

"Chris." The curly-haired man greeted Chris with wary respect.

"Friend of yours?" Bart asked.

"Not exactly," Jim replied.

"You come here for me?" Chris asked.

Jim shook his head. "Just passing through."

"Not exactly a friend," Bart repeated. "Enemy?"

Jim shook his head again. "No … at least I hope not." He looked at Chris, who nodded. "More of a professional acquaintance." He took another sip of beer. "A business rival."

JD Dunne swaggered into the saloon, his hand resting on his pistol butt. "Heard we had strangers stirring up trouble. Came to make sure everything stayed quiet."

Jim glanced at the star on the young man's vest, then at his face. JD didn't look like he was old enough to shave more than twice a week. Jim turned to Chris, one eyebrow raised in disbelief. "This is your sheriff?"

Bart muttered, "And I thought Rock Ridge was scraping the bottom of the barrel when they hired me."

Chris's hazel-green eyes twinkled, but he kept his voice completely deadpan. "Only fair to warn you, I'm a close personal friend of the sheriff."

Jim turned back to JD and nodded gravely. "Didn't come here to stir up trouble, sheriff. Just passing through on our way to somewhere else."

"Where you headed?" JD asked. He tried to make his voice sound tough and belligerent; he didn't succeed.

"Nowhere special," Jim replied.

"Always had a hankering to go nowhere special," Bart said.

Jim turned back to his partner and smiled at the inside joke. Then he gave his attention to the young lawman. "Don't aim to start any trouble with the law … or with Chris Larabee."

"Good. This is a nice quiet town; I aim to keep it that way," JD said.

"I consider myself duly warned, sheriff." Jim didn't quite keep the note of amusement out of his voice.

JD took a deep breath, out of his depth, but determined not to show it. "Might be best if you finished your drinks and got back on your horses."

Jim sighed. The joke was no longer funny. "We've been on the road a while. Our horses need a rest, and so do we … preferably in a real bed, under a roof. You mind if stay in the hotel tonight, replenish our supplies in the morning, and ride out after breakfast? That all right with you?"

JD looked up at Chris for guidance. Chris nodded his consent. "All right, but be sure you're out of town before noon," JD admonished him.

Jim nodded. "Whatever you say." He turned to Chris. "I thought you said he was a friend of yours, not that you told him what to do."

Chris just smiled.

Confused, JD wandered to the far end of the bar, wondering why Buck had been so concerned, and why Buck was even now seeking out Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra.

"Buy the kid a drink, Bart," Jim directed.

"Me? Why should I buy him a drink? You're the one who had to ask permission to stay in town."

"You've got more money than I have," Jim pointed out.

"I won't if I keep buying drinks for strangers." Nonetheless, Bart walked to the far end of the bar, where a mildly discombobulated JD stood, watching the two gunmen in black. "Sheriff, I'd like to buy you a drink."

"Uh, thanks." JD nodded his gratitude.

"It's not every man who can face down the Waco Kid without even blinking."

"Th-the W-waco Kid?" JD repeated in shock. "The fastest gun in the west?"

Bart just nodded.

The batwing doors of the saloon were thrust open. Four men stepped in, their guns drawn, ready for trouble.

Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson, Ezra Standish, and Buck Wilmington looked around. The saloon was peaceful. None of the customers were even swearing, let alone fighting. No broken chairs or bottles littered the floor.

"Seems a mite quieter than we expected," Josiah said.

"Indeed, Mr. Wilmington, your predictions of pandemonium seem somewhat premature," Ezra observed.

Buck stared at Jim. "You got a lot of nerve showing up here, Kid."

"Hoss, isn't it?" Jim asked mildly. "Or was it Rooster?"

"Buck," the dark-haired man corrected him. "Buck Wilmington."

"That's right. I knew it was some kind of animal."

Buck's fingers tightened on his gun.

