Lou wondered at her own tension as she rode down the deeply rutted dirt road that led past Dobytown to the front gates of Fort Kearny. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t done this dozens of times in the last few years. But something was different. Or maybe it was her. Maybe she was different. She had something extra to live for this time around. Oh, it wasn’t as if she had ever been suicidal. She couldn’t be, not with Teresa, Jeremiah and later Mary Kate to care for. Knowing they needed her had kept her going so many times over the years. But now? Well, even with the recent complications, now there was an extra spark to her life. It was a spark she hadn’t even realized had been missing.
She snuck a quick glance back at the ‘body’ draped across the back of the horse following hers on a leadline. Lu caught her glance and risked a quick wink in her direction. She knew he had a pistol hidden in his hands, his finger on the trigger. But she also knew his position draped over the saddle, the saddlehorn digging into his belly, had to be one of the most uncomfortable positions in the world.
With a sigh, she turned her head forward again, taking the opportunity to scan the plains around her with an experienced eye as she did so. No sign of anyone yet. She could see the adobe buildings for which Dobytown was named on the horizon. It was just three miles after that. Only an hour to the fort.
Buck crept across the roof of a cathouse, wincing at the sounds emanating from inside. He crouched low as he moved into a position that let him see up and down the main street of Dobytown, as well as the approach from the river he knew Lou and Kid would be using.
Settling into position, he double checked his weapon, spinning the drum to ensure there was a bullet properly seated in each chamber, then snapping the whole thing shut. Patting the pouch on his hip, he assured himself he had plenty of backup ammunition.
Feeling as prepared as he could be, Buck allowed himself the luxury of peaking over the false front of the building in search of the others.
Teresa caressed the weapon in her hands as she assessed the street below her. She was crouched in the window of one of the numerous saloons that populated Dobytown. She’d paid the room’s inhabitant, a workworn saloon girl who’d long since said goodbye to the right to call herself a girl, the price of two hours company for the right to spend the rest of the morning sitting right here, undisturbed. The soiled dove snoozed contentedly on the bed behind her, letting out an occasional snort.
Teresa knew the others hoped they’d defeated Lampton’s men once and for all. She wasn’t so sure. There was something about Cole Lampton that inspired some sort of insane loyalty in his men. She’d seen it before. If there was any possible way, they’d make one last try at Louise and this was the most likely ambush point.
Catching sight of Buck’s black head popping up over the false front of the building across the street and a few doors down from her, she smiled mysteriously. She had a feeling Lou was about to retire from her current job with Uncle Sam. All she’d ever really wanted was to settle down and live a quiet life on a ranch, preferably with her Kid. Teresa wasn’t interested in quitting, though. She loved the excitement of chasing after outlaws, outsmarting them, dragging them in and shocking the knickers off cynical sheriff’s and marshal’s that a woman had done what they hadn’t been able to, or wanted to. She didn’t know how to keep doing things on her own though. A great deal of their success over the years had depended not only on subterfuge, but on teamwork. Then again, she glanced over at Buck again only to see his head disappearing back behind the false front of the building, maybe she’d found someone new to work with.
Teaspoon paced back and forth in front of a saloon toward the end of the street. He’d covertly watched both Teresa and Buck find their positions high above. Lifting what appeared to be a whiskey bottle to his lips, he took a deep drag of the day old tea in it and winced. At least the nasty taste of the tea made the drink convincing, he thought wryly to himself.
Deliberately stumbling, he ran into the next guy to step out of the saloon, who pushed him away roughly. Teaspoon fake tripped over his own feet and landed right in the chair he’d wanted to sit in anyway. It had the perfect view of the entire field of play.
“Watch where yer goin’, old man,” the roughneck grunted before continuing on his way toward the cribs at the other end of the street.
Good, Teaspoon thought to himself, lifting the bottle to his lips again. That wasn’t who he was looking for then.
“Good thin’ I found ya,” Dick mused, spitting on the ground, as he tied the bandage around Wolf’s chest. “I don’t know’s ya’d’ve survived much longer out there on yer own.”
Wolf just grunted. “All’s I wanna know is, will it hold long ‘nough ta get that tramp and her’s?”
Dick stood up and moved around to stand in front of Wolf. He nodded. “It’ll do that and more. Ya keep it clean and ya should heal up jest fine.”
Wolf reached up a hand and Dick responded to the unspoken request, helping the other man to his feet. Nodding at his compatriot, he said, “Ya always were a good doc, Dicky. Don’t know why ya didn’t hang out a shingle after the war.”
Dick shrugged as he moved over to a water basin near the window and carefully cleansed his hands. Toweling them dry, he finally said, “We fought together too long and too hard fer me ta jest abandon ya, I guess.”
“Well, I’m sure the Captain’ll be glad ta hear yer still alive and kickin’. We’ve lost too many good men recently.”
“And if we don’t get a move on, he’ll be the next,” Dick said, pointing toward the door with his chin as Wolf fastened his gunbelt securely around his hips.
