Author's notes here.
Prologue: Mine Eyes Have Seen
Mary Travis stared down at the pad of paper on the desk before her, her quill pen poised to write. Stephen had taught her always to write out everything before she set the type, no matter how simple the story might be. It was easier, he said, to buy more scratch paper than to reprint an entire edition of The Clarion. She'd spent more hours than she could remember sitting here, the words flowing as she tried to reconstruct the events that she was recording.
Today, her pen refused to connect with the paper, refused to write the headline that should have been so different. The unfairness of it mingled with her grief and all but immobilized her, leaving her trapped as the memories assaulted her again.
It had started when they got back from the prison outside Jericho. She had seen that something was wrong when they rode into town. She'd known them long enough--and watched them often enough--to know that Chris never rode at the back of the group unless they were being chased. Yet there he was, trailing along behind the other men by a few yards, his unnaturally dark, unshaven, gaunt face a cold mask. Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington, looking like mismatched bookends, rode just ahead of him. Their frequent, worried glances were cast backward with the ease of much practice.
Chris had dismounted at the saloon and walked straight past her through the batwing doors without even a glance in her direction. As near as she could tell, he had crawled in a bottle and stayed there, firmly shutting out everyone who tried to approach him. He'd erected a cold, impenetrable wall around himself, and it didn't shrink at all as time went on. If anything, it got worse. The bleakness in his eyes was replaced finally by a distance that was frightening to see, and slowly, they all stopped trying to breach it.
Vin was the first to leave. As if it had only been Chris's will holding the tracker in Four Corners, Vin just quietly drifted away when it became obvious that Chris wouldn't--or couldn't--reconnect with them. Mary had been angry with him, disappointed that he hadn't tried harder to bring Chris back.
As time went on, though, she came to understand why he'd left. It wasn't that Vin didn't want to help. Chris had slipped so far away from them that no one, not even the man he'd most connected with, could help him until he was ready to return.
That had become obvious the day Buck, his concern finally overcoming both his patience and his good sense, had taken matters into his own hands and tried to get Chris to talk, to leave the saloon, to eat something--anything that showed signs of life. Chris had endured him for only a few minutes before he exploded, jerking out his gun and pointing it, hammer cocked, in Buck's face. Mary only knew what the bartender had seen, so she had no idea what Chris had said to his old friend, but whatever it was had, in the words of Billy, "left ole Buck with the options of killing him or getting the hell out've town."
The next day, Buck had ridden out with, strangely enough, Ezra Standish. She could still remember the scene: it had been early morning, still quiet and fairly cool. Buck had stomped out of the jail, his expression tighter than it had been when he'd left the saloon the night before. Ezra had been waiting for him, holding his horse, his fancy red jacket a direct contrast to Buck's simple, dusty denims and cotton shirt. They'd exchanged a few words as Buck mounted, then turned rather abruptly and headed toward the town limits. Buck's back had been rigid, but Ezra had turned and looked one last time at Four Corners with an expression that Mary, pausing to watch on her morning rounds to drop off a handful of papers at the Potter's store, couldn't help but think of as disappointment.
Thinking back, Mary couldn't remember if Chris or Josiah was the next to leave. The ex-preacher hadn't gone far. His church in town almost finished, for some reason he'd felt the call to go back out to the mission he'd been rebuilding before he'd met Chris. He still came into town from time to time, but he no more stayed than did Nathan, who'd taken to spending more time at the nearby Seminole village.
Chris had disappeared at some point, although Mary wasn't totally sure when. One night he'd been at his usual spot in the saloon, staring at nothing and casting a pall over the customers. The next day, he'd been gone.
Only JD was left, his determination to stick to his duty as sheriff as touching as it was foolish. With only the occasional support of Nathan and Josiah when they were in town, JD couldn't handle the rougher of the bad element who'd started to wander back into Four Corners. He'd tried, Mary thought with a sad smile, he'd tried as hard and as bravely as he knew how. He just wasn't old enough, wise enough, or big enough to take on four or five men at a time whose main source of pleasure was seeing how much trouble they could create.
It wasn't that either of the older men wouldn't have helped him, not if they'd known how bad things were getting. JD's pride had been his undoing. He'd refused to admit the problems he was facing, so no one knew he was in over his head until it was too late.
With a sigh that was suspiciously close to a sob, Mary closed her eyes briefly. She didn't know if she could write the necessary words, but that was all she had left to honor someone who deserved it more than anyone she'd ever known. It wasn't a headline she should ever have had to write. She should be writing "Peacekeepers Continue to Bring Law to Four Corners" or something similar. Instead . . .
With a rapid blink and another shaky sigh, she blotted her pen and wrote in a clear, firm hand, "Sheriff Shot; Murderers Unknown."
One: The Glory of the Coming
Buck Wilmington, ex-soldier, ex-cowhand, ex-lawman, ex-peacekeeper, ex-everything, lay among the silk sheets that swathed the bed of Miss Emmaline Cordulais, one arm trapped pleasantly under her body, and frowned at the ceiling in discontent. His feelings had nothing to do with the lovely Miss Emma, who'd spent the last few days completely and repeatedly disproving any statements to the effect that blondes were more fun. She was energetic, imaginative, and had a quick sense of humor, and he'd had as much enjoyment in her company out of the bedroom as he'd had in it.
No, meeting Emma when he'd arrived in New Orleans had been a blessing, and not one he'd ever regret. The problem was, he'd finally decided after a few too many shots of whiskey last night, that he was homesick. Pure and simple, he missed Four Corners. More importantly, he missed the people he'd come to know there.
He was used to being a drifter. He avoided being tied down as strenuously as he avoided angry husbands. But somehow in Four Corners, he'd found a place he was happy to stay. He'd liked having a room that was not only his, but was slowly collecting more things than he could carry easily in a saddlebag. He'd liked working with Chris again, at least until Chris had gotten such a bug up his butt that there was no reasoning with him. He'd liked having friends he could depend on, enjoying Blossom's favors, the occasional smile that tickled Mary Travis's lips when he flirted with her. He'd liked sitting of an evening outside the jail or in the saloon, teasing JD and listening to Josiah's stories and watching Ezra keep his fingers limber with that pack of cards he always carried.
Not wanting to disturb the lady next to him, Buck sighed softly. He'd had a home for a bit, and a purpose that he could take pride in. He missed it. He thought of going back more than once, even if it had only been a few weeks since he'd left, just long enough for Ezra and him to get to New Orleans and for the gambler to set himself up among the others of his trade who worked the riverboats and gaming houses. Buck figured that was why they'd stayed in contact after they'd arrived, seeing each other every day or so. Ezra seemed no more ready to give up the friendship they'd had in Four Corners than he was.
A sudden, sharp knock on his door interrupted his thoughts, and he carefully extracted his arm from under Emmaline, receiving a soft murmur for his efforts, before getting out of bed. His jeans were in a pile on the floor, along with the cotton shirt he'd been wearing the day before. When he'd taken them off last night, he'd had other things on his mind than wrinkled clothes. Standing on one foot and then the other, he pulled the jeans on, grimacing as he nearly overbalanced.
The knock sounded again, and he muttered, "I'm coming, don't wake the dead," as he slid his arms into his shirt and found his gun on the dresser. Tucking the gun into his pants and leaving the shirt open to cover it, he padded out into the tiny living area and opened the door, a scowl ready for whoever had ruined the peace of the morning.
The scrawny teenager at the door flinched when he saw the frown aimed at him, and held out a piece of paper as if it were a shield. "T-telegram for Buck W-wilmington, sir. S-sorry to wake you, sir."
The kid looked like he was expecting his head bit off at any second. Buck found himself grinning, even if he was out of bed far too early, and fished a coin out of the pocket of his jeans to give the boy as he took the telegram. "Thanks, kid."
"Th-thank you, sir." The boy left with as much speed as his dignity allowed him.
Buck chuckled as he shut the door, walking over to the window to have some light as he opened the telegram. The words he saw stopped him in his tracks, shooting a bolt of soul-deep cold through his heart.
"JD shot, stop. Murderers not found, stop. Josiah Sanchez."
Vin Tanner lay on his back on the bank of the creek, listening to the hushed sounds of the water easing over the rocks and the wind shifting through the trees. Normally, he loved the solitude of the wilderness. The time he'd spent in Four Corners was the most he'd devoted to "civilization" in a long time, and it felt good to be back out in the wild. If it weren't for the lingering sense of unease, the feeling that maybe, if he'd stuck around a little longer or tried a little harder, he could have fixed the things that had gone wrong back in the town, he would have been happy.
A man had to pick his own path. Vin had always believed that. When Chris Larabee had made it clear that the path he was bent on was destruction, and it wasn't one he was going to allow himself to be turned from . . . well, Vin had to respect that decision, as much as he hated it. He still held out the hope that Chris might somehow find a reason to turn from the path he'd chosen, but Vin couldn't make that decision for him. If Chris didn't find his own reason to live, there'd be nothing on this earth that would keep him alive.
Vin just hadn't had the courage to sit around and watch him destroy himself.
The ex-bounty hunter had left Four Corners with a sigh of relief. Yet it had only taken a few days before he'd found himself missing the little rituals that had become a familiar part of his life. Early morning coffee with Chris outside the café, having JD tag along when he went out for rides and explaining to the kid what the different plants they encountered were good for or how to read a spoor, playing the occasional game of checkers with Nathan or Josiah of an evening; simple as they'd been, those activities had lodged themselves in his mind. Lately he'd wake of a morning thinking it would be nice to set himself into that routine again.
He'd spent some time with Kojay's tribe, which eased some of his loneliness. Loneliness, when he'd once been happy spending months living off the land with barely a sight of another human being. He'd made deeper friendships in Four Corners than he'd made in his entire life, and now he found he couldn't give them up easily. Trying to fight the feeling, he'd pushed deeper and deeper into the wild. It'd been well on a month now since he'd left the tribe, and he still listened to the not-quite silence around him with the feeling that he was missing something vital.
A sharp crackling in the underbrush had him sitting up and reaching for his mare's-leg without conscious thought. A second later, a dark head emerged from the bushes. Vin smiled. Chanu could move as quietly through the woods as Vin himself could, if not more. The young man had obviously just given him some warning that he was about to have company.
"Chanu," Vin said quietly in greeting, and set the mare's-leg aside.
The younger man came to squat beside the creek, pausing to drink a handful of water before he turned to face Vin.
"There's trouble in the white man's town," Chanu said briefly, his distaste for the place evident in his voice. "One of your friends was killed."
Vin felt his gut clench. He'd expected it, but . . . "Chris Larabee?"
Chanu made a negative gesture. "Not that one. The one who the elders say disturbed our sweat lodge. The one who was sheriff."
Vin shut his eyes. Not Chris. JD.
Nathan Jackson leaned the rickety wooden chair back against the jail wall, rocking it restlessly on two legs as his hand stroked the barrel of his rifle. His eyes flickered up and down the street. Tension crackled in the air. It hovered like an approaching storm, just on the verge but never quite breaking in all the long weeks since JD had died.
The entire town was on edge. The townsfolk were uncomfortable with their precarious seating on the fence post. Soon a fight would come, one that would end in death for someone. Neither Nathan and Josiah, nor Colter Evans and his gang, were quite ready to commit. But when they did, Nathan intended to make sure Evans paid for JD's murder.
Ever since Bruce Conway, the young man who'd been helping out at the Potter's store, had ridden breathlessly into Raings village with the news that "Sheriff Dunne's been shot," Nathan had been at war. At the time, he just hadn't known who the enemy was. A rage had started growing in him then, fueled by the thought that he might have been able to protect the boy if he'd stayed in town more and not given in to the seductive call of home and family that Rain offered him.
He wasn't used to feeling such hatred for anyone. There were those who might have said he had more reason to hate than most white folk, what with his early years being spent as the property of a man who thought nothing of punishing minor transgressions with a bullwhip. But Nathan was a healer. He'd chosen to live his life making people better, not tearing them or himself up with anger.
He'd never allowed himself to feel true hatred until now. Until thinking about an innocent boy who'd wanted to be a hero, who didn't deserve to have his life blown away in a back alley while the men who'd taught him just enough to make him brave were nowhere to be found. The thought stirred such a cold fire in his heart that he could easily have faced down JD's murderer and torn him apart with his bare hands. He didn't have evidence yet that Evans was behind the murder, but he knew. He hated the man more than he'd ever hated anyone in his life.
He used the rage, though, as strange as it was to him. He let it take over the need to heal he'd carried in his heart since he was a child. The only wound he cared about now was the gaping hole left by a bright-eyed, eager kid on the edge of turning into a fine man. That wound, he'd never be able to heal.
A movement at the edge of town, startling after the stillness of the streets all morning, drew Nathan's attention away from his thoughts. He squinted down the street, a vague hope stirring in his heart. The horse, easier to see than its rider at this point, looked familiar . . . yes. Nathan waited quietly for the man to approach and dismount, nodding to him as he came up the stairs to the walkway.
"Nathan." Vin returned the nod as he leaned against the post next to the steps. "Where is he?"
Nathan gestured toward the cemetery with his rifle, but didn't look that way. "Got him a nice spot near where you all buried Judge Travis. Mrs. Travis made all the arrangements." His jaw tightened, and his voice was a bit rougher as he continued, "Imagine he'd think that was mighty funny."
Vin looked away for a moment, then turned his eyes back to Nathan. "Think I'll go pay my respects. I'll be back after 'while. You can tell me what happened." He straightened slowly, as if he were tired. "Anyone else here?"
"Josiah's at the other end of town, keeping an eye on things. He sent a telegram to Buck and Ezra in New Orleans, but I don't know if they'll be coming or not." Nathan paused before answering the real question he knew Vin was asking, not sure how to say it. "Chris . . . ain't nobody heard of him since he left. Don't know where he's at to let him know."
Vin nodded slowly. "Buck and Ezra'll be coming soon as they can. Buck's gonna take this mighty hard."
Nathan nodded, the truth of that adding another log to the fire burning in his heart. He didn't watch as Vin strolled up the street to the cemetery. He'd been there once to pay his own respects. The thought of the burying, without any of those who knew the boy best to hold him in their hearts as his body was laid in the ground, tore at him. He hadn't been back since.
He knew from Mrs. Travis that there'd been those there who cared about JD. Mrs. Travis herself, as well as the Potters and Nettie Wells and some of the other townsfolk. But neither he nor Josiah had been anywhere to be found, and the others were too far away to come even if their location had been known. Somehow that hurt almost more than the thought of JD's death itself. The boy hadn't had any of the men he respected so much there to see him to his final rest.
Two: The Grapes of Wrath
Vin squatted on his heels next to the still-fresh mound of dirt, resting his elbows on his knees as he gazed at the simple cross that watched over the grave. "JD Dunne," it said, and below that, "1867". Nothing more.
The chill of the desert night was starting to set in, and Vin shivered slightly as a cool breeze wafted past. It didn't seem that long ago that he was standing in the sun not too far away, lowering another coffin into the ground.
"What did you put in here?"
"You didn't have to put so many in."
"It had to look right!" The young voice rose slightly with indignation.
Vin grinned faintly. Only JD would put that much effort into burying a coffin full of rocks. Somehow, somewhere, the kid had gotten enough enthusiasm and energy to keep someone three times his size going for days. It never failed that he'd throw all of it into whatever he was doing. JD might sometimes have lacked in common sense, but he'd more than made up for it in courage and determination.
"Shouldn't we say something?"
Vin closed his eyes, his throat tightening. The familiar voice almost sounded as if it were beside him.
"It's a coffin full of rocks, JD."
"I know, I put them there, but shouldn't we look like we're doing something? A prayer?"
"I ain't much for praying, kid. Never have been." Vin spoke softly, dropping one hand down to rest his fingers on the grave. "Just wanted to tell you, it was an honor riding with you for a piece. I'm looking forward to meeting up again down the road."
Standing abruptly, he turned and walked back toward the town. Toward the retribution he was going to make damn sure was waiting for the man who'd killed his friend.
Ezra Standish eyed the approaching town with an odd mixture of trepidation and anticipation. His sojourn in the Crescent City had been lucrative, yet he'd found himself missing the unique, if rather rustic, charms of Four Corners.
He wasn't normally one to get attached to people or places. He prided himself, in fact, on being an observer and a manipulator, not a participant. However, Lady Luck had taken a hand when she led Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, and Nathan Jackson into the saloon where Ezra was attempting to gather enough capital to obtain passage on the next stage going anywhere. He had become, for better or worse, a part of something more monumental than anything he'd ever been involved with before.
He'd regretted the demise of their venture as much as he'd regretted the deterioration of their leader. Chris's slow, deliberate self-destruction had affected the gambler more than he would have thought possible, so that when Buck had decided to leave, Ezra had surprised himself by offering to accompany him. The gunslinger's company was pleasant enough. Ezra found it comforting--provided he didn't contemplate the implications of the feeling--to have someone around whom he could trust to watch his back. The most astonishing aspect of the whole situation, however, was the lingering wish to return to Four Corners and to the life he'd been developing there.
Even so, he'd never anticipated returning under circumstances such as the one they were facing at the moment. Buck had stomped into his room far too early one morning several weeks before, thrown a slip of paper on the desk where Ezra had placed his breakfast, and said in a cold, intense tone that sent a shiver down the gambler's spine, "I'm leaving as soon as I get passage on a boat. There's money to cover my room in the drawer of the nightstand, if you'll see that Mrs. Tremontaine gets what's coming to her."
He turned and started to go. Ezra, caught somewhere between curiosity and alarm, put a hand on his arm. "Hold on, my friend. What could possibly be so bad as to warrant such a precipitous course before breakfast? Did Miss Cordulais's father discover your little tryst?"
Buck actually looked at him for the first time. Ezra had seen that expression on his face before, when they'd found Chris's guns at the mercantile in Jericho. It was not one he had the courage or fortitude to face for any length of time. Buck opened his mouth, then shut it and shook his arm free.
"Read the telegram." The gunslinger's voice was hoarse, doing nothing to ease Ezra's trepidation.
Ezra took the slip of paper off the desk and scanned it rapidly, his hand clenching around it in a tight fist as the import of the message penetrated.
"Dear Lord," he murmured, closing his eyes against a sudden vision of a young face glowing with pride at being named sheriff . . . pale in the flickering lamplight as he rode out waves of pain from the knife in his shoulder . . . gleeful as he told that dreadful joke about the three-legged dog . . .
"Buck." Ezra hadn't made a conscious decision to speak, but he felt no urge to hold back the words. "If you'll permit me the use of your funds and a day's grace, I'll see to it that we have more than enough capital to fund a speedy return to our former residence."
Buck didn't even raise an eyebrow at the news that Ezra was accompanying him. In truth, Ezra wasn't sure the fact had penetrated yet.
"I'm going now, Ezra. Shouldn't've left in the first place, but it's too late for that."