"You gathered together all these fine gentlemen just to protect Chris Larabee from lil' ole me? I suppose I should be flattered." Jim sipped his beer. "But then, you always were protective of Larabee, weren't you? Gave rise to one or two nasty rumors about you two boys, as I recollect."

Buck snarled.

"Jim, you promised to behave yourself," Chris reminded him.

"I did, didn't I?" Jim smirked slightly and took a sip of beer.

"Jim, I know you've never been much of mathematician, so I will take the liberty of reminding you that there are seven of them to two of us – one of you if you do something stupid," Bart pointed out. Nonetheless, he walked over to join his partner, his right hand resting conspicuously on his pistol.

Jim turned to face Buck. "Sorry. Buy you a drink by way of apology?"

"I'm a mite particular who I drink with," Buck replied.

"Still holding a grudge over that blonde, huh?" The Waco Kid returned his attention to his beer. He turned his back on Buck, although keeping on discreet watch on him through the mirror over the bar.

"I thought we agreed to leave the blondes to me." Bart leaned against the bar, his eyes scanning the saloon.

"Just die Distelfink. The rest of 'em are up for grabs." Jim took another sip of beer. "And I'll grab as many of 'em as I can."

"Der Distelfink," Bart corrected. "Bad enough your English is ungrammatical. At least try to speak German properly."

"Maybe if I had a horizontal tutor, my German would improve, too," Jim teased.

"You watch what you say about the lady," Bart chastised his partner.

"Lili von Shtupp is many things, but she's no lady," Jim countered.

Bart was unable to reply to that. His off-and-on girlfriend – the songstress known in saloons and theaters from Sacramento to San Antonio as the Teutonic Titwillow – was not the sort of girl one took home to mother.

Nathan walked up to the bar. "Hello, JD. Beer, please, Sam." Once he'd paid for and received his drink, he turned to the newcomers. "Name's Nathan Jackson. Welcome to Four Corners."

"Bart O'Hara. This here's my partner, Jim Fleming."

"Welcome," Jim repeated. "That's certainly a more cordial greeting than the sheriff gave us."

"If I were of a suspicious turn of mind, Mr. Fleming, I'd say you and Buck didn't care for each other." Nathan kept his voice as mild as possible.

"We've met before," Jim acknowledged. "I would be lying if I said we were pals."

Keeping an eye on Jim, Buck strode angrily across the saloon to join Chris and Vin. In a harsh whisper, he demanded, "What the Hell is he doing here?"

"Just passing through," Chris replied.

Vin added, "JD already warned him to behave himself."

"JD warned him? JD warned him? You think a feller like the Waco Kid is gonna pay any mind to JD?"

Despite the severity of the situation, Vin's pale blue eyes twinkled mischievously. "He is the sheriff."

"He'll listen to me." Chris spoke up before Buck could protest. "He's promised to be out of town by tomorrow."

"And you trust him?" Buck demanded.

"I'm keeping an eye on him," Chris acknowledged.

"Well, I'm keeping both eyes on him until he gets back up on that big black horse of his and rides out of town," Buck declared.

"Free country." Chris sipped his whisky. "Do what you want to."

Buck looked neither placated nor convinced.

"As the donnybrook appears to have been postponed," Ezra announced, "may I interest anyone in a friendly game of cards?"

Jim looked up with interest.

"Wouldn't play with him unless you got money to lose," Nathan warned.

"Does he cheat?" Bart asked.

Nathan hesitated a moment before answering. "He don't need to."

"You feeling lucky tonight, Bart?" Jim asked.

"Lucky enough to take your money," Bart replied. His partner didn't play poker half as well as he played chess. "Lucky enough to take a cardsharp's money …" The Negro shrugged.

Bart, Jim, and Nathan walked over to the table where Ezra and Josiah sat. Nathan made the introductions. "Ezra Standish, Josiah Sanchez, this here's Jim Fleming and Bart O'Hara."

