A/n: Without wanting to be totally specific about what happens in this story, please note rating. WARNINGS for graphic language, graphic violence and mature themes.
Chapter 1: Sharpeville
Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to ... ~Charles Dickens
"Take your time."
The voice was gruff.
Comforting in its own way, laced with distracted concern, but gruffer than JD Dunne would have expected - given that he was bleeding. He tasted whiskey on the lip of a cup, tried to push the offering away but Buck wouldn't let him.
"I'm fine, Buck. Leave me alone."
"You're not fine, kid."
JD wasn't fine. He couldn't talk properly for a start. He felt lousy, and he wanted to go home. Back home. For the first time in months, he wondered why the hell he'd seen fit to come out west in the first damn place. And this wasn't because it felt like his brains were leaking from his head, or even because they'd almost gotten themselves put to death in a barn. It was something else.
He let go of the sodden bandanna plastered against the side of his face, leaned forward, tried to see round Buck's planted frame.
"Ezra?" His voice cracked on the second half of the name.
"We got him."
That wasn't good enough. Just really ... not good enough. JD had too many questions, too many images flashing in his head, too many fears he wouldn't know how to articulate.
He steeled himself, tried to make his voice steady. "Buck ... Ezra?"
"We got him, JD, we got him."
The gruffness softened. Buck had tugged away the bandana, refolded it, then pressed it back against the gently-oozing wound. Annoyed, JD reached up and pushed Buck's hand away, replacing it and the pressure with his own.
He had a thumping headache, felt sick as a dog and he wasn't convinced by Buck's soft-soaping tone. JD was only convinced by the feeling of dread that had settled heavy as stone in his gut and which had nothing to do with his split face.
"Drink this, dang it." Buck's tone was a little less soft again now, like he was losing his composure.
JD let one mouthful in, then he pushed it away, leaned around the side of Buck once more.
His eyes lit on a lone figure propped against a hay-bale at the other side of the yard. It was Ezra, draped in a blanket, staring at nothing. He looked wretched. There was something frozen about him, unspeakably lost. JD's eyes turned to Buck in accusation.
Buck opened his mouth, struggled for words, shut his mouth again. His shoulders shrugged in a slump of weariness and defeat.
"It's done, it's over," Buck said.
JD's stomach rolled.
Twenty Four Hours Earlier
They arrived out of the hills and into Sharpeville same time as the afternoon mail coach. Encouraging their listless horses to one side of the trail, they sat and watched it tear past them, a frantic momentum of spinning wheels and flying dust. While toiling along the street into the center of town they saw it offload the pouches outside the telegraph office and then turn right around and career out again, like there was nothing on earth to keep it there.
"You sure about this?"
Vin's tone was dry, almost amused. He was the only one of the seven of them not about ready to fall out of the saddle and sleep where he landed.
Chris wasn't amused at all. Not a bit of it.
Sharpeville was nothing like Four Corners. That was plain from the moment the first buildings came in sight. Became plainer with each yard. Although good-sized, and built with a plan in mind, it looked like one of those towns with nothing going for it anymore. Something, somehow, had gone badly wrong. There was no burgeoning community here. No soft edges and splashes of color. No school or newspaper or bath-house. Seemed there was nothing to learn or enjoy in Sharpeville.
Place was downright gloomy. The streets were windblown and mostly bereft of more cheerful forms of life, save for the one small saloon from which came the sound of a lot of voices but no music. Kind of town with a lonely-looking Marshal's office set between vacant lots. Kind of town with a crib of tumbledown shanties at its outer reaches, away from plain view and full of girls in stained petticoats and corsets. About the only reason anyone might visit the place.
An oncoming storm rattled loose windows, sent clouds of grit skittering from one side of the street to the other. The sky above was slate-colored, bore down on them. Three days' ride from home, at least, and not even Vin wanted to camp out tonight. Sharpeville was the only other option.
"Just tonight, boys," Chris told them. They came to a halt at a row of hitching rails, eyed the peeling facades all along the street.
Chris, liking this town less and less the longer he looked at it, located the gunsmith's for oil and ammunition. Then he and JD went to find them all accommodation, dispatching the others to make themselves useful along the way.
