Things got quiet for a second – at least as quiet as they ever got on that sorry edge of the plains, horses pawing at the dirt, hound-sized bugs calling out for a mate. The wind rose just enough to make Dex's coat snap wild, and though John was trying to play it nonchalant, running with his own mulish brand of devil-may-care, he saw when Emmagan raised her rifle and set it on her shoulder.
(They'd had a talk about gun safety once; she proceeded to argue her side of things by whipping his ass in a straight fight, and he let her do what the damn hell she pleased with whatever firearms she carried after that.)
Emmagan tipped back her hat and looked up at McKay, sitting on his horse, pissed as a rattler. "He never sees it coming," she said.
"Right," he offered scathingly and let out a yell, the kind that twisted down your spine, spooking the fancier horses and setting the stagecoach to flying, headed off toward Ute territory, hat-boxes jiggling something fierce on the roof. John waited for a couple to fall -- they'd be worth a dime or two in Mountain, where men desperate for a woman's company would easily pass over a handful of coin for a scrap of feathers and a mess of lace. Nothing fell.
"Let's move out," John called, striding back toward his horse, catching the reins and swinging into the saddle. Getting off his horse had been his first mistake; things always went wrong when he got off his horse. "Dex. C'mon."
But Dex held the stagecoach driver in the sights of his gun until the damned conveyance disappeared into dust.
"So that's what, four?" Rodney asked
"Five," Ronon offered.
John squirmed and grimaced just a little.
"Five," Rodney continued bitterly. "Five women apparently convinced you're off improving some stretch of land, a hundred-sixty-acres of 'we'll be married soon as I'm settled, honey.' As if a little property's the only impediment to them finding married bliss with you underneath Aunt Gertrude's best stitch-and-bitch quilt." He threw his fish bone into the fire and dusted his fingers. "Five."
"Look . . ." John offered.
"I do consider it something of a wonder that so many women should wait upon John," Teyla put in.
"I never actually said I'd marry any of them," John protested.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, of course. They came up with the idea entirely on their own."
"I was just being polite," John managed. He narrowed his eyes at Teyla when she laughed. "Seriously. It's like – " He gestured feebly. "A mystery."
"Never sees it coming," Ronon said with a grin.
"And here's what concerns me . . . " Rodney continued.
John groaned and fell back against the scrub grass, arms outstretched. He might never see it coming, but Rodney could never let it go.
"We've met five of them while trying – and failing, I might add – to rob the stage. Unless you have some finely honed ability to predict which women are most likely to take up travel on a whim – which I wouldn't put past you, it would certainly prevent them being able to find you, if both of you are constantly on the move – then logic dictates we've met only met a tiny sampling of the number of women who think you mean to marry them and are staying put. Are we going to trip over fourteen hair-brained fiancées whenever it's next safe for us to set foot in Denver? How many do you have stashed in the Springs? Oh, oh, I know – let's send out flyers with the trail guides and we can just snap a few more up before they even get here."
John ground his teeth, patience worn thin. "Why the hell would I propose to anyone?" he snapped, staring up at the night sky.
"I don't know!" Rodney yelled back, and huffing out a frustrated breath he stood up, stomped off toward the river, muttering to himself the whole way.
"You'd better go after him," Ronon offered. "He's got reason to be mad."
"No, he doesn't," John said churlishly, sitting up. "Like I'm itching to throw in the towel, settle down and . . ." He scrubbed a gritty hand over his equally gritty face. "Fine. Fine." He pointed a finger in Teyla's direction. "Don't even."
"I would not think of it," she said with a small smile.
"Yeah, and I'm Henry Thoreau," John mumbled, standing up and smacking the worst of the dust from the seat of his pants before he followed Rodney's lead.
"I'm taking a leak," Rodney said when John got close.
"Yeah, and?" John shot back.
"So give a man some goddamn privacy to piss up a cottonwood!" Rodney snapped. "Jesus."
