The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 13)
Elliott cursed a blue streak as his knee came down hard on a sharp rock. He kept crawling, ignoring the minor discomfort as he worked his way across the rocky terrain. It wasn't the fastest way to move, but it increased his chances of making it safely to the dense thicket of trees about thirty feet away from where he'd started.
The erratic bursts of gunfire coming from behind him made it clear that Sadie, Mack, and Jethro were keeping the enemy's attention focused on them. They didn't have unlimited ammunition, though, so he picked up speed. He paused as soon as he reached the edge of the woods to look around. No sign of movement in the surrounding trees, but it was only a matter of time before one of the bastards decided to try an attack from the rear.
It was a toss-up whether to go left or right. Finally, he headed away from the road to circle around the enemy from the opposite direction. Taking a wide, circular route, he kept moving. It wasn't long before he spotted two of the shooters hiding behind another pair of large rocks. He took aim and waited until there was another burst of gunfire from his friends to pull the trigger. Both men were dead before they knew what hit them. Hopefully, their friends wouldn't realize that shots were now coming at them from multiple directions.
If Sadie was right about there being around eight men surrounding them, he'd just eliminated twenty-five percent of their problem. He moved out again, determined to improve the odds even more. Mack's men should arrive soon with guns blazing. He'd need to be careful or they might think he was part of the problem, not the solution.
A covey of quail flew up from the undergrowth off to his right. He dropped down to one knee and waited to see what—or more likely, who—had disturbed the birds. A second later, a shot rang out, pinging off the tree right next to him. It would have hit him in the head if he'd still been standing, one of the few targets that was bound to be fatal even for a Paladin. He fired back, moving farther to the right as he did.
His efforts were rewarded with a loud scream as the shooter fell to the ground writhing in pain. Getting shot in the knee must hurt like hell. Elliott ran to where he lay and kicked the man's weapons out of reach. He held the barrel of his pistol against the man's forehead.
"Answer three simple questions, and maybe I won't pull the trigger." He didn't wait for the man to agree before asking, "How many of you are there? Did Putnam hire you? If so, where is he?"
"Nine, and yes, it was Putnam. Offered top dollar, too." He groaned as he tried to staunch the flow of blood from his leg with the palm of his hand. "Should of known it wouldn't be easy pickings like he said. Last I heard, he was holed up in a room over the saloon."
The man forced the words out through gritted teeth. Now that Elliott had his answers, he used the butt of his pistol to knock the man unconscious. Either he'd live or he wouldn't, but at least he'd be quiet about it.
Three down and six more to go. There had also been the one who screamed earlier, but until he saw the man's dead body, it was too soon to count him out of the mix. Elliott stopped to pick up his latest target's gun and stuck it in his holster. He emptied the man's rifle and sent it flying into the bushes. Having done as much as he could to render the guy helpless, he moved on.
The time that it took him to circle behind the rest of the shooters seemed an eternity. The shots coming from where his friends were hunkered down had grown more sporadic. Either they were having trouble finding suitable targets or they were running low on ammunition. Damn, he hated this. What was wrong with this Putnam that he'd sacrifice so many lives just for a hole in the ground?
Maybe he'd let the man live long enough to answer that particular question. Doubtful, though.
He finally spotted a bunch of horses tethered to a rope strung between two trees. Nearby several bedrolls were scattered around the cold ashes of a fire. So the shooters had set up camp and waited to spring their trap. Why hadn't they simply attacked the farmhouse again? Maybe the price paid by the first bunch who'd tried that had been too high. Of course, the ones who had attacked Sadie in this same spot hadn't fared any better.
He heard shouts and then the sound of someone running through the trees straight toward him. Best guess was that Mack's deputies had been spotted and Putnam's men were scattering like cockroaches they were. Well, they wouldn't get far without horses. He slipped through the trees to where the horses were stirring restlessly. He untied their reins and slapped the closest ones on the rump to startle all of them into running.
The noise the horses made crashing through the underbrush covered the approach of their owners. If one of them hadn't hollered before he shot, Elliott would have disappointed Sadie by taking another bullet. He dropped to the ground as a volley of gunfire tore the hell out of the leaves overhead.
His opponents retreated back into the trees, making it impossible for him to spot them. Seconds later gunfire erupted a short distance away. If he were in the mood to be sympathetic, he would have felt bad about the enemy being trapped between him, his friends, and Mack's men. It should all be over in a matter of minutes now.
There was shouting, a few more shots, and then nothing but silence and the stench of gun smoke and blood in the air.
It was time to retrace his own steps back to where he'd left Sadie, Jethro, and Mack. The longer he lingered near the campsite the greater the chance he'd be mistaken for the enemy. He'd only gone a few steps when a flicker of motion off to his left caught his attention. He crouched lower and stopped to watch. A few seconds later, he spotted someone slipping through the trees, heading in the same direction as the horses had gone.
Elliott grinned. The fool thought he'd made good on his escape. He waited until the man was less than twenty feet away before speaking up.
"Stop right there and drop your guns, and you'll live long enough to go to prison. If you'd rather die right now, keep moving."
The man had his back toward Elliott, but he froze and dropped his gun.