Ezra sighed, but kept his voice at its most patient. "If you wish to expedite our arrival, it would be counterproductive to stop every day to hunt or work for our meals, and the steamship to Galveston is not precisely inexpensive. Give me a day, Buck, and we'll arrive sooner in the long run."
Buck shook his head as if he were going to argue, then said abruptly, "Tomorrow, then."
They'd left bright and early the next morning after a night during which, Ezra suspected, neither of them got much sleep. The trip across the Gulf from New Orleans to Galveston had been ten days of alternating silence and rage from Buck. Ezra had attempted to improve their financial standing, but had found himself playing with all his skill and none of his heart. After they'd disembarked in Texas, they'd quickly purchased mounts and had been riding hard ever since, making the trip to Four Corners in record time. The closer they'd gotten, the quieter and more morose Buck had become, until the last few days he'd quit talking altogether.
Ezra had left him alone, partially out of respect for the other man's grief, and partially because he hadn't yet come to terms with his own feelings on the matter. He'd often thought of JD as an annoying, overly enthusiastic greenhorn with more hair than sense. But at some point--sometime after he'd been let out of jail to help bring Lucas James to justice--he'd discovered an exasperated fondness for the boy that had edged towards real respect as JD's decisions began to be less and less foolhardy. The thought of returning to a Four Corners that didn't sport a young, shaggy-haired sheriff with more courage than was good for him left Ezra with a strangely empty feeling. For a time, Four Corners had been home, but now, bereft of the boy and quite likely of Vin, Chris, and even Josiah and Nathan, the gambler doubted it could ever be home again.
The intense feeling of déjà vu that had shivered down Ezra's spine at his first glimpse of Four Corners earlier that morning intensified as he and his companion rode into town. All the buildings were exactly as they should be. In fact, it seemed almost as if the absence of change was what created the feeling of disorientation in the gambler. Surely, after the disastrous events of the last few months, something should have been different.
It wasn't until they arrived at the jail that Ezra saw something he couldn't recall having seen during his previous habitation of the town. Though Nathan Jackson had been a vital part of their team of peacekeepers, he had rarely taken a lead position among the men in public. Few people, even in the relatively egalitarian atmosphere of the west, were willing to accept a former slave as an authority figure. In private, Nathan's good sense and gentle morality had swayed the men to follow his advice more than once, but he'd never claimed the role of leader, even when Chris Larabee was absent.
To see him now, sitting in front of the jail with a shotgun across his knees and the back-holster that held his knives in plain view, clearly depicted how times had changed. Suddenly, the sleepy, almost dreamlike peacefulness Ezra had felt in the town dissolved into a strangling feeling of disquiet, as if the town was on the verge of exploding.
Pulling his mount to a stop at the steps, he met Nathan's gaze with a quiet nod, feeling a thrill of unease at the mixture of anger and weariness he saw in those normally cheerful brown eyes.
"Y'all made good time," Nathan said without preamble, his deep voice emotionless.
Seeing that Buck wasn't going to answer, that, in fact, the big man was still withdrawn into that silent world he'd existed in for days now, Ezra responded, "It's a pleasure seeing you again, Mr. Jackson, though not under the present circumstances. We did indeed have an expeditious journey, although not one I would recommend to those wishing to enjoy the finer sights of the southwestern plains." Dismounting, he brushed some of the dust off his coat, then decided it was a lost cause. "However, circumstances did necessitate speed rather than the expansion of cultural horizons. Perhaps you would be so kind as to bring us up to date on the current crisis?"
Nathan glanced up at Buck, the flicker of concern in his eyes the first sign of familiar emotions Ezra had seen since their arrival.
"Don't know what happened, exactly. First I knew, the Conway boy came to tell me JD been killed and they had the burying already. I got back here and rounded up Josiah, but we ain't been able to prove who done the shooting yet."
"Where'd it happen?" The disturbingly soft question from Buck drew sharp looks from his friends.
Ezra's instincts, keyed as they were to danger as well as manifestations of chance, began an insistent clamor in the back of his mind as he registered the look in the gunslinger's eyes. He'd never had any doubt that Buck was devastated and out for revenge, but Buck's expression now promised a horrible death not only for his friend's murderers, but also for anyone who happened to be in the vicinity at the time.
"The back alley over yonder." Nathan indicated the one that ran along the side of the jail with the muzzle of his shotgun.
Buck turned cold eyes toward the opening of the alley and stared at it for a long minute before turning back to the healer. "Chris in town?"
Nathan shook his head. "Disappeared not long after y'all left."
Buck laughed, the sound short and harsh. "Figures."
Nathan gave him a questioning look, but said only, "Vin's back, though. Came in yesterday."
Ezra wasn't quite sure if the emotion that stabbed through him was relief or disappointment. More than anything now, they needed Chris Larabee's leadership to pull them together again and direct them in their search for the boy's killer. However, if Larabee hadn't affected a change in his demeanor from the drunken, abusive front he had been showing the world after his rescue from prison, he would be less than worthless.
"May I suggest, then, that we make plans to meet together after Mr. Wilmington and I have arranged lodgings and cared for our horses?" Ezra turned from his inner musings to more practical considerations. "Once we are all advised of the status quo, we'll be able to organize our efforts to apprehend the murderers."
"Apprehend nothing," Buck said in that same quiet, arctic voice. "When we find him, I'm gonna take him off someplace private and explain to him the error of his ways." The smile that curved his lips was one of predatory anticipation. "When I'm done, he won't be needing a trial." With that, he rode off toward the stable.
Ezra looked at Nathan, and for once found himself in complete accord with the healer as his own uneasiness was reflected on the other man's face.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me," murmured Josiah Sanchez, former preacher of the Word, former believer in the divine compassion and justice of God, and he was not comforted. "Then where were You when the boy needed You? He sure as hell had evil to fear, and he wasn't just in the shadow of death, he stared it straight in the face."
Josiah took a long swig from the whiskey bottle that was one of many he'd been keeping handy lately. He slouched down on the bench he'd set outside the church to rest on as he kept watch over this end of town. Drinking had never spoiled his aim, and it was his gun he'd been putting most of his faith in these past few months. It was a lot more reliable than the Lord had ever been, even back when Josiah had been able to state without a shadow of doubt that his father's God not only existed, but ruled the universe with a loving yet strict hand.
He swirled the amber liquid around the bottle, watching the sun glint off it. He'd come to depend on the whiskey, too, even though he knew what a fickle mistress she could be. Still, she did help him to forget, and that was worth whatever price she demanded. He needed forgetfulness right now. Not so much of JD's death. Dying was no more unnatural than living, and the boy had put himself on the path to dying young the day he'd signed up with Chris Larabee. Josiah wasn't about to deny the boy his chosen destiny.
No, what Josiah needed to forget wasn't JD's death. It was his own failure. Once again, he'd failed to protect his own, and this time, he hadn't even had the luxury of vengeance to ease his guilt. The time would come, though; the time would come.
"Vengeance is mine, sayeth the preacher," Josiah murmured, and smiled widely.
Three: Loosed the Fateful Lightning
Buck paced the path from the door of the jail to the door of the cell and back again, and again, and again, not letting his eyes drift out of the straight line he was walking. Ezra was leaning against the sheriff's desk, idly shuffling a deck of cards, his eyes tracking Buck's progress across the floor. Nathan was still outside watching the street, and Vin and Josiah still hadn't made their appearances.
Buck had been patient. He'd waited till the horses were stabled comfortably. He'd gone along with Ezra's insistence that they hook up with the others and find out what'd happened before going raring off to find the murderer. He'd even waited in this damn jail, where there wasn't any air to breathe and too many reminders . . .
"Damn it, where in hell are they?"
Ezra sighed, running his thumb along the edge of the cards. "I am certain our colleagues are endeavoring to . . . "
"Just once, I'd like to hear you say something like a normal person, Ezra."
There was a long pause. Buck was aware of Ezra watching him and didn't know if he wanted to apologize for snapping at the man or wanted Ezra to say something so he could hit him.
"They're coming, Buck. They're coming."
The touch of sympathy in the gambler's voice was almost more than Buck could tolerate. With a growl, he spun around again, heading for the door. He'd waited long enough. There was a murderer out there, and a kid that needed vengeance. If he had to tear this town apart with his bare hands, he was going to make sure justice was done.
"Buck . . ." Nathan straightened up as the gunslinger came out the door, his eyes widening as they focused on Buck's face.
Buck held up his hand, warding off the words he knew were coming. Nathan, Ezra, all of them could talk all they wanted. He needed action, needed to know that the bastard who'd ripped the kid's life from him was destroyed as well. He stomped down the steps into the oddly empty streets. He had a vague thought of heading to the saloon to try to wheedle--or beat--some information out of the bartender, but it derailed when he ran into something bigger than himself.
"Going somewhere, Buck?" a low, smooth voice asked calmly. "I thought we was all meeting at the jail."
"Time's a'wasting, Josiah," Buck answered shortly. "I aim to find me a murderer before nightfall."
"There's things been going on you don't know about, my friend. Best you come back and find out the lay of the land before you go shaking things up."
The tall gunslinger squared his shoulders and met Josiah's calm gaze straight on. "Josiah, you know I got more respect for you than I do for most men, and I know you can bend me in half without half trying. But if you don't get outta my way . . ."
"Easy there, pard."
Buck broke off, looking down at the man who had interrupted him. "Back off, Vin."
The bounty hunter didn't shift from his relaxed slouch. Fearlessly, his eyes met Buck's, as if he had no worry that Buck might not listen to him. "Josiah here's just trying to save us all some trouble, Buck. You want to get the men that killed JD, don't you?"
Something in Vin's slow drawl eased Buck's frayed nerves enough that he didn't haul off and hit either of the men in his way. Trying to clear his frustration, he shook his head. "You don't even have to ask that, do you?"
The corner of Vin's mouth crooked up as he shook his head. "Naw."
Moving as slowly as if he were dealing with a spooked horse, he reached out and put a light hand on Buck's shoulder, turning the bigger man back toward the jail. "But we're more'n likely gonna spook them if we just go stomping around without knowing what's been happening. Josiah and Nathan know more 'bout what's been going on than we do, so we'd best be listening to them, don't you think?"
Somehow Buck found himself clumping back up the steps to the jail past Nathan and Ezra, who had come down into the street after him. With a defeated sigh, he collapsed into the abandoned chair next to the door, wondering how the hell the world had gotten so wrong without him noticing.
Vin let an unnoticeable sigh of relief escape his lips as Buck settled down into the chair and covered his eyes with one hand. He hadn't had a plan for dealing with the big man if he didn't listen to reason. Josiah could have held Buck back, sure, but the bond between all five of them was about as strong as a puff-weed as it was these days. Without Chris's will or JD's faith to remind them of what they were aiming for, any hard feelings between them were likely to break them apart for good.
Josiah clomped up onto the porch and went to lean against the doorframe of the jail, pausing to squeeze Buck's shoulder as he passed. Vin could see the tension in both men ease. They could both be as stubborn as a mule being led away from its feed trough, but the job they had to do was more important than their pride, and they obviously both knew it.
As Nathan and Ezra came back onto the porch, Vin asked quietly, "Nathan? Josiah? It don't take me two days in town to see things ain't right. What's going on? How'd this happen?"
No one asked what "this" was. The empty jail, the chair sitting at the desk that no one made a move to pull outside even though four of them were standing, each was enough of a reminder in itself to keep them from forgetting, if they ever could.
"I was out visiting Rain," Nathan started, resting the butt of the rifle he was still holding on the walkway. "The Conway kid from Potter's store come riding out to tell me . . . about JD. Till then, I knew Colter Evans was trouble, but I thought . . ." Nathan sighed. "I thought he'd move on to better pickings."
Nathan rode into town that muggy afternoon with a pressure in his chest he'd only felt a few times before, when he knew he'd be facing something he'd give everything he owned to change. He'd come to know the town well in the months he'd lived here, and even if he hadn't known what had happened, it would have been obvious something was wrong. Clumps of people gathered all up and down the street, talking excitedly. Businessmen who normally wouldn't be away from their counters during daylight hours moved up and down the street, pausing at one group or another to pass on a bit of information before moving on. At the hitching posts, the horses milled restlessly, sensing the tension in the air. Little kids darted around unchecked, obviously enjoying the adults' distraction.
It'd been an entire day, at least. Nathan hadn't wasted time getting the whole story from young Bruce, so he didn't know exactly how long, but Bruce had said they'd already buried the body before Mrs. Travis sent him to find Nathan. Most of the faces he saw still had a look of avid excitement to them. He'd seen it before on his master's face and the overseer's when he'd been whipped. He'd seen it in some of these same faces, watching intently as he was strung up on a tree in the cemetery.
Feeling a sudden urge to spit the sour taste out of his mouth, Nathan urged his horse toward The Clarion building, intending to find Mrs. Travis and get the full story from her. He hitched his horse to a rail and walked up to the door of the newspaper office, hesitating with his hand on the knob. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he'd hoped that the whole thing was a mistake, that JD was still alive. Once he talked to Mary Travis, he'd have to accept the kid's death.
With a sigh, he opened the door and stepped into the room, pulling off his hat and squinting into the darkness as his eyes adjusted from the brightness of the street. It took him a second to see Mrs. Travis sitting behind her desk, a strained smile on her face.
She set down the quill pen she'd been holding and brushed a strand of pale hair out of her face with an ink-stained hand. "Nathan. You got back quickly."
"Mrs. Travis." Nathan rubbed his free hand across his face, feeling the grit of the dust and grime. He had to force out the question around a suddenly tight throat. "How'd it happen?"
Mrs. Travis hesitated, leaning back in her chair and picking up the pen again to roll it between her fingers. "I don't know, exactly. Mr. Corbin from the livery found him--his body--early Sunday morning in the alley by the jail. He'd been shot . . ." she took a deep breath, her hand clenching on the pen. "If it wasn't for those eastern clothes he wore and his height, I'd never have known who he was. He'd been there for a while, but there'd been two trail herds and the Bar T hands in town the night before, so no one was paying attention to all the shotguns going off."
Nathan turned away, staring sightlessly out the window. "No telling who done it?"
"There were so many strangers . . ." Mary's voice trailed off. "From what Gloria Potter told me, he'd had words with one of Colter Evans' men, Arnie Sykes. Sykes was getting a little rough with one of the saloon girls who came into the store to buy some fabric. That was the day before, though, and it was never more than words."
Nathan stored the name away for the future. Colter Evans had ridden into town with a small group of followers not two days after Chris disappeared. He was a fancy-dressed, fine-mannered man with eyes that reminded Nathan of a snake looking for a meal. Nathan hadn't figured he'd hang around long. Men like him didn't usually find much of interest in a backwater town like Four Corners. For some reason, though, the man had stayed, and it seemed like more and more of the trouble that was working its way back into town was caused by one of Evans' growing number of men. Nathan wouldn't be surprised to find out that Evans or one of his followers was connected to JD's death.
"We had to go ahead and hold the services." Mary's soft voice broke into his thoughts. "We wanted to wait until you or Josiah could be located. It didn't seem right to have JD laid to rest without . . . well, without anyone there for him. With the heat, though . . ."
"Nothing to be done about that, Mrs. Travis. It's good he got a service," Nathan answered. He hadn't thought about the boy being buried without any of his friends nearby. The thought tightened his throat even more, until it was a wonder he could breathe at all.
"Mrs. Potter and her children came. She's always appreciated him standing up for her husband. And Mrs. Wells was there, and Mr. Conklin, of all people."
"That's real nice, Mrs. Travis." Nathan turned from the window, swallowing heavily, hoping he didn't sound as sharp as he thought he did. "I'd best be finding Josiah now. The murderer, he's already got a head start. No point letting it get bigger."
He barely gave her time for a goodbye before heading out the door again, planting his hat firmly on his head and straightening his shoulders against the stares he felt coming from the townsfolk.
Nathan took a step toward his horse and found his way blocked. A stubby man with a shock of faded red hair and a crooked mouth stood in front of him, stretching on his toes to get his face closer to Nathan's.
"What're you doing back, darkie? Come to pay your respects to that pissant little sheriff what got his head blowed off?"
Nathan shoved past him, jaw clenched against the words that wanted to escape. He couldn't afford to get in a fight with a white man when he had no backup, not now when he didn't know how the townsfolk were leaning.
The little man took a step after him. "You better watch it, boy, if you don't want to end up as dead as your friend."
Nathan turned, glaring down into the man's sneering face. "You got something to say?"
The man grinned sharply. "The kid kept pushing, too. Maybe you better learn from his example."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Nathan grabbed his arm as he tried to turn away. "What do you know?"
Empty brown eyes met Nathan's, a cold smile lurking in their depths. "I know you'd better watch your step around me, or there's gonna be more than one new hole in that graveyard."
With that, the little man jerked his arm free and stalked off. Nathan took a step after him, then stopped. He needed to find Josiah, get someone at his back before he tried to find out what had happened when JD was killed.
"The little feller . . . who was he?" Vin asked into the silence that followed Nathan's story.
"Arnie Sykes," Josiah answered. "And a man less deserving of the Lord's mercy, I've never met. He doesn't just look for trouble, he spawns it."
Buck stood abruptly, shoving his chair back into the wall. "That's it, then. We got ourselves a killer. Let's go find him."
"Mr. Wilmington, if you'll pause just a moment in your precipitous rush toward danger," Ezra said smoothly, stepping forward so that he was almost blocking Buck's path down the stairs, "there are perhaps some significant details of which we should apprise ourselves before we attempt to exact the retribution that our adversaries so richly deserve."
As Vin watched, indecision played across Buck's face, warring with the grief and rage that hid just under the surface. Once again he backed down, his large frame trembling faintly with the strain of holding himself in check.
"What details you talking about, Ezra?" Vin asked.
"This miscreant who threatened Mr. Jackson is, according to Mrs. Travis, in the employ of Colter Evans. Assuming that he does, in fact, possess knowledge of Mr. Dunne's death and was not simply attempting to rouse Mr. Jackson's ire, it might be safe also to assume that attempting to interrogate Sykes as to the origin and veracity of his information might lead to conflict with the esteemed Mr. Evans."
"Well said, Brother Standish." Josiah touched the brim of his hat with an ironic grin.
Ezra looked at him blandly before continuing. "It seems logical that we might wish to ascertain the size and strength of our potential adversaries before, if you'll pardon the cliché, bearding the lion in its den."
"We also need to know for sure we got the right man," Josiah added. "We've made at least as many enemies as friends here, and I know of a few cowhands and a gambler who didn't take too kindly to JD exercising his duties as sheriff those last few weeks."
Nathan shook his head. "I'd bet everything I own on Evans and Sykes being behind it. That little man was just dying to rub my face in it."
Josiah shrugged. "I'm just saying, no point in having a closed mind."
Vin got the feeling they'd had this argument before. He moved to head them off before Buck's tightly held patience deserted him.