"Look, I didn't ask anyone to marry me," John said in a rush, figuring this was as good a time as any to clear the air. It'd take Rodney at least a minute to finish up and tuck himself back in – might be his only shot. "I'm not going around flirting with every Jenny-Anne-Lizzy-Sue, Jesus, you've seen me around women, you think I'm keeping my ability to woo fine-upstanding Christian women under wraps?"
"Maybe," Rodney said. He sounded sulky.
"Isn't it just the tiniest bit more likely," John suggested, "that I have no fucking clue what I'm doing around the ladies because – and this is just a wild guess – the ladies don't stir my pecker much, but my pants get godawful tight around you?"
Rodney's back was turned, but the shake of his hips and the motion of his arms suggested his bladder was sufficiently empty at last. "I don't like it," he said, business tucked away before he turned and clambered down to the riverbank, stooping to wash his hands. (He had strange habits like that, but then everyone in a gang needed a quirk.) "I don't like all these hints that you . . ."
"I have slept with two women in my life," John said, lifting a foot to rest it on a boulder. "One was an accident – "
" – brought on by too much liquor, and the other was a real nice whore who stole my gun. I did my best by her, and she was kind enough to give me a few tips on what to do better the next time I found myself obligated to pay attention to a woman. Got my gun back, prayed hard not to get the clap, and here I am."
Rodney stood up and wiped his hands on his pants, scratched at his nose and folded his arms. "And you don't want to get married?"
John tipped his head back and groaned. "McKay, I want to get rich easy and spend my end days raising horses on a ranch so big no one'll hear me fuck you straight to hell every Sunday morning. That's the only kind of permanent arrangement that appeals."
Rodney lifted his chin. "I better get to fuck too."
"No objection to that."
"Fine." John scratched at his chin, watching the play of shadow on Rodney's sleeves as he climbed back up the bank. "I have an idea, 'bout the stage, by the way."
"Oh, yeah?" Rodney came to a halt half a step away, close enough that John could smell the leather of his holster, the sweat-and-dust scent of too many days on a horse.
"We rob a bank," John said, hooking his fingers behind the buttons at the waist of Rodney's pants and pulling him forward.
"Fucked any bankers?" Rodney asked, pulling off John's hat.
John tilted his head. "None that I can recall."
"Then I'm in," Rodney murmured, and kissed John with a smile, tongue working some magic John was happy to name as filth.
"We don't want no trouble," said the bank teller, hands in the air. "We're law 'bidin' folks 'round here and we don't want none of what you're sellin'!"
Rodney looked over at Ronon. "Do I look like I'm a merchant? I mean really, do I?"
"Nope," Ronon said. He hitched a shoulder, gun never wavering in its aim at the bank teller's head. "He's not so bright."
John beckoned toward the teller to get his attention. "Chatty though," he offered, leaning on counter, taking off his hat and running a hand through his hair. "And we appreciate good conversation, really, we do. But we'd rather have your money, so if you'd just . . ."
Teyla tossed two loose sacks across the counter. "Fill them," she said, consonants precise. "Give us everything you have and we'll be glad to leave you in peace."
The bank teller's lip curled. "I don't take orders from no woman. 'Specially no woman who's prob'ly more Indian than civilized, running loose with . . ."
Teyla cocked her gun and raised one eyebrow. "I am from Boston," she said calmly. "And your prejudices reveal you to be roughly as intelligent as a boot scraper. Would you like me to demonstrate why these gentlemen run with me? I would be happy to use your limbs as target practice." She smiled.
The teller reached for a sack, grumbling the whole while. "You won't get clear of town. Sheriff'll have you, you just see. Atlantis ain't no hick town without law no more."
"Mmmhmmm," John said, cleaning under his nails with a knife. "That right, now?"
"Things been different since he came in," the teller said. "No more crime, no more fightin', a lot more to buy at the General Store . . ."
Ronon lifted an eyebrow. "Like what?"
The teller's chest swelled with pride. "Blankets. Liquor. Good guns. Calico and needles for the ladies come in twice as often as before. Big sacks of grain and flour, barrels of sugar. S'good town to be in. People be pouring in here afore long."
Ronon turned his head toward John. "Someone's ripping off the trade."
"It does sound like an inventory meant for further West," Teyla observed.