Ezra raised an eyebrow upon hearing Bart's surname. "You don't look Irish."

"What, you never heard of black Irish?" Bart retorted.

Ezra grinned, showing off his gold tooth. "Touché."

After Ezra had dealt the cards, Nathan asked, "There was an O'Hara plantation not far from Atlanta. You from there?"

Bart shook his head. "My folks came from a tobacco plantation in Kentucky. Widow O'Hara was a lady who helped 'em on the Underground Railroad. I was born in New York."

Nathan looked at Bart with new respect. He'd met very few Negroes who were freeborn.

"My folks came west in '56, looking for a better life," Bart continued.

"Still looking."

"Ain't that the truth," Nathan muttered.

For the next few hours, the five of them played cards amiably. Ezra, of course, won most of the hands. Bart won a few games. The others managed to only win a hand or two a piece.

Josiah yawned. Jim followed suit.

"Getting late. Shall we mosey on over to the hotel?" Bart suggested.

"Um, you might have a slight difficulty there," Ezra said hesitantly.

Bart sighed wearily. The weariness was born not of fatigue, but of frustration. "Let me guess. They don't take colored guests?"

Ezra nodded. "The hotel management prefers not to grant lodgings to those of a dusky hue."

Jim bit his lip.

"Looks like I'm spending the night at the livery stable again."

"We could – " Jim began.

Bart shook his head. "I ain't pretending to be your valet. Besides, if it didn't work in a city like San Francisco, it sure ain't gonna work in a one-horse town like this."

"God's house is open to all," Josiah announced. "If you wanna stay at the church, ain't fancy, but it's a roof over your head."

"Stay at my place," Nathan invited. "Them pews ain't all that comfortable, and I got an extra bed."

"Kind of both of you to offer. You don't mind, Preacher, I'll go with Nathan," Bart said.

Josiah nodded.

"See you in the morning, Jim." Bart nodded to his partner. He and Nathan rose and left the saloon.

The Waco Kid watched them walk out. "It's not fair," he whispered.

"Life seldom is, Mr. Fleming," Ezra observed. "Life seldom is."

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Guy Royal handed the prison guard a hundred dollars. Maynard stared at the five crisp twenty dollar bills in his hand. He'd never seen that much money before at one time.

Royal bit his lip to hide a smile at the guard's reaction. A hundred dollars was pocket change to him. His attorney had smuggled it into jail inside a Bible. "Half now, half sent to you once we're safely away."

Maynard nodded. "This way." He led Royal and five other prisoners to the door. His hands shook as he unlocked the prison door.

"Best hit me now. Make it look good, so they don't suspect me," Maynard said. "A hundred dollars will pay all the doctor bills in the world."

"Take care of him, Clifford." Royal nodded at one of his men.

Clifford stuck a homemade knife between Maynard's ribs. The dying guard sunk to the floor, a shocked look on his face.

Royal reached down and took the money from Maynard's hands. He kicked the dying man. "Let's get out of here. The others will be waiting."

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The next morning, Jim Fleming met up with Bart O'Hara at Watson's Hardware Store. Bart was buying ammunition.

"Hey, Bart. Missed you at breakfast," Jim said.

"Good morning, Jim. Nathan fed me. Not cordon bleu, but it saved me a few dollars."

Jim just nodded. He was still feeling guilty about the hotel situation last night.

Bart paid for his purchases. "What else do we need?"

"Coffee, hardtack, beans. Saw a grocer's over yonder," Jim said.

"Well, what are we waiting for?"

Jim gave his partner a half-smile. "Chris Larabee and that boy-sheriff will be happy to see our backsides. Buck will be ecstatic. Let's get our shopping done and be on the road."

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Three hours later, Bart and Jim stopped by a stream for lunch. After watering the horses, Jim got out the box lunches he'd bought at the hotel restaurant before leaving Four Corners. Tomorrow it would be beans for lunch, maybe fish or jackrabbit if they were lucky. For today, at least, they could eat like civilized men: ham sandwiches, apples, and molasses cookies.