Buck and Vin took charge of the horses and found the Livery under the charge of two old men who weren't pleased to see them, being more intent on arguing with each other. Ezra lounged about next door at the saddler waiting for his stirrup leathers to be re-stitched. Josiah and Nathan visited the dingy-looking Mercantile for what they hoped would be a last load of supplies before the roofs of Four Corners came into view. What they needed was to stock up on basics that wouldn't overload the packs - coffee, bacon, beef jerky, beans and hard tack. Cheap and traditional fare. The Sharpeville Mercantile didn't run much beyond basics so there would be no tough economic decisions to make. Last town they'd stopped, the General Store had displayed fresh bread in a big basket at the door. JD and Buck still hadn't gotten over the wonder of it, and the regret that they couldn't spare the money to purchase any.
"Well," said the clerk of the Hotel, looking at his empty register when JD came in to enquire, Chris trailing behind him, tired and quiet. "I do have a room. Yes. Cost ya two dollars and we'll feed ya for an extra dollar fifty. Fit four of you gents in there. Girls not allowed. You want girls, you go look for 'em on the Row. That's the best I can do."
"Nope, but we only got beds in that room."
Chris let JD tell everyone this news, allowed the ensuing conversation to wash over him like dust. Whatever the arguments at this stage, he already knew what would happen. Buck, JD, Nathan and Josiah would take the room. He and Vin would sleep undercover somewhere that smelled of horse and damp hay. Ezra would defy exhaustion and attempt to stay up all night in the saloon if he didn't get thrown out.
"Need to eat," Chris said when all the opinions and negotiations were out the way.
The hotel kitchen fed them as agreed, although if the standard of cooking was any measure of the hygiene and comfort of the beds, then it was Chris and Vin who'd be getting the good deal. Whether they'd just eaten goat, leather or centuries-old rooster wasn't clear.
"Need a drink," Chris said when he pushed his plate away.
Barkeep seemed overwhelmed when seven men carrying enough arms to start a small range-war came trudging into the nameless saloon. By the look on his face, he wasn't too enamored of the man in the gray shirt and long black duster who led them in, either. There was already an unwelcome crowd intimidating the regular patrons by their sheer number and demeanor, and then in the blink of an eye the place was full to the rafters and the atmosphere had become somewhat febrile.
"Whiskey. Seven glasses."
Chris thought it seemed pretty clear, even if he hadn't spoken. The barkeep almost hesitated but then obliged, looking flustered. He pushed over a bottle of Old Nash, color of hazelnuts and full to the top of the label, cork already removed. Lifted down seven glasses from a dusty shelf, one by one, and put them on the bar. Chris paid with a pocketful of coins, picked up the bottle and all seven glasses at the same time.
He dumped them with a clatter on one of two tables the others had pushed together in the corner. Sitting slowly in the seat that Vin shoved towards him with a boot, he watched Buck right the ones which had fallen and then pour. When all the glasses were full, Chris leaned forward. There was a raw expectancy in the air. Their journey, today and in the whole five months of their association, had been such that they were all ready for a toast. To something.
And they looked to him to provide it. Chris quirked a one-sided smile at the center of the table. Not even Sarah, in all her clear-sighted wisdom, would've pegged him for a leader of men.
"Boys," he said, although he knew he already had their attention. "To a safe way home."
The seven glasses chinked without a spill. Chris, Josiah and Ezra tipped back their shots in one, with Ezra seamlessly snagging the bottle for a refill before the liquor was hardly down his throat, flashing an aggravating smile at Chris soon as the glass left his lips. The others swallowed theirs in two gulps. Chris settled in the chair once more, crossed his arms, let the whiskey heat infuse in his chest and stomach, ran his tongue over his teeth.
The saloon in Sharpeville was Spartan to say the least, only a small improvement on some of the tents and lean-to's Chris had been unwise enough to stagger through in the last few years. There was a scratched, un-used upright piano in one corner masquerading as a pot-stand. The stool in front of it was piled with yellowed newspapers and hats. Dusty iron lamps on the ceiling swung gently in a draught. A film of fine sand crunched underfoot and JD had found himself a chair with one uneven leg.
Thank God they were all too tired to care.