John sighed. "Why's it always gotta be this complicated?" he asked. "Why can't we just do a job, get in, get out . . ."
Rodney snorted. "Said like a true . . ."
"Hey," John interrupted, holding up a finger. "None of that."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Look, sadly, we have principles, I have principles, and you know as well as I do that if ill-gotten goods are making their way . . ." He glared at the teller, who was waving a half-filled sack of all-but-stolen money. "Don't presume to try and understand my morals, Jimmy John Fargo; there's stealing from crooked Eastern businessmen like his Pa - " He jerked a thumb at John, who shrugged. " – and there's stealing from the government, taking supplies meant to be distributed on the reserve, and if you can't tell the difference . . ."
"I hear footsteps," Teyla said, very low.
"Got a Sheriff?" John asked the teller.
"Brand new," said the teller, somewhat insolently. "One month in town and not a lick of trouble since he got here."
Ronon glanced at John, then at the teller. "A month you say."
"Came in from Denver, fine upstanding gentlemen from back East, steadfast morals and a fervor for the Lord."
"Well, fuck a steer," John muttered. "Kolya! Get your ass in here."
There was silence for a moment as everyone watched the doorway, then Acastus Kolya stepped over the threshold, his long, black coat trailing almost to the floor, his shiny sheriff's badge showing considerable denting at one corner. Rodney made a small sound as though he was choking, then another, then – apparently unable to help himself – began to laugh. "Oh, Jesus," he said, clapping a hand to his forehead. "You people hired Kolya?"
Kolya grimaced, jerking the guns he held, one in each hand. "Are you eager to be shot this morning, Mr. McKay?"
Rodney snorted. "Well that depends. Are you a better shot than the last, oh, six times we've met?"
The teller cleared his throat. "You – uh. Know each other?"
John pulled his gun and twirled it, mostly for show – the handle had a nice inset of mother-of-pearl and he liked to show it off. "Let me take a stab at weaving together how this happened. This man here told you he was a religious type, back East. Amish. That he headed out West to do the Lord's work, bending his head to combating vice as much as to the work of prayer, that sound 'bout right?"
"Uh-huh," the teller nodded.
"He is a confidence man," Teyla said, gesturing for the teller to fill the second sack. "His outwardly religious practices are nothing but a show. I would warrant that your general store is filled with supplies he has stolen. And that he will soon, if he has not already, suggest the arming of a militia and the paying of militia fees for the town's protection."
The teller stuffed rolls of bills into the sack, looking concerned. "We have town meetin' tonight," he said. "To discuss somethin' of that sort."
Ronon snorted. "Same old, same old."
Kolya shot a slug into the floor near to Ronon's feet. "Atlantis does not need you to linger within the city limits."
"Whatever," John drawled. "Speed it up there, Fargo boy." He gestured with his gun.
"Almost done," said the teller, obviously confused. Rodney was still laughing.
Kolya shot a second bullet up into the shade around the gas light on the wall. "I see you are still as arrogant as ever, McKay." His words were clipped. "It will give me satisfaction to . . . "
"Oh, for crying out loud," Rodney said, wiping his eyes with the back of one hand, pulling his gun and shooting Kolya in the knee before striding over to kick his gun away. He bent down and relieved Kolya of his knife and badge. "Someone doesn't get to play sheriff anymore," he said, poking Kolya in the chin with his gun." He looked over his shoulder. "You got a doctor in town?"
"Doctor Beckett," said the teller. "He is . . . uh – I can . . ."
"Feel free to fetch him," said Teyla, "so that Mr. Kolya might receive medical assistance for his gross stupidity."
"They can treat that?" said the teller, hopefully.
Ronon gestured with his gun and the teller fled.
"My men will hear of this," Kolya managed from between gritted teeth, hands clasped at his knee, rocking back and forth in pain.
"Great," John drawled. "The Genii boys are in town?"
"Not yet," Kolya gritted out. "But by sundown they will arrive, and when they find me . . ."
"In jail," Teyla supplied.
Kolya sneered. "They will exact a fitting revenge."