As Bart started to boil coffee, he asked, "You remember Jock Steele?"

"Jock Steele, author of Black Bart, the Sable Sheriff? How could I forget him?" Jim asked.

"Nathan said they'd had problems with him, too. A piece of garbage called The Magnificent Seven," Bart announced. "Wonder if the proofreading was any better on theirs than mine."

"How many comma splices did that thing have?" Jim asked.

"I lost count. And the subject-verb agreement, the spelling …" Bart shuddered at the memory. "You never said what was the problem between you and Larabee."

"Not exactly a problem."

"Not exactly," Bart repeated, raising one eyebrow.

"We were hired on opposite sides of a range war. Just business. Now, Buck, he and Larabee have been friends for years, and he seemed to take it personal when I shot his pal. Or maybe it was the blonde we were both sparking that he took personally."

They ate a leisurely lunch, chatting of women they'd known and adventures they'd shared. A few of the stories were even true. They had just finished dousing the fire when they heard hoofbeats – lots of hoofbeats.

"Someone's coming," Bart observed.

"You feeling sociable?" Jim asked.

Bart shook his head. They both had too many enemies to feel sanguine about facing a horde of heavily armed strangers.

"Behind the rocks," Jim suggested. He led the horses behind the rocks. Bart quickly destroyed all evidence that they'd stopped there. If the approaching group were harmless, they could always come out and introduce themselves. But in the west, harmless was far from common.

"Let's stop here and water the horses," Royal said.

The men dismounted. They refilled their canteens at the stream, then watered their horses.

"You sure you wanna do this, Mr. Royal? Be easy enough to head south to Mexico," one of the men suggested.

"I'm gonna get the men who ruined my life," Guy Royal declared. "Larabee and his six henchmen. And there's an extra two hundred dollars for the man who shoots Josiah Sanchez."

Bravado and testosterone filled the air as Royal's men boasted of how they would take care of Larabee's riders.

Jim and Bart crouched behind the rocks. Neither dared to move a muscle. They scarcely dared to breath. Not until Guy Royal and his men had remounted and ridden off did they relax.

"Sounds like your friend Larabee is in for trouble," Bart observed.

"He's not exactly my friend," Jim hedged.

"Not exactly," Bart repeated. "Nathan and Josiah, they were good to me. I'd hate to see them hurt."

Jim nodded.

"Think they need any help?" Bart asked.

"Oh, all they can get," Jim replied.

Bart smiled. "So what are we gonna do about it?"

"Split up," Jim suggested. "You go east, I'll go west. When you think it's safe, head north and double back to Four Corners."

Bart nodded. 'Twas a sensible plan. With any luck, the flanking maneuver should keep them out of sight of Guy Royal and his men. One of them was sure to make it to town, even if the other ran into trouble. "See you in a few hours."

"See you." The Waco Kid touched his black Stetson, mounted his black stallion, and rode off without another word.

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"Easy, Demon, take it slow," Jim urged his horse. It was rough terrain: rugged and rocky. Hills and canyons limited his visibility. "Maybe I should've gone east and let Bart go west," he muttered under his breath.

He rode warily back to Four Corners, whistling a dirty Robert Burns song off-key. As he came around a dusty hill, he saw a dozen men ahead. Most were mounted, but two or three had gotten down off their horses. Jim broke off in the middle of 'Nine Inch Will Please a Lady.' "Oh, dear."

Several of the men turned toward him. Jim sighed. They'd seen him; it was too late to run. A few years ago, he would've tried to take them out solo, but experience had taught him prudence. He was still good. He wasn't that good anymore, not after so many years spent curled up inside a whisky bottle, before Bart had rescued him from his drunken stupor. The only thing he could do was brazen it out.

Jim waved. When he got closer, he called out, "Howdy, boys."