Chris put his hand out towards the table and Vin slid a full glass towards him.
Too tired to speak.
After a while, the whiskey did its job. Buck and JD began to bother one another about something. Nathan and Josiah watched Ezra's trail-stiffened fingers loosen around a deck of cards. He wasn't looking to play, just to flip, and that was always entertaining.
Another large group didn't stop glancing over at them. Kept on drinking and smoking, cozying up to pair of grubby-looking percentage girls who were sitting on a table in their midst. Chris didn't like the look of them and he understood that Vin didn't either. But there was whiskey, and the seven of them needed to sit here together and drink it. They all seemed to feel that.
Until exhaustion and homesickness caught up to them, it had been a good trail. A neat job and Nathan's skills not required. They'd worked together like the well-oiled parts of a trusty machine. Chris had caught himself on more than one occasion feeling what he supposed was pride in the puzzling group of hopeless cases which had somehow fallen under his dominion. Hadn't stopped the usual verbal spats and fuss, mind. Hadn't stopped him worrying, either, about how Judge Travis and a temporary deputy would fare keeping the peace back home. They'd wired Four Corners with word of a job well done, waited for a response.
Good STOP All quiet STOP Hon O Travis
So, town hadn't gone to hell in a handcart then. Chris still wanted to get back soon as they could. Out of this place, where he couldn't be sure what might happen next.
It both amused and bothered him that the rest of his boys, Vin excepted, seemed oblivious of much beyond their table. They didn't look, they didn't seem interested. The odd atmosphere rolling off the dozen men at the bar wasn't attracting their attention even a little.
Too tired to care. Too glad to just be sitting here.
After a while, Vin tipped his chin. Chris went into an elbow lean to catch his words.
"I think I know him." Vin's eyes had strayed towards the bar and then back.
"Feller in the frock coat."
Chris glanced over, casual. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. And you ain't gonna like it. That there's Matt Bracken."
Chris shut one eye. "Should I know that name?"
"Reckon you should. Things he's wanted for'd give you nightmares."
Chris kept his eye shut for a while while the name rolled around in his head, then he opened it again. "Mattie Bracken ... Mad Dog Mattie Bracken?"
Vin's face lit up with the pleasure of shared knowledge. "You got it."
Chris looked over at the man. "Hell, Vin. Not our town. Not our problem."
"My thoughts too, cowboy. On our way home. Don't need the trouble."
Chris kept his eyes on the group. Nine or ten of them. Maybe more. "They all runnin' with Bracken?"
Vin shrugged. "Looks that way."
Chris was quiet.
Bracken ... yup, once you'd seen him, he figured you wouldn't forget. He was tall and strong, oddly handsome at first glance, dressed in neat pants and a frock-coat the color of tobacco. His features were sharp and smooth, hair a thatch of gray and black tied at the nape of his neck in a tail. He had black eyebrows and un-nerving bright eyes that stared instead of looked.
All the tales and crimes associated with Mad Dog Mattie Bracken trickled through Chris's brain like so much salt water, almost made him flinch at the sting.
Murder, rape, kidnap... butchery, sodomy, assault.
Hell no. Do not need the trouble.
"Beer," he heard Buck say.
Ezra was on his feet, wielding the empty bottle of Old Nash. "Gentlemen?"
"No need to turn this into a party, Buck," Chris said, pulling his attention reluctantly from Bracken and back to his boys, who he should have realized wouldn't stay quiet for long.
"One beer don't make a party." Buck sounded sour as vinegar. Chris knew that when he was weary enough, Buck would always let his guard down. Far as he was concerned, the week-long stage escort job was finished and he saw no reason not to relax. There was no helpful server, man or woman, to respond to his thirst, so Buck made a glass-tipping motion across the table.
"By all means." Ezra, several shots of Old Nash ahead of anyone else, was already hauling JD up by the elbow. His dark olive jacket was layered in trail-dust and dirt, the visible cuffs of his shirt now more gray than white and there was a rip across his vest from an encounter with a tree branch. Nevertheless, he didn't look like he belonged here at all. His very mannerisms, blunted as they were by weariness and long hours in the saddle, were enough to attract attention, before he even opened his mouth.
