A/N: Lots of thanks to my beta The Wishyles! All remaining mistakes are mine!
The Gallows Await
The small town named "Miner's Pass" had grown up where the road went through a mountain pass to the north. John Sheppard had arrived hoping to cross the pass before dark but the sun was low in the sky and night would soon fall. No matter how much he wanted to put more distance between himself and that damned fort – it was just too dangerous to go through the pass in the dark. Anyway, his horse needed rest. It was soaked in sweat, and dust from the road stuck to its black coat. And, Sheppard reluctantly admitted, he also needed a break, just a short rest.
He surveyed the scene while he rode through the town. Residential buildings were scattered around the outskirts. On the mountain slopes he made out huts, probably the quarters of underpaid miners. Riding down the main street he could see a bank, the blacksmith, the stagecoach station, a doctor who was also a barber, a general store, an undertaker. At the sight of the sheriff's office he flinched involuntarily. But the sheriff couldn't know that Sheppard was on the run. He pulled himself together and looked over the market place in the centre of which a wooden gallows had been put up. He shivered again, then led his horse to the trough in front of the saloon which doubled as a hotel. Greedily, the animal began to slurp the water, even before he hitched it to the rail.
All of his possessions were in the saddlebags which he brought into the saloon with him. The saloon seemed to be almost empty, just three guests and the staff, which suited him. It was unlikely that anybody would know him, but you could never be sure…
In a corner a dark-skinned giant sat silently in front of a half-empty glass of beer. Two miners, still black from digging coal, sat at a table and joked with a woman in a long red dress. She sat on the table and listened, obviously bored, by the workers' jokes.
"Hey, soldier!" Another woman with long blond hair and a dark-green dress approached. She studied him and his dusty uniform. "How about the two of us? A bath is included in the price."
He shook his head just slightly but the whore pressed him. "Come on, you'll enjoy it."
"Maybe later." Actually he had only two thoughts: a strong whiskey and a bed for the night. He was almost out on his feet. He headed single-mindedly for the bar, where the bartender stood reading a book. A book! How long had it been since Sheppard saw someone reading a book. With effort – reading wasn't one of his strong points – he made out "Newton".
"Is it the new Governor?"
"What?" The bartender looked up. He wore the usual white shirt with a black vest, but in addition – far less usual – a dark-blue neckerchief.
"Newton." Sheppard pointed at the book. "Is he the new Governor?"
The bartender rolled his eyes, "The new governor. This man asked me, if Newton, who just happens to be one of the greatest scientists of all time, is the new Governor."
He just was about to start a tirade when the woman in the red dress came to the counter. "Rodney, I don't care if you scare off your own clients. But you also chase away my girls' clients."
"Which clients? The big lunk over there isn't interested in your girls and the two miners don't have money."
"And what about this dapper soldier here?"
"Elizabeth, really. Look at him! He's a deserter. He won't have a single cent. With him…"
Sheppard threw some coins on the bar, "Maybe you could get me something to drink?"
Rodney counted the coins. Then nodded, "Okay, sir, what would you like to drink?"
"A whiskey, but not any of your watered down stuff."
"A top-shelf whiskey coming right up." The bartender turned towards his bottles and poured the golden liquid into a glass.
"I need a room for the night. And my horse needs to be taken care of."
Rodney put the glass on the conter. "No problem. Radek!"
From a room behind the bar came the sound of steps, then a door opened.
"What is up?"
"This guest's horse needs to be tended to. Move on, move on, don't stand around uselessly, hurry up."
Radek muttered quietly in Czech, as he went out to the horse. The miners left the saloon and Rodney cleared their table.
Sheppard drank his whiskey with slow gulps as the woman in the green dress joined him. "Well, have you changed your mind?"
"Ma'am," he drawled, "you're very attractive but not today."
Disappointed the woman turned to Elizabeth, "I'm quitting for today."
She started walking up the stairs when Rodney called to her, "Jennifer! Later on, when I close, then we could…"
"Yeah. Just knock at my door. But let me make one thing clear: the last time I had to wait a week for my money, from now on I expect to be paid in advance."
With a smile on his face the bartender dived back into his book.
As Sheppard finished his whiskey he let his gaze wander round the now almost empty saloon. The dark giant had since left the bar. Elizabeth sat at a table, her look fixed on the door, hoping for further clients.
"Not much doing around here," Sheppard said to the bartender.