A scrawny brown-haired man stood beside a sorrel gelding, examining its left front leg. Three missing teeth were revealed when he opened his mouth to speak. "He's got a good horse."

"That he does," agreed a gray-haired man atop a black mare. Jim recognized his voice: Royal.

"I like him." Jim reached down and patted Demon's neck. "Interested in having him cover your mare? I warn you, his stud fee is pretty high."

"Ain't interested in horsebreeding," Royal replied in a rough, husky voice. Then he gave Demon a second look, noting the steed's size and conformation. He seemed to reconsider the notion. "Leastwise, not at the moment." He jutted his chin out at the man with the sorrel. "His horse stepped in a snake hole and twisted its leg. Yours'll do as a replacement."

"Demon's not for sale," Jim told him, his voice mild as a May breeze.

"Weren't planning to buy him." The gap-toothed man drew his gun.

Jim shot the gun out of his hand.

The outlaws swore.

"Hell, Mr. Royal, I didn't even see him draw his gun," one exclaimed.

The gray-haired man threw him a dirty look for using his name. Now they'd have to shoot the stranger on the black stallion.

"Bill Royal, from Prescott way?" Jim asked.

"Guy Royal, from near Four Corners," the rancher replied. If they were going to shoot the stranger anyway, then it hardly mattered if he knew who killed him.

"Then you're the man I've been looking for," Jim announced. "I understand we have something in common."

"And what might that be?" Royal asked suspiciously.

"I have a score to settle with Chris Larabee," Jim lied. "And I'd take it poorly if someone was to kill him without letting me in on the action."

"And who the Hell are you?" Royal demanded.

"I've used a few different names, especially when there was a sheriff in the area, but most folks call me the Waco Kid."

Royal's men swore again.

Guy Royal smiled. "The Waco Kid, huh? I reckon you can ride with us. Tom, abandon that beast or put it out of its misery. Malachi, he'll have to ride double with you."

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JD, Vin, and Ezra stood in front of the jail, chatting amiably. Suddenly Vin looked up.

"Rider coming in," the long-haired tracker announced. He raised his spyglass to his eye. "It's Bart O'Hara, and it looks like he's rid that hoss half to death."

In a moment, JD and Ezra could make out the horse and rider clearly. A minute later, the exhausted rider reined his lathered horse to a halt before the sheriff's office.

Bart exhaled deeply before speaking. "Y'all seen Jim?"

JD stuck his thumbs into his vest and puffed out his chest. "Ain't seen him since he left town this morning, like I told him to."

"Y'all know a feller by the name of Mr. Royal?" Bart asked. He took his hat off, wiped the sweat from his brow, then fanned his face with his hat.

"Guy Royal?" Vin asked in surprise.

Ezra frowned. "I regret we have the displeasure of his acquaintance."

"Guy Royal's in prison," JD began.

"No, he ain't," Bart interrupted the young sheriff. "He's on his way here, with about ten or twelve men. And they ain't feeling too friendly inclined toward y'all."

"The Waco Kid sent you back to warn us?" JD asked, slightly confused.

Bart shook his head. "We both came back, by different routes, so as Royal and his men wouldn't see us. Figured Jim'd beat me back. Demon's faster than Nugget."

Vin shook his head. "Ain't seen hide nor hair of 'im since ya left this morning. Ez, JD, y'all go warn the others. Bart, best get yer hoss to the livery stable and tend to him. He looks 'bout all done in."

Bart nodded.

Vin assessed the man in front of him. "Ya don't look so good, yerself."

"Mite tired," Bart admitted. He nudged his horse forward. "C'mon, Gold Nugget. Y'all'd best warn Brer Josiah. Royal's paying extra to the man who kills him."

"It appears Mr. Royal is the sort of man who holds a grudge," Ezra said, hardly surprised at the news. "Let us go make our colleagues cognizant of the situation."

"Huh?" JD stared at him.