Rodney sighed. "Well, shit," he deadpanned. "A shoot out. Just what I wanted from my day. Really, life's been far too quiet lately – if we could just get an outbreak of pox and maybe a regiment of soldiers in town, things would be looking up."
"Don't even joke," John said, reaching across the counter to haul up their second sack of money. "We'd better make a plan."
"That plan's stupid," Ronon said, leaning up against the back of the town washhouse. "They'll see us shooting from the second floor and block off the first. All they have to do is set a fire, wait for folks to jump. Finish us off while our britches are burning."
John narrowed his eyes and smacked at a sheet that kept blowing into his face. "Oh, yeah? You got a better plan?"
"Sure," Ronon nodded.
John waited. "Well?" he asked eventually. "What is it?"
"They gotta stable their horses, if they're ridin' in from Olesia. Rest 'em up. They'll need water. We wait down by the corral."
"Ambush?" John asked.
"Won't need one," Ronon shrugged. "They're not expecting us. And their guns are cheap."
"Although their bullets are not," Teyla put in with a wry half-smile.
"There's a hotel across the street from the stables," Rodney said, bending to draw a town schematic in the dust with a stick. "Hardware store, mission outpost – walk-up, not a church. Jail's here, cheap hotel here, bridle maker, printer, county office . . . "
"We can encourage the townspeople to congregate toward the far end of the main street," Teyla mused. "Perhaps the bank itself could be used as a . . ."
"Quiet," Ronon said gently, pulling his gun and ducking beneath a set of pillowcases. "Hey." He moved swiftly, reaching behind a faded quilt to yank someone forward and push them into view. "What's your business?"
"Uh . . . " The man before them looked dusty but respectable – clean shirt, no collar, brown pants neatly mended and held up by leather suspenders. "I, uh – I'm . . ." He coughed and held out one hand. "Chuck Smith. Owner of the General Store."
John quirked an eyebrow and shook his hand firmly, once. "Pleasure?"
"I, uh – " He glanced at Ronon's gun, which was trained at his head. "I heard you threw the sheriff in jail and I . . "
"He's a useless sack of horseshit masquerading as a religious sack of horseshit," Rodney said with irritation. "He's a crook and a cheat and a liar and if you think we're about to change our minds and offer up the keys to the rinky-dink cell we've thrown him in, then . . ."
"No, no," Chuck said earnestly. "I came to say thank you."
"Oh," Rodney managed. He rolled his shoulders and thwapped his drawing stick against his thigh.
"Don't mind McKay," John said easily.
"It's just that things haven't been good since he came to town. Not for me," Chuck said in a rush. "Mr Kolya's been skimming off the store's books for a while – loans, he called 'em, but I never saw repayment, and his suppliers are . . . " He looked at his boots. "A bad sort, I think."
Ronon grinned appreciatively, then tried to hide his smile.
"There are others," Chuck said. "Mrs Weir, she runs the guest house – the nice one, with the dining room and none of the uh . . . " He tipped his hat toward Teyla. ". . . amenities some of the other establishments offer? Pretty sure he's been offering her protection as long as he's been dabbling in the store, and I'd warrant the same's true at Radek's Hardware. Certain people have been on edge. You can tell."
"And none of you have spoken of this to each other? Tried to do something?" Teyla asked.
"Happened fast," Chuck said apologetically. "He came the morning after those real bad storms that swept through, four, five weeks ago? We were cleaning up, didn't think much was wrong with a preacher-type pitching in. And then by the time we'd fixed up what we could, he was part of us. Hard to figure out what to do after that, to know for sure if we were all in trouble or just . . ."
"Well, lucky for you, we've wandered into your little mess and now have to stick around to clean it up," Rodney said waspishly. "So the best thing you can do to help is to run along, tell all your friends to stay out of the way when the shooting starts, and tear up some petticoats, because bandages would be a plus."
"Rodney," John said, raising an eyebrow.
Chuck touched the brim of his hat. "No offense taken. Should I . . ."
John nodded. "Take off, if I were you."
Chuck nodded and hurried away, manfully trying to avoid a corset and a laundered hoop skirt. "The people in this town are unusual," Teyla said thoughtfully.