"You should be here on pay day. Then the bar is packed and the men are queuing up for the girls."
"You're talking about the miners?"
"Exactly. Wanna sign on?"
Sheppard laughed, "Do I look like a mole? Tomorrow I'm heading north but right now I need sleep."
Once in his room he couldn't even be bothered to undress. He just lay on the bed and slept until the next morning.
It was the rain pattering on the window that woke him up. The sky was grey and the main street, which had been dusty and dry the previous day, was now a single muddy track. In a bad mood, he walked down the stairs and sat down at a table. "Is there any breakfast?" he shouted louder than necessary in the bartender's direction.
"What's eating you?" Rodney shrugged his shoulders. "Hmph, no matter. You can have fried eggs with beans and bacon. If you want anything else, Katie, I mean the widow Brown, bakes her own bread and grows her own vegetables…"
"I'll have breakfast here. And coffee, if you have some."
Rodney disappeared in the kitchen. When he returned with Sheppard's breakfast, he sat down and poured both men a cup of coffee.
"Thanks. But I prefer eating breakfast alone."
The bartender nodded, but didn't get up, "I just wanted to tell you that the mountain pass will be almost impassable after a downpour like we had last night. The track will be just mud and sludge. You won't get up there with your horse."
"I was afraid of that. But I have to try."
"You've deserted, haven't you? And now you think they'll catch you?"
"I'm not a deserter!" Sheppard yelled, "at least not a genuine one. I just had to get out of there."
"Hmm, that fits with my definition of a deserter." Rodney grinned.
"Do you know what happened?" The soldier was furious. "The Indians killed a white hunter. We set off on a punitive campaign, razed the whole Indian village to the ground." For a moment his hand trembled. "We didn't spare anyone. Men, women, children. All because of one single hunter who took buffalos on Indian land."
The bartender said nothing for a moment, then, "Eat your beans, before they get cold."
Sheppard inwardly cursed himself. Why couldn't he just keep his mouth shut? Why had he blurted out his story and confessed to being a deserter?
He hardly noticed Rodney putting a shot of whiskey on the table. Quietly, Sheppard said, "I didn't order one."
"This one's on the house." Rodney stood there uncertainly. "Even so, you should stay here a few days, till the pass is drier. And I'm not only saying that because I want your money. The new sheriff won't show up for several days, so you're relatively safe here."
"The new sheriff? What about the old one?"
"Sumner? He found a nice quiet spot in the cemetery. Shouldn't have started a fight with Kolya, the mine owner."
"And you won't hand me over to the authorities?"
"I'm a bartender. I serve anyone who pays. And people in prison definitely won't pay." Rodney gave an embarrassed smile.
Sheppard nodded resignedly, "Okay, I'll stay."
Elizabeth came down the stairs, "Do I smell eggs? Where did you get them from?"
"Really? I thought he wouldn't sell them to you anymore since you insulted him."
"Who said anything about buying?"
"Rodney Meredith McKay, you ought to be ashamed of yourself! And poor Radek probably had to do the dirty work!"
Elizabeth took a place at a table and one by one her girls shuffled in. Rodney and Radek were bringing them their breakfast when suddenly the door opened and a man with tousled, wet hair and a stubbly beard entered the saloon, a big, black doctor's bag in his hand. He dragged his feet to a free table.
Everybody shouted at once. "Carson!" "What happened?" "Doc!" "Hey, Doc, is everything alright?"
Rodney took Carson's bag and put it in on a chair, "Carson? Carson? What's wrong?"
"Give me a double."
The doctor swallowed the drink in one gulp. Focusing on his audience he said, "Lorne's wife was in labour. I've been out at the farm all night. It was hard going in that thunderstorm. She'd been screaming for hours and was feverish. The child wouldn't come, so I finally had to pull it out with the forceps, fearing the worst. It had just made its first scream, when I noticed that she wasn't moving. As soon as Lorne realised he attacked me with a poker. I only just made it out of there." He shook his head, "As if it had been my fault that she died."
"He'll calm down again. He knows you always try your best," Rodney tried to calm the Doctor.
"Give me another double. I can have it on credit?"
"Yeah. But just because it's you."
Several drinks later the Doctor staggered out of the saloon, supported by Radek. The girls played cards and Rodney swept the floor. Sheppard didn't fail to notice how McKay looked dreamily at Jennifer again and again.