"He means we need t' go tell everybody else," Vin translated.

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Royal and his men rode into town just before sunset.

The Waco Kid looked around the streets deserted streets. "Quiet."

"Too quiet," Guy Royal agreed.

"What'll we do now, Mr. Royal?" one of the men asked.

"Larabee's hiding. He's scairt," Royal said confidently, proud of his ability to inspire such fear. He thought a second. "Larabee's sweet on Widder Travis. We shoot up her place a mite, that'll drive him out."

"Didn't think you were the sort of man to hide behind a woman's skirts, Royal," the Waco Kid remarked. Without yelling, he pitched his voice loud enough to make sure all Royal's henchmen could hear him.

"That's Mister Royal to you. And I'll do whatever it takes to get Chris Larabee." He nodded to Clifford.

Clifford drew his pistol, took a second to aim, then shot out the window of the Clarion office.

A bullet hit the ground an inch from Clifford's horse's hoof. Vin's voice called out, "Ya shouldn't oughta have done that."

Without a word, the Waco Kid gently kneed his horse, urging it to move away from Royal and to the outskirts of the gang.

"Larabee! Where are you, you pusillanimous coward? Come out here!" Royal demanded at the top of his lungs.

Demon stepped to the water trough in front of the saloon. The black stallion lowered its head and drank.

From above, Chris yelled, "You want me to come out so you can shoot me? What kind of a damned fool do you think I am?"

Larabee's voice seemed to coming from the saloon's upstairs window. One of Royal's men fired, missing the glass and chipping a splinter of wood out of the window frame.

"I've changed my mind," Jim announced. "Larabee and I going after each other to see who's the fastest gun, that's kid stuff. We're too mature for that. And if I'm not going to kill Larabee, no one is." He pointed his pistol at the men he'd been riding with for the past few hours. He shot Clifford's hand, shattering the bones and forcing him to drop his gun. He shot Malachi in the shoulder. Then he dismounted. "Run, Demon." He slapped the horse on the rump to send it on its way. As he ducked behind the water trough for cover, he muttered under his breath, "No sense in both of us getting shot."

Royal swore. "You good-for-nothing, double-dealing turncoat!"

Jim grinned. " 'Preciate the escort into town. Made it easier to keep an eye on you." He fired twice more. Royal's hat flew off his head. The man next to him fell dead to the ground.

"You misbegotten traitor, how much is Larabee paying you to turn on me?" Royal demanded.

"Don't work for Chris Larabee," the Waco Kid yelled back. "Never did, never will. Don't need to be paid for exterminating a rat like you. That's more in the nature of a community service." The gunslinger punctuated his words with lead, and four more of Royal's men fell dead from their horses.

From the other side of the street, a series of shots rang out. The bullets hit the dirt road at the horses' hooves, causing them to panic. One bullet struck a dapple gelding's ankle; it stumbled, sending its rider flying.

"Given that a telegram has been transmitted to the prison authorities, Mr. Royal, advising them as to your whereabouts, it would be prudent to vacate the vicinity posthaste."

"Damned sissy southerner and his dictionary words," muttered Jedikiah Thompson, one of Royal's ranch hands who'd accompanied his boss to prison. Before his arrest, Ezra Standish had relieved him of a considerable portion of his monthly pay at the card table.

For drunken cowboys on payday, intent on tearing up the town in the name of boyish fun, riding en masse through the middle of the street to shoot out lights, windows, and the occasional unwary civilian was their standard tactic. However, when Chris Larabee and his six riders had been forewarned, when the townsfolk had been advised to stay out of the way and Larabee's men, Black Bart, and the Waco Kid had had time to spread out and find cover to shoot from, it only took Royal's men a few minutes to realize that staying in a tight herd in the middle of the town's main street was not the best possible maneuver. Royal and his men scattered, seeking cover of their own. Bullets flew everywhere. Royal and his henchmen shouted insults at Larabee and his riders, but Four Corners' defenders were too busy concentrating on survival to trade witty repartee with their foes.

