Cowboy Paladin (part 11)
The ride back to the ranch took forever although Patience knew they were moving far faster than she had on foot. They’d stopped long enough to retrieve Elliott’s body. She didn’t ask if he was still breathing and his friends didn’t say. They paused long enough to lift him into the back of a wagon and then kept riding. Another of the Paladins rode with him, but it was too dark out for her to see what the man was doing. Maybe she should offer to help; she didn’t.
The man looked as if he knew what he was doing, and right now she was more concerned about reaching Jethro.
Josiah dropped back to ride beside her. “I’ll need you to lead us in, ma’am, since you know the area. But once we get close, I want you to drop back and stay with the wagon.”
She protested even knowing it wouldn’t do any good. “I can shoot!”
“I believe you, but Jethro wouldn’t want you to get caught up in another gunfight after all he did to get you away from our enemies. Let us do our job without having to worry about you. Once we’ve cleared the area, I promise we’ll come back for you.”
She wanted to argue, but she couldn’t put them in more danger for her own selfish reasons. “Fine, but only because I wouldn’t want Jethro to hold you responsible if I got hurt.”
He grinned at her. “Thank you for that. You might not have noticed, but the man does have a temper.”
Patience nodded and smiled back at him. “I’ve noticed all right, but he doesn’t scare me.”
“You’re one brave woman, Miss Patience.” He stood in his stirrups to look ahead. “How much farther?”
Patience took a second to get her bearings. “If there’s enough light out, you should be able to see the roof of the barn about a quarter mile past than next turn up ahead. There’s a small clearing inside a thicket just before we reach it that should be big enough to hide the wagon.”
“Good, let’s keep moving.”
His men rode in grim silence, no doubt expecting the worst when they finally reached her farm. She didn’t blame them. They all knew that Jethro had been facing overwhelming odds when she and Elliot had escaped. Rather than dwell on the things she couldn’t change, she slowed her horse down to let the wagon catch up with her.
“When you reach that big oak, we’ll turn off to the right. It will be a tight squeeze, but we should be able to reach a clearing next to a small stream.”
The driver flicked the reins and followed Patience’s lead. Within seconds the rest of the Paladins were out of sight, leaving her alone with the two Paladins and Elliott.
“I can stand guard if one of you wants to take my horse and catch up with the others.”
The two men hesitated, but then the driver set the brake and climbed down. He helped her clamber up into the bed of the wagon and then handed her a rifle.
“We’ll send word when it’s safe to come ahead.”
He rode off into the darkness. She hated being left behind, but these men were used to fighting together. She would have only interfered with that. Maybe she could do something for Elliott.
“Do you have something we could use to get some water for Elliott to drink?”
The Paladin hesitated and then shook his head. “He’s not thirsty right now.”
Which probably translated as he couldn’t drink because he was dead. “When will he be alive enough to drink again?”
Her companion gave a low laugh. “So, I’m guessing Jethro and Elliott here told you about us.”
“They didn’t want to, but they pretty much had to.” She held out her hand. “I’m Patience Kort, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Miss Kort. I’m Hiram Jones. And to answer your question, it usually takes about twenty-four hours before we, um, get thirsty again. I just started drinking again day before yesterday. That’s why they left me to guard the wagon.”
Before she could think of anything to say to that, a volley of shots rang out in the distance, followed by faint screams and furious shouting.
She held her breath and prayed for the men who were now fighting for their lives.
The Others thought Jethro was dead, and they weren’t far off. He’d passed out for a while and had no idea how long he’d been unconscious. From what he could tell, they’d tossed his body out the front door while they rampaged through Patience’s cabin, destroying everything they could. He hated them for that, knowing she’d never feel as safe in her home again.
Gathering up what little strength he could muster, Jethro slowly dragged himself off the porch toward the questionable safety of the bushes a short distance away. If he could use them as cover, he might eventually reach the barn. He’d have to figure out a way to mount one of the horses once he got that far.
Ignoring his pain and the bloody trail he was leaving in his wake, he prayed to whatever gods might be out there that Elliott had gotten Patience away without incident. Her safety was the only thing that really mattered to him right now.
The pain subsided to a slow throb as he inched forward, freezing for a minute when he heard footsteps headed his way. Once they moved past, he forced his knees and hands to start crawling forward again. When he had gone about twenty-five feet, he paused to look around. A few more steps would bring him to the end of the scant cover offered by the bushes.
He kept moving, determined to do everything he could to survive the night. If Patience brought help back—and he had every faith she would—he didn’t want to scare her by finding him dead. Hearing that he could come back from it was one thing. Seeing it happen was another.