"Hmmm," John said, reaching up to the wash line to rub the tail of a blue cotton shirt between his fingers. "You think this is my size?"
The Genii boys showed up right on cue, riding into town close to three-thirty in the afternoon, horses looking beat. They stabled them, just as Ronon had predicted, and ambled out into the afternoon sun, passing a flask of liquor back and forth.
"Can we help you boys?" John asked, stepping off the stoop of the hotel and into the street as they drew near.
The Genii looked at each other, telegraphing confusion, amusement, a little scorn. "We're good, thanks. Right, Laden?" asked one, a tall, thin man, his faded army jacket bleached pale by the sun.
"Real good," said Laden, squinting at John.
"See, that's not what we hear," John said, hand on his gun. He heard the creak of wood as Ronon stepped down onto the stoop he'd just vacated, saw Rodney step off the porch outside the hardware store. He could trust that Teyla was in position at their back. "Met a friend of yours. Kolya."
"Who?" said Tyrus, affecting disinterest.
"Tyrus," Laden hissed.
Tyrus rolled his eyes and huffed a breath. "Oh, calm yourself," he said with irritation. He looked back at John. "I ask again: Who?"
"Man of dubious morals. You know the sort." John delivered the news almost cheerfully. "Broke some laws; we threw him in jail."
In a second, the Genii boys had their hands on their guns, but John's was already drawn, and in the heartbeat before things could get bloody, a shot smacked into the dust by Laden's boots, while another clipped Tyrus' hat.
"I wouldn't try anything," John said genially. "As you see, my gang's pretty good with a gun. So it'd be for the best if you just threw your weapons over, and we'll see about providing you with a pallet and a meal for the night, keep you out of trouble."
"Before you string us up?" asked one of the Genii.
"Getting ahead of yourself there, Cassel," Ladon smiled. "Nobody said anything about a hanging."
Ronon stepped off the stoop, gun in hand. "Not yet," he said brusquely.
"Luckily for you, we tend more to toward an exquisite, ironic sort of vengeance," Rodney put in, closing in on John's left side. "Say, the act of sending a telegraph to General Hammond at the Springs, telling him where he can find three deserters and a ne'er-do-well who could use a spell in the brig . . . "
Teyla fell into line, shoulder to shoulder with Rodney and John. "You would do well to heed us," she said, rifle at her shoulder, icy smile on her face. "I am an excellent shot."
Tyrus let out a sudden hoot of laughter, shaking his head. "I'm sure you are, ma'am, far as you can manage." He snorted softly. "The three weeks you're not tending to your lady parts."
John sucked in a breath at exactly the same moment as Rodney and Ronon. Instinctively, they each took a step back.
"Really?" answered Teyla with a smile. "It is a wonder that an elderly virgin such as yourself should know anything of a woman's body. Did your friends perhaps purchase a clandestine novel so that you might read of the pleasures you have been denied? Or merely describe their own rutting in terms that your small brain could understand?"
Tyrus clenched his jaw and balled his free hand into a fist.
Laden nervously wiped his upper lip, glanced from Teyla to Tyrus and then to Rodney and John. "Look," he said. "I can bargain, I'll bargain, we can make some arrangement. If I'm going back to the slop the army calls vittles, I want steak before I go, I want pie . . ."
"Laden," Tyrus snapped, furious and red in the face.
"Pie," Laden repeated. "I want pie and I want coffee . . ."
"And I want my very own steam engine and a purebred white pony," Rodney threw in caustically. "Throw your guns in the dirt, all of you. Now."
"Like hell," Tyrus snarled, and in the space of a breath there was chaos, Tyrus' shot arcing wide when Teyla's bullet found his heart, some other shot finding Rodney, who fell to the ground with a dull, pained yelp. That was all it took to have John set his jaw and raise his gun in a fervor, satisfaction supplying sharp clean thrill when Ronon waded into the fray, punches and the threat of his knife as dangerous as his gun. In moments, Tyrus lay dead; Laden and his wounded comrades lay squirming in the dust, and Teyla crouched beside Rodney, gingerly examining the wound on his arm. She glanced up at John and nodded quickly; he'd be okay.
