Hard Choices
DarkSkies & Outrider

Neil Cahill was crazy.  There was no other way to describe him.

Vin scrabbled a little higher on the roof, peering into the shadow of the sidewalk opposite to see if he could get off a shot.  No good.  He’d have to move a little higher.

Wedging himself against the rough planking at the apex of the roof, he squatted down, keen eyes scanning the street.  No movement after the last flurry of action, just the bodies lying where they’d fallen.  Two men.  Cahill’s brothers.  They’d died trying to stop Lizzie Cahill as she’d run frantically from the hotel, her daughter clutched in her arms.  JD had been beside her trying to shield the pair from the fusillade of bullets, both guns drawn but not firing. He’d been ordered to get the innocents off the street and out of danger, not to take on the enraged Neil Cahill and his brothers.

Chris had managed to kill one of the Cahills and Buck the other, while JD shepherded his charges down an alley heading for Josiah’s church with Ezra providing covering fire from a narrow alleyway beside the saloon.  But before JD reached the sanctuary, the shooting stopped.  As Vin climbed the roof as fast as he could, he could see JD pushing the woman and her child into the church and underneath Josiah’s sheltering arm.  Josiah kept his rifle aimed toward the hotel as he backed into the church, Lizzie and the little girl already safe behind him and JD bringing up the rear.

But where were Chris and Buck?

Vin dug his heels into the shingles to keep from slipping and wiped his forehead with the back of one hand.  His keen eye worked to penetrate the shadows of the covered porch that protected the entrance of the hotel.  If things had gone according to plan Chris and Buck would be hauling Cahill through the front door at any moment.

But when did anything ever go according to plan?

When Neil Cahill had ridden into town, his brothers in loose formation behind him, the Seven had taken notice.  Everyone knew about Lizzie’s troubles with Neil.  Owners of a small ranch just outside of town, they’d hit a spell of bad luck.  The well went dry, their prize bull had been struck by lightning during a storm and disease had taken their best milk cow.  Neil began to take his frustration out on his wife and Lizzie changed overnight from a bright, vivacious chatterbox to a meek, withdrawn woman.  She often wore her hair draped over her face in a vain attempt to hide the bruises when she came to town for the monthly supplies.

People were too polite to mention her condition and too concerned about Neil’s temper to offer any help.  It was when Lizzie turned up in Nathan’s clinic begging for some medicine for Susannah that the real trouble started. Neil didn’t want charity, even if it meant risking his daughter’s life.  They couldn’t afford the medicine Nathan was offering, therefore Susannah wouldn’t be having any.  He was hauling Lizzie and Susannah back to their wagon, Lizzie fighting him every step of the way when Buck Wilmington fired his gun into the air.

“Leave her be, Neil,” he cautioned. He cocked his head and winked.  “Why don’t you come on over to the saloon with me and we’ll have a drink while Nathan sees to Susannah.”

Buck didn’t need to turn his head to know Chris Larabee stood silently at his back, while Vin Tanner leaned nonchalantly against the hitching post on the sidewalk below Nathan’s clinic.  Ezra moseyed out of the saloon and propped a gleaming boot up on an overturned bucket, never taking his eyes from Cahill.  Josiah was already hurrying down the street from his church, as the Seven moved to support one of their own.

“I ain’t goin’ nowhere with you, Wilmington.”  Neil spat into the dust at Buck’s feet.  “I’m takin’ my wife and daughter home.  That’s my right and ain’t no one gonna stop me.”

Buck smiled, but his eyes were fierce.  “Oh, I’ll stop you.” The words were almost a croon they were so softly spoken.  “Now let’s avoid all this trouble and jest go get us a drink, okay?”

In response, Neil spat again, and yanked on Lizzie’s arm.  “Git in the wagon, woman.  Cahills don’t take charity from nobody.”

Lizzie dug her heels in, tears streaking down her cheeks, one pale, the other darkened by the livid purple of a bruise.  “Susannah’s sick, Neil.  We need help.  I ain’t gonna let my daughter die because you’re too proud to ask.”

Cahill’s fist flashed through the air, catching his wife on the jaw.  She dropped like a stone, Susannah going down with her in a tangled heap.  Buck leaped forward in one smooth motion and smashed his own fist into Cahill’s face.  Blood spurted from Cahill’s nose, and the man screamed in a mixture of pain and fury.

Vin helped Nathan untangle Susannah from her mother, and the healer lifted the woman into his arms.  He headed for the stairs with Vin guarding his back.  Chris leaned down and scooped up the child, following the trio up to Nathan’s clinic.  Buck took a firm grip on Cahill’s arm, grunting with the effort of lifting the man, who towered several inches over Buck’s substantial height.