"We won't convict nobody without evidence, Josiah. But we will find out who's behind this." He rubbed his chin, thinking. "Seems like the first thing to do is ask around town, find people who might have something to say about why someone would go after JD. And like Ezra was saying, we need to find out how many men Evans has on his payroll."
"I've counted at least twenty men," Nathan said. "I'm willing to bet there's a lot more, too. I don't think they all come in town at once."
"We've faced worse odds," Buck growled. "There was more of them Johnny Rebs in the Seminole village, and we got rid of them."
"Yeah, but we had a few more guns then, too," Vin said quietly, not adding what he was thinking. They'd had Chris Larabee.
The stage had pulled into Possum Bend just as the sun was hitting the tops of the trees on the western edge of town. By nightfall, the saloon that had been nearly deserted the night before bustled with people. The stage passengers--three salesmen, a cowboy, and two soldiers--were all enjoying the hospitality of the barkeep and the working girls. A fair number of townsmen had come in, too, wanting to hear the latest news and happy for the excuse to have a night out.
A festive air had taken over the saloon. One of the salesmen had commandeered the old piano in the corner, and several of the tables had been pushed aside to make a dance floor. The pungent combination of whiskey, sawdust, perfume, and hot bodies tinged the air. A faint breeze worked its way through the batwing doors from time to time, flickering the lanterns that lined the walls and beams. Laughter and the stories of the travelers vied with the piano for attention.
One corner of the bar was isolated from the gaiety. In spite of the press of bodies throughout the saloon, only one man stood there. On either side of him, a space large enough for two bodies spread out. The man was dressed in a pair of filthy black jeans and a shirt and duster that matched them in color and cleanliness, his blond hair hanging lank in his unshaven face. He had been drinking steadily since early afternoon, but his hands were only marginally less steady than they had been when he'd walked in. Something about him exuded an air of menace that kept the other saloon patrons away.
Several feet down the bar from him, one of the salesmen was regaling the bartender and a few of the townsmen with various bits of news and gossip he'd picked up on his run.
" . . . so the sheriff, he up and left with the mayor's daughter, and the posse never did find 'em." The salesman paused, giving his audience time to appreciate the story, and then started up again before they could drift away. "Of course, that ain't near as interesting as what happened to the sheriff up in Four Corners."
The man at the end of the bar looked up from his whiskey, his eyes suddenly intent.
"Oh, yeah?" the bartender asked disinterestedly, rubbing absently at a wet spot on the counter. "You mean that gang signing on as lawmen? That's old news, mister."
"Yeah, but did you hear they'd split up? Don't know what happened, but I guess gunslingers like that don't got much loyalty to anything but the almighty dollar." The salesman took a sip of his whiskey, aware that he had an audience--hell, even the lone wolf down at the end of the bar was listening now. The salesman was more than willing to play to it. "Anyway, they split up, and left some greenhorn kid holding the bill as the only law in town. Damn stupid thing to do, if you ask me."
"Why's 'at?" a man dressed as a farmer asked. "Kid's got to start somewhere. Better a sheriff than a bank robber."
"In Four Corners? Better a bank robber," the bartender said sourly. "Four Corners ain't no town for law-abiding folk."
The man in black twirled his shot glass around, his eyes never leaving the salesman's face. "So what happened to him?" he asked impatiently.
"The kid sheriff?" the salesman asked, straightening so that he could see down the bar to where the man in black was standing. "Well, from what I heard when I was passing through, and that was right after it happened, mind you . . . "
"What. Happened?" the man in black gritted slowly, his hand tightening on the shot glass.
The salesman stiffened, offended at losing the chance to draw out his story, and said shortly, "He's dead. Killed in some back alley, not that that should surprise anyone. When I was there, they didn't know who'd killed him."
"You sure about this?" the man in black asked sharply.
"I said I was there right after, didn't I?"
Without another word, the man in black slapped down some coins onto the bar and stalked out the door into the night.
A lone cricket broke the silence, calling out its passion to the clear, star-speckled sky. A cool breeze drifted lazily across the plain, rustling the sparse leaves that clung tenaciously to a small grove of mesquite. Faintly glowing embers marked a tiny campfire, a compromise between the safety of darkness and Chris Larabee's overwhelming need not to be alone in the night.
He lay with his back to the mesquite, facing the vast expanse of prairie. His hand rested gently on the grip of the gun he'd placed beside him. His eyes automatically, obsessively scanned the range for threats, but his mind was elsewhere.
He's dead . . . killed in some back alley . . . don't know who'd killed him.
Chris rolled over onto his back, staring up at the clear sky, the beauty of the stars completely lost to his burning eyes.
It wasn't his problem. JD had made the choice to stay, after all the rest of them had bailed out in one way or another. Even Buck, Chris's supposed best friend, had gotten his back up and stormed out after a little argument. Hell, it wasn't like they hadn't fought before. And Vin, Vin had left first, before even Buck and Ezra.
That was fine. Nothing said they had to stay together. Judge Travis's contract with them had been for a month. No one had ever agreed to longer, even though the pay had kept coming and they all kept doing their job after the original thirty days was over. If any one of them had wanted to ride on, there was nothing stopping them. Chris didn't have any more obligation to them than they had to him.
Damn kid, what was he thinking, anyway? It had been all seven of them could do to keep the town in order most of the time. Why in hell did JD think he could handle it himself? And where were Nathan and Josiah? Why hadn't they looked out for the kid?
Chris growled, rolling back onto his side and tightening his grip on his revolver. He didn't owe anything to the kid or any of them. He damn sure wasn't going to go storming back into Four Corners, seeking revenge for a kid who didn't have enough sense not to get himself killed in the first place. Hadn't he told the boy to go home when he first came out here? Hadn't he told him he'd get himself killed?
The memory of that day was so strong, Chris could almost smell the dust and the faint scent of some sort of stew simmering over a campfire. The sun had been hot and the air thick with tension as the Seminoles viewed their rescuers with "hospitality." The boy had been so eager, so certain of his immortality . . .
"Go home. You're not the type."
No, there's no hatred in you, no hardness, no understanding that death is real and as quick as a bullet exploding out of the barrel of a gun. Your eyes are still too innocent, untouched by the hell life's going to bring you all too soon. Go home, go away before it's too late, and you end up like me.
The boy, uncomprehending of the gift Chris was offering him, tightened his jaw and stomped up to the gunslinger, standing as tall as he could as he met Chris's eyes unflinchingly. "A man comes to you because he respects you. Because he'd be proud to work with you. This is how you treat him?"
There was a curious dignity in the boy's words. Chris had to admire his gumption, if not his good sense, but it was that same admiration that made his eyes go cold and his voice flat as he said, "Go home, kid."
A mixture of hurt and anger flashed across the kid's eyes as he whirled and stomped away. From beside Chris, the Seminole chief said quietly, "He's young. Proud."
Hearing the implied criticism behind the words, Chris stiffened and growled, "Carve that on his tombstone."
Chris closed his eyes tightly, as if that would make the images go away. Damn kid. A boy without any more sense than that was asking to be killed. It wasn't Chris's problem.
He wondered, suddenly, if anyone had seen to it that the boy got a proper burial. With Buck, Vin, and Ezra gone, and no telling where Nathan and Josiah were, there wasn't much of anyone left to care that the kid even got a tombstone. It wasn't Chris's responsibility, but Four Corners was as good a town as any to drift into, and it didn't seem right that the boy not have something to remind people he'd lived.
A small grove of mesquite.
The coals of a banked fire, flaring once before dying. A cricket calling out its lonely longing to the uncaring stars.
A black-garbed man on a black gelding, riding into the darkness, heading home.
Four: Sifting Out the Hearts of Men
It is dawn, and still cool without the heat of the sun to bake down upon the earth. He huddles in the hollow behind the tree roots, aching with more than the cold, listening. Always listening. He knows they're out there, and his only hope is to hear them in time to hide. He can't fight them, and he certainly can't run.
He had been asleep until a noise had jerked him, heart pounding, into wakefulness. They've finally found him. They'll take him back, hurt him more, and he's not sure he can bear it. Death would be easier. He's almost given up dreaming of being free of them.
Maybe, if he's very, very quiet, they won't find him.
His heart still pounding, Nathan dragged himself out of bed. Shaking hands made it hard to pour water into the washbasin, but finally he managed to fill it enough that he could wash his face. The water woke him a bit, dragging him further away from the nightmare that had woken him up.
He didn't dream often of the days when he was a slave or of the long journey north to freedom. On the rare occasions when he did, it left him shaken and confused, feeling as if his life now was the dream. He would catch himself thinking that any second, he'd wake up and find himself still a slave.
Tonight, he'd dreamed of his old plantation. Somehow the overseer had turned into Sykes. Over and over he escaped, but no matter how far he ran, Sykes always found him. And when he was burning from the lash of the whip, Sykes would drag him to the slave cemetery down past the chapel, past the white folks' cemetery where the master's family has been buried for generations.
"This is the punishment for trying to run," Sykes would say, his mouth twisted in a sneer.
Nathan would look, even though he didn't want to. He'd look, and see a torn, bloody body. Sometimes it was his mother or his father, sometimes Rain, sometimes Josiah or Chris or one of the other guys. Often, it was JD, staring at him with dead eyes.
Taking a deep breath, Nathan dried the water off his face. He had a busy day. He'd promised to ride out to the Oversham place and check on little David's burned leg; Mrs. Oversham thought it was getting infected, so he needed to remember to take some of the gum weed solution with him. Then he had to get back into town to help the boys talk with folks and try to figure out who had reason to go after JD. He didn't have time to sit around moping.
Pushing the dream from his mind, Nathan went over to his medicine chest and started pulling out what he needed to fix David Oversham's leg.
Josiah leaned back in the rickety wooden chair, idly turning his shot glass between two big fingers. The saloon wasn't very busy this afternoon. Aside from himself, only a few ranch hands, two men with the duded-up look of traveling salesmen, and of course the working girls were seated here and there throughout the room. Billy, the bartender, was wiping the bar unenthusiastically, pausing to chat from time to time with one of the girls. The two salesmen were keeping to themselves. Apparently they'd sensed the tension in the town and were determined not to get involved.
It was a philosophy adopted by most of the citizens of Four Corners. While everyone agreed that the murder of the sheriff was a terrible thing, absolutely terrible, very few people seemed inclined to do anything about it. Even Josiah and Nathan had hesitated. Josiah wasn't as convinced as Nathan that Colter Evans was behind JD's murder. Too many other people had reason to want JD dead, either as revenge against the young man himself, or as a way to get at his friends. Josiah wanted to make sure he was killing the right man when the time came for the hanging.
Raising the glass to his mouth, Josiah took a slow sip, enjoying the familiar heat as the whiskey slid down his throat. It was a hell of a lot easier to swallow than the proddy looks and comments Evans' men shot at him whenever they were in range. Josiah might not be ready to swear that they'd had a hand in JD's murder, but he couldn't deny that they were a problem. They swaggered around town like they owned the place, narrowly avoiding crossing the line that would have put them outside the law. As much as there was a law in Four Corners anymore, with Nathan and Josiah all too aware that they were two against twenty or more.
But now the two were five, and judgment day, Josiah thought with a wolfish grin, was at hand. No more tiptoeing around, going through the motions of preserving the law, hoping all hell didn't break loose, because there was no way he and Nathan could handle it if it did. No more hiding . . .
Too damn big to hide behind anything anyway, he thought wryly, pouring himself another shot. It was about time they finished things up, cleaned up the town and laid the boy to rest. That business has been left hanging for too long.
He gulped down the whiskey, sighing in satisfaction as the liquid burned down his throat. Nothing like good whiskey . . . but it would do till better came along. He caught the eye of Ruby, one of the working girls lounging at the bar, and gestured for her to bring him another bottle. All this waiting was thirsty work.
Ruby walked over with the bottle, leaning a little closer than was absolutely necessary as she set it on the table. Josiah grinned appreciatively at the view.
"Care for a drink, Miss Ruby?"
She looked at him consideringly, her dark eyes flashing from him to the few other prospects in the room, then she shrugged philosophically. "Might as well. Doesn't look like it's gonna be a very lively afternoon."
She was one of Josiah's favorites, a dark-haired, pale-skinned lady with a southern accent to rival Ezra's and, Josiah suspected, a lot more intelligence than she liked to let on. She was just past her prime, but she didn't have the pinched, almost desperate look of many of the older ladies of the night Josiah had met in his travels.
"Sure doesn't," Josiah said agreeably. He poured them both a drink, then raised his glass in a toast. "To quiet afternoons?"
She smiled, raising her own glass. "As long as the evenings don't follow suit."
"Amen to that, sister."
Sipping the whiskey, Ruby sat back with a sigh. "Don't seem like there's been much happening but trouble since that Mr. Evans brought his bunch in. They ran out all the other troublemakers, but they're enough to make up for it. And trouble's bad for business."
Bad for anyone trying not to be dead, too, Josiah thought. "That it is."
"Some people are saying he's done the town a favor, finally running off the riff-raff that Sheriff Dunne couldn't handle." Ruby trailed off, her eyes widening as she realized who she was talking to. "Oh, honey, I'm sorry. Sheriff Dunne, he was a friend of yours."
Josiah finished off his whiskey in one gulp and poured himself another. "He was a good man," he said finally.
Ruby reached over to squeeze his hand. "He was always fair to us. Never tried to take a percentage or tell us to shut down like some lawmen do. He treated us good. A lot better than that Evans man and his bunch."
"He been giving you trouble?"
She smiled humorlessly. "Something like that. He don't try to keep control of his men when it comes to how they treat us." She sat back, taking another sip of her whiskey. She lowered her voice as she continued. "The real problem's more with Mr. Robman. Either Evans or one of his boys shows up every day, offering to buy the saloon from him. Only thing is, they don't want to pay anything like a fair price, and they don't take no for an answer too good, if you know what I mean."
Josiah frowned. "They been threatening Robman?"
Ruby nodded. "Nothing outright, mind you. Just little things, like 'It'd be better for your health if you moved back east,' that kind of thing. Mr. Robman don't want to sell, but those boys got him pretty nervous."
"You don't say." Josiah shoved the bottle in her direction and stood. "Why don't you just finish that off, Miss Ruby. I got to go have me a talk with some people."
"Why, thank you, honey." Ruby gave him a bright smile. "You feel like it, you can come back later tonight. We could have a real lively evening."
Josiah grinned. "I might just do that, ma'am. It's been a pleasure talking with you. A real pleasure."
Ezra followed Vin into the dim, pungent interior of the stable. Stepping away from the entrance, he automatically scanned the room. His own horse stood in a stall next to Buck's mount, tail swishing lazily at the flies buzzing over his back. Ezra recognized Nathan's gelding a few stalls down next to the nag Yosemite rented out to shop keepers needing to make deliveries. Yosemite himself didn't seem to be in the barn, but a sudden loud cursing from the back gave a hint as to where he might be.
Yosemite kept his forge and anvil in the back stable yard. As Ezra and Vin stepped out of the stable into the sunlight, Yosemite set his hammer down and ran his arm across his forehead.
"Hey, fellas," the big man boomed. "You ain't leaving again so soon?"
"Just hoping we could get some information." Vin leaned against the rail of the corral, tilting his hat back.
Open and direct, Ezra noted absently. The man could make a fortune with his face and manner. It was truly a shame he had such a problem with his morals.
Leaving trustworthiness to the master, Ezra settled on giving Yosemite his friendliest grin. "Given your legendary capability of knowing what's going on in this town prior to it actually happening, we thought perhaps you could shed some light on the demise of our colleague."
Yosemite's expression sobered. "Yeah. JD. He was a good 'un. Knew his horses, that kid."
"You hear anything about how he was killed?" Vin asked.
Yosemite frowned. "Rumors. Lots of gossip floating around. Nothing I could put my hand to a Bible that it's true."
"What rumors?" Ezra asked.
"Well, Stuart James ain't none too happy with you boys, and neither's Guy Royal. Neither of 'em's scared to say so, either. Some folks figure one of them just got back their own. Or hell, maybe both of 'em, though it don't seem likely either one would bend his stiff neck enough to work with the other." Yosemite scratched his beard. "Some folks even mentioned that crazy preacher that killed his own daughter, the one that almost started the war with the Indians?"
"Mosely." Vin spat into the dirt. "Still in prison, ain't he?"
"Last I heard," Ezra replied. "It seems unlikely he would have been freed in such a short time."
Yosemite shrugged. "Didn't say that's what happened, just what folks are talking about."
"What about this Sykes fellow I keep hearing about?" Ezra asked.
Another shrug. "The whole town saw JD butt heads with Arnie Sykes a couple times. Sykes is one that likes to throw his weight around, act like he was the man in charge, you know? And JD, he didn't take kindly to that at all."
Yosemite paused, and Ezra stifled a sigh. The blacksmith was the biggest gossip in town, but he did like to spin out his stories. While Ezra could appreciate a good yarn as much as the next man, at the moment he'd rather just have the straight facts. Enough time had been wasted already. And then there was the matter of the heat and the fine dust granules sticking to the rivulets of sweat pouring under his collar. His wardrobe hadn't missed Four Corners at all.
"We'd heard Sykes was trouble." Vin interrupted Yosemite's dramatic pause casually enough that the blacksmith didn't take offense.
"That he was," Yosemite agreed. "When JD turned up dead, a lot of folks started whispering about how Sykes must've had a hand in it. 'Bout as many people figured Sykes for the murder as figured James or Royal."
"That right?" Vin drawled. "Don't seem like a few hot words would be cause for a murder."
"No, but anyone aiming to run this town could do it a might easier with a tame sheriff in his back pocket."
"Are you insinuating that Evans is making a bid for control of Four Corners?" Ezra asked intently.
Yosemite snorted. "Evans, James, Royal. Hell, take your pick. That's why I said I couldn't swear to nothing. All three of 'em have a reason, and none of 'em are the type to let a little thing like murder keep 'em up at night."
"Well, at least we have a starting point." Ezra sighed. "Yosemite, we appreciate the information."
Yosemite nodded. "No thanks needed, fellas. Just make sure that murderer gets found."
Nathan followed Buck toward Potter's store, keeping one eye on the big gunslinger and the other on the people they were passing. Buck was holding himself in that same tightly controlled fury he'd shown the day before. Most of the folks they passed had the good sense to step out of the way, but a few were foolish enough to offer a greeting. Buck acknowledged those with a growl, leaving Nathan to tip his hat and say something polite to smooth it over.
They'd almost made it to Potter's when Nathan saw what he had been dreading: Arnie Sykes, swaggering up the boardwalk like he owned it. Behind him were four men Nathan recognized as Evans'. The group passed Buck without a second glance, but Sykes stopped in front of Nathan with a sneer already curling his lips. Nathan had a sudden, sharp image of the Sykes in his dream, smirking over the bodies of the people Nathan cared for. He shoved it ruthlessly away.
