CHAPTER FOUR — REALIZATIONS AND RECONCILIATIONS

Ward disappeared when the band of three returned to Cross Creek that evening. The town seemed to all have getting drunk on the brain and the two saloons were packed to the rafters. Graciela broke away from Harlan to do a little exploring on account of the fact that it had been far too long since she left Pistol Post. While he longed to join the townsfolk in their jolliness, Harlan knew that he had work to do. He approached the local law, Marshal Luther Dean, at the station in the heart of the town. Dean was sitting at his desk just inside the doorway with his feet kicked up, smoking a cigar.

"Your town's running amok, Marshal," Harlan said as he leaned against the door frame.

"I haven't seen you around as much lately, Harlan Nail. Been stayin' out of trouble, I presume?"

"As much as can be expected."

Dean sighed as he removed his feet from the desk and sat upright.

"I don't believe you came here just tell me about some rowdy drunks."

"No, sir, I did not."

The marshal took a long puff from his cigar and blew the grey cloud in Harlan's direction. He motioned with a wave of his hand for Harlan to elaborate.

"I've come to ask if you've heard any recent news about Moss Cohn and the Copper City gang. Have they been through any towns near here or spotted nearby at all?"

"These questions don't make me feel good, Nail."

"Likewise."

Marshal Dean was a bit of a scarecrow. There wasn't much to him except for his large white mustache. He was effective, though, and had been at the position for years even before Harlan's arrival to Cross Creek.

He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the desk.

"Last night, a trader came to me and said he thought he'd seen a big gang of men camping out about a two day ride from town."

"I'm a bit shocked that word hasn't been out yet."

Dean shook his head. "I paid the guy to keep it quiet. A bunch of paranoid, trigger-happy folk is not what I need when I got the Copper City boys outside of my town."

"Before you ask, allow me to assure you that I am not the reason they're coming."

"Boy, am I assured," Dean said.

"Now I'm no lawman, Marshal, but I do believe I'm right when I say that you ought'a stay out of this mess. I wouldn't want to see any harm come to you because of my friend's foolishness."

"Your friend? The tall one with mean look in his eye that rolled in here not too long ago, I reckon."

"You are correct."

"What'd he do that's got Cohn so riled up?"

"Ward worked for a man who was distributing Lementin illegally to Cohn to be sold on the black market. He stole a bunch of the product and fled."

"And half of goddamn Copper City is coming after him for a few vials of painkillers?"

"Every one of those little bottles is worth enough money to buy a small town. With what Ward's got, I reckon he could own Cross Creek once he sells them. And it's Cohn, boss. When has he ever let a double-crosser go?"

Marshal Dean sat back in his chair and rubbed his temples. Harlan felt for the man because he had done a grand job keeping most gang activity out of Cross Creek. A few stray outlaws got away with a robbery or two every now and then, and the occasional gang would ride through to scope the place out but they merely visited. And now, poor Marshal Dean was going to have a small war in his lap.

"I ain't gonna sit out of this one, Nail. I hate the Copper City boys as much as anyone and I don't want them and their operations in my town regardless of what that numb-skull friend of yours done."

"So you're on our side then?"

"Reluctantly."

At the front desk of the inn, Harlan paid for the room next door to his for Graciela. The woman behind the counter could barely hear him over the ruckus in the saloon that was just through the doorway. He could practically hear the whiskey calling his name from the bar; his nerves needed the fortification after learning that they wouldn't have much time to plan before Cohn arrived, but he had to track down his companions and let them know.

As he walked through the streets, something Ward had said stuck out in Harlan's mind. He said that wanted to get out of town and out of everybody's way once the Copper City ordeal was taken care of. Up until that moment, walking under the stars of the clear Western sky, Harlan had never thought about what was going to happen to them once that business was settled. He saw the old wild look in Ward's eyes, the same look that would get him into trouble time and time again. The same look that got him out of trouble, too. But Ward's words suggested that he had moved on with his life in the five years that they had been separated. He had gotten used to being a lone wolf and didn't like the prospect of having a partner again, and that realization hit Harlan hard in his gut. It made him drag his feet pathetically in the dirt as he walked on.

The second saloon on the south end of town wasn't nearly as packed as the one below the inn where the gang was staying, but it was still awfully lively. Harlan peeked in through the window and saw Graciela dancing with a strapping young man and a line of others like him waiting for their turn. There was big, bright smile on her face. It was the calm before the storm, Harlan knew, but didn't want to disturb anyone's good time. They would sort out their plan come sunrise over coffee and eggs at the restaurant.

Circling back to the inn, Harlan heard a whistle from overhead. Leaning over the railing of the balcony and smoking a cigarette was none other than Ward Chesney himself.

"You know, you're awful good at disappearing into thin air and leaving me hanging out to dry," Harlan said.

Ward nodded toward the open door the room and headed back inside after pitching the cigarette over the rail. Harlan made his way through the crowd in the saloon and up the steps to the rooms. Ward must have procured a cot from storage somehow because it was set up next to the bed with a pillow and heavy blanket laying on top. He was sitting on the corner of Harlan's bed drinking from flask.