In the afternoon, a group of men armed with rifles entered the saloon. Shocked, Sheppard noticed Marshal Caldwell was one of them. When Caldwell saw Sheppard he tipped at his brim. So Caldwell didn't know anything about Sheppard's flight. Sheppard saluted back.
At the bar Caldwell ordered beers for his men.
"Hey, boss, can't we keep those lovely ladies company?" one man asked and the other men nodded approvingly.
"Marks, we're only staying long enough to refresh the horses and pick up rations before moving on."
"How long will it take? One hour? More? We'll be away for days, maybe weeks. Wouldn't it be better for the morale if we relax for a short time?"
The marshal looked at his tired people, "Alright, you get one hour. In one hour all men are to assemble at the market place, or…"
"Yes, boss, of course, boss. Thanks."
Immediately the men surrounded Elizabeth's girls. Marshal Caldwell came to Sheppard's table and pointed at a chair, "May I…"
"Can I buy you a coffee? Hey, bartender, get the coffee over here!" Caldwell made himself at home, "So, Colonel, how did you end up in this dump?"
"I'm on leave. And you?"
Rodney poured their coffee, but spilled some as he stared jealously at Marks and Jennifer going upstairs together.
Sheppard laughed at the mishap, "In love?"
"Me? With a whore? Please!" With a red face he left the two men.
"Where were we," Caldwell said. "Oh yeah, why I'm here. Somebody abducted the daughter of the local Indian chief. Wouldn't be our business if somebody hadn't sold the redskins Winchester rifles and ammunition. Armed, they might have the nerve to start a war because of the squaw. So, either we find her and bring her back, or we find the bastard who's selling the guns."
"Who could have her?"
"Maybe some drunken cowboys who wanna have some fun? What do I know, they probably didn't know who they took."
Elizabeth came and stroked the Marshal's cheek, "Hello, Steven."
"Hello, Liz. So you still hang around this dump. Wanna… talk with me?"
Elizabeth nodded and she and Caldwell disappeared up the stairs together.
When Caldwell and his men left the town amid uproar, McKay looked after them for a long time. Then he asked Sheppard, "Is it true? Has the chief's daughter been abducted?"
"Yeah. Do you know her?"
"Not really. Her name's Teyla. Now and then I sell her tribe firewater. She's against it. She thinks it would make her people crazy. But her father appreciates a good whiskey."
The silent giant from the day before entered the saloon and took his usual seat. Without being asked Rodney brought him a mug of beer and took his payment.
"Who's that?" Sheppard asked.
"Ronon, a lumberjack. I'll bet you any money he's an escaped slave from the south. For two years he's been drinking one beer almost every evening and then leaving again. I don't know anymore. He doesn't say anything to anyone."
Radek entered the saloon, soaked with water and looking tired.
"Where've you been?" Rodney shouted at him. "I had to work the whole day in the saloon alone!"
"How tragic!" he Czech replied sarcastically.
"Don't get cheeky! Where've you been?"
"Let me sit down first." He took the seat Sheppard offered. "I was at Lorne's."
"What? The crazy guy who almost killed Carson?"
"The 'crazy guy' who had just lost his wife. I convinced him that it wasn't Carson's fault."
"Don't you think that Radek needs some warm soup?" Sheppard looked at the shivering man.
"Of course. Radek, there's some soup in the kitchen. Feel free to heat it up for youself."
Radek, sighing, was about to stand up, but Sheppard stopped him. "I'm paying for the soup. Bartender, get it here."
Perplexed, Rodney stared first at Sheppard, then at Radek. Then he stormed speechlessly into the kitchen.
"Thank you, sir," Radek said shyly.
"You're welcome. Have you worked for Mr McKay for long?" Sheppard asked curiously.
"For years. I was his assistant on the railway construction team. When he quit from there I followed him here."
"You worked on the railway? What as?"
"As I said, I was Rodney's assistant. At that time I could hardly speak English, just arrived in this country, but he noticed my abilities and got me out of the circle of unskilled labourers. He was the engineer. A real mathematical genius, I can tell you. Route planning, bridge construction, even blasting for the tunnels, he calculated all of that stuff. I was collecting the necessary information and was more or less the general dogsbody."
"And how does a railway engineer end up running a saloon? And why did you come with him? He's certainly not the ideal boss."
Radek moved restlessly back and forth on his chair. "He earned enough to start his own business. Me? I got used to him. And he pays well. Someday I'll be able to afford my own farm."