Sykes eyed Nathan up and down, his eyes narrowing contemptuously. "You're in my way, darkie."
Just on the other side of Evans' men, Buck stopped as if someone had stuck a brick wall in front of him.
Something hot flared in Nathan's throat. He swallowed, forcing a pleasant expression on his face. They couldn't afford a confrontation, not yet. "Excuse me."
He started to go around, only to be stopped as Sykes shifted back into his path. The men with Sykes were smirking. They hadn't noticed Buck turning toward them with a thunderous expression on his face.
"This walkway is for white men." Sykes shoved Nathan to the side. "Darkies walk in the dirt where they belong."
Nathan's burning urge to smash Sykes' face in was only held in check by years of hard-won self-control. Slaves didn't survive if they couldn't take whatever their masters dished out. Neither did a free black man in a world controlled by white men.
"I don't see any signs saying you're in charge," Nathan said evenly. He tried to push past again, intent on grabbing Buck and getting out of there before trouble started.
"Don't need signs. Everybody knows what's right." Sykes' eyes were bright with a predatory look Nathan had seen before. "Get out of my way, boy, before--"
Abruptly, Buck grabbed the two men closest to him and knocked their heads together. Nathan tried to grab for him and found himself staring down the black hole of Sykes' gun barrel. In another second, Buck's gun was pointed at Sykes, and the guns of Evans' other two men were pointed at Buck.
"I'd just put that gun down," Buck said, his voice hard with fury. "Right now."
"This ain't your fight, mister," said the taller of the two men holding a gun on Buck. "Why don't you just walk away?"
"That's my friend, seems like that makes it my fight."
"Why don't you all put your guns down," Nathan suggested. "There's no need for anyone to get killed here."
Buck grinned. "I don't see why not."
"Shut up, both of you!" Sykes bellowed. His eyes were darting from Buck to Nathan and back. Any second, he was going to do something stupid, Nathan could see it as clearly as he saw the gun pointed at his face.
"Got a problem, boys?"
The familiar drawl came from behind Nathan. He couldn't see Vin, but he could picture the tracker's steady gaze and deceptively casual grip on his rifle.
"Got a bug that needs stomping on," Buck answered.
"No problem," Nathan broke in. "Not as long as these gentlemen don't make one."
"Then I'd suggest that these gentlemen take the opportunity to find a different and more hospitable locale." Ezra stepped up behind the two men who had drawn on Buck, covering them with one gun and the two who were still unconscious with the other.
"Let's go, Sykes. This ain't worth it," the taller of Evans' men said.
"Wise man," Ezra commented. "Don't forget your colleagues down there."
Slowly the two men holstered their guns and reached down to grab their friends. For a moment, Nathan didn't think Sykes would follow them. He almost hoped Sykes would stay.
"This ain't over," Sykes growled, and shoved past Nathan to follow his friends.
Vin came up behind Nathan, squeezing his shoulder. "So that was Sykes."
Buck holstered his gun with a sharp shove. "I should've shot him when I had the chance."
"Your hindsight may prove prophetic, my friend." Ezra turned his gaze away from the departing gunmen. "In the meantime, might I suggest a libation?"
"We were headed over to talk to Mrs. Potter," Nathan said. He'd rather get a drink. Something hard to burn away the hate in his throat.
"I have a few necessities to purchase anyway," Ezra said. "Why don't you precede me to the saloon, and I'll join you after I interview Mrs. Potter."
"Thanks, Ezra." Vin gave Nathan a gentle shove before he had a chance to argue and grabbed Buck's arm as Buck started in the direction Sykes had gone. "Come on, Buck. I'm buying."
Mrs. Potter's store hadn't changed. Each item still sat neatly in its place, down to the glass jars of rock candy and licorice next to the cash register. Gloria Potter gave him a welcoming smile before turning back to the gray-haired matron who was comparing fabrics at the counter. Ezra found some soap and a jar of bootblack, then went to the counter to wait for Mrs. Potter to be finished.
"I like the gingham, but the blue might be more practical," the matron said.
"The gingham is nice," Mrs. Potter agreed.
"I just don't know, Gloria. Can you set them aside for me for a few days? I need to think on it."
"Of course I can, Elizabeth. Just come back when you know which one you want."
The matron turned and stopped suddenly as she spotted Ezra, her nose wrinkling as if she smelled something bad.
"I thought your lot was gone for good," she snapped.
Ezra tipped his hat. "I was unable to remain away from a town filled with beauties such as yourself, madam."
She sniffed. "This town doesn't need troublemakers like you running around ready to start shooting at anything that gets in your way."
"No, ma'am," Ezra agreed blandly, "I'm sure it had quite enough troublemakers without the presence of myself or my colleagues."
"We might stand a chance of being civilized one day if your kind would leave." The matron sniffed again, then turned back to Mrs. Potter, "Good day, Gloria. I'll be back about the fabric before the end of the week."
"Good day, Elizabeth."
Ezra was pleased to hear a slight coldness in Mrs. Potter's tone that hadn't been there before her customer's diatribe. He'd heard similar sentiments too often to let the matron's words bother him, but Mrs. Potter had been a friend from the beginning. He would have regretted the loss of her regard.
"Mr. Standish, it's good to see you." Mrs. Potter gave him a bright smile that didn't quite remove the tired lines around her eyes. She still dressed in full mourning, but Ezra thought that she looked more drained now than she had in the months after her husband's death. "What can I help you with today?"
"I need to purchase these." Ezra set his items on the counter. "I would also appreciate some information, if you don't mind."
"Of course. I imagine you're here to find out who killed JD?"
"That is our goal," Ezra agreed. "What can you tell me of what happened?"
Mrs. Potter sighed. "To be honest, Mr. Standish, I don't know if I can tell you much that's of any use." Absently, she rang up his purchases as she thought. "Fifty-three cents." After handing Ezra the soap and bootblack, she pulled a rag out of her pocket and started dusting the counter, frowning slightly. "Things started getting bad after you all left. At first, it wasn't too terrible. Ranch hands carousing on Saturday night, a couple of the saloon ladies being treated roughly, some bar brawls. Nothing even as bad as it was before the judge hired you, and JD did his best to deal with each problem as it came up. He did fairly well."
"Was there anyone in particular that he had difficulty with? Someone who might be angry enough to kill him?" Ezra asked.
"That's hard to say." Mrs. Potter frowned. "I remember a pair of cowboys he locked up for shooting up Main Street one Saturday night. They were drunk and hollering all sorts of threats when he took them in, but they were civil enough when they left. I've heard some of Stuart James's boys talking about what they'd do if they got any of you in a dark alley, but most of those boys are all thunder and no rain since Lucas was put away." She shrugged. "Whether any of those men would actually try to murder JD, I don't know."
Ezra nodded. Her answer wasn't much different from Yosemite's take on the situation. He'd much prefer that someone point a finger at a specific suspect, but at least they were getting a place to start. James, Royal, and perhaps . . .
"What of Mr. Evans and Mr. Sykes? Their names keep coming up."
"Oh, yes. Them." Mrs. Potter's expression clearly indicated her opinion. "Ruffians, the both of them, even if Colter Evans does try to act like he's a gentleman."
"I've heard JD had altercations with Mr. Sykes." Ezra kept his voice neutral, but the memory of the man rankled. If JD had encountered difficulties with the little bastard, Ezra was absolutely certain that the blame lay at Sykes' feet.
"Mr. Sykes likes to think he runs this town," Mrs. Potter said darkly. "He and JD certainly had words on more than one occasion." She bit her lip, staring down at the counter for a long moment before continuing. "Mr. Standish, you know the debt I owe that young man. He was one of the few people in this town willing to make sure my husband got justice, and he stepped up to the task when no one else would. And Arnie Sykes is the lowest form of low-life ever to crawl out of a cesspit and pretend he was someone important. He pushed JD every chance he got. In my heart, I wouldn't be surprised to find out he was behind JD's murder." She looked up. "But I can't tell you that he was. I don't know of a single thing that proves he was involved, except what my heart tells me is so."
Ezra nodded. "I understand. We have no wish to hang an innocent man, and every desire to make sure the miscreant behind JD's demise is brought to justice."
Mrs. Potter gave him a firm look. "You do that, Mr. Standish. And be careful. This town isn't what it used to be."
The sunset blazed across the sky like someone had set the horizon afire. Vin tipped back in his chair, leaning against the wall as he enjoyed the view. There was something comforting about the sunset; it happened every day, no matter what troubles had taken place in the world beneath. Many a night Vin had spent here in front of the jail, chewing the fat with his friends or just watching the town wind down for the night.
Tonight should have been like these other nights. Nathan sat in the chair beside him. On the step, Ezra idly shuffled a deck of cards. Voices down the street called to one another, a horse stomped at the hitching post in front of the saloon, and young Bruce Conway made his way up the street, lighting the watch fires. Nothing appeared different from any given night five months before.
Nothing except the empty spots on the porch. Josiah would be along when he got the mind to, but Buck had left the saloon after several drinks and Vin had no idea where he'd gotten himself to. Then there was Chris, disappeared into whatever hell he'd crafted for himself.
Vin sighed, letting his eyes stray in the direction of the cemetery. Things were just too damn quiet now.
Beside him, Nathan shifted in his seat, crossing his arms and leaning back to glare at the street. It was rare to see Nathan without something in his hands to work on. Ever since the run-in with Sykes that morning, Nathan had been silent and still and smoldering. Vin wanted to say something to ease the anger in his eyes, but as usual, the words got tangled up inside his mind and wouldn't come out. He'd had to settle for staying close and buying a few rounds of whiskey, which in the long run was probably about as useful as any speeches he might be inclined to give.
Ezra was quiet as well, although he seemed more thoughtful than angry. He'd told them about talking with the townswoman and Mrs. Potter, and about Mrs. Potter's belief that Sykes might be behind JD's murder. Nathan had broken his silence with a bitter laugh before going back to his angry contemplation of the space in front of him.
Vin broke out of his own thoughts as Josiah came around the corner with Mary Travis at his side. Vin rose quickly to his feet, Ezra and Nathan joining him a second later.
"Gentlemen," Mary said as she came up the steps. "Vin, Ezra, it's good to see you back."
"It's a pleasure to see you again, Mary, although the circumstances are regrettable," Ezra answered.
"Would you like to sit down, ma'am?" Vin stepped away from his chair.
"Thank you." Mary sat, her eyes moving from one face to the next. "Josiah tells me that you've begun investigating JD's murder."
"We've been asking some questions," Vin agreed. "Getting some interesting answers, too."
"I want to help in any way I can." Mary frowned. "Didn't Buck come back also?"
"We returned from the Crescent City together," Ezra replied as he settled back on the step. "I believe he is visiting the cemetery at the moment. He said something about paying his respects."
"How is he?"
Ezra looked down at the cards in his hand. "He seems to be finding this experience particularly trying."
"You reckon he should be down there by himself?" Nathan looked down the street toward the cemetery as if he thought he could see Buck from there.
"Some things, even the presence of friends can't make easier," Josiah said, dropping a hand on Nathan's shoulder when the healer looked as if he were about to start out for the cemetery. "Give him time, Nathan."
Nathan nodded, but the frown didn't leave his face as he sat down beside Ezra. Josiah turned to Mary.
"You were telling me a mighty interesting story while we walked over here. You mind filling the boys in?"
Mary nodded. "I don't know that it has any bearing on JD, though." She looked at the other men. "We were discussing the changes the town has been through these past few months."
"Such as this Evans fellow?" Ezra asked.
"I suppose you could say he is at the root of it," Mary agreed. "When he arrived with his men, it was supposedly to build a small ranch west of town. He seems more interested in buying up every piece of property he can get his hands on in town."
"Ruby at the saloon said he was trying to scare people into selling," Josiah added.
"Why would he want all that property?" Vin asked.
"The railroad," Mary answered. "Orin wrote me about it. Tracks are set to be laid down sometime next year. This town will absolutely explode when that happens."
"And whoever owns all the property . . . " Vin started.
Mary nodded. "Will be in position to become very, very rich." She laughed, but it didn't sound particularly humorous. "It's ironic, really."
"How much trouble the railroad has caused this town, and yet it was only confirmed that they would come through here within the last month." Mary looked down at her hands, folded tightly in her lap. "The--the land deeds. The ones Steven was investigating. There was a man named Jonathan Case who was interested in them. He always believed the railroad would go through those tracts of land. Wheeler and Elliot ran him out of town so they could get the deeds before he did." She sighed. "Steven wouldn't run."
Nathan shook his head. "I forgot about that. I thought the whole town would go up in flames before Case finally left."
"Sounds like a charming fellow," Ezra commented.
"Jonathan Case was a businessman and an opportunist. He would do anything to get ahead, but he did have exquisite manners." Mary smiled faintly. "I believe he viewed himself as something of a founding father for the town. Many people in town felt that he was in the right during the dispute because at some point or another, he had helped them out. But Wheeler and Elliot were powerful men, too, and they had powerful friends. Jonathan was eventually run out of town in disgrace. Steven, of course, was following the story. That's how he discovered the land deed scam."
Ezra frowned, and Vin could almost see the thoughts racing behind his eyes.
"Perhaps history is repeating itself. Perhaps Evans is hoping to acquire property, and JD, like the late Mr. Travis, learned too much," Ezra suggested.
Vin nodded. "Makes sense. Think I'll ride out to Evans' place tomorrow and have a look around. Anyone want to come?"
"I'll go with you," Nathan answered.
Something in his voice made Vin look at him sharply, but he had gone back to his contemplation of the street.
"Mrs. Potter mentioned a pair of cowboys who made threats against JD, as well as some threats from Stuart James' men," Ezra said. "Josiah, would you care to accompany me to interrogate those suspects?"
"I'd be happy to," Josiah answered. "And maybe swing by Guy Royal's place, too."
Now Vin gave him a sharp look. "You just stay out of trouble. We don't need no more battles than we already got."
Josiah grinned. "Now why would you think I'd be getting into trouble?"
Vin closed his eyes and sighed.
The earth still had a raw look, darker clots torn from the gray soil and piled on the grave. Buck could see wispy clumps of scrub grass tossed in with the dirt, waving listlessly in the breeze. He stopped a few feet away from the grave, unable to complete those last few steps. It was crazy, the thought that if he didn't go any closer, didn't see the name on the wooden cross, that somehow it wouldn't be real. It was crazy, but he thought it anyway, and clung to the idea for a long moment before cursing himself for a coward and stepping forward.
Buck shuddered as he stared at the words. Real, yet so wrong. Of all of them, the kid should have lived the longest. He was the youngest, filled with a life and enthusiasm that had burned out of the rest of them years before. He should still be alive.
And would be, if you hadn't left, the insidious voice at the back of Buck's mind whispered. If you hadn't abandoned him. He depended on you.
Closing his eyes, Buck shook his head tiredly. Not to deny the words; they were truth as surely as if they'd been etched in stone and handed down by the Almighty himself. No, he just wished for quiet, a moment to remember his friend in peace. Just a moment, and then he'd go back to the business of self-recrimination and revenge.
But his own conscience played traitor, refusing him even those few minutes of simple mourning. Savagely, it threw images at him that were all too familiar: Sarah and Adam Larabee waving as he rode out with Chris, never to see them alive again. JD in the sheriff's office, so earnest as he tried to explain why he wouldn't leave with Buck and Ezra. The charred remains of a lovingly built home. Before him now, a simple wooden cross carved with accusing words.
Cursing, Buck turned away. He really needed a drink.
Five: Trampling Out the Vintage
He hid just in time, and is hiding still. He is so tired. They were almost upon him before he noticed. If he had not stumbled and fallen to the ground, they would have seen him as they rode by.
His heart pounds, shaking his whole body. A sweet, familiar voice calls his name. He looks up into the beautiful dark eyes of his mother. Aching, he reaches for her.
She is not there.
The tears come, but instinct keeps him silent.
Another sunrise, this one resplendent with pink and gold. A fork in the road leading on the one hand down a wide, wagon-rutted dirt road and on the other, down a narrower, almost overgrown path.
A man in black on a black gelding, contemplating the two roads.
And, after a time, a plume of dust rising off the road less traveled.
Josiah had been an early riser since boyhood. His father had insisted on it, denouncing the sin of sloth as he pulled his offspring from bed before the first streaks of sunrise had cleared the horizon. In time, Josiah had come to appreciate the serenity to be found in the early morning, before the toil and conflict of the day arrived to distract his thoughts.
He liked to stir up the fire and boil water for his coffee while he performed his morning ablutions. His father had always made him recite Psalms as part of the ritual, but this morning, Josiah felt the strains of "Clementine" rise to his lips. He hummed it quietly while stropping his razor blade.
Squinting into the little mirror hung on his wall, he scraped the blade through the lather on his cheek. Vanity, a deep voice whispered in the back of his mind. He nodded with a certain satisfaction. Vain it surely was to worry over standing in front of the always-dapper Guy Royal looking like a vagabond. Even so, Josiah was wearing his cleaner shirt today. As for the rest, he would leave it to Ezra. Ezra could out-dapper the entire Territory even on a bad day.
The coffee had brewed by the time he finished his grooming. Taking the pot and a couple of mugs, he went out to sit on the porch. Ezra would be a while yet.
The town was barely awake. Josiah sipped at his coffee, listening to those first stirrings that told him he wasn't alone in the world. Usually, Mrs. Potter was the first person he would see as she stepped out her door to sweep her stoop. She would give him a friendly wave and sometimes call him over to help her lift something or to give him a few slices of fresh-baked bread or pie. Mrs. Potter seemed convinced that any male in town not living with his wife or mother must be on the brink of starvation.
Today, even before Mrs. Potter had made her appearance, Josiah saw a lone figure ambling down the street. Josiah raised an eyebrow. Given the way Buck had been drinking the night before, Josiah wouldn't have expected to see him until noon, at least.
"You're up early," Josiah commented as Buck came into earshot. "Busy night?"
"Bella don't like anybody lingering on washing day," Buck answered shortly. There was no hint of the lascivious grin that would usually accompany such a statement.
"She's a hard woman," Josiah agreed. He'd had his own run-ins with Miss Bella, who ruled the second floor of the saloon with an iron fist. "Coffee?"
Buck took the mug Josiah held out to him and sat down on the step. He didn't seem inclined to talk, so Josiah let him be for the moment. The coffee tasted better hot, anyway.
It wasn't until after Mrs. Potter swept her stoop clean and he'd drained the last dregs in his cup that Josiah decided to poke around a little.
"You look like something's weighing on your mind, my friend."
Buck gave him a long, cold look. "Not much in the mood to talk about it."
"You got to clean out a wound before it'll heal."
Buck snorted. "I ain't the one who got hurt."