“I suggest you git on home now, Cahill.  Lizzie and Susannah’ll be stayin’ here awhile.  If you know what’s good for you, you won’t show your face in town for quite a spell.”  Buck pushed the man up onto the seat of his wagon, thrust the reins in the man’s unresponsive hands, and then waited.  Ezra had his weapon trained on Cahill, and Josiah’s looming bulk added its own form of persuasion.  When Cahill simply sat, blood still flowing from his broken nose, Buck reached for the reins himself.  He set the horses in motion, and danced nimbly back out of the way as the wagon jolted forward.  They all knew Neil Cahill would be back. It was just a question of time.

Cahill stewed at his ranch for a week before he rounded up his brothers and headed for Four Corners.  Someone must have told him Lizzie and Susannah had been set up with a room in the hotel because he headed straight there.  Before anyone had time to react, he was pounding on the door, shouting for her to pack up and git to the wagon.  One brother stayed with the horses, his gun cocked and ready, one kept the gaping townsfolk at bay in the lobby, while a third and fourth guarded Neil’s back as he broke down Lizzie’s door.

Chris Larabee dispersed his men with terse commands, issued over his shoulder as they moved toward the ruckus at the hotel.  Vin split off for the high ground without waiting to be told, beginning the ascent to the roof with practiced ease, Josiah headed back to set up a safe haven in his church, while Nathan took the stairs back to his clinic.  From there he could get his medical supplies ready and command a view of the street with his rifle.

Chris, Buck and JD approached the hotel, with JD snaking back through the kitchen and Buck heading for a rear entrance while Chris brazenly strolled down the center of the dusty main street.

The Cahill guarding the horses took one look at the menacing figure in black advancing toward him and lost his nerve.  In a panic, he leveled his gun at Chris’s chest, but before he could squeeze the trigger he was going down.  Chris had drawn and fired without even breaking his stride.  The frightened horses bolted, flying down the street with the empty Cahill wagon bouncing and swaying drunkenly behind them.  Chris didn’t even glance down at the sprawled body as he headed for the hotel entrance.

His boot had no sooner hit the steps leading up to the planked sidewalk, when a second Cahill staggered out, clutching at his stomach, blood spurting between his fingers with every beat of his faltering heart.  Chris stepped aside as the man stumbled and fell, first to his knees, and then to his back, the pulsing blood slowing along with his heart. Chris saw Buck in the lobby and knew he’d eliminated one more of their adversaries.

The echo of gunfire faded and Cahill’s shouts mixed with Lizzie’s screams.  Her door had given way to his assault and he was apparently intent on dragging her bodily from the hotel.  JD charged in from the kitchen, his guns drawn, eyes intent on the stairs.  Buck reached out and snagged his arm as the boy ran past.

“Hold on there, son.  You go runnin’ up those stairs and you’ll be deader’n a beaver hat.  Can’t you see they’ve got themselves covered up there?”  Buck’s anger was plain in his voice, and JD flushed.

“He’s hurtin’ Lizzie, Buck.  We’ve gotta do something,” JD countered, but he checked his headlong rush for the stairs.

“JD, head over to the dining room and be prepared to get Lizzie and the girl out of here.  Buck and I’ll take on the Cahills.  We’ll distract them long enough for you to get moving.”  Chris’s voice was quiet, his eyes flat.  “Take ‘em over to the church and stay with Josiah.  Don’t let anyone in there, understand?”

JD nodded and scurried to secrete himself behind the entrance to the dining room.  Chris jerked his chin to one side of the room, and Buck smoothly moved in that direction.  No need for words between them.  They’d worked together long enough to know what the other wanted.

For a moment it was calm, and then the Cahills descended the stairs, first one of the brothers and then Neil dragging Lizzie, with Susannah in her arms, followed closely by the youngest Cahill.

Chris and Buck held their fire, afraid of hitting the woman or her child, but the Cahills didn’t hesitate.  Their guns were up and spitting death.  Chris snapped off a volley of shots that set Neil dancing, loosening his grip on Lizzie’s arm.  With a shrill cry, she jerked away from him.  She took off in a dead run, uncaring where she was going, as long it was away from the man she’d called husband for five years.

Chris saw JD get her attention and pull her and the child toward the kitchen.  Buck launched a pattern of fire designed to distract the Cahills, and Chris followed suit from his side of the room.  One of the brothers went down, clutching a bleeding wound in his shoulder, but before Chris could press the advantage he felt a searing pain in his head and all went black.

Buck had been edging toward the rear of the room, expecting Chris to be moving toward the front.  They needed to draw the Cahills out into the street where Vin and Nathan could give them added firepower from the higher elevations.  He was almost to the door when he saw Chris go down.  Without a second’s hesitation Buck launched himself toward the fallen man only to pull up short as Neil Cahill trained his gun at Chris’s head.