John felt his guts consider turning liquid with relief, and willed them back into their regular form. "Now, why," he asked the Genii, "did you have to go and do that?" He wiped his forehead, throwing Ronon the coil of rope that hung on his belt, a handy tool for tying someone's hands. "You're hurt, I'm a fair ways to being furious, and one of you went and shot my friend." He scuffed his boot in the dirt, scratched at his stubble. "Own up now. Which one of you did it?"
"Middle," Teyla said when none of the Genii replied; her attention was focused on her hands as she worked to wrap Rodney's arm.
"Middle," Rodney agreed. "The throwback with the moustache and the beady little eyes."
John chewed on his lip, allowing his thoughts time to gather. "They all got beady eyes," he said at last.
"Sheppard," Rodney growled, and John smirked at him, stepped forward and hauled the mustached throwback onto his feet.
"You got a name?" he asked. The man dumbly shook his head. John rolled his eyes. "Okay, we'll call you Jethro. Jethro? I'm sad to say I find you an ill-mannered back-alley dog," and he kneed the hapless Genii in his family particulars before offering an apologetic smile. "We'll be taking you to jail now."
Jethro keened softly and fell in a heap.
Kolya, it turned out, had been skimming from every business in town, extorting Widow Charin's fortune, and forging land deeds in the newspaper office after hours.
"People sure do appreciate our efforts," John said later that night, sitting by Rodney's bedside and nursing a bottle of whiskey while Rodney noisily ate a bowl of stew.
"I got that idea when they stowed me in the honeymoon suite," Rodney said, gesturing up at the four-poster bed and the fancy dresser against the furthest wall. "I'd forgotten what it was like to sleep on a mattress that's not filled with straw."
"Oh, you don't quite know the half of it," John said, throwing back a shot of whiskey and pouring another. "They've made Teyla the law."
"Teyla?" Rodney asked, spoon half way to his mouth.
"She's a sight more patient than I am," John said with a smirk. "Best shot in three counties, no particular gambling debts, and a talent for bringing in the goods on a hunt."
"But – " Rodney let his spoon fall. "Did she say yes?"
"She did," John nodded, setting down his whiskey and glass on the bedside table, hooking his thumbs inside the waistband of his pants. His new blue shirt felt good on his back. "Said she wouldn't mind settling for a spell."
"But the team," Rodney said mournfully. "What are we . . ."
"Seems Ronon knew Mrs Weir a while back, schoolteacher, St. Louis or somewhere." John hitched a shoulder. "Husband got killed in a mine collapse, so she's richer than a Vanderbilt and real happy to have her prospects for a little hallelujah bed shakin' improved."
Rodney nodded. "Well. That's . . . good." His mouth twisted unhappily.
"And as for us . . ." John saw again the image of Rodney falling into the dirt, blood seeping through the leather of his coat. "Seems no one seems to know what happened at the bank this afternoon." His words took a moment to find their rhythm. "Money gone. Folks suspect the Genii. You know them fellas and their shocking lack of scruples . . ."
Rodney frowned. "Huh."
"Meanwhile, over just beyond town, there's a ranch come open, paid in full, blessed remote, one day's ride from town. That's close enough if we're feeling lonesome or need a saddle, maybe a skillet; far enough away that we can steer clear of trouble for a while." John smirked and wet his lips. "No church close by, so we'll be free on Sundays."
It took a second for the words to sink in, but John watched as Rodney's expression cleared and a grin worked loose and easy across his face. "Well, now," he said, scooping up more stew. "I don't know. Give up all of this? We'd be almost respectable."
"Almost," John agreed, leaning in to kiss Rodney's deeply sinful mouth, savoring the living tremble of it. "I'm pretty sure I can keep us just the wrong side of that particular quagmire."
Rodney laughed softly. "Need some help?" he asked. "Smart guy, here. I bet I can come up with all new ideas for raising hell."
John quirked an eyebrow. "Always," he murmured, and inched a hand beneath the covers to check for hell in Rodney's drawers.