The two men walked out of the room, down the stairs and out the main saloon door on a lockstep motion reminiscent of their military days. Stopping on the boardwalk, each looked in a single direction. Then, Wolf nodded to Dick, indicated he should cross the muddy strip that served as the town’s main street and head up the road a ways. Wolf began to saunter down the boardwalk on his side of the street, hand caressing the worn holster riding his hip.
Neither man took any notice of the old drunk lounging in a chair in front of the saloon, trying to suck down the remaining dregs of a bottle of rotgut.
Teaspoon watched as the two obviously military men tried futilely to appear as if their movements were aimless. Soon, they were holding up posts on both sides of the street, with a clear cross fire position down the road that passed Dobytown on its way from the river to the fort. Enfilade. That’s what they called it. It was a military term meaning when two fields of fire crossed each other deliberately to increase the deadly effectiveness of all shooters involved. It was very professionally done.
Hauling himself to his feet, Teaspoon began to make his own, much less obvious way toward the end of the street, signaling to Buck and Teresa along the way.
He could feel the tension building inside. Soon this would all be over and he could take his kids home. All of them. He couldn’t lose them now. Not after all these years. Not when he finally had them back.
“Here we go,” Lou muttered, ostensibly to herself, but in reality as a warning to Lu, who couldn’t see much more than the road disappearing beneath their horses’ hooves.
Switching the reins to her left hand, she slipped her right hand stealthily under her jacket to rest on the butt of her revolver, ready to pull it out at a moment’s notice.
“Ready or not, here we go,” she added, trying to project a calm she only partially felt. Clicking her tongue to her horse, she urged it to a faster trot. She’d avoided the higher speed so far in an effort to spare Lu the pain of being bounced unceremoniously around on the animal’s back. But now, she needed the speed too much to worry about it.
Bending low over the horse’s neck, she tried to make herself as small as possible as they approached the end of the main street in Dobytown where it crossed the river road to the fort. This was the biggest danger point. And, almost as if cued by her thoughts, shots began to ring out, whizzing over her head as she sped past.
She pulled her gun with one hand, while releasing the leadline to Lu’s horse with the other. She continued to direct her own horse with the movement of her thighs and knees. She and Lu began to fire wildly in the direction of the incoming fire as they ran the gauntlet.
Dick cursed as the supposedly dead rebel soldier suddenly sprang back to life and returning fire along with his whore. Damned Johnny Reb. Couldn’t even trust one to stay dead!
Buck’s job was to make sure there were no more men waiting in the wings that they hadn’t already identified. But that took only a matter of moments. Then his eyes moved to the window across the street where he knew Teresa was waiting. He watched her take aim at the outlaw on the boardwalk beneath him. She took one shot, then her gun jammed and flamed out in her hand. She dropped the weapon rather than suffer major burns and Buck could see her cursing even from his position.
Looking back down to street level, he noticed Teaspoon sneaking up behind one of the outlaws, his weapon drawn and cocked.
Making a sudden decision, Buck broke cover and jumped over the false front of the saloon, sliding down the sloped roof of the porch cover over the boardwalk, then grabbing the edge of the roof in both hands, he let himself dangle off the edge, over the muddy street below.
Wolf grunted in pain as each shot he fired jarred his injured shoulder. But, like the good soldier he’d once been, he didn’t let the pain slow him down. Instead, he continued to lay down fire, even as the stubborn tramp managed to evade all his bullets.
“Damned rebel whore,” he muttered as he stopped firing long enough to rapidly reload. Raising his arm once more, he took careful aim and began to slowly pull back on the trigger for a smooth shot that would send a bullet flying right between her eyes.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” a gravelly voice whispered in his ear, as the cold metal of a gun barrel pressed into the back of his neck. “You pull, I pull. And I guarant-damn-tee it you’ll die first. Now, drop it!”
“Ow,” Dick growled as the two seccesh bastards out there managed to get a bullet through and lodged it in his leg. He reached down to quickly wrap a handerkerchief around the thigh to stop the blood. Then, picked up his weapon and took aim once again.
Only, instead of squeezing off another round, instead he felt the impact of two boots in his back and was suddenly flying of the edge of the boardwalk to land face first in the muddy street.
Even as he pushed himself up on two hands, he heard the thump of someone landing hard on the boardwalk behind him and the ominous click of a trigger being cocked.
“I’d do that real slowly,” a voice growled at him. “And make sure ta keep yer hands well away from that gun.”
Seeing that both remaining gang members were under control, Teresa cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “We got ‘em. Ride on through! See ya in court!”
Hearing her sister’s shouted message, Lou raised a hand in salute.
Lu grunted and slipped his gun into its holster while trying to rearrange himself in the saddle more appropriately. Lou slowed her horse to give him a chance to get situated. When he looked settled, she grinned at him.
“Ready ta ride?”
“Lead the way,” he grinned back. Then winced slightly and rubbed a hand across the back of his head, coming away with a smear of blood.
Lou, already leaning low over her horse’s neck, never noticed as she urged it into a full on gallop. At this pace they could cover the remaining three miles in a few minutes.
Lu dug deep and urged his horse after her, despite the headache that was re-awakening at the back of his skull and his suddenly fuzzy vision.Chapter 23