“Drop your gun, Wilmington, or I’ll blow his head off.”  Neil’s voice was ragged, husky with drink and rage.  His eyes were red-rimmed and crazed and Buck knew he wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

With elaborate slowness, Buck placed his gun on the floor and kicked it out of reach with his foot.  “Put your gun away, Cahill,” he said quietly.  “You’ve got the advantage now.”

Cahill laughed, a cold mirthless chuckle, and gestured toward his brothers, one standing with his gun aimed at Buck’s chest, the other struggling to his feet, one hand clamped to a bleeding upper arm.  “Yer right about that.  I hold all the cards now.”  He kicked at Chris’s still form.  “But I don’t think I’ll be puttin’ my gun away jest yet.  We got business to take care of.”


Vin waited, senses heightened, his brow creased with worry.  It was too quiet in the hotel.  What were Chris and Buck doing in there?  He glanced in Nathan’s direction and nodded silent approval when he saw the other man poised for action, rifle at the ready.

Booted feet sounded, and a flurry of motion brought Vin’s attention back to the hotel entrance.  He strained to see what was happening, cursing whoever had decided the hotel needed such a deep front porch. And then he saw one of Cahill’s brother appear, dragging something along the rough planks.

Vin’s breath quickened when he realized Cahill was hauling Chris Larabee onto the porch.  His finger tightened on the trigger of his gun, and he stifled another curse when the brother stepped back out of his line of sight.

Chris didn’t move, his crumpled body sprawled in a limp heap, an ominous dark stain spreading from a deep gash at his hairline.

”Vin?” Nathan shouted, his face showing a struggle.  He’d been ordered to hold the high ground from a position in front of the clinic, but his healer’s instincts were crying out for him to go to Chris’s aid.

Vin spared a glance in Nathan’s direction.  He gave a curt negative shake of the head and Nathan stood fast.  Vin knew how Nathan felt. He, too, wanted to go to Chris’s side.

More movement, and Buck stumbled into view, hands tied behind his back and a gun held to his head. “Ah hell, Bucklin.”  Vin’s curse wasn’t muffled this time. “Great.  Just great.”

Buck’s eyes tracked to Vin’s perch and then down to Chris.  His shoulders slumped in defeat, and even from his rooftop position Vin could see a black eye forming on Buck’s face.  Neil Cahill obviously held a grudge and didn’t appear to be above hitting a defenseless man.

“Tanner!” Cahill’s voice came from behind Buck.  He was in the shadows and using Buck as a shield.  “We’re gonna parley.  I got some things I want.”

Vin’s eyes narrowed as anger washed through him.  He took a moment to push it aside. He needed to keep a clear head.  “I reckon you need to let Nathan take a look at Larabee.  Then you can tell me what you want,” Vin called back.

Cahill laughed, a wild cackle tinged with hysteria.  “Ain’t nobody touching Larabee.  Not ‘til I get what I need.”

Without warning, Cahill’s gunhand emerged.  He took quick aim at Chris’s body and pulled the trigger.  Chris jerked as the bullet impacted and Vin’s gut twisted.

“Jesus, Cahill,” Vin shouted.  “There’s no call t’be shootin’ anyone.  We ain’t even heard what ya wanted yet.”

“I want my wife an’ daughter.” Cahill’s shouted.  “An’ a wagon with two good horses.  My brothers’ll need horses too.  Soon’s that’s brought t’me I’ll let Wilmington and Larabee go.  If I don’t get ‘em, I’ll put a bullet in Larabee every quarter hour.  When he’s dead I’ll start in on Wilmington.  Ya unnerstand me, Tanner?”

Vin understood all too well.  Cahill would kill first Chris, then Buck.  There was no way they were going to hand over Lizzie and Susannah to anyone capable of shooting a wounded man as he lay on the sidewalk.

A shot echoed through the street, and Vin stared in surprise as one of the Cahill brothers fell.  He looked over in time to see Ezra grin in satisfaction and then duck back into the alley where he’d hidden himself.  The grin disappeared quickly when Neil Cahill screamed in rage, his own gun catching the light momentarily.  And then a second shot rang out and Chris’s body jerked once more.

“Ten minutes this time, Tanner,” Cahill ranted.  “Get me my wife ‘n daughter and that wagon.  Ten minutes.  Then I kill Larabee.”

Vin swore again.  They couldn’t turn Lizzie over to Cahill.  The man would kill her too.  He wouldn’t even consider sending Susannah to him.  He scrubbed his hand over his eyes again.  What should he do?  Chris wounded, and badly.  Buck helpless and being used as a shield.  Cahill’s conditions impossible.  Shit.  Some days Vin wondered why he didn’t just get on his horse and ride away from all of this.

