Disclaimer is fully stated in Part One of Coercion.
There was a knock on her door and she jumped.
"Who is it?" she called crisply.
"Just a minute . . . " Quickly, Mary Travis wiped her eyes and glanced at her reflection. She looked tired, and damnit, she looked scared. She didn't want to show her fear to Chris. But she opened the door anyway. Chris took a step into the room, and, wordlessly, Mary slipped into his arms. She knew he could feel the aftermath of her sobs. Even so, she lay her head against his shoulder. They stayed that way for a long moment.
"Mary," Chris breathed into her hair. "Did he hurt you?"
"No. I'm all right." Chris backed away from her just enough to look into her eyes. He put his hands on either side of her face.
"No, you're not," he said, gently, and he held her again. She could feel the tension in his back, in his shoulders and when she let a gentle hand stroke his hair and come to rest on his neck, she felt the tension there.
"What about you?" she asked him, never releasing him from her embrace.
He didn't answer; he just held her tighter. This was all so sad, Mary thought. Chris hadn't been able to do anything to save his men. And she knew that it had infuriated him to see that man put his hands on her.
"Chris . . . " she said, finally pulling back from him. She turned her tearful eyes to him, and took his hands. "This wasn't your fault." He looked away from her, but she reached up and turned his face back toward her. Her low voice was soothing. "There were too many of them. There was no warning. You couldn't have stopped them."
She meant well, Chris thought, but he didn't deserve to be let off the hook. And he wasn't going to stick around to be comforted. "I'm going after Vin and Buck. I just wanted to make sure you were all right."
"I'm scared, but I'm fine."
Chris hesitated a moment. "Mary . . . I'm sorry."
"You couldn't have done anything." Mary smiled sadly and touched his face once more. "But you aren't gonna believe that, are you?" She held him again. "Be careful, Chris. We all need you."
Chris stepped away from her. "You're quite a woman, Mary." Mary smiled, but her eyes questioned him. His only explanation was a lopsided enigmatic grin.
They stood looking at each other. Slowly understanding. Then they looked at each other's lips. They approached haltingly, checking with eyes once more. And they fell into a kiss--slowly at first, natural and honest. It almost surged into something passionate, but they didn't let it. This wasn't the time.
There was nothing awkward about the moment after the kiss, this first kiss. They had needed each other. They had needed to be closer. They needed to be closer yet. If only they could . . .
Chris touched her face, then turned quickly and went to find JD.
Josiah and Ezra were making a thorough search of the town. If there were more explosives anywhere, they needed to find them before anyone got hurt. But they'd been blindsided at every turn. What was the chance that their adversaries would use the same tactic twice? Who knew what the hell they'd do?
Both watched sadly as the family gathered at the telegraph office to collect the body of the dead operator. Both heard the wailing of his wife and the crying of the children.
"Such a senseless waste of life," Josiah commented.
Ezra's words were crisp. "It's all senseless." The gambler watched as the undertaker arrived with the stretcher and the white cloth was pulled over Lucas Tyler's body. Ezra's gaze fell on a boy of about twelve--a boy struggling to be strong for his mother and younger brother and sisters. Ezra knew he was witnessing not only the boy's loss of his father, but of his childhood as well. "Senseless . . ." Ezra murmured again.
The heat from the midmorning sun was already oppressive. Ezra pulled off his vest and unbuttoned his shirt a little ways. Sure, he was hot, but more than that, he felt that somehow the fancy vest was presumptuous under the circumstances. It shamed him that he had made a habit out of wearing expensive clothes so he could distinguish himself from the "regular" townsfolk--townsfolk who were his neighbors, who had become his friends--townsfolk who worked day in and day out in Four Corners, only to die in the street. Senseless. His heart hurt for the telegraph clerk. Hadn't Ezra "won" $30. from the man once in a game of chance? For a moment that word repulsed him. Chance? Lucas Tyler had never had a chance. And Ezra had justified his claim on the winnings based on the man's naivete. Now he wondered how far that $30. would have gone to feed the man's family.
He was startled to feel Josiah's hand on his shoulder. "Let's check the Clarion," Josiah said. Ezra didn't respond right away. He hadn't realized that he'd been staring.