Josiah gave him a sharp look. "We all got hurt, Buck. Like having an arm cut off. It won't ever grow back, but maybe we can learn to live without it if we try."
"It never should have happened in the first place." Buck swilled the coffee around in his mug. "I'll worry about living when I'm done making sure the people responsible are all dead."
"Hating's a hard habit to break."
Buck laughed bitterly. "Then maybe I won't break it."
That was exactly what Josiah was worried about. "JD wouldn't want . . ."
"If I'd worried less about what he wanted, he'd be in New Orleans with me and Ezra right now." Buck stared down into his cup. "I should've hauled his scrawny butt out of here even if he kicked up a fuss the whole way. Or stayed myself and just told Chris to go to hell. Ain't like he don't know the way."
Josiah still hadn't come up with an answer for that when he saw Ezra approaching from the hotel.
"Good morning, gentlemen."
"Morning, Ezra," Josiah answered, a little relieved at the interruption. "Have some coffee?"
"Having partaken of your finely brewed turpentine before, I do believe I'll pass, thank you," Ezra answered, absently straightening his cuffs. "Buck, will you be joining us this fine morning?"
"Where you headed?" Buck asked without much interest.
"We're going to pay a little visit to Guy Royal and Stuart James. We'll probably swing by the Dorough place on the way out," Josiah answered. "Every one of those folks might have reason to want JD dead, so we thought we'd poke around a bit and see if we can get some answers out of them."
Buck frowned. "Seems to me it'd make more sense to corner that Sykes fellow."
"Vin and Nathan are endeavoring to learn more from that quarter," Ezra replied. "We thought it wise to check out all our potential opponents' decks, as it were, before we played our own hand."
Buck shrugged. "You do what you want. I'm going to have me another chat with Sykes. I think it's about time he started telling what he knows."
"Man like him, I'd be surprised if he knew where his own feet were." Josiah stood with a grunt, wincing at the creak in his knees. "Going to be midnight before we get there if we don't get going soon."
"Lead the way, my friend," Ezra replied.
They headed for the Dorough place first. It was a small spread set out on the scrubby land left over after Royal, James, and the other big-name ranchers had staked their claims. The log cabin where the two brothers lived was well built and obviously cared for. The older of the two brothers, Robert, was standing out on the porch, sipping a cup of coffee as he watched Josiah and Ezra ride up.
"Morning, boys," he called when they drew near. "Something I can do for you?"
He had a faint Irish accent that went with his black hair and blue eyes. His expression was friendly, no signs of guilt that Josiah could see.
"It's a fine morning for a ride," Ezra said blandly. "I haven't been out this way in some time. You've done quite a bit with the place."
Robert nodded, looking around with a proud smile. "It's nothing fancy, to be sure, but me and Sam put a lot of sweat into it. It's coming along."
Behind him, the door opened, and a slightly shorter and wider version of Robert came out.
"Hey, Robbie, you didn't say we had visitors." Samuel Dorough gave them both a friendly, if questioning, smile. "We don't get many folks out this way. What brings you out?"
"We were just going for a ride, enjoying the fine weather," Josiah answered. "Haven't seen you boys in town for a while, so we thought we'd check and make sure everything's all right."
Robert shrugged. "We don't get into town much. There's only the two of us, and it takes us both to keep the place running smoothly. We only go to town about once a month or so for supplies."
"And a bit of fun," Sam added.
He gave Robert a sly look. Josiah couldn't help but notice the sudden redness in Robert's cheeks.
"Robbie here likes his liquor," Sam continued cheerfully. "And singing."
"You made just as much a fool of yourself as I did," Robert snapped, then glanced at Ezra and Josiah as if he'd forgotten they were there. "We celebrated a little too much last time we made it to town. Ended up spending the night in jail, which was no more than we deserved. Our Sam likes to tell the story like I was the only one drinking."
"Hell of a way to end your night on the town," Josiah commented sympathetically.
Robert shrugged again. "Like I said, no more than we deserved. Probably should have gotten worse, if the truth be told. The sheriff just made us sleep it off and pay for our breakfast. He could have done a lot more, and we both knew it. He's a decent fellow and a good sheriff, even if he's not much older than our Sam."
Ezra gave them both a sharp look. "You haven't heard, then?"
"Heard what?" Sam asked. "Like I said, we don't get visitors much. We haven't heard anything but cows bawling since the last time we were in town."
"The sheriff was murdered a couple of weeks ago."
Both brothers looked shocked. As he studied their faces, Josiah was pretty sure they weren't faking.
"The Blessed Virgin keep him," Robert murmured, and Sam crossed himself. "How did it happen?"
Josiah sighed. "No one knows. Lots of people had reason, but no one saw the shooting to say who did it."
Sam shook his head. "That's a terrible thing. You'll be looking for the murderer, then?"
"That's our intention," Ezra agreed.
"I hope you find him soon. It's not right, a decent man like the sheriff being shot and the man who did it going free."
"That's the truth," Josiah said. "We'd best be moving along. Good to see you boys again."
Sam nodded. "You too, Preacher. Come by any time."
When they were out of earshot, Josiah looked over at Ezra. "You thinking what I'm thinking?"
"That those boys aren't guilty of more than youth and the occasional bout of boorish behavior?" Ezra nodded. "Unless they are consummate actors, I am positive that neither knows anything of JD's death."
As the crow flew, Stuart James' compound wasn't too far from the Dorough's cabin. The place was quieter than the last time they'd been there, with only a few men in evidence by the barn and one keeping watch up on the ledge above the entryway. Apparently a runner had been sent to the main house, because Stuart James came out onto the porch as they approached, flanked on either side by men Josiah had seen before, but didn't know by name. He suspected that he might have held a gun on at least one of them, given the way the shorter one on the left was glaring at him.
"Gentlemen," James said without much warmth. "I'd invite you in, but I don't like you that much. What do you want?"
Josiah could appreciate a man who took the direct approach. He favored it himself. "You know JD Dunne was murdered a few weeks ago."
"And you think I had a hand in it."
"The thought crossed our minds," Ezra said dryly.
James laughed, a short, hard sound. "If I did, what makes you think I'd be fool enough to admit it?"
Josiah shrugged. "Don't need a confession if we got proof."
"Which you won't get, because I didn't have anything to do with it." James spat onto the ground. "Not that I mind the kid being dead. I had no liking for him after what he did to Lucas, and I never made a secret of that. But I pride myself in being a man who doesn't make the same mistake twice. I went up against you boys and that pig-headed judge once and lost my nephew to a cell in the penitentiary. I didn't hate the kid enough to risk losing everything else just to see him dead."
"Can you prove that?" Ezra asked.
James' eyes narrowed. "You calling me a liar on my own property, mister?"
Ezra gave him a cool smile. "I'm merely attempting to ascertain the veracity of your statement, sir."
"And I'm merely going to ask these boys to blow your asses out of those saddles if you're not off my property in the next two minutes."
"Then you have no proof?"
"My word is the only proof I've ever needed." James turned back toward the house. "Good day, gentlemen."
Josiah turned his horse and rode out without any great haste, even though his back itched with the thought of the rifles pointed at it. Beside him, Ezra kept to the same pace, his hand resting on his revolver.
"I don't think he likes us much," Josiah commented once they were out of the compound.
"You don't say." Ezra shook his head. "I wish I could be as certain of his innocence as I could be of his dislike."
"You think he was involved?"
Ezra was silent for several minutes. Finally, he said, "I'm not sure. I didn't see anything that convinced me he was involved. On the other hand, I would hardly expect him to confess the moment we arrived."
Josiah nodded. "I wouldn't put him at the top of the list of suspects, but I wouldn't take him off, either."
"Precisely." Ezra squinted up at the sky. "I believe we have enough time to visit the Royal spread if we hurry."
Josiah grinned in anticipation. "That sounds like a good plan to me."
Ezra shot him a worried glance. "Perhaps you should let me do the talking?"
Guy Royal wasn't any happier to see them than Stuart James had been. Josiah considered the feeling mutual.
"You think I murdered that boy?" Royal asked. He laughed sharply. "If I were to kill any of you, it would be that big ape over there, not a boy playing at wearing a badge."
Josiah bared his teeth in an insincere smile. "Why don't you try it."
"Perhaps when we don't have a previous engagement," Ezra said smoothly. "Mr. Royal, do you have any proof to offer that you were not involved in Mr. Dunne's murder?"
Royal gave them a scornful glare. "If I had wanted Mr. Dunne dead, he would have been dead months ago."
They got nothing further out of him. Riding away, Josiah entertained himself with visions of beating the smirk off Royal's face until Ezra interrupted his thoughts.
"I'm afraid I'm somewhat inclined to believe the reprobate."
"That he didn't have JD killed?" Josiah shrugged. "I wouldn't put it past him, but he's arrogant enough that he probably wouldn't bother hiding it."
"So we're back where we started." Ezra sighed.
"We'll just have to hope Vin and Nathan got further than we did."
In Chris's mind, his home still burned. The sight of the charred, still smoking timbers had etched itself on his brain, blotting out the memory of happier times.
Nature had a shorter memory. Already grass grew up through the blackened floorboards. In the yard, scrub bushes were taking over the area Chris had cleared for Sarah's garden. A bird's nest peeked out of the house's partially exposed rafters.
Chris closed his eyes, swallowing irrational anger. Nature was what it was. It didn't mourn, but neither did it deliberately set out to eradicate all traces of Chris's family. That crime lay on other shoulders, and someday Chris would see justice done.
Turning away, Chris walked the short distance to the spot where he had dug their graves. There, too, grass had grown up, but at least the wooden crosses he had erected still stood. Kneeling, Chris rested the palm of his hand first on Sarah's grave, and then on Adam's.
His beautiful girl. His boy, so earnest one moment and so gleeful the next. They had changed his life, changed him. Before he fell in love with Sarah, he had been a carefree gun-for-hire who never thought past the next good time. Sarah had turned him into a man who enjoyed nothing more than a night spent in front of his own hearth, Sarah humming as she sewed something in her rocker across the fire, and Adam giggling on the floor between them, like as not leading his wooden Indians on a charge against Buck's cavalry men. All that had been stolen from him in an act of cowardice he would never forgive.
The last time he had been out here, he'd thought he might finally be closing in on the killers. Fowler's death had destroyed Chris's hope, leaving him feeling like he had failed his family again. He had fought the feeling as long as he could, throwing himself into his job as peacekeeper during the day and making sure he had enough whiskey in him of a night that he could sleep without dreams.
Days in the hole at the prison outside Jericho had stripped him of all that. With nothing to distract him, the memories stampeded through his mind. Each one only pounded the truth in harder than the last. He had failed his family, left them alone to die and hadn't even brought their murderers to justice. He should have been the one to die, not Sarah and Adam.
"I'm sorry," he said to them, his voice rough from disuse. "I'm so sorry."
Chris wasn't superstitious. The wind that ruffled his hair just then, brushing across his forehead just like Sarah's fingers used to, was nothing more than an everyday breeze. But the thought of Sarah standing nearby, seeing him like this, made him abruptly ashamed. She would not have been proud.
Not of his drinking, not of his brawling, not of his furious attempts to push away anyone who tried to help him. Most of all, not of his abandonment of the town into the hands of a greenhorn kid who deserved more than to die young just because the men he called friends weren't around to back him up.
"You made a promise," she would have said, her eyes snapping angry fire, "to watch out for those folks and lead those men. And if there's one thing I can't abide, Christopher Larabee, it's a man who won't keep his promises."
Chris bowed his head. The one thing he couldn't abide was Sarah's scorn. He would have walked through hell on a Sunday to avoid it. And yet, here he was.
"I'm sorry," he said again. With one last, lingering look, he stood and went back to his horse.
As he rode away, the wind danced again through the trees, sending a shower of brightly colored leaves to cover the graves.
Nathan let Vin lead the way toward Evans' ranch, following the tracker's chosen path without question. It wasn't that Nathan didn't know his way around the woods. The need to avoid slave catchers' dogs had taught him well. But all the knowledge in the world couldn't compare to Vin's natural instincts, so Nathan followed, putting his feet where Vin pointed and avoiding the areas that Vin didn't walk.
Soon enough, Vin led him to a small, tree-covered rise that looked down on Evans' ranch house. From that vantage point, they had a clear view of the front and side of the house, but couldn't be seen by the men working around the barn and corral, or by the sentries on duty on the front porch and a short distance up the road.
"Looks like they're ready for a war," Vin whispered into Nathan's ear.
Nathan nodded. Though the distance made exact details hard to make out, it was obvious that a large number of well-armed men were working down in the yard. They were unloading boxes that, from the size, stood a good chance of carrying rifles and ammunition.
"How many men you figure are down there?" he murmured.
Vin shrugged. "Could be ten, fifteen. Hard to tell with them coming in and out of the barn like that. But those two bunkhouses over there could each hold twenty men, easy."
Nathan squinted in the direction Vin had indicated. He'd been too busy watching the men to notice, but there were two bunkhouses and another barn up against the trees on the far side of the yard.
"You could probably fit thirty in a pinch," he agreed. "Guess we'll have to get a closer look to know for sure. You want to split up?"
Vin gave him a look that Nathan couldn't read. For a moment, he seemed like he was going to argue, but in the end, all he said was, "Watch your back."
Waiting until Vin had disappeared into the shadows in the direction of the main barn, Nathan headed off in the other direction. Trees encircled Evans' yard, leaving the route toward the bunkhouses fairly concealed. Nathan moved as quietly as he knew how, but even so, twigs and leaves crackled under his feet. Cautiously, he skirted wide around the areas close to where Evans' men worked.
He could hear voices, orders and curses mixing with ordinary conversation. Moving away from them, he circled along the perimeter of the trees until he finally reached the bunkhouses. Small, glass-covered windows dotted the walls of the closest building. Keeping low to the ground, Nathan crept up to the nearest window and raised his head to peer inside.
The glass was grimy, but enough light came through from the open front door to see into the bunkhouse. From Nathan's perspective, he could count at least twenty-four bunks, all showing signs that someone had inhabited them recently.
That didn't look promising. Even if the other bunkhouse was empty, Evans had obviously assembled a strong force. Bringing them down wouldn't be easy. The thought lit a fire in Nathan's belly. He was more than ready to get started.
Moving on to the second bunkhouse, Nathan found an identical set-up. More than twenty bunks, all obviously used. And the barn, when Nathan slipped in the back door, contained in addition to the horses, a storeroom full of the same long boxes that the men had been unloading into the other barn.
During the War, Nathan had seen the supply wagons bringing in fresh ammunition for entire companies. He could remember thinking how much death had been carried in those wagons. He had hoped, once the War was over, never to see it equaled again.
Today, he did.
A sudden creaking from the front door sent him slipping into the shadows. Peering around the corner, Nathan watched as two men entered the barn. He didn't know one of them, but the other made him clench his fists and swear softly under his breath.
"I signed on to take on the town, not those gunslingers," the taller man was saying as he walked over to one of the stalls. "I ain't sure . . . "
Arnie Sykes snorted. "Hell, Slim, you know they ain't no match for us. We outnumber them almost ten to one."
"Yeah, but if they find out about . . . "
"They ain't gonna find out." Sykes grabbed the blanket hanging off the nearest stall door and entered the stall, clucking at the roan that walked up to meet him. "That's what those rifles are for. That, and scaring the backbone out of Royal and James."
"Rifles don't do much good if they come up from behind looking for pay back."
"They ain't got no reason to think they need pay back. And that type likes things all proper and lawful. They ain't gonna shoot anyone in the back." Scratching the nose of his horse, Sykes laughed shortly. "They ain't no smarter than that damn fool kid sheriff was."
"Kid caused us enough trouble, smart or . . . "
"One kid, five gunslingers, a posse of Texas Rangers, it don't matter. We got them out-gunned and out-manned. They won't be any trouble."
"I sure as hell hope not, Arnie."
They finished saddling their horses in silence. Nathan stayed still until they were gone, then left the same way he had come in.
During his bounty hunting days, Vin had found that the best place to hide was often in plain sight. He wanted to get closer to the main house and barn, but both sat out in the middle of the yard with no cover to speak of. If he went sneaking up to the house, he was sure to be seen. However, there was a lot of activity going on, and if he went in looking like he was just another hand doing his job, there stood a good chance that no one would notice him.
He scouted around a bit, finally spotting a wheelbarrow half-filled with grain bags near the barn. Walking as if he belonged, he went over to it and shoved the bags around, taking the opportunity to glance inside the barn. It was a large barn, with more horses than he could count in such a quick glance. The men at work unloading the ammo boxes were carrying them through the main section of the barn into a room in the back.
Wary of drawing attention, Vin didn't stay there long. He finished arranging the bags and started pushing the wheelbarrow toward the main house. Two men stood on the porch now, both smoking cigarettes as they watched the men work. They both looked better dressed than the hands; Vin figured it was a good bet that one of them would be Evans. If so, he wanted to hear what the man had to say.
Pulling to a stop near the porch, Vin knelt and started playing with the wheel as if it had come loose. He focused most of his attention on the voices drifting toward him.
"I must admit, I had expected to be further along at this point," the older of the two men was saying.
Vin risked a look up. The first speaker was a man of about fifty, tall and distinguished looking with black hair turning to silver at the temples and a silver mustache. He dressed a lot like Ezra, his clothing obviously tailored to fit him. The other man was likely in his thirties, with brown hair and a darkly tanned face that spoke of time spent weathering the elements. He wore a black ten-gallon hat and the denim pants and cotton shirt of a typical cowhand. If Vin had passed him in the street, he wouldn't have taken special note of him, except to see that he carried himself with the confidence of a man who had faced trouble and lived through it.
The younger one was Evans, Vin decided. He fit the descriptions given by Josiah and Nathan and by the folks in town that Vin had talked to. But who was the man Evans answered to?
"The men have encountered problems that we didn't anticipate, sir," Evans continued. "Dunne proved more stubborn than I expected, and his death seems to have drawn back the rest of the gang like flies to a corpse. Some of the townspeople are taking their return as an excuse to refuse our offers."
"Then you'll just have to make the offer more compelling, won't you? What of the ranchers?"
"They're not proving open to negotiation, but we had anticipated that. We'll have to run them off."
"Not until I have control of the town," the older man said sharply. "And these gunslingers? How much trouble are you suspecting there?"
"They were working for that federal judge before they all took off," Evans answered. "Even if they're not working for him anymore, he might notice them all disappearing from the same place at the same time. I want to poke around a little to see how close they are to the judge before I make any firm plans, but most likely we'll have to stage something that gives a good explanation for them all ending up dead. Maybe a run-in with a band of renegade Apaches or bank robbers. Something that can't be attached to us."
The older man sighed. "Just remember we're on a schedule, Evans. Take too long, and all your work will be for nothing."
"Yes, sir. It'll be done on time."
"See that it is."
As the older man turned to go back into the house, Vin picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow again and started back the way he came. He was almost at the barn when he heard someone come up behind him.