When Rodney brought the soup, Sheppard just wished "Bon appetite!" and went upstairs. He hoped the weather would brighten up, because he needed to head north, away from here, the fort and his past. The sooner he could leave, the better.
On the hallway to his room he met Elizabeth, "Well, soldier, you're already heading for bed?"
"Mmmhmm." He looked closely at Elizabeth. She seemed to be so independent and strong, so why… "Please forgive my question, but I'm wondering, why you… went upstairs with Caldwell. I thought only your girls did that."
"I've known Caldwell for years. But today we only talked. He's worried about the Indians, he needed to chat."
"Why are you running a brothel here? You could have it all, lead a respectable life."
Elizabeth laughed bitterly. "I could have it all, you say? Could I study and become a professor? Would anyone elect me mayor? Maybe governor? Or instead would I be expected to marry and bring one child after another into the world for my husband? No, I could hardly live more independently than here. I'm my own boss, have a good income, my girls trust me. I don't think I could ask more from life."
"And your relationship to the bartender?"
"Purely professional. He rents out the rooms I need. I'm not interfering with his business and he's not interfering with mine."
"And what about him and Jennifer?"
"Oh, that's so sad. He's her best client but he wants more from here. She would be happier if Ronon would show some interest in her."
"Huh." The talk wasn't improving Sheppard's mood. "Life isn't often fair. Sleep well."
"You too, soldier."
The next morning he was woken by sunshine, which cheered him up. He should be able to continue on his way in just a few more days. He needed a wash and thankfully the water in the bowl while cold was clean and the piece of soap didn't smell that bad. He stroked his stubble. No, he wouldn't shave. He would be harder to recognise with a beard.
He entered the saloon in a good mood and had the same breakfast as the previous day, asking the bartender, "Say, what do you do around here for entertainment?"
"Well, what could that be? Oh yeah, the saloon would suggest itself."
"Seriously, there has to be something else here."
"Hmm, the old ladies swear by Father Kenmore's church service, but I don't get on with bible bashers. But now, that I look at you… You could use a haircut. And my friend Carson could use the money."
"No, thanks, I'm very happy with my hair."
Sheppard ate his breakfast while looking out of the window directly across to the gallows. It didn't spoil his appetite one iota. A firing squad was waiting for him, not the rope.
"What's going on with the gallows? Is someone being strung up soon?"
McKay flinched visibly. "No. Not as far as I know, no. Sheriff Sumner had it put up, as a permanent institution. Said it would work as a deterrent." The bartender stared at the wooden scaffolding seemingly lost in thought.
After breakfast Sheppard walked through the town. But the hustle and bustle, he said to himself, must take place deep in the mines. He saw hardly any people on the streets and the shops were empty. On the way to the saloon he was almost run down by three riders on their horses. He cursed them, but they didn't appear to hear him. Back at the saloon he recognized the three horses at the trough. Angrily he entered the saloon where there were only three men and Rodney. He approached them were they sat at a table with a large whiskey bottle.
"What do you think you were doing? You almost ran me down!"
A bearded man laughed, "Oh, we almost ran him down!"
The two other men joined in the laughing.
Sheppard hit his fist on the table, "I'm damned serious!"
A red-haired man stood up, one hand on his colt, "Mind your tongue! You don't know who you're dealing with!"
"Calm down, Cowen, you too, Ladon," the third man said in a quiet voice. "He's a stranger. Come on, sit down, let me buy you a drink. We didn't mean anything."
Sheppard sat down hesitatingly. The bartender was waved over immediately and another glass ordered.
"I'm Acastus Kolya. I own the mine and because of that, the town mostly. And you are…?"
Sheppard lifted the glass and took a big gulp. "Me? A stranger, as you've already noticed. Just passing through."
Kolya studied the soldier carefully. Sheppard knew exactly what the mine owner was thinking. The man was considering whether it would be worthwhile to teach Sheppard a lesson. When he filled Sheppard's glass again with an extravagant gesture, Sheppard thought Kolya must have decided against it.
The silent giant entered the saloon; the three man looked with disapproval.
When Rodney brought the giant a mug of beer, Kolya called to him, "You're still serving this scum?"
"So? I'm serving you as well."