"I needed to breathe for a bit," Ward said.

Their newly acquired guns were propped up near the bathroom door and the bracers were laying on the vanity top. Harlan sat down next to Ward and reached for the flask just as Ward began to hand it over. After all of those years apart they didn't waste any time falling back into rhythm.

"So what's the story with you and that girl?"

Harlan took a swig and held onto the flask.

"I met her not long after we split up. I got into a little trouble in some town I don't think I ever learned the name of and I needed a new gun since I busted mine wading through the creek trying to escape from those lawmen after the robbery. Someone in town told me to see Graciela, so I did."

Ward took it all in with his eyes facing forward. He reached for the flask after Harlan took a second drink.

"And?" Ward pressed.

"And what?" Harlan looked at him.

Finally, Ward turned his head. "Oh, c'mon, Nail, you can't expect me to think that's all. Not after the way you two were floating around each other like butterflies. She was wearing your shirt, shall we not forget."

"That's the first time I've seen that shirt in a few years if that's any indication of Graciela's and I's current standing."

Ward took a long drink.

"New sparks ignite old fires, it seems."

Harlan sighed. Silence hung between them for as long as it took for them to drain the contents of the flask. Without them realizing, the sounds of the saloon down below grew quieter as the night wore on; people were either too drunk to stay rowdy or had gone home to sleep it off. The eyelids of both men were getting heavy and Harlan knew he needed to reconcile with Ward before their confrontation in the near future.

"Listen," Harlan said and paused. Upon breaking the silence, he realized that he was drunker than he had originally perceived.

"I'm listening."

"If I have made you feel like you were intruding on my life, I do apologize, brother. I had become so set in my rut. It was pathetic. As a matter of fact, I'm glad that you thought to track me down to help you with this. Honored, really. If you'd like to pick up where we left off five years ago I would be overjoyed."

Ward chuckled. "You are an enigma, Harlan Nail. I have never met another poor soul such as yourself."

He let out a great sigh and rose from the bed. Harlan watched him with a puzzled expression as he walked around the room seeming to search for the reason he stood in the first place. Ward walked over to the vanity and plucked one of the postcard's from the mirror's frame and held it out in front of him. The image was ruined by blood but mostly by the large bullet hole in the center. Ward had tucked the postcard into the hand pocket on the left side of his vest and the bullet ripped right through him, but thankfully, the shot didn't hit anything vital. He was laid up for awhile afterwards, though. That postcard was Harlan's favorite of all the ones Ward had given him.

"I shouldn't have dragged you into all of this, Harlan. You don't deserve that, not after all of the time that went by," Ward paused to swallow hard, "Jesus, I still can't believe you kept all of these god damned bloodstained postcards."

The next morning, the three of them met out on the connected balcony. Again, Harlan watched the town come to life with a cigarette between his lips. Graciela was chatting about her night and Ward seemed to legitimately listening even though it was apparent by the squinting of his eyes that he had a headache. The smoke from the cigarette torched his lungs when he took a deep drag and it made his chest ache, but Harlan liked the feeling. Not worrying about whether Graciela was finished with her story, Harlan broke in:

"Marshal Dean told me someone spotted Cohn and his gang outside of town two nights ago. They should be here by tonight."

Graciela took a deep breath and Ward slapped the wooden railing lightly with his palm.

"Welp," he said, "I could sure go for some coffee."

The restaurant was relatively quiet mostly because everyone else was too hungover to get out of bed just yet. The little band sat together sipping their hot coffee and eating their fill before going over business. They all knew that it would be quite a battle but none of them wanted to start the conversation. None of them wanted to acknowledge the fact that they might not see another sunrise.

"I have a plan," Harlan said finally.

"Do tell," Ward said.

Harlan ran a hand over his face. He hadn't shaved in days and was looking a little wild.

"I don't think we should go at them all at once. If we hide out and draw a few of them to us we could even the playing field a bit."

"How are we going to get them to come to us?"

"We can be waiting for them when they ride in tonight. Marshal Dean can spread the word and keep people off of the streets, at least make Cohn think they've all gone to bed for a little while before he catches on. I can take a couple from the rooftops and Graciela can take a few out quietly with her knife."

"That sounds like it could work," Ward said.

"They're just expecting you, I figure. Having attacks coming at them from free different places will disorient them long enough for us to knock down the numbers and regroup to take out the rest. Marshal Dean'll join us then."

"Where's the meeting point?" Graciela asked.

"The inn's a good place," Ward said, "it's home."

"Yeah, it is," Harlan said, raising his mug to that before taking a drink.

"Alright, so we take out as many as we can before Cohn starts catching on and then we meet up and unleash Hell upon them. Did I get that right?" Ward was grinning.

Harlan smiled back. "Perfect."

Graciela nodded her head. "We can do this."

They spent all morning gathering their ammo and weapons. They plotted out their respective hiding spots around the town and staked them out in advance. There would be no reasoning with Cohn once he rode into town; nobody got away with ripping him off. He didn't become the baddest in the West by letting his enemies off easily. Moss Cohn wanted blood and the little band of three was going to give it to him.