"Hey, you, that grain needs to go over to the other barn, not this one," a voice called.
Vin glanced back, wondering if he was going to have to go for his gun. Luckily, the man talking to him had a box of ammo on his shoulder and seemed more interested in balancing it than in noticing that Vin didn't belong.
"Sorry. I'll get it right over there," Vin said. His back prickled as he altered his course, expecting at any second to hear someone shout after him. Or worse, to feel a bullet plow into him. Every step made the prickling stronger, but nothing happened.
Finally, he reached the second barn. Without looking over his shoulder, he parked the wheelbarrow next to the door and kept walking around the barn and back toward the trees. Only when he had reached their relative safety did he dare turn and look. Business continued in the yard as if he had never been there. With a sigh of relief, Vin slipped into the shadows and headed back to the horses.
Buck had spent most of the morning hunting for Arnie Sykes. By noon, he had to concede that Sykes wasn't anywhere to be found in town. He had also walked off most of the effects of the previous night's alcohol, leaving him unpleasantly clear-headed. The saloon beckoned, but he had one more place to go first. After a quick stop at the stable to collect his belongings, he headed down the street to the boarding house.
The widow Spencer ran the boarding house with a poker in one hand and a feather duster in the other. The entire house stayed clean and silent, and woe betide anyone who disrupted either. But good food and comfortable beds more than made up for Mrs. Spencer's iron hand. Buck had rented a room here before; he hoped she had a vacancy now.
"Mr. Wilmington," Mrs. Spencer said as he walked up to the front desk. "You'll be wanting your room again?"
She was a short, round woman with graying blonde hair and an expression that never slipped from stern. Her eyes showed the only hint of softness about her. Before he'd left, Buck had made a game out of trying to get her to crack a smile. As best he could recall, she was winning.
"Any room would do, ma'am."
"The room you were using is empty. There was another man who took it for a short time, but he left town some weeks ago."
"Then I'll take it." Buck reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins.
"Thank you." Mrs. Spencer paused, taking a deep breath. "Mr. Wilmington, there's a matter I could use your assistance with."
For a normally straightforward woman, she seemed hesitant. Frowning, Buck said quietly, "I'll do anything I can, ma'am."
She motioned for him to follow, then led the way back to the small storage room at the end of the first floor hall. Unlocking the door with one of the keys hanging from her belt, she paused again with her hand on the doorknob.
"I didn't know, you see, if he had family somewhere. There was no one around to ask, so I just kept his things here."
Buck's stomach had already tightened even before Mrs. Spencer opened the door. Placed on a shelf along the back wall, the pile of belongings seemed pitifully small: three dog-eared dimestore novels, a pair of neatly folded pants and a shirt, and a wooden box about the size of a cigar box.
Abrubptly, the room wasn't big enough. Buck needed air. Almost against his will, he stepped forward and picked up the box. He gently eased open the latch and lifted the lid.
There wasn't much inside. A couple of envelopes bound with a faded hair ribbon, a small penknife Buck was pretty sure had been Casey's at one time, the stub of a ticket bearing the mark of the Overland Stage Company. And carefully wrapped in a woman's handkerchief, a black leather dauggereotype case containing the image of a dark-haired woman with JD's smile. Buck folded the handkerchief around the case again and set it back into the box, then gathered up the clothes and books with hands that threatened to tremble.
"I'll . . . " He had to swallow against the dryness in his throat. "I'll take care of them."
"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington." Straightening her shoulders, Mrs. Spencer turned and bustled back down the corridor. "If you'll come along, I'll just check and make sure your room is ready for you."
Buck followed, resolutely not looking at his burden. It seemed too light, even lighter than the saddlebags slung over his shoulder. Hardly a fitting legacy at all.
Mrs. Spencer continued on, oblivious to Buck's complete lack of attention. "The room is clean, I can guarantee that, but I don't recall if I put oil in the lantern, and I'm sure there's no water in the pitcher. There hasn't been anyone in the room since that gentleman who took it after you left, and he pulled up stakes right after young Mr. Dunne was killed."
That got Buck's attention. "Who was this fellow?"
Mrs. Spencer glanced back at him, frowning slightly. "An eastern gentleman called Blake. Simon Blake. I wasn't sorry to see him go. He was too secretive for my comfort. He never said what he was in town for, just 'business.' Every time I asked, it was always 'business.' I always felt he was up to something. Mr. Dunne seemed to like him, though."
"They certainly spent time together. I wondered at first if Mr. Dunne was trying to discover what Mr. Blake might be up to, but nothing ever came of that, did it?" She stopped to open the door to Buck's room. "It was probably nothing more than my imagination running away with me, anyway."
Buck stepped inside, moving absently to place the kid's belongings in the drawer of his bureau. With a gentle tug to straighten out the wrinkles in the shirt, he shut the drawer and turned back to Mrs. Spencer.
"This Blake fellow. When did you say he left?"
Mrs. Spencer pursed her lips thoughtfully. "It was right around the time of Mr. Dunne's death. A day or two before, I believe, although there was such a tizzy after the shooting that it's a bit hard to remember."
"Why did he leave?"
Mrs. Spencer snorted. "Business, I suppose. Funny thing, though. I thought I saw him in town the night Mr. Dunne died, even though I know he had been gone at least the day before."
"From what I heard, there were a lot of people in town that night. Might have just been someone who looked like him."
"I suppose," Mrs. Spencer said slowly. "But he had a very distinctive rifle. Very expensive, and made for long-distance hunting, he said. I've never seen one like it before, but the man I saw that night was definitely carrying that rifle." She paused again. "To tell the truth, Mr. Wilmington, I wondered if there might be a connection until I overheard the undertaker say that Mr. Dunne was shot with a shotgun. And Mr. Blake and Mr. Dunne were such friends."
Buck thought for a moment. "Was there anyone else Blake was friendly with?"
"Why, everyone, after a fashion. It seemed like he talked to anyone who crossed his path. Very friendly as long as you didn't want him to talk about himself." She studied him, her stern expression softening slightly into curiosity. "Do you think he had something to do with the murder, Mr. Wilmington?"
Buck's gut told him yes, but he wasn't ready to say so to Mrs. Spencer. Buck shrugged. "I don't know, ma'am, but I sure hope to find out."
Mrs. Spencer nodded. "I'll be leaving you to your room, then. I'll bring up some water and a fresh lamp shortly."
"Thank you, ma'am."
Left alone in his room, Buck busied himself shoving the contents of his saddlebags into drawers. The top drawer called to him, but he refused to open it. He would, when the time was right. But not yet. And in the meantime, the voice of the saloon could drown out anything.
Six: Writ in Burnish'd Rows of Steel
"Enough rifles and ammunition to stock a war," Nathan said wearily. "I don't know what we're getting in the middle of here, Vin, but it sure don't look good."
Vin pulled up his horse to wait for Nathan's. "Looks like an invasion, from what I saw. Trying to take over the whole area."
"All those guns, they just might do it." Nathan sighed, then laughed humorlessly. "At least they don't have all the advantages they think they do."
"When I was in the barn, Sykes and another fellow came in and were talking. All about how they'd have more problems if we knew about something. That army they're building, I figure."
Vin frowned. "I sure hope they don't have something else up their sleeves we ain't found out about yet."
"Bastards. I wouldn't put it past them."
Nathan's voice had a hardness to it that Vin wasn't used to hearing. He shot a concerned glance at the healer. Mouth drawn in a straight line, shoulders rigid, eyes red-rimmed with exhaustion--there was anger there, and something more.
"Something bothering you?"
Nathan shrugged, his expression so set that Vin figured he wasn't going to answer. It wasn't until they'd ridden for several minutes more that Nathan finally spoke.
"Not long before it happened, JD stopped by my room. I was heading out to the reservation for a while, planning on seeing Rain and helping out where I could. Didn't much want to wait around, so when JD said he could use some help with something that had come up, I told him I'd get with him once I got back. He didn't act like it was a big deal, but then he got shot before I ever got back to see what was going on."
"You think whatever he wanted to talk to you about had something to do with him being murdered?"
Nathan shrugged. "Ain't never gonna find out now."
Vin sighed. He'd had his own thoughts about how things might have been different if he'd been around. He knew how thinking that way could eat at a man. What he didn't know was how to make Nathan quit beating himself up.
"Don't do anybody any good trying to change the past," he said finally.
Nathan just grunted and rode on, his back rigid with tension. With another sigh, Vin followed.
There was a certain point where the road heading south to Four Corners met up with the eastern road used by Guy Royal's Circle R hands when they came to town. The land in that area varied from gentle hills to steep cliffs ending abruptly in deep-cut gorges. Most of the ground was too rocky for good grazing and not flat enough to farm. It was rare to see anyone out there who wasn't traveling to or from Four Corners.
When Chris reached the point where the two roads merged and saw two riders headed toward him down the eastern road, he didn't think he was being too cautious by loosening the safety strap on his gun. He didn't relax again until he recognized the two men.
"Ezra. Josiah." He nodded a greeting as they pulled up beside him.
Josiah leaned on his pommel. "Chris. Good to see you."
"Mr. Larabee." Ezra tipped his hat.
Chris studied them, a little surprised at how glad he was to see them. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he'd been unable to stop himself from wondering--if JD was dead, what could have happened to the others? Seeing Josiah and Ezra alive and in one piece was a reassurance he hadn't wanted to think about needing. They both looked more tired than he was used to seeing them. Worn and tense, ready for a threat Chris couldn't see.
A vague, whiskey-tinged memory hit, and he frowned at Ezra. "Thought you were headed for New Orleans."
"We came back." Ezra glanced at Josiah. "Perhaps you haven't heard . . . "
"About JD?" Chris cut him off. "I heard. Figured I'd swing back this way and see if anything needed to be done."
Josiah laughed, the sound harsh and humorless. "Killers need to be caught. Son of a bitch trying to take over the town needs to be stopped. There's plenty to do."
"Then we'd best get on it."
Josiah lifted his reins, but Ezra didn't move. The gambler's expression had an evaluating quality that made Chris edgy before Ezra even opened his mouth.
"Mr. Larabee. You figure you'll be running out on us again in the near future?"
Chris wanted to shoot him. It wasn't a new feeling, but it hadn't been this strong in quite some time. "Wasn't my plan, no."
"Then we would certainly appreciate your assistance."
Ezra urged his horse forward. Chris, trigger finger itching, wheeled his own mount around to follow.
Buck's plan was to spend the rest of the day drunk. Preferably in the company of one of the saloon girls, but he'd settle for a table in a dark corner and a whiskey bottle if necessary.
His luck, as it always seemed to lately, turned against him. He'd barely made it past Potter's store when he heard a voice behind him calling his name. He wanted to ignore it, but innate courtesy and self-preservation forced him to turn, automatically tipping his hat.
"Miss Nettie, how are you?"
Nettie Wells marched down the walk toward him, hands on her hips and a frown on her face.
"Buck Wilmington, it's about time you showed your face around these parts again."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, biting back a sigh as he glanced over his shoulder at the saloon. So close, and yet so far.
Nettie took his arm and turned him, forcing him to walk with her. "I never figured you were gone for good, not when I heard the boy died. I said to myself, they'll be back. They'll come hunting the men who killed young JD."
Buck really didn't want to talk about it, but he couldn't say as much to Nettie without being rude. "Yes, ma'am."
She shot him a sharp glance. "Not an easy thing, is it, losing a friend."
Buck squinted down the street, noting absently that not many people were out in the heat of the afternoon. "Not the first time, nor likely the last. We're just doing what's necessary."
Nettie sighed. "That's the way of it. Now tell me, what're you boys doing to find that killer?"
Frowning, Buck didn't answer immediately. Not because he didn't trust Nettie, but because he suddenly realized he didn't know what the boys' plans were. He'd been too tied up in his own misery to pay attention.
"Just asking around right now. Trying to get a feel for what's been going on," he said finally. It was as good a guess as any.
"If it was me, I'd be looking real hard at folks who might have a reason to hold a grudge."
"Any particular reason you'd say that?"
Nettie shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe just the wanderings of an old woman's fancy."
Buck snorted. "Miss Nettie, I never met a woman who was less inclined to make things up than you."
Nettie stopped walking. They were at the end of town, in front of the church. Not far away stood the gates to the cemetery. Buck kept his eyes turned away.
"JD came out to the farm almost every week for a while there," Nettie said. "Mended fences, fixed some harnesses, whatever odd jobs I needed. He always said he was just riding by, but it didn't take a genius to figure out he was there because of Casey. He was a nice boy, even if he and Casey did fight like cats and dogs. I got to liking him, and Casey . . . well, another year or two, and I doubt they'd have been fighting.
"After you boys took off, JD didn't come out as often. Too busy being sheriff, I guess, and then I sent Casey back East to stay with her cousins for a year. Seemed the best idea after those hooligans of Evans' took notice of her. When JD was killed, I was glad she was gone." Nettie sighed. "No telling what that girl would have tried to do."
She was quiet for a minute, staring off toward the cemetery. "But I was thinking, after the funeral, how I'd been seeing JD with another young man, one who didn't look like anyone from these parts. An Easterner, from his dress. I got to wondering what that Eastern fellow was doing here, and why he wasn't at JD's funeral or anywhere about town afterward. When I asked, no one seemed to know anything about him. But I didn't really think anything of it until I came upon Guy Royal in the street one day, and he was jawing away about how it was about time the town had real law--by which he meant law he could buy, I'm sure. It started me thinking about how that man likes to hire out his dirty work, and how he'd benefit from owning the new sheriff, whoever that might be."
Buck frowned. "Are you saying this Easterner was a hired gun?"
"I'm saying the thought crossed my mind. It might be worth your time to figure out where that Eastern fellow ran off to."
"Even if he was, there's no proof Royal hired him."
Nettie shrugged. "I got reason not to like Guy Royal, but I don't let that blind me. I've heard talk, though, about Royal and James and some of the other big ranchers. Rumors that they're meeting together, maybe working together, too. Now I'm not one to put stock in idle talk, but this has a ring of truth to it."
"Stranger things have happened," Buck admitted. It wasn't hard to picture: a man riding into town dressed like an Easterner. Naturally JD would take an interest, would talk to him, maybe even try to strike up a friendship. Probably he reminded JD of home, or maybe, like Mrs. Spencer had suggested, JD had hoped to figure out why the man was in town. And the Easterner, if he was a hired gun, would see JD's friendliness as the perfect excuse to get closer and make JD drop his guard. All it would take then was a suggestion to meet one night, a dark alley out of sight of the town, and one swift shot to remove one of the ranchers' obstacles to owning the town. Not that JD was a big obstacle, maybe. But as a test, proof that the hired gun could handle what his employers needed him to handle, JD would be big enough.
"I'll be expecting to hear what you find out." Nettie patted his arm, then released it. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to pay my respects before I head back to my farm."
Buck nodded and let her go. Lost in thought, he turned back toward the town. He still needed a drink, but after that, he needed to sit down for a long talk with the boys.
Vin crouched by the edge of the stream and dipped his hand in, splashing his face with water. Several feet down, Nathan was watering the horses. The healer had been silent since their conversation about JD. Vin didn't know what to do besides let him be. It was what Vin would have wanted under the same circumstances, but Nathan wasn't Vin. Nathan regularly said more than three words in a day, while Vin--Vin had always found it easier to track a man than talk to him.
Maybe Vin's silence did some good. As he walked up to Nathan and the horses, Nathan greeted him with a nod that seemed more welcoming than before.
"Horses are about done."
"Might make it back before nightfall, then."
"Yeah." Nathan handed Vin his reins. "I was looking at those tracks across the water. Not sure what would have made 'em."
Vin looked at the other bank, barely a foot away. Sparse grass covered most of the area leading to the water, but one section was nothing more than sun-bleached dirt that stretched in a thin trail back into the underbrush. The tracks in that section of dirt were strange, more like something being dragged than something walking. A big thing, at least the size of a timber wolf or wildcat.
"Hurt animal of some sort?" he suggested. "Don't look like it was walking on all four feet."
Nathan frowned. "You think we should try to find it? Put it out of its misery if need be?"
It might be the kindest action to take. Any animal that was too injured to walk would likely either starve to death or be forced to suffer while the wound festered and poisoned its blood. At any other time, Vin would have hunted it down.
"We got business back in town," he said reluctantly. "The boys need to know about Evans' stockpile. Those tracks look to be at least a day old. Whatever made them could be anywhere."
As they mounted up to ride back to town, Vin cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder. He hated leaving things undone, and hated more the thought of some animal suffering for days before it died. He'd be back, if he could find the time.
They took a roundabout way back to Four Corners, keeping their eyes open for further signs of the animal or Evans' men. Vin thought he saw the animal's tracks a few times, but never fresh enough to hint that it was still close by.
By the time they arrived at the saloon, the western sky was shading to red. Inside, townsmen gathered at the tables, sharing a drink before they headed home for supper. Only one corner toward the back stayed mostly empty.
"Buck," Vin said, stopping at the corner table. "Mind company?"
Buck looked up at them, his eyes clear in spite of the partially empty whiskey bottle on the table.
"Have a seat." Buck gestured with the shot glass in his hand. "I was waiting on you boys."
"Something happen while we were gone?" Nathan asked as they sat.
"I had a mighty interesting conversation with Nettie Wells," Buck answered. "Might even have a lead on who the murderer is."
As Buck told them about the Easterner and Nettie's belief that he might be a hired gun, Vin watched him, trying to figure out what was different. Buck was talking, for one; Vin hadn't heard as many words out of him since he'd left for New Orleans. But he also seemed calmer, the always-present anger under tighter control than it had been since Buck's return. He was focused on the investigation now, ready to hunt down this Eastern fellow, and it seemed to be bringing him back to himself.
"Be interesting to hear what Ezra and Josiah have to say when they get back," Vin said as Buck finished his story. "If they saw anything to make them think Royal or James might have brought in a hired gun."
"Could have been Evans just as easy as them other two," Nathan suggested.
Vin rubbed his chin, thinking about that. "Seems like most of the men Evans has working for him are gunslingers. Now, Royal and James both, their men are rough, but they're cowpunchers, not gun fighters. They'd have reason to bring in an outside man, but Evans could just send one of his own."
Nathan shrugged. "Unless he didn't want it traced to him."
Vin sighed. It seemed like every new bit of information they got led them right back to the same spot. They had at least three reasonable suspects, and so far, nothing that pointed clearly to any one of them. Meanwhile, JD's murder wasn't getting solved.
"Be simpler just to round 'em all up and shoot 'em," Buck said, his mind apparently following a similar path. "Never had much use for James or Royal either one, and this Evans fellow's cut from the same cloth."
That reminded Vin of Evans' arsenal. He was just starting to say something about it when the saloon went silent. Already reaching for his gun, he turned toward the doors. He was prepared for any kind of trouble, but not for the sight of Chris Larabee walking in, flanked on either side by Ezra and Josiah.