Lying prone on the porch of his clinic, Nathan took potshots at Royal's men. He wasn't half the marksman his friends were – he was far more accurate with his throwing knives – but at least he could keep Royal's men too distracted to get off any good shots of their own.

Chris swore quietly. His bullet merely grazed Royal's arm. He'd hoped to kill the son-of-a-bitch and be done with him for once and for all. He fired again, and Jed Thompson breathed his last.

Clifford looked around at his dead and dying comrades. Awkwardly, with only his left hand on the reins, he turned his horse around and ran.

Smoke from the gunpowder filled the air, making it difficult to see. Rifles and pistols roared like thunder on the clear autumn afternoon.

Inside the saloon, Buck maneuvered his way closer to the batwing doors, hoping for a better shot.

The Waco Kid saw one of Royal's men sneaking up, aiming at Buck. He looked JD's age, maybe younger.

"Drop it," Jim ordered. "As many men as I've killed, do you think my conscience would even notice one more?"

The boy, his face pale, looked at the blood-strewn street. After a second's hesitation, he lowered his gun.

"Go home to your mama, boy," Jim advised wearily. "I'm willing to bet she needs you a lot more than a louse like Royal does."

The frightened teenager nodded once. He dropped his gun, letting it crash to the wooden sidewalk. He back up two or three steps, then turned and ran.

"Thanks," Buck said grudgingly.

"Think nothing of it." Jim muttered, just loud enough for Buck to hear him. "I promise I won't."

From the top of the saloon roof, Vin took careful aim. He wasn't the sort to kill a man in cold blood, but after the way Royal had treated Nettie Wells, he figured the rancher had it coming.

Bart, crouched down behind the hardware store window, had Royal almost in his sights. If he were just a little bit to the left …. "Hey, Royal!" the ex-sheriff of Rock Ridge yelled out.

Royal turned.

Bart smiled. The rancher was now in his sights. "Don't you know it's sacrilegious to try and kill a preacher-man?" He fired. "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord." Glancing up, he murmured, "Just helping You out a mite, Lord."

At the same instant, Vin fired. Whether it was his Winchester or Bart's Colt that killed the man, he never knew, but both bullets struck Royal, ending his miserable existence.

Upon seeing their boss fall dead to the ground, those of his henchmen who were still alive and whole swore, turned tail, and ran. Slowly, the smoke cleared. The thunder of bullets halted, and silence reigned on the streets of Four Corners. After a moment, Bert Watson crept cautiously out of his hardware store. He examined the corpse-littered street, then organized some of the other townsfolk to carry the bodies over to the undertaker. Larabee's riders, the Waco Kid, and Bart O'Hara slowly emerged from cover to examine their handiwork. Nathan began checking the wounded, seeing whether or not they could be saved.

Bart wiped the sweat from his brow. "After that, I need a drink."

"Amen, brother," Josiah agreed.

Jim looked at JD with innocent blue eyes. "Well, sheriff? Is it all right if I stay in your 'nice quiet town' long enough to have a beer or two?"

JD started to look toward Chris, then turned back without waiting for his consent. "Sure. You can stay in town as long as you want."

Chris Larabee smiled. To Buck, he whispered, "Looks like our boy is growing up."

Buck gave the Waco Kid one last dirty look, then nodded. "Looks like. C'mon, Jim, I'm buying the first round."

Jim raised a blond eyebrow, surprised by the gesture of détente. "I'm a mite particular who I drink with…but I guess I could make an exception, this once." The Waco Kid smiled and touched his hat. "Much obliged, Buck."


Dedicated to my offspring, who were not able to use the computer while Mommy was furiously typing this story, trying to make deadline, and who will not be allowed to watch Blazing Saddles for a very, very long time. All right, darlings, you may now play Winnie the Pooh and VeggieTales on the computer.