Chris moved his chair back so he could get a clear view. He saw Vin do the same thing. They watched JD and Ezra belly up to the bar.
A couple of the men moved aside, accommodating enough. One was even taller than Bracken, bull-necked, muscular and wide as a house. Another was maybe half Mexican, sallow-skinned and smoking a thick, stubby cigar. JD acknowledged them. Ezra too. Vin and Chris exchanged a look.
Nice and polite, boys, that's the way.
Bracken leaned sideways to get a look at the newcomers. He didn't say anything, but he looked long. Chris could see him taking in every inch of the two with fixed, unblinking eyes that traveled slowly up and down JD, examined Ezra from his boots to his hair. JD didn't seem to notice, just went on prattling to get the attention of the barkeep. Ezra shifted in discomfort, feeling the gaze. It didn't surprise Chris that he turned slightly, gave a quick glance at the gun hanging on the hip of the nearest man.
Vin caught Chris's eye again just as Bracken pushed himself up from his position at the end of the bar and moved casually towards JD.
"Hell, what's a man gotta do to get a beer around here, huh?" Bracken said, his voice carrying right across the saloon. He clapped a hand on the back of JD's shoulder, pinched a handful of muscle.
"I think this fine youngster would like to be served," added the sallow-faced man in a thick accent, nudging JD and winking. JD moved and Ezra took a step down the bar to give him room. Since Matt Bracken still had a hand to his shoulder, JD couldn't take much advantage. Chris saw him give a slight shrug to get free. Several thoughts went through his head.
Stay calm, kid.
Buck, don't look up.
Keep ya mouth shut, Ezra.
Ezra turned around, let his gun-belt and holster peek from his jacket, settled his right arm loosely in front of him. Bracken let his eyes stray to Ezra's side-arm. He clapped JD on the back again, removed the hand with a grin.
"See, youngster, all it needs is your nice smile and Timmy here'll do whatever you ask."
Bracken's shoulders shook in a silent laugh. Two beers and a second bottle of Old Nash about half-full had been plumped down in front of JD by Timmy the barkeep. Bracken was still standing right behind, close enough that JD couldn't move. Ezra twisted behind him to pick up the bottle, slap down some coinage. He faced outwards again, pushed up from the bar. The stance was fluid, the side-gun still visible. He and JD both looked slight and insubstantial compared to Bracken and the big lug next to him. Ezra was dripping his own brand of entirely-convincing confidence, though. Enough to earn him a fat lip. Or some grudging respect.
"Our compatriots are thirsty," he said directly to Bracken. "So if you gentlemen would be kind enough to excuse us?" His accent rang clear and true, told everyone within earshot he hailed from deep south. Ezra could put a cap on it if he wanted, and he plainly didn't want.
Bracken took a half step backwards, freeing JD just enough to sidle past him, the two beer mugs slopping in his nervousness. Ezra made a move to follow, found his way blocked.
"Just wonderin'," Bracken said. "What a downright fancy gent like yourself's doin' in a tin-pot shit-hole like this?"
"Merely passing through."
"And your fine boy?"
Ezra's face betrayed nothing. His body language betrayed nothing. His eyes were blank and cool, non-reactive.
"Is his own man, suh."
Bracken moved his head, kept his eyes on Ezra, like he couldn't drag them away. Then he leaned in, keeping his head to one side. Spoke low, so low that Chris couldn't make out what he said. There was the merest stiffening of Ezra's shoulders in reaction, nothing more. The lack of anything else seemed to perplex Bracken, made him lean away. Then Ezra nudged JD with an elbow to make him keep moving, back towards the relative safety of their corner.
"Everything all right?" Chris said as soon as JD, flushed to his hairline, set down the beers and slid into his seat.
"'m OK," JD mumbled.
The cool look vanished from Ezra's eyes when he heard the question. A familiar, slightly-embarrassed grin settled on his face.
"Nothing to alarm you, Mr. Larabee."
"What'd he say?" Chris pursued.
Ezra, still with enough wits about him to be well-mannered, filled all the glasses in turn before he supplied his own. "Oh he disparaged me, as you might expect."
"What'd he say?" Chris wasn't quite sure why he was so desperate to know. Something about the way Ezra had reacted made him uneasy.