Vin's first reaction was relief. Part of that was born from knowing Chris hadn't gotten himself killed, but a larger part came from the thought that now Chris could take over. Chris would know what to say to Nathan and to Buck, and would know how to defend a town full of women and children from the army currently camped a few miles away. Chris could take back his place as the leader, and Vin could quit worrying about getting everyone killed.
Then a crash from Buck's corner reminded him that Chris's return might not be the solution to every problem they had.
Buck was on his feet, his face as hard and angry as it had been when he first arrived in town. One hand rested on the butt of his gun. The potential for violence hung so heavy in the air that Vin could taste it, a slick, coppery flavor on the back of his tongue as he and Nathan stood slowly.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Chris stopped at the sound of Buck's voice, eyes glittering in a way that would have warned a smart man to back down.
"Last I heard, it's a free town."
"You ain't wanted here."
"I got as much right to be here as any man. Unless you want to try and make me leave?"
"Buck." Nathan broke into the conversation, putting a calming hand on Buck's arm. "Take it easy, now."
"Gentlemen, there's no need for a scene," Ezra added. "Mr. Wilmington, regardless of your feelings toward Mr. Larabee, his assistance would be invaluable in our attempt to find Mr. Dunne's killer. Might I suggest a truce?"
Vin remembered the last time these two had faced each other, Chris's pistol pointing between Buck's eyes, and got ready to grab whoever went for his gun first. Chris and Buck stared at each other, the silence a living thing between them.
Then Josiah stepped between them, directly in the line of fire if either one reached for his gun.
"Brothers," he said, and Vin flinched at the scorn in his voice, "we're here for a reason. Is this how you honor his memory?"
Chris blinked. Buck jerked back as if he'd been hit, then cursed softly.
"He wants to help, then fine. Let him help. But I ain't drinking with him."
Grabbing the whiskey bottle, Buck stalked out of the saloon. After a long moment, Josiah went after him, the townsmen whispering in their wake.
"Under the circumstances, I think we could all use a libation," Ezra said. "Gentlemen, would you care to join me?"
"You buying?" Nathan's eyebrows shot up. "I thought it was a might cold in here."
"One round only, I assure you. Perhaps you'd care to assist me in fetching the drinks?"
Nathan followed him to the bar, pausing to clap Chris on the shoulder in greeting.
Vin sat back down, shoving a chair toward Chris with one foot.
"Been a while," he said quietly.
"Thought you were gone," Chris answered in the same tone. Calm, as if they'd only been talking a few hours before.
As if nothing had happened in the time they'd been apart. But Chris looked worn and tired, and Vin had knelt just days before at the grave of a friend. Nothing was the same.
"Chanu hunted me down, told me what happened to JD." Vin shrugged. "Coming back seemed the right thing to do."
A moment later, Ezra and Nathan returned with a new bottle of whiskey and shot glasses. Once they all had drinks, Nathan raised his glass.
"Chris, it's good to have you back."
Chris touched his glass with one finger, but didn't pick it up.
"Buck doesn't seem to think so," he said, his voice dry.
Nathan sighed. "Buck's been taking this mighty hard. He and JD--well, you know how he felt about the kid. He's said a lot of stuff he don't mean lately."
"He meant what he said." Chris finally picked up his drink and tossed it back. "All right, boys, why don't you tell me what you know about JD's murder."
It is night, but he doesn't sleep. He tries to walk. It hurts. Fire shooting up his leg, a familiar dull ache in his arm, a steady pounding in his head. He keeps walking, though, because to stop would be to get caught. He's very, very afraid of getting caught.
Sometimes he remembers why he walks: there is a place somewhere up ahead that is safe. Other times, he merely stumbles forward, only knowing that stopping is worse than going on. They'll find him if he stops.
There's water up ahead. He falls once, and then again, but finally he can drink. It is heaven. And better than heaven, because suddenly he isn't alone. He hears familiar, warm voices, not the voices of the ones chasing him. He sees them, so close. He reaches out to them.
They aren't there.
He presses the back of his hand to his mouth, hard, so that he won't betray himself with a cry.
Seven: An Altar in the Evening
The sun rose.
Over a dusty little town where empty streets disguised a growing turmoil. Over outlying farms and ranches, fields of dozing cattle, and dark, craggy places where wild things slept. Over a cemetery at the foot of a hill, where a freshly dug grave stood out from the worn mounds that lay in neat rows.
Over a man who hadn't slept, but sat still and silent beside the newest mound, an empty glass bottle at his feet.
Ezra hated mornings. Not only did they have an unfortunate tendency to come equipped with abysmally bright lights and dull headaches that lingered right behind the eyes, but they also seemed plagued by a dearth of entrepreneurs willing to line Ezra's pockets with their recklessly gambled cash. Yet for the second morning in a row, Ezra found himself not only awake, but dressed and mingling with the general public well before nine o'clock.
Even more appalling, he was being forced to converse with people. The general consensus reached the night before was that the identity and whereabouts of the Easterner needed to be ascertained. In pursuit of that, Ezra had set himself up, first in the café and later in the saloon, and had engaged in conversation with anyone willing to talk.
It appeared that many of the townsfolk had spoken with the Easterner, Simon Blake. Few, however, knew much about him other than that he was a "friendly fellow" who seemed quite interested in either investment opportunities or ranching, depending on who Ezra was speaking to. He had carried a pistol, but it was ordinary, nothing to draw attention. A few men reckoned he'd probably had a rifle as well, but no one specifically remembered seeing one. Several people remembered him spending time with JD, but none of them knew why.
Midmorning brought the stage. Normally, Ezra would have welcomed the travelers who intended to stay in town a night or two and usually had some spare cash for a round or two of poker. Today, he wished irritably that they'd go eat at the café and leave the saloon to the locals. He wasn't going to learn any more about Simon Blake--if there was more to be learned, which Ezra was beginning to doubt--from new arrivals. Perhaps more importantly, the newcomers didn't know to avoid the big man at the end of the bar.
Buck had come in shortly after Ezra. He'd settled in at the end of the bar without a word and had been drinking steadily ever since. His red-rimmed eyes and expression of frozen rage were enough to warn off anyone who knew him, but newcomers weren't as wary. Ezra was keeping an eye on him, ready to jump in if it looked like trouble was starting, but he couldn't shake a feeling of impending disaster.
Ezra's covert surveillance was interrupted as one of the newcomers took a seat opposite him at the table. Automatically, he took in the stranger's clothing and features. A suit, good quality for all that it was obviously traveled in. Hair dark brown and neatly styled under his bowler hat, a thin face with a neat mustache and a light tan, hands roughened in a pattern that suggested reins and pistols, not manual labor. A man of moderate wealth, perhaps a businessman or a cattleman, likely looking for a game to pass the time until the stage left.
"You look like a man who might enjoy a game of chance," the stranger suggested. He held out his hand across the table. "Ned Grainger."
"Pleased to meet you."
"Traveling far?" Ezra asked as he started to shuffle the cards. The question was automatic, asked out of a long habit of distracting the mark rather than out of curiosity. His real attention was focused on Buck, who had straightened suddenly and was glaring around the saloon as though looking for a fight. What had set him off?
"Actually, I'm not intending to travel any further for a time. I'm in town on business. And yourself?"
Grainger spoke with an educated diction, his accent Southern, but from closer to the eastern seaboard than Ezra had ever lived. Under other circumstances, Ezra would have enjoyed the chance to have a civilized conversation. As it was, Buck was headed for the door, walking with a drunken unsteadiness that did nothing to reassure Ezra.
"I live here," Ezra answered absently, trying to figure out a way he could get to Buck without setting the big man off.
"Oh? Then perhaps you'll have met my partner. He would have arrived here a few weeks ago. Simon Blake?"
Startled, Ezra turned back to Grainger, his mind racing to process what the man had just said. In those few seconds of distraction, he lost track of Buck. With a quick word of apology, he left the table and headed for the door.
As I walked out on the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen
Wrapped in white linen as cold as the clay.
The whiskey burned as it went down, but it wasn't enough. It didn't distract him, and God, he needed distraction. If Vin didn't stop playing that goddamn song, he was going to go right out there and shove that mouth organ where the sun never shined. The words pounded in his head with a relentless, mournful beat. Why could he hear the words when no one was singing? Why couldn't he make them stop?
Buck slopped more whiskey into his shot glass and gulped it down, one hand on the bar to keep the room from tilting so much. There were several people in the saloon, but no one seemed inclined to approach him. Their conversations were too soft to reach Buck's ears. The near-silence in the room was enough to choke a man, and through it wound the saddest song in the universe.
"Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
Play the Dead March as you carry me along,
Take me to the green valley and lay the sod o'er me
For I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong."
Another shot, and this one didn't burn. Hell, he didn't even feel it. That was good. That was damn good, because he couldn't think of anything he much wanted to feel. He sure as hell didn't want to think about dead cowboys . . . lying in a cold, uncaring grave . . .
God damn that song, anyway. What the hell did Vin think he was doing? Nobody wanted to listen to that drivel. No one cared about wide-eyed kids who thought you were a hero because you wore cowboy boots and carried a gun.
Buck laughed bitterly and gulped another shot. In the end, no one had cared. The kid hadn't had anyone. No one to sit up and worry about him, no one to make sure he was in his best suit when they put him in the coffin. No one to put a fitting marker on his grave.
"It was once in the saddle I used to go dashing
It was once in the saddle I used to go gay,
First down to the dram-house and then to the card house.
Got shot in the breast, I am dying today."
Couldn't even stay in the saddle, could he? First thing he did was fall out of the saddle into that water trough. Buck swallowed, his throat so tight it hurt. If there was something stupid to be done, you could trust the kid to do it.
Trust him to guard your back, though, too.
"Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin,"
With a low growl, Buck slammed his glass down and shoved away from the bar. He didn't have to listen to this crap.
"Get six pretty maidens to carry my pall,"
Didn't have to think about a bright-eyed kid staring at a bunch of working girls with bewildered awe, not sure how to approach anyone so beautiful.
"Put bunches of roses all over my coffin,"
Didn't want to think about a wooden box being lowered into the ground, the darkness covering it . . .
"Put roses to deaden the clods as they fall."
. . . didn't even get a chance to see him buried . . .
Buck took a lurching step toward the door. If only the floor would quit swaying and the door would hold still. He was going to go out there and rip that damn mouth organ out of Vin's hands and stomp it flatter than a gambler's wallet after a losing streak.
As an afterthought, Buck grabbed the bottle off the bar. No point in sobering up now.
"Before I turned, the spirit had left him
And gone to its Giver --- the cowboy was dead."
Damn kid . . . had he known what was happening to him? Did he feel the life leaking out of him? Did he know how alone he was?
Buck stumbled, caught himself, and made it through the doors without falling. His gun was stuck, but he yanked it harder and it came loose.
Vin was down the street, in front of the jail . . . he'd told the kid he was too damn young to be a lawman, told him he'd get himself shot, but did he listen? It was the jail . . . if he'd burned down the goddamn jail in the first place this never would have happened. Kid never would have found that damn badge, never would have felt so proud of himself for standing up to the townsfolk who tried to lynch his prisoner. Never would have decided it was his duty to stay.
Buck's gaze settled on the jail, and a fierce smile curved his lips as he downed another gulp of whiskey.
Vin slowly lowered his mouth organ from his lips as he saw Buck stagger down the street from the saloon. Damn. They'd all been waiting for this, waiting for Buck to break . . . but Vin had hoped they'd be able to keep it private. The whole town didn't need to see the gunslinger fall apart.
Buck tripped, and Vin winced. Maybe he should go down there, see if he couldn't get Buck to go lie down for a little while. No point letting him make a bigger fool of himself than he could laugh off when he sobered up.
As the gunslinger righted himself, Vin abruptly realized he had more than a whiskey bottle in his hands.
"Damn," Vin muttered, standing and pushing the mouth organ into his jeans' pocket. What the hell was Buck thinking, waving a gun around in the middle of town?
The sudden, sharp crack of the gun made Vin jump more than the bullet ricocheting off the side of the jail. Heads poked out of doors and windows as the curious townspeople looked to see what was going on. Buck swayed in the middle of the street, but somehow managed to stay on his feet. He sighted on the jail again and squeezed off another shot, then took a long swig of whiskey from the bottle in his other hand.
"Son of a bitch," he shouted. "What does it take with you?"
Vin took a step forward, his eyes scanning the street quickly to find the best way to get to Buck without getting in his line of fire. The rapid thudding of several pairs of boots on the boardwalk behind him told him that his friends had come to see what was going on, but he didn't take his attention off the drunken gunslinger in the street.
Buck took a stumbling step forward. "Tell you over 'n' over, keep the badge out've sight . . ." He pulled the trigger again, barely bothering to aim this time. The bullet plowed into the ground at the corner of the jail.
With a sigh, Vin gave up on trying to find a safe way to get to Buck. Somebody was going to get hurt if someone didn't get that gun away pretty quick. Vin stepped down off the boardwalk, then stopped as a heavy hand gripped his shoulder.
"This don't have nothing to do with you," Chris said softly. It wasn't a slight, just a statement of fact, and Vin stepped back as Chris walked on toward Buck. This had started a long time before any of them had come to Four Corners.
Chris had almost crossed the distance to Buck before the drunken gunslinger noticed him. Slowly, with the care of a man who knew he didn't have his balance, Buck brought up his gun to aim at Chris. Chris stopped, his spurs still jangling slightly in the deadly silence of the street.
Vin fingered his pistol, wondering if there was any way he could shoot Buck's gun out of his hand without hurting him or risking the lives of the people in the store behind him. He heard a soft curse behind him and glanced back at Ezra. From the look on the gambler's face, he'd been considering the same thing and had come to a similar conclusion.
"Maybe if I go out the back of the jail and go 'round . . ." Nathan said, almost to himself. Josiah murmured an answer that Vin didn't hear, but the lack of movement behind him told him that Nathan had stayed put.
The two men in the street faced each other down like dueling gunfighters, Buck's gun trembling slightly as it pointed at Chris, Chris's hands hanging loose and ready at his sides. The wind was barely blowing, just enough to stir Chris's hair and kick up little puffs of dust along the street.
The silence drew taut, and then it snapped as Chris said evenly, "Give me the gun, Buck."
Buck blinked at him, still swaying slightly, as if the soft breeze was enough to move him. He had a look in his eyes that Vin didn't trust, a half-crazy anger on the verge of exploding. "You son of a bitch, you can't tell me what to do."
"Give me the gun, Buck." Chris's voice stayed steady and calm as he took a step forward. Vin held his breath, expecting a gunshot any second.
"Want to know what it feels like to bleed to death in the street?" Buck took another gulp of whiskey, his eyes never leaving Chris. "You left him. He depended on you, and you left him."
Chris took another step, his hand outstretched. "You're drunk, Buck. You're not thinking straight. Give me the gun."
"Man depends on you, you should stick 'round. Not go running off when he needs you."
Vin winced again. Even drunk, the raw pain in Buck's voice came through clear as a wolf's cry on a crisp winter's night. He didn't think even Buck knew whether he was talking about JD, Chris, or Buck himself anymore. This had been building up for months, maybe even years, but it shouldn't be played out here on the street where the town could use it as an afternoon's entertainment.
Chris met Buck's eyes steadily, his hand still waiting for the gun. "Give me the gun, Buck."
Buck shook his head, the gun in his hand trembling so much Vin was sure he'd either drop it or fire it accidentally. "He didn't deserve to die, Chris."
Chris's voice somehow grew gentle. "No, he didn't. But this ain't helping him. All it's going to do is get someone hurt. Give me the gun."
"Why'd you leave, Chris?" The question was soft, aching, but it carried in the stillness of the street.
Chris took a slow step forward. He was within reach, but he didn't try to grab the gun. "Because I'm a son of a bitch who made a damn lousy hero. Now give me the gun."
Slowly Buck let go of the gun, letting it slide around on his finger so that the butt was facing Chris. He was shaking, his grip on the whiskey bottle loosening until it fell harmlessly to the ground. Chris took the gun from him and tucked it into his waistband, then took the final step forward. Gently, he gripped the back of Buck's neck and gave him a slight shake.
"You're going to hurt yourself if you don't watch where you point that thing," he said softly. Vin didn't catch Buck's answer, but Chris pulled him closer, letting his head rest on Chris's shoulder for a brief minute. Chris said something to him too low for anyone else to hear, then turned him and guided him down the street.
Vin, taking a deep breath for the first time in forever, watched his two friends walking toward the boarding house. He couldn't help but think that this man was the Chris Larabee Buck had always seen and admired, no matter how far down the real man fell. It was just a damned shame Buck was too drunk to see it now.
Buck's room at the boarding house was plain, little more than a bed, bureau, washstand, and chair. Whatever belongings Buck had brought with him were tucked away. Nothing in the room showed that it was inhabited, but then, Chris thought as he sat in the lone chair, Buck always had traveled light. No doubt it was a habit born from leaving town just ahead of one too many irate husbands.
Tilting his chair back, Chris looked across the room at the bed where Buck was sprawled. Chris had half-carried him up the stairs and poured him into bed, pulling off his boots with a feeling of déjà vu. He'd put Buck to bed many a time over the years, and Buck had returned the favor more often than Chris could remember.
Sighing, Chris set the chair back on all four legs, but didn't get up. There was no need for him to stay. Buck wouldn't wake up for several hours, and he didn't need Chris sitting over him, watching him while he slept. He'd laugh if he even knew Chris had thought of it. But the room was quiet, no one was likely to disturb them, and Chris needed time to think.
He depended on you, and you left him.
Buck's words out on the street had hit as hard as bullets. Chris had thrown enough accusations at Buck after his family had died to recognize that Buck was talking as much to himself as to Chris, but that didn't take any of the truth from the words. JD, Buck, the rest of the boys--hell, the whole town--had trusted Chris, and he had left them all. Even if he hadn't wanted or deserved the responsibility, it had still existed.
And he'd failed, as surely as he'd failed to protect his family. JD was dead, Buck seemed hell-bent on destroying himself, and the town was about to be taken over by an army of hired guns. He didn't know if he had the strength to fix any of it.
He knew he didn't have the strength to walk away.
Standing abruptly, Chris headed for the door. There was a lot to be done, and probably less time than he'd like to do it in. Pausing for just a moment, he looked down at Buck again. Lines he didn't remember cut through his friend's face, leaving him looking old.
Buck wouldn't hear him, but he said it again anyway, the same words he'd said out on the street. "I'm sorry, pard. I should have been here."
Out on the street again, he saw the quick, speculative looks the townsfolk were shooting him. No one seemed quite brave enough to meet his eyes. Settling his hat more firmly on his head, he set off down the street, ignoring the whispers that trailed behind him. It wasn't the first time people had stared, and probably wouldn't be the last. He didn't have time to waste on anyone who couldn't say what they were thinking to his face.