Right before he cleared the last bush, he had to stop and catch his breath. His trip through the bushes had been a leisurely stroll compared to what he had to do next. If any of the Others spotted him up and moving, they’d come after him again.
He used the trunk of a small sapling to support himself as he dragged himself up to his feet. A new flood of blood poured out of several wounds, but there wasn’t much he could do about that right now. To his surprise, though, he still had his revolver. He checked the chamber. Three shots. Not much. Better than nothing.
Time to move out. But before he took two steps, men on horses came pounding down the narrow road that led to Patience’s farm. From this distance, he couldn’t pick out any familiar faces, but they were definitely human. That’s all that mattered. He hung back, intending to wait until they came closer before making his presence known.
But as the riders neared the barn, he spotted an Other standing on the roof of the barn, knife in hand and ready to jump the lead rider. The Paladins were deadly with blades of all kinds, but the Others were their equals. Jethro took aim and pulled the trigger. The Other screamed as he tumbled off the roof to the ground. A second shot from one of the riders finished him.
One of the men veered off to ride toward Jethro. He recognized Josiah Hardy and stepped clear of the bushes and trees. Josiah dismounted and threw his arm around Jethro’s waist to support him.
“You’re looking a lot more alive than we were expecting. Can you ride?”
Josiah boosted Jethro up into the saddle and then climbed up behind him. “I’ll take you to safety and then come back to mop up the rest of this mess.”
Jethro’s vision was fading in and out, but the sound of gunfire behind them was deafening. The Others were only armed with swords, but no mercy was shown. They were too far gone in the madness that drove them across the barrier into the human world. If the Paladins let even one escape, other innocent people would die.
When they were far enough away that he could make himself heard, he whispered, “Patience?”
“She’s waiting for you not far from here, Captain. We tried to get her to wait in town, but she’d have none of it.”
It hurt to laugh, but Jethro couldn’t help himself. “Stubborn, that’s for sure. And Elliott?”
“He didn’t make it, but he should be all right in a day or two. Once we get the Others cleared out, I’m hoping Miss Kort will let us stay here until he comes around. For sure, we can’t risk taking him back to town.”
“Patience likes Elliott. She’ll let him stay.”
Josiah guided his horse off the road and into the trees. “I’m guessing she has even stronger feelings for you. The lady walked all the way to town and then insisted on coming back for you herself. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Jethro had no business hoping that was true. A man like him wasn’t good husband material even for a strong woman like Patience Kort. But damned if being with her hadn’t given him a glimpse of another way to live, one where he didn’t have to be alone all the time.
Sunrise was almost upon them, driving the darkest of the shadows into hiding, making it possible for him to make out the shape of a wagon in the trees. As he watched, a woman stood up. He would have recognized Patience anywhere, anytime, despite the dim light.
She was off the wagon and running straight for them. “Jethro! I’ve been so scared!”
He had to wait until Josiah slid off the back of the horse before attempting to dismount himself. His pride was in complete tatters when it took both Patience and his friend to catch him. They all but dragged him over to the wagon where Hiram Jones helped Josiah lift Jethro up into back alongside Elliott’s body.
“Miss Kort, things should be under control in a few minutes. I’ll send one of my men back to let you know when it’s safe to return to your home.”
Then he was gone.
“Jethro, could you drink some water if I got it for you?”
He nodded and had to wonder why that made her look so happy. Even Hiram was grinning. But good to her word, she hurried over to the stream and soon returned with a cup of cool water. “Sip it slowly, Jethro.”
It tasted like heaven going down. When he’d finished off that much, she made another trip to the stream. He thought he heard the sound of cloth being ripped apart. When she returned, she had a couple of wet rags with her. She used them to bathe his face, washing away the dried blood from his wounds. The cool water felt great, but still waves of dizziness made it hard to think.
“Stay with me, Jethro. When we get to the cabin, we’ll be better able to tend to your injuries.”
He managed a nod. Maybe she realized how weak he was because she settled in next to him and wrapped him in her arms.
A few seconds later someone came crashing through the trees followed by the sound of water splashing. No, there was more than one person headed right for them. Fear for the woman next to him burned away his weakness.
Hiram trained his rifle in that direction. Jethro shoved Patience down in the wagon and drew his revolver. Sure enough, three Others came running up the creek, probably finding that easier going than having to break their own trail through the undergrowth. The other Paladin took aim and started shooting.
Jethro was about to join in when he realized that there were two groups of Others, with the second making a more silent approach from the other side. He spun around and dropped the two pale-eyed warriors with his remaining two shots.
Nothing but silence.
“Are you all right, Patience?”
Her voice was a bit shaky when she answered. “I will be.”
“Yes, you will.”
Even if it took his last death to make sure of it.