At once the men jumped up and Rodney realised he had made a mistake. For the time being Sheppard stayed in his seat observing. Ladon grabbed the bartender by his arm and Cowen pulled his Colt and cocked it. Until now Sheppard had not noticed the whip lying on Kolyas lap. It was unusual with three short, twisted leather straps and an elaborate handle. As Kolya picked the whip up Sheppard carefully and noiselessly cocked the hammer of his Colt.
Kolya talked to the bartender, with the same quiet voice he used with Sheppard. "McKay? I don't demand much but I expect you to show me respect. What will my men think, if even the bartender won't show me respect?"
"I'm… I'm sorry." Pale and trembling Rodney stood in front of Kolya and tried to get away from Ladon. Ladon let him go momentarily, and then grabbed his head, holding him in an unnatural and bent pose.
"I'm afraid a simple apology isn't enough." Kolya raised his hand and Sheppard jumped up.
Kolya paused and turned slowly to Sheppard, then to Ronon, who had also pulled his weapon, a hunting knife. With a glance he stopped his men from moving.
"Stranger, you certainly don't want to have me as an enemy."
"Well, under no circumstances would I want you as a friend."
"You're brave. Remarkable. The last man who opposed me is lying six feet under the ground."
Elizabeth came down the stairs, steadily but very determined. She held a small, delicately engraved Deringer pistol in her hand.
"The good Miss Weir. Go back upstairs. Leave this affair to the men."
"Oh yeah? I think you need to listen carefully. If you hurt or humiliate Rodney, he may close down the saloon and try his luck further afield. And then? Kolya, you need this saloon. You need someone who keeps your miners happy or they will leave and search for work elsewhere. And apart from that, if you touch Rodney, I'll leave this settlement as well. And my girls will go with me."
The mining boss faked a smile and let his arm drop. "You're lucky, McKay. It's not considered proper to whip somebody in the presence of a lady. But you'll be sorry if you're ever so disrespectful again. Let's go, guys!"
Kolya quickly left the saloon, followed by his men. Cowen turned around for a last time and spat chewing tobacco on the floor.
Rodney was still trembling when Elizabeth embraced him. Sheppard put away his weapon and looked at Ronon who now was drinking his beer as if nothing had happened.
After the bartender calmed down he glanced at the people around him. "Thank you. I… I think, I should stand you the next round."
When Ronon got his free drink Sheppard noticed he smiled, just for a second. Rodney sat down with a glass of water.
"No whiskey for you? I thought you'd need one more than any of us," Sheppard wondered.
"A bartender should stay away from that stuff if he doesn't want to become his own best client."
Sheppard had drunk half his glass when a strange figure with a gaunt, pale face and long hair entered the saloon. He went straight to the counter, skirting Radek who was just wiping up the tobacco.
"The usual, Todd?" Rodney said, who had composed himself again.
"Yeah. And then I need to tell you something." Suspiciously Todd looked at Sheppard. "What about him?"
"I've seen Teyla."
Immediately everyone sat up and took notice, even Ronon who normally sat in his place ignoring everyone.
"Kolya's men abducted her. She defended herself of course but didn't stand a chance against six men."
"When did it happen?"
"Four days ago."
"And you're only telling us now?" Rodney was angry.
"I had something to do out there. I'm here now."
"Where is she? Is she still alive?"
"Haven't a clue."
"What does Kolya want from her?"
Todd shrugged his shoulders.
Rodney was gesticulating wildly in Radek's direction, "You need to inform Caldwell immediately."
"No, he was here a day ago. I won't be able to catch up with him."
"How many people can we gather from around here?" Sheppard asked.
"Against Kolya? To save an Indian?" The barkeeper let his head hang in resignation.
"If she means so much to you," Todd said, "for a small expense allowance I'm in."
"Oh great, that would be one," Rodney grumbled.
"You'd also want to be part of it, wouldn't you?" Sheppard turned to McKay.
"Oh, of course, but my back…"
"Of course he comes. And me too." Radek sounded very resolute.
"Good. That's three, with me, four. So that's a start. And what about you, silent giant?"
Ronon looked up for a short moment, "Yeah. But I need a gun."
"That would be six with me," Elizabeth said.
Rodney stared at her appalled, "Oh no, no, no, that is…"
Weir interrupted him, "Don't you dare tell me this is men's business. I can shoot better than you."
Sheppard laughed, "Well, with your Deringer you won't make much difference."
"Why the Deringer? Rodney has a lot of rifles in his storage."
Quickly clearing his throat Rodney drew attention back to himself, "I think Carson would join in as well. He's an altruist."