Ezra's grin faded and he looked stubborn instead. "It is not worth repetition. His words were vile, I can assure you, but they were just words."
What, Ezra? What?
"You know who that is?"
Chris bit down on his frustration. "That's Mattie Bracken."
Buck popped out of his beer mug. "Mattie Bracken?" he echoed, keeping his voice down. "Mad Dog Mattie Bracken? How'd you know?"
"Vin recognized him."
Ezra looked unimpressed. "And who, may I ask, is this canine celebrity?"
"No, you may not ask, not in here, not right now." Chris was terse. "You all just need to know that he's not our problem and we're leaving at first light."
"Well Amen to that, brother," Josiah murmured. "This town is not our kind of town."
"The beer is shit," Buck agreed.
"And the whisky's watered down," Chris said. "So if you boys have had enough, I think it's time we hit the hay."
Ezra looked thoughtfully at the quarter-bottle of Old Nash.
"You're not takin' that to bed with you," Chris warned him.
"If you remember, I do not at present have a bed."
"Hell, take my spot. I'll bunk down with Chris and Vin." Buck polished off his beer, wiped his moustache. Yes, he was weary all right.
"That means sleeping on a flea-ridden mattress with Mr. Dunne." As sure as death, Ezra would always find grounds for complaint.
"You've had worse breaks," Nathan stated, rising to his feet.
"'sides," added Vin, "you won't get any sleep, not with Josiah in there snorin' fit to shake the walls." He smirked as he said it, made the others grin in recognition of dire nights with their fingers in their ears, and it broke the tension a little.
Their departure was attracting attention. Bracken's group made sure they all turned around to give Larabee and his men an audience on their way out of the saloon. They were starting to spread themselves around the place now, taking over tables. They weren't drunk, but there was something off-balance in their gait and something over-heated in their eyes. Without saying a word, Chris and Vin positioned themselves like a pair of sheep-dogs either side of JD and Ezra, though it didn't stop Bracken moving so he could keep them in his sight.
"What's their problem?" Buck seemed suddenly more awake. "And what's your problem?" he added, looking askance at JD who was pulling his hat brim down low over his eyes.
"Just keep walking."
A whiskered, bald-pated gent sitting right by the batwings watched them all the way out, too. He came pattering after them down the steps to the street, said to Chris, "You're doin' the right thing by leavin'. Don't want to give 'em a chance to start somethin'."
Chris stopped momentarily. "You know who they are?"
"You kiddin' me, mister? We call 'em the Dogs. Always sniffin' around pissin' on things." The man went up on his toes, peered back through the batwings. "Nando Camino with the cheroot, Matt Bracken in the coat, Link Chain the big feller. Them and their pack've bin coming and going a coupla months now. Hell yeah. They're bad boys - need endin'."
"Marshal know they're here tonight?" Vin asked.
"Marshal knows. He ain't stupid enough to take 'em on." The man gave Chris a sudden up-and-down look, brightened a little. "You stupid enough?"
"Nah we're not stupid enough."
"Well which way you headed? Cos Camino's got 'em camped out at the old water-mill north of town."
"South," Chris said.
The bald-pated gent looked sly, glanced back up the steps at the saloon. Then he shrugged. "Prob'ly time I was gettin' home."
Chris watched the man trotting off down the street. A part of him felt bad, because hell ... this town needed a leg up. Most of him, though, just didn't need the trouble. He needed to get his boys home safe and sound. Nevertheless, eyes still trained on the figure disappearing into the gloom, he hesitated. The others were yawning at his back, waiting, more than a little pissed that their leader couldn't seem to let this thing go ... whatever this thing was.
He swung around to them.
"What'd Bracken say to you, Ezra? He threaten you?"
Ezra didn't answer.
"He threaten JD?"
Ezra slouched on his hip, looked pointedly towards the hotel like he was waiting for something to finish before he could be on his way.
"You're gonna tell me in the end, Ezra. Might as well make it easy."
"Like I said, Mr. Larabee, it doesn't bear repetition. That's all you need to know. And now, can we please be dismissed? I believe you said something about leaving at first light?"
Chris felt a nudge in his back. It was Vin, telling him to drop it.