He did as ordered, slowly spinning around to face Elliott with his hands up. The right sleeve of his shirt was soaked through with blood, but that wasn't what had Elliott letting loose with a string of curse words. He was a kid, probably no more than fifteen, maybe sixteen years old. Although nearly as tall as Elliott, he was painfully thin. It would take a lot of time and more than a few good meals for him to pack on the muscles to fit his rangy frame.
"How bad are you hurt?"
The boy shrugged, his gaze shifting to the side. "Just a scratch."
An obvious lie. The question was why he would bother. "It must be some scratch to have bled that badly."
Meanwhile, he could hear Sadie and Jethro shouting his name. "Over here!"
He stepped closer to his prisoner. "Who are you? And how did you get caught up in this mess, boy? And no more lies. Whether you spend the next ten years in jail or walk away free and clear depends on how you answer."
"My name is Billy. Billy Sloan." The kid was clearly scared, but he was doing his best not to show it. "My mother's husband said there was good money to be made."
Interesting way to describe the relationship between the boy and his stepfather. "What does your ma think about him dragging you into the line of fire like this?" If anything, the boy looked even more grim. "She died last winter. He says I'm lucky that he's let me tag along at all 'cause I'm not really his kin. I've gotta earn my keep or starve."
Well, hell. There was no way to know how Mack would feel about what Elliott was about to do, not that it mattered. He wasn't going to send this half-starved boy to prison for doing what his stepfather forced him to do.
Before he could figure out a plan, the boy shouted, "Behind you, mister!"
Elliott spun and fired. He missed killing the man sneaking up behind him, who stumbled backward into a tree as his shoulder blossomed with blood. His face contorted with a mix of pain and hate. "You little shit! You got me shot."
So this was the stepfather. It was damn tempting to finish the job the first bullet had started. Unfortunately, Sadie burst through the trees with Jethro and Mack right behind her.
At least Sadie had the good sense to slow her approach until the two men caught up with her. "Elliott, are you all right?"
"No bullet holes this time, thanks to this boy. Billy warned me before his stepfather could shoot me from behind." He moved closer to the kid. "Mack, for the record, he saved my life, and I didn't see any evidence that he was part of the attack. I think his stepfather there left him watching their horses."
The lawman glanced at the gun lying at Billy's feet and then gave the boy's bloody sleeve a pointed look. Regardless, Elliott hoped Mack would make the right decision. He did. "I'll take charge of his stepfather. Why don't you and Sadie check the boy's arm? It looks like he might have tangled with a thorn bush or something."
Elliott nodded in gratitude for Mack backing his play. "He did say it was a scratch."
Billy's head swiveled from side to side as he tried to figure out what was going on. Finally, Elliott put his hand on the boy's shoulder. Let's go get you cleaned up, Billy."
Sadie ignored Billy's blushes as she washed the blood off his arm. Interesting that he hadn't been lying about it being just a scratch. She could still see where a bullet had cut a furrow just below his shoulder, but the wound had already healed over and the redness was fading even as she watched.
She'd seen that amazing ability to heal only once before. Had Elliott suspected the boy had something important in common with both him and Jethro?
"Elliott said that was your stepfather back there. What happened to your real father?"
Billy shrugged. "Ma never knew. He rode out one day on business, but he never came back. I was born right after he disappeared."
All right then. "So no family expecting you to come back?"
"No, ma'am. That was the only reason I stuck with Oscar this long. Guess I'll be on my own now."
She seriously doubted that, not once she shared what she'd seen with Elliott and Jethro. Besides, even if the boy hadn't turned out to be like them, they wouldn't have left him on his own. They'd make sure he had a place to call home.
Elliott returned from the woods leading three horses. When he reached them, she picked up the shirt Jethro had scrounged out of his saddlebags for Billy. "You'll be glad to know Billy's scratch is all but healed up already."
She probably wasn't telling Elliott anything he hadn't already guessed for himself. The boy was clearly a Paladin in the making even if he had no idea what that was. With the help of Elliott and Jethro, he'd learn soon enough.
Meanwhile, Mack rode over to where they were standing. "If you all are ready, we should get moving. I don't want to give Putnam time to skedaddle out of town."
Billy shrugged on the oversized shirt Jethro had given him and stepped forward, "What's going to happen to me, Sheriff?"
"You'll have to ask Elliott and Jethro that question, kid. If I'm reading the situation rightly, they've taken responsibility for you."
"That's right." Elliott said as he and Jethro moved up to stand beside her and the boy. "We'll figure out all the details once we take care of Putnam."
He then turned his attention to Billy. "I'd appreciate it if you stayed with Sadie while we go after the man who is trying to kill her. Are you all right with that plan?"
Billy immediately straightened his shoulders. "Yes, sir. I'll stand guard for you. Just so you know, I'm a fair shot. No one will get by me."
Sadie wanted to protest. Billy was too young, at least in years, to be in the frontlines of a possible gunfight. But when she looked into his eyes, she realized that he'd left his innocence behind a long time ago.
"Thank you, Billy. I know Elliott and Jethro will feel better knowing someone familiar is with me while they go after Putnam."
A few minutes later, they all rode out. The men around her all wore grim expressions. It was time to end this. Enough people had suffered and died because of one man's greed.
And once the dust settled, she and Elliott could figure out what the future held for the two of them.