"A what?" Sheppard asked.
"Oh why do I have to deal with uneducated people!" Rodney groaned, "it means that Carson cares about people and wouldn't let them down."
Radek nodded, "I'll get him."
"So – seven against how many?" Sheppard asked.
Rodney thought hard. "Kolya won't hide her in his house. Not as long as Caldwell is near. He's probably holding her in an abandoned mine shaft. That's what I would do at least. He won't expect an attack there, so he doesn't need many guards. We might even out-number them."
After Radek came back with Beckett, Rodney armed everyone with Winchester rifles. They made their way to the mines under the cover of darkness. The glow of a fire near one of the closed mines had made the search easier. Four men stood warming themselves around a camp fire. Todd aimed his rifle at the men.
"What are you doing?" Sheppard whispered.
"That's why we're here, isn't it?"
"And what if Teyla isn't here?"
"Doesn't matter. Kolya's men deserve it."
"We'll wait and see."
"Since when are you the boss? He pays me," Todd pointed at Rodney.
Rodney agreed with Sheppard, "Yes, we'll wait. And maybe… maybe there's another way for a rescue."
"I'll sneak up on them," Sheppard said, "maybe I'll find something out."
His experience as a scout coming to the fore, he moved almost soundlessly through the brushwood until he was close enough to understand the men. For a long time they chatted about trivialities, then, "Why aren't we allowed to touch her? I'm bored."
"The boss wants it this way."
"I don't care. I'm going to her now."
"Don't! We'll get in real trouble!"
Sheppard used the loud quarrel to get back to the others as quickly as possible. He'd only just got out, "She's here," when the first shot echoed. Todd just couldn't restrain himself.
The other group members were almost as surprised as the men in front of the mine. Quickly Sheppard and the others joined in the firing. Rodney seemed unhappy and Sheppard was pretty sure that the bartender wasn't aiming to kill.
Three men immediately fell to the ground, dead before they could shoot back. The only survivor ran towards a rifle leaning against a rock but before he could reach it a bullet from Todd's gun shredded his knee, knocking him down.
Sheppard approached carefully, but it seemed these four were the only guards.
On the ground the man with the wounded knee was writhing in agony.
"Dammit! He's still alive!" Rodney was desperate. "He's going to give us away! He will…"
Sheppard pointed at the pit, "Rodney, calm down. We need to find Teyla urgently."
With the exception of Sheppard and Todd the group ran into the pit.
Todd pointed at the wounded man, "I'll take care of him. Tell McKay that this guy bled to death, that'll be easier for him."
"Then you can't shoot him, if you want McKay to believe it."
"Don't worry, I wasn't planning on shooting him."
Sheppard started to follow the others into the pit but turned back one more time just in time to see Todd pick up a stone and smash it again and again into the head of the injured man. Todd had a bloodthirsty grimace on his face and Sheppard hardly dared turn his back on him again. Then he saw in the flickering light of the torch an Indian woman chained to the floor. McKay had already tried to break open the lock.
Sheppard hurried them up, "Come on, come on, the shots would have been heard over a long distance. We need to hurry!"
"Yeah, I know, I know. I'm going as fast as I can. What will we do with the guy out there?"
"He's had it. Bled to death."
After some skilled lock-picking the chain was removed. The Indian was nervous but she willingly let Beckett lead her out of the pit.
At the mine entrance they saw that Todd had smashed the skulls of all the men. Laconically he explained, "I was bored out here."
They sprinted to their horses and were just on the track when they heard hoofbeats. They pushed their horses till they reached the town but it seemed nobody was behind them. The imaginary pursuers probably hadn't noticed the group and ridden straight to the mine.
They entered the saloon together, except for Radek who was taking care of the horses.
"Is anyone injured?" Carson asked. Sheppard wasn't sure if he asked it because of his professionalism or because of his anxiety.
"Take a look at Teyla." Rodney pointed at an ankle, which was bloody and suppurating because of the restrains. Carson started treating without delay.
"Teyla, what did they do to you?" Rodney asked sympathetically.
"I am all right. Kolya took me as a hostage."
"One of his prospectors discovered a vein of gold on our land. Kolya desperately wants to mine it. He wanted to blackmail my father so he could have the land."
"Dammit! Kolya is a powerful enemy!"
"The ghosts are on our sides."
"Ha! Of course."
When Beckett had finished treating her, Teyla stood up carefully. "I need to go straight to my father, otherwise something terrible could happen."