He signaled Nathan and Ezra to keep an eye on the brothers.  Vin would concentrate on getting a shot at Cahill.  He had no doubt the man would kill Buck and Chris without blinking an eye.  Vin wouldn’t blink either.

The moment came.  Vin reacted almost without thought, all his energy focused on killing Cahill and getting Chris and Buck to safety.  The youngest Cahill strayed into sight momentarily.  Nathan’s rifle roared once and the man went down.

At almost the same moment Vin took his shot.  He sighted instinctively, his mind filled with the vision of Cahill going down.  His fingers worked the trigger.  The bullet left the rifle and sped unerringly toward his target.

Turning back to the scene, he saw Buck sway, the big man’s eyes drifting downward questioningly.  A grotesque flower grew on Buck’s shirt.  Deep scarlet stained the soft linen.  And then Buck fell too, toppling slowly.  His eyes caught Vin’s, and held there, until at last they drifted shut, and Vin found he could move once more.  With a cry, he slid down the roof toward his friends.


Vin hovered at the entrance to Nathan’s clinic.  His eyes darted between Chris in one bed and Buck in the other.  He watched as Nathan sponged the sweat from Chris’s forehead and then wrung his cloth out in a basin of cool water.

Nathan glanced up at him impatiently.  “You in or out, Vin?  If you’re in, you c’n make yourself useful and get Buck some a’that broth Mrs. Potter brought up.”

Vin edged into the room, and scooped up a bowl of broth.  He approached the bed and perched on the wooden chair Nathan had set beside the wounded man.  Buck’s eyes were closed, his face pale and drawn.  Vin reached tentatively toward Buck and then withdrew his hand.

He kept seeing Buck, blood staining his shirt, falling, eyes closing.  Buck dying.  “Nate?”  Vin’s voice was tinged with desperation.  “He goin’ t’be all right?”

Nathan, busy changing the dressing on one of Chris’s wounds, nodded distractedly.  “Just a minute, Vin.  Let me do this, then we’ll talk, ok?”

Vin sat back quietly.  Buck’s blood still on his hands, on his buffalo coat.  So much blood from a shoulder wound.  He’d shot Buck.

The door crashed open and JD whirled into the room.  He headed for Buck’s bedside, where he crouched down beside the cot.  “How ya feelin’, Buck?” he asked quietly.  “Ya gonna be okay?”

Buck’s eyes fluttered open and he smiled hazily at JD.  “I’m jest fine, son.  Lizzie safe?”

At JD’s nod, Buck smiled again, and then his eyes met Vin’s.

Vin ducked his head, breaking the contact.

“Vin.”  Buck’s voice was thready and weak.  He lifted a hand and patted Vin’s knee, with only a ghost of his natural vigor.

Vin couldn’t look at him.  “I’m sorry.  I had to get Cahill, Buck.  Ya understand?  I had to try for Cahill.”  He plucked at the fringes of his buffalo coat, anything to avoid looking at the man in the bed.  “I shot ya, Buck.  But it was ‘cause of Cahill.  He was gonna kill Chris, then you.”

Vin squeezed his eyes shut, seeing only blood.  Buck’s blood.  And yet, Cahill stood behind Buck on the porch.  Vin’s bullet smashed through Buck’s body and buried itself in its intended target.  As blood stained Buck’s shirt and he started to fall, Cahill jerked and stumbled backward.  Vin’s bullet had found its mark.  Cahill was dead before he hit the ground.

“He’s dead, Buck.” At last he dragged his eyes from the ground and gazed pleadingly at his friend.  “Guess he thought he was safe hidin’ behind yer shoulders, them being so broad an’ all.  But that let me get a bead on his heart.  Bullet went right through you to him.  I’m so sorry, Bucklin.   I had to chance it.  D’ya understand?”

The room was silent.  Nathan worked over Chris with a practiced skill, hushed and calm as he soothed the gunslinger’s pain.  JD, blessedly silent for once, sat listening, his eyes wide.  Vin waited tensely for Buck to say something.  Anything.  He’d deliberately shot the man in order to kill someone else.  An incredible risk.  A little lower, or a little to the right, and they’d have been burying Buck as well as Cahill.  Would Buck think the risk worth taking?

The silence grew, and Vin felt he had his answer.  He wrenched himself to his feet, only to be stopped by Buck’s whisper.  “Damn fine shootin’ Vin.  Damn fine.  Ya did good, my friend.  Ya did what ya had t’do.”

Vin stopped, a warm rush of gratitude spreading through him, and he smiled.  Buck smiled back, just once.  Then his eyes closed once more, and he drifted off to sleep.  But Vin caught his mumble just before he succumbed to the darkness.  “Damn fine shot.”

The End


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