"Ok . . ."
They had settled into a pattern for checking out a building. Ezra checked the front and then started on the interior from the front. Josiah examined the perimeter and then started through the inside from the back. The fact that Ezra was gifted with the ability to notice any discrepancy in detail helped him in this detective work. He stepped up onto the porch and nodded to Josiah as the big preacher disappeared around the side of the building.
Sighing, Josiah looked for unusual groupings of footprints, bits of cloth, spent bullets-- anything that would help him track the adversaries' actions. Any clue could point the way to a trap. He had barely begun to examine the exterior when a call from the gambler halted him.
"Josiah! I've got a problem."
There wasn't a response for a moment.
"I'm coming," Josiah said.
"NO!!" Ezra's voice was high-pitched and sharp.
Josiah cautiously stepped over to a side window and peered inside. He could see a string hanging with a weight suspended from it. But he couldn't see Ezra nor the origin of the string. As he made his way over to the next window, he called back calmly to Ezra. "What do we need to do?"
Josiah could hear Ezra's wry chuckle. "I wish I knew . . ."
Cupping his hands around his eyes to block the glare, the preacher looked inside a window which was closer to the front and saw his friend standing absolutely motionless beside the hand press, a string pressing across his body. The gambler was focused on something just above eye level, but Josiah couldn't tell what it was. Josiah shifted so he could follow Ezra's gaze. And he saw it.
A shotgun with a string tied to the trigger.
Shit! "Can you tell how it1s rigged?" Josiah called, keeping his voice calm and deliberate.
"No sir. I have seen ships with less complicated rigging."
"Can I come through the front door?" As he asked, Josiah studied the space underneath the flooring of the porch. The way things had gone so far, he would leave nothing to chance.
"I haven't been able to ascertain whether or not anything is rigged for the next person coming in." It occurred to Ezra, staring down the barrel of the shotgun, that he had walked into a trap which had been set . . .
When the trigger was pulled, the bullet would hit her in the heart. But Ezra had reached the trap first, thank God. And he had already been on the lookout for trouble, so when his shoulder touched the thin cord, it hadn't pulled the trigger.
This was more than likely a hoax--another way to slow down the posse.
But then again . . .
If someone had told JD that the next adventure out with one of the seven would be to ride alongside his hero, he would have been overwhelmed with awe. He had heard of Chris Larabee before he had even met him. He had idolized the legendary gunslinger, but since JD had been riding with Chris Larabee, that boyhood idolatry had matured into a genuine respect. Under other circumstances, JD would have felt honored. Instead, he felt empty.
When had he lost consciousness? Vin Tanner woke up when the wagon he was laying in quit rolling. What was . . .? He struggled to gather his thoughts. He and Buck had been kidnapped. How long ago, though? His muscles were achy and stiff. His body hurt all over. His eye was swollen shut; his ribs ached; his jaw hurt and his gut did too. He remembered having been beaten. And he remembered Buck. God love him, Buck had tried to stop them only to get kicked in the belly-- that kick on top of a bad gunshot wound. Buck had been shot and the only doctoring he'd gotten was Vin pouring whiskey into the wound and making a pitiful bandage out of a dirty shirt. Damn. Vin knew he had to think of something. He had to get them out of here. With a mammoth effort, he pulled himself into a sitting position. That feat was not easily accomplished considering he was bound. He opened his good eye, only to find that everything around him was swimming. His head hurt. He closed his eyes and waited for the pounding in his head to ease.
Damn! Had he lost consciousness again? This time he couldn't take his time pulling his thoughts together. Hands hauled him out of the wagon and onto the hard ground. He landed heavily on his shoulder in the sandy dirt. Peering up, he realized it was dusk. How long had he been unconscious? He glanced around. Everything looked so strange. In the shadows, he couldn't see Buck. A few yards away a campfire was burning low and the glow in the faces was eerie. He let his eye linger on each face for a moment, but a harsh voice interrupted him.
"You must be wondering where your pal Wilmington is?"
The voice had emerged from directly behind him. Vin twisted around to see the stranger.
Only to discover it was no stranger.
It was Jacob Chiles.