"Yes." Rodney nodded in agreement. "I'll send Todd along with you to make sure that you arrive safely."
"Todd?" Sheppard didn't think that was a good idea. "I could…"
"Thank you for your offer," Teyla interrupted him, "but our scouts won't tolerate any strangers. I am quite safe with Todd."
Teyla shook hands with everyone in appreciation of their help before she mounted a horse. Elizabeth, Radek, Carson and Rodney said good-bye, even Ronon waved to her. Sheppard watched suspiciously as Todd and Teyla rode into the dark night.
"I should ride behind them, just to make sure Todd doesn't do something funny."
"Todd's alright. A bit manic, but he's reliable. And he wouldn't let the reward from Teyla's father slip away." Rodney yawned. "I don't know how you feel, but I'm dog-tired."
The small group split up and Sheppard lay exhausted on his bed. He stared at the ceiling for a long time, his thoughts on Todd's maniacal face.
The next morning Sheppard wanted to talk about the events of the previous night, but the others avoided the topic.
"Too dangerous, far too dangerous, somebody could overhear it," Radek said.
And when Kolya arrived in town in the afternoon with a group of men, Sheppard wondered for a split of a second if he should have stayed out of this affair. McKay was watching the men nervously while he pretended to clean the bar. One man dismounted from his horse onto the gallows and attached a noose to the frame. McKay almost dropped a glass in shock. The rest of the men dismounted in front of the saloon and Kolya walked in, again escorted by Cowen and Ladon. The rest of the escort stayed outside.
They approached the bar and Kolya said, "Last night there was a gunfight at one of my old mines. Four of my men died. Do you know something about that, McKay?"
He shook his head, "Mines? No, no, no, I don't roam around in mines. Too small, too dark, too dirty."
Kolya grabbed McKay by his neckerchief and pulled the bartender to him. Sheppard's hand was again on his Colt, but this time the situation looked worse than the previous day. "Listen good to me, McKay. I haven't forgotten what happened yesterday. In the future stay out of my way, if you don't want my whip to dance on your back."
Then the three men turned to Sheppard and surrounded him. He wasn't sure whether he should pull his gun or try to escape. At that moment a heavy blow to his temple rendered him unconscious.
When he woke up again, he lay on the muddy ground under the gallows. Kolya's men yelled and one kicked him in the ribs.
"You killed four of my men. You deserve the rope." Kolya stood directly above him.
"What about a trial?"
"Oh, a trial is not necessary. You made trouble yesterday, you're a stranger around here. I'm convinced that you're guilty. That's all the proof I need. Hang him!"
Two men grabbed him to drag him up. He strained to defend himself but found that his hands were bound behind his back.
"That's murder!" shouted Elizabeth who – flanked by Rodney and Radek – pointed her rifle at Kolya.
Ronon and Carson stood on the roof of the saloon, also with rifles.
"Very impressive, Miss Weir." Kolya looked around. His men held onto their weapons nervously.
"Really very impressive," Kolya continued, "but you must have noticed that my men outnumber yours."
"Of course," answered Weir with a firm voice, while, next to her, Rodney could hardly keep the barrel of his rifle still. Ostentatiously she cocked the hammer, "But as you can no doubt see, I'm aiming straight at your head. The first shot in this battle would kill you, Kolya, everything else is fate."
"You're really willing to take responsibility for a bloodbath? You disappoint me."
"You would be responsible for the bloodbath! This man here is a stranger, who'll soon move on. Is he worth it? You don't have any proof that he killed your people. Maybe the Indians did it. Have you ever thought about that?"
"Indians? At the mines? That would be a disaster!" Kolya thought hard. "But maybe you're right. Hmm, it's really hard to imagine that a white man could have made such a horrible mess of the bodies of my men." He pushed Sheppard to the ground and pointed his gun at him. "He should leave as soon as possible, otherwise he'll regret it. And you," now he pointed his gun at McKay, "should reconsider your company." Without batting an eyelid the mine owner put away his Colt. "Get the horses men, we're leaving!"
Rodney ran to Sheppard who was still lying on the soggy ground. Sheppard's head hurt. Rodney took off his neckerchief and pressed it against the oozing head wound. Sheppard's eyes began to blur. The last thing he noticed was a scar running around McKay's throat.
When he regained consciousness, he lay on his bed, surrounded by Rodney, Radek, Elizabeth and Carson.
"Great, he's awake." The doctor was extremely happy, as if he had feared the worst.
"Is… is everything alright?" Sheppard croaked.
"Yeah. They've left town. I don't think they will make trouble again over this affair. The new sheriff will arrive soon and then hopefully everything will calm down," said Elizabeth.
"They'll blame the Indians now," Sheppard objected.
"Yeah," the doctor said, "but after all they kidnapped the chief's daughter."
Sheppard sat up, "Do you know if she's alright?"
Rodney pressed him softly back, "She arrived safely. I told you that Todd is reliable."
"He needs to rest, we should leave him alone." Beckett said as he took his doctor's bag.
Elizabeth opened the door, "I'll come with you."
Before Rodney and Radek could leave, Sheppard asked, "You're the one who's selling the guns to the Indians, aren't you?"
Rodney shrugged his shoulders and answered uncertainly, "It's just business."
"Caldwell fears an Indian war."
"Maybe he's right. But I don't know if the Indians would start it without reason. With the guns they at least have the chance to fight for some rights."
"I didn't know you were a friend of the Indians."
Rodney sighed, but before he could say anything, Radek answered for him, "Rodney treats all people the same way. The same lousy way."
Sheppard smiled, "You've got attitude. I respect that."
"Come on, Radek. Our soldier here needs some rest."
"Just one other thing." And again Sheppard held them back. "I've seen the scar around your throat."
"Oh!" Radek laughed. "He was hanged."
Rodney hit the Czech in the ribs.
"What? He won't give you away."
"You were hanged? You look pretty much alive still. What happened?"
"Uh, Radek already told you that I worked for the railway. However… One time I had to check the draft plans for a bridge. I recommended several improvements which would have doubled the costs. The workers said I was being overly cautious. Management said I was just trying to make my mark. And the financial backers weren't willing to bear the costs. I threatened to hand in my notice if they wouldn't accept my changes. Instead they fired me.
"I was frustrated and angry and that night I decided to break into the safe that held all the wages. It was the least I deserved! Unfortunately they found out about it. I was able to hide the money, but they threw me in prison. The trial lasted less than fifteen minutes. I thought they wouldn't hang me as long as the money hadn't been found, but I was wrong again.
"They took me straight from the makeshift courtroom to the next tree, stood me on a box and laid the noose around me. Then they kicked away the box and the rope strangled me. The next thing I knew I was lying near a river and Radek was splashing me with water."
"I just couldn't let Rodney die!" the Czech said almost apologetically.
"Oh, I thought you were mainly after the loot."
"A bit, maybe." Radek grinned. "When they led Rodney out of the courtroom I acted as fast as I could. As a diversion, I got hold of some dynamite and blew up an arms cache. But can you imagine my horror when I saw Rodney hanging from the tree?"
Sheppard, fascinated by the story, nodded.
"I cut him down. Luckily his neck wasn't broken. I took him away and he recovered from it unscathed."
"Unscathed? What about the scar? And I couldn't speak for days!"
"That was the good side to it all."
Rodney glared at Radek, while Sheppard started to talk, "And you opened the saloon with the stolen money?"
"Stolen sounds so… so sordid. But yeah, you're right."
Elizabeth looked in the door and said in a reproachful tone, "Gentlemen, Carson said that this man need to rest."
After several days of careful nursing care Sheppard saddled his horse. It was time to continue on his way. The new sheriff would arrive at any moment and sooner or later he would get a dispatch: "John Sheppard, wanted for desertion, to be arrested and handed over to the cavalry."
He was farewelled by the people he had come to know and appreciate.
Guiding his horse over the difficult mountain pass, he gave way when two riders with an additional packhorse came towards him. The first rider was a relatively small man with short, blond hair. He wore jeans with a checked shirt and a cowboy hat. The second was dressed in an expensive dark suit. He made the futile attempt to wipe mud spots off his trousers. When he noticed Sheppard he straightened up, "Oh, hello. May I introduce myself? I am Sheriff Woolsey and that is Deputy Carter. We are heading for Miner's Pass, is this the right way?"
"Yeah, you're heading in the right direction."
Sheppard steered his horse past the two men, then he turned to them once again, "Uh, sheriff? Your predecessor built a permanent gallows. The inhabitants feel a bit nervous about it."
"Really? Thanks for the tip, Mr…?"
"Sir, I'm just a stranger on my way through."