The voice was a familiar one. He turned, bracing himself.
"Mr. Larabee." Mary Travis walked up to him, wiping ink-stained hands on her apron. She smiled. "Chris. It's good to see you back."
She didn't look any different, Chris couldn't help but notice. Still beautiful, with the sun glinting off her golden hair and that proud tilt to her chin. And Chris still didn't know if he should smile back at her or take off running.
"How is Buck?"
She looked genuinely concerned, so Chris shrugged. "He's sleeping it off."
"It's hard for him," Mary said. Her eyes widened. "For everyone, of course. But he and JD were close."
"Yeah." They were, but Chris didn't really want to talk about it. Especially not out on the street where the whole town could listen in. "Was there something you needed?"
"Actually, I was hoping to talk to you about something." Mary looked down, one hand sliding into the pocket of her apron. "You may not want this, but . . . "
Frowning slightly, she pulled something from the pocket and held it out to Chris. "I was thinking it might help if people saw someone wearing it."
In the palm of her hand sat a metal star, the word 'Sheriff' carved into the center. Chris reached for it, feeling the edges bite into his hand as he took it from her.
"Where did you get this?" he asked, even though he was pretty sure of the answer.
"It was on the--the body. It fell to the ground when they took him to the undertaker's, and I picked it up for safekeeping." Mary touched his arm. "Chris, we need someone to take charge. Someone who can stand up to Evans' men and bring order back to this town. If people saw you wearing it, they'd feel more confident that they could stand up to Evans and . . . "
"No." Chris put his free hand on Mary's, squeezing gently. "We'll take care of Evans and make sure JD's murderer gets what he deserves. But this," he ran his thumb over the face of the badge, "this doesn't belong to me."
He could feel her eyes on his back as he walked away.
It is almost dawn.
He is almost there. So close. He will be safe, free from the ones who hunt him. He will be able to rest.
He stumbles on, falls, rises, stumbles on. Falls again, and realizes he's pulling himself up against a headstone. He doesn't understand, and so he just walks on. The ground is uneven, his leg full of molten knives. He trips and catches himself on a wooden cross. He looks at it, and then is afraid to look down. He knows what he will see. But his eyes are drawn downward against his will, and a low moan escapes his lips. He stifles it immediately.
He walks on.
He is so very, very tired.
Eight: So With You My Grace Shall Deal
His morning coffee brewed, Josiah settled down on the church's front step. It was early even for him, the sun merely a hint of light on the horizon. But after a night of dreams that mostly ended in someone he cared about bleeding on the ground, his bed hadn't held much of an appeal. With the hot mug cupped in his hands, he had gone out to enjoy the morning's peace and try to clear his head.
Watching Buck in the street yesterday, he'd been afraid that he'd see exactly what his dreams had been showing him. The relief he'd felt when Chris had taken Buck's gun safely away had been just as strong as his fear. Hope, though, hope hadn't come until after Chris walked back into the jail after taking Buck to his room. Chris's eyes had been clearer, steadier than he'd seen them in weeks, and Josiah had seen the other men straighten in response.
"The way I see it," Chris said without preamble, "we've got two problems. Someone killed JD, and this Evans wants to own the town and isn't afraid to start a war to get it. Vin, last night you said Evans was talking to someone who sounded like his boss?"
Vin nodded. "Evans ain't the man in charge, that's for sure. And the way they were talking, it sounded like they had reason to want JD dead. I didn't hear a confession, but that's where I'd place my money on finding the killer."
"What about this Easterner, Simon Blake? The hired gun?" Chris frowned. "You think the man Evans was talking to was Blake?"
"I may have a way to shed some light on that subject." Seated on the edge of the desk, Ezra was fingering a box of playing cards, but hadn't pulled them out yet. "Just before Buck left the saloon, I was speaking to a man who claimed to be Simon Blake's partner. Partner in what, he didn't say, and I couldn't find him after things had calmed down. However, I suspect that once I track him down, we will know significantly more about Mr. Blake and his involvement, or lack thereof, in JD's death."
"Good." Chris looked out the window at the street, clearly thinking. "I want to push Evans, see how far he's willing to go and see if we can shake this boss of his out of the tree. Let's make sure we're seen today. Talk to people, let them know we're not letting Evans just walk in and take what he wants."
"We giving up on Royal and James, then?" Josiah asked.
Chris shook his head. "No. If one of them is responsible for JD's murder, I don't want him getting away with it just because we're watching Evans. We'll poke at them, too, see if they have any connection to Blake."
He looked around the room, meeting each of their eyes in turn. "We're stirring up a hornet's nest here, maybe more than one. I want to get folks mad enough to make a mistake and show their hand. But that means mad enough to kill. Watch your backs, boys."
They had spent the rest of the day and part of the night making sure people knew they were around and weren't taking any more crap from Evans or anyone else. Josiah grinned, raising his coffee mug to his lips. It had felt good, not having to hide or act like nothing was wrong. Maybe, finally, they were getting somewhere.
A soft stirring down the street brought his head up, his hand reaching automatically for the gun at his side. Recognizing the person walking toward him, he relaxed.
"Morning, Ruby. It's early for you to be out."
She offerd him a faint smile, but even in the dimness of the early morning, he could see the strain in her eyes.
"Josiah. I was hoping I'd find you up already."
"Something I can help you with?"
"I don't know." Ruby sighed. "I've been up all night, trying to decide if I should tell you . . ."
When she didn't go on, Josiah said gently, "How about you tell me, and then we'll decide what to do about it?"
Looking relieved, Ruby nodded. "Arnie Sykes came in last night. Sadie's his favorite, but she was busy, so he had a few drinks while he was waiting for her. After a while, he started bragging like he always does. Normally I don't listen. That man is all mouth and nothing to back it up. But last night, Arnie was talking about Sheriff Dunne, how he thought he was such a big shot and deserved what he got when he was shot. Arnie kept saying, 'I guess I showed him who's in charge around here.'"
"He did." Josiah set his mug down carefully, resting his hand on his gun as he stood. "You wouldn't happen to know where Sykes is now, would you?"
"He's still up in Sadie's room, as far as I know. He made a big deal out of paying for the whole night, like that made him something special."
Josiah grinned. "If you'll excuse me, Miss Ruby, I think it's time Arnie Sykes got a wake-up call."
The saloon was empty. The glasses used the night before sat drying on the bar, but the floor hadn't been swept out yet, and the smell of stale beer and smoke hung heavy in the air.
Chris scanned his friends' faces, making a quick decision. Neither Buck nor Nathan looked like they had slept in a week. He needed level heads for this job. Sykes wouldn't be of any use if he was shot before he had time to tell them anything.
"Buck, Nathan, stay here and keep out anyone who might get too nosy," Chris said, and started up the stairs before either man could argue.
Vin followed Chris, the steady thud of Ezra and Josiah's footsteps behind him. Sykes was supposed to be in the last room on the left. The plan was to take him quickly and quietly, before he had time to make a scene that might stir up trouble with Evans' other men.
As they stopped outside the correct door, Vin glanced at the other men. Chris stood on the right side of the door, Ezra a few steps behind him. Vin was on the left, and Josiah waited in front to kick the door in when Chris gave the signal. All of their expressions held the same resolve that Vin felt: if Sykes knew anything about JD's death, they were going to find out.
At Chris's nod, Josiah gave a powerful kick. A woman's scream broke the silence as Vin followed Josiah and Chris into the room. Gun drawn, Vin looked around quickly for any threat. All he saw was Sykes, frozen halfway out of the bed, and a terrified blonde woman beside him clutching the sheets to her otherwise bare breasts. Vin jerked his eyes away from her, focusing on Sykes.
"You've been doing a lot of talking, Sykes," Chris said, his gun leveled on the man in the bed. "How about you come share some of your wisdom with us?"
"Who the hell are you? What gives you the right to break into my room?"
"I believe the room is Miss Sadie's, and I'm sure she'd be just as happy if we took this somewhere else," Josiah suggested. "Don't you agree, Sykes?"
His words were accompanied by a friendly grin and a helping hand on Sykes' arm. From Sykes' expression, Vin suspected that the 'helping hand' was clenched tight enough to take his arm off. Just in case Sykes needed extra incentive, Vin rested his gun against the man's temple.
"What do you want?" Sykes asked sullenly.
"Shut up. Put your clothes on. Come with us." Chris grinned. "Or don't, and we'll send someone to clean up the mess in the morning."
"You will not!" Sadie said sharply. "You want to kill him, you take him outside. I just hemmed these sheets."
"I believe my colleague is getting impatient," Ezra drawled. "You really don't want him to do that. It makes his trigger finger itchy."
Chris cocked his gun for emphasis. Sykes gulped.
"Fine, I'll go. Just get this big ape off me so I can get my pants on."
Sykes blustered the whole way down the stairs, but stopped abruptly when Buck and Nathan stepped out of the shadows.
"Give me a reason, Sykes," Buck said, his voice soft and dangerous. He held his gun loose at his side, but Vin didn't doubt he would use it. Neither, apparently, did Sykes; he didn't say another word as Josiah escorted him to a chair.
Chris grabbed his own chair and sat backward in it, while Josiah loomed next to Sykes' shoulder. To the preacher's left, Ezra leaned against a support post, idly fingering the gun in his holster. Buck and Nathan took stations on either side of Chris, and Vin stopped a few feet away, where he had a clear view of both Sykes and the front door. Sykes himself hunched down in his chair, his eyes darting from one man to the next.
Like a trapped rat, Vin thought. But a rat backed into a corner could still bite. He didn't intend to forget that.
"I heard," Chris said conversationally, "that you were talking about a friend of mine."
"I ain't talking about nobody," Sykes muttered.
"Yeah? You didn't say anything about the sheriff being a pain in the ass? How it was a good thing somebody shot him?"
Sykes shrugged. "What if I was? Ain't no crime to say what I think."
"No," Chris agreed. "No crime in that. And hell, the kid was a pain in the ass. Always thinking he was in charge."
"Sure as hell was," Sykes snapped. "Thought he could order me around, like that damn sheriff's badge was real. I told him to mind his own business or he'd be sorry, but he just kept poking his nose in where it wasn't wanted."
Buck started forward, but Ezra grabbed his arm before he could get more than a step. Sykes caught the movement, his eyes narrowing.
"What, you think you're going to get me to confess to something? You trying to trick me?"
"Confession is good for the soul, son." Josiah squeezed his shoulder. "And a man never knows when he might be going to meet his Maker."
Sykes winced, jerking loose. "You think you can threaten me? I got nearly fifty men watching my back. You mess with me, you'll be facing them before you know what hit you."
"I only see one man right now," Chris said. "One man who talks a lot and don't say anything. Vin, shoot him."
Vin had heard the slight edge in Chris's voice that warned him something was coming. Smoothly, he cocked his gun and pointed it at Sykes.
"You want him dead or just bleeding?"
"You can't do that!" Sweat was running down Sykes' forehead. "You can't just shoot me in cold blood!"
"You don't have anything to say that I want to hear." Chris shrugged, glancing back at Vin. "Might as well just go on and kill him."
"Wait!" His breath coming fast, Sykes leaned forward, holding up his hands imploringly. "Wait, maybe I know something."
Chris raised his eyebrows. "About what?"
"About that damn kid sheriff. About the night he died."
Buck made a low, growling sound, and Ezra murmured something to him too softly for Vin to hear. Vin, pushing back his sudden urge to squeeze the trigger, almost wished Ezra would just let go of Buck for a couple of minutes. It probably wouldn't take longer than that.
Chris scratched his chin as if he was thinking it over. "Tell me. If it's interesting enough, I might let you live."
"Okay." Sykes' eyes narrowed again. "Okay, well, maybe I know about a couple of men who rode into town that night. Not me, you know, just some men I might know about."
"And what did these men you know about do in town that night?"
"Maybe they were in town looking for someone. Some greenhorn from back East who'd been nosing around, asking questions, seeing things he wasn't supposed to see. Maybe when they found him, he tried to fight them and took a shotgun blast to the face. And maybe the kid shows up, sees what happens, and isn't smart enough to just walk away." Sykes looked around, judging their reactions, then settled back in his chair with a smirk. "And now these two guys, they've got to get rid of the witness, so they knock him over the head and stick him on a horse and ride out of town. They figure the greenhorn's a stranger in town, but the kid has friends, so if they're going to kill him, they want it to look like an accident."
"Are you saying," Chris said, his voice dangerously soft, "that the body in that grave isn't JD Dunne's?"
Sykes's smirk grew wider. "Hell, no. That's the funny thing about it all. We go to all that trouble making it look like an accident, and then we get back to town and everyone thinks that damn greenhorn is the sheriff."
Someone made a sound. Vin didn't look to see who it was. If he caught sight of Buck's face, he was likely to pull the trigger even if Sykes wasn't finished talking.
"What did you do to JD?" Chris asked, so quiet that Sykes' grin finally started to slip.
"There's a gorge about ten miles outside town. Real steep, with a stream that cuts through the bottom that's pretty high this time of year. Man goes over the side of that on a fast-moving horse, both him and the horse is going to have broken necks by the time they hit bottom. Even if they don't, they'll end up drowning in the stream. It's real hard to see at night, you come up on it before you even know it's there. I nearly went over the side myself in the daylight." Sykes laughed. "You look hard enough, you'll probably still find the body. Or what's left of it."
"You son of a--"
Ezra and Nathan both grabbed Buck, but it took Chris physically blocking him to keep him from going after Sykes with his bare hands.
"Wait," Chris said sharply. "I got a few more questions before I let you have him."
"No! You said you'd let me go if I--" Sykes stopped, his eyes going wide as he stared past them all toward the bar.
Vin was already starting to move when a shot exploded through the air. Sykes crumpled forward as all six men drew their guns and turned toward the bar. Then, almost as one, they stopped.
What looked like a bundle of rags lay on the floor. Vin blinked, realizing only after Nathan had already started towards it that a man was sprawled there. A short man, one with long, filthy black hair and a dirt-covered, scraggly-bearded face . . .
Vin wasn't sure who said it, wasn't even sure it wasn't himself. He couldn't take his eyes off the man's face to look, either. No way it could be, but he looked like . . .
"JD?" Nathan said softly, brushing the lank hair out of the man's face. "Dear God . . . "
Buck pushed past Vin, moving like a sleepwalker as he crossed the room to kneel beside Nathan. He reached out hesitantly, touching JD's arm as if he wasn't sure he'd feel something real. The movement seemed to break the spell that had held the other men frozen.
Barely sparing a glance at the bloody, surprised looking remains of Arnie Sykes, Vin walked over, crouching down beside the other three. He picked up the gun that lay next to JD's hand, frowning as he recognized it. It was the Peacemaker that Billy kept behind the bar with his shotgun. Chris, Ezra, and Josiah followed him, their expressions, as he looked up at them, all stunned and a little haunted.
"How is he?" Chris asked finally, breaking the strained silence.
Nathan shook his head slowly. "Hard to say. Gotta get him cleaned up before I'll be able to see if he's hurt or how bad. Right now, all I see is dirt."
"You want him up in your room?" Josiah asked.
"Probably best." Nathan frowned down at JD. "He might have something broken, so I need someone to help me carry him, and I'm gonna need a tub from the bathhouse and some water to get him cleaned up. Chris, you think we should take him out the back way?"
Chris rubbed a hand over his face, then nodded. "No point in letting Evans know something he don't already." He put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Vin, why don't you go see if you can find any tracks, maybe figure out where he came from. Josiah, you and Ezra go get that tub. Buck . . . " he trailed off, studying the blank, shell-shocked look on Buck's face, then finished almost gently, "Buck, you come with Nathan and me to get JD taken care of, all right?"
Buck didn't answer, his eyes still on JD. Vin wasn't sure he'd even heard Chris's words, but then he stood slowly when Nathan and Chris lifted JD, and followed them out of the room with his eyes never leaving the kid's still form. Vin shook his head, hoping Chris would have the sense to keep an eye on the big gunslinger, and then dismissed the problem from his mind as he went outside to see if he could find JD's tracks.
It was pretty damn obvious the kid hadn't been anywhere near civilization recently, Chris thought as he helped Nathan maneuver the still unconscious JD up the stairs to Nathan's room. Or at least, not near food or a bathhouse. He was only half-recognizable as the kid who'd stayed behind when the older men had left. He looked like he'd been to hell, and the trip back had left him so worn that he didn't even stir as Chris and Nathan manhandled him from the saloon to Nathan's room.
"Watch his leg with that rail," Nathan said, more than a little breathless as they neared the top of the stairs. JD might have lost weight, but he wasn't a child, and the stairs were steep.
Chris grunted, not wanting to waste his breath to answer. They cleared the stairs and Nathan glanced over his shoulder at the door.
"Buck, you want to get that door open for us?"
Buck, coming up behind Chris, didn't seem to hear.
"Buck." Chris snapped, shifting his grip a bit desperately on JD's legs as he felt them slip. "Get the damn door."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Buck jump. The big gunslinger pushed forward and opened the door, stepping clumsily out of the way as Nathan and Chris carried their burden through.
They lowered JD carefully onto the bed. Nathan grabbed a bowl of water and a rag off the washstand and wet the cloth, patting JD's face with it. The rag came away filthy, but did little more than smear the dirt on the kid's face. Chris, wanting to do something useful, started working on JD's boots, wincing when he saw the broken heel on one of them. That must've been hell to walk on.
Neither boot wanted to come off easily. After a minute's frustrated tugging, Chris glanced up at Buck.
"Give me a hand here, pard."
Buck jerked his eyes away from JD, blinking at Chris as if he wasn't sure what Chris had said. Then slowly, he stepped forward and put a hand on JD's left leg, right below the knee, to hold it still while Chris pulled. Before Chris could start, though, Buck yanked his hand back as if he'd been burned.
Chris and Nathan both jumped, and Nathan asked sharply, "What?"
"His knee," Buck answered hoarsely. "There's something wrong with his knee."
Nathan shoved past him to the bottom of the bed and ripped JD's pants-leg open from the cuff up to where it exposed his knee. The joint was bruised every color from yellow to black and swollen to the point that it looked malformed, with odd lumps that Chris hoped weren't broken bones sticking out. Chris swore softly under his breath, trying to ignore the sick feeling the sight created in his stomach.
Nathan touched it lightly, moving his fingers over the lumps and pressing carefully at a few spots. Sliding his hand under the knee, he lifted it slowly and started to flex it.
The response startled them all. JD's eyes flew open, a sound that was more moan than scream bursting from his lips. He looked up at them wildly, and Chris couldn't see any recognition in his eyes.
Nathan froze, his hands suddenly trembling. Then, very carefully, he lowered JD's leg back to the bed and said in a low, strained voice, "It's all right, son. You're safe now."
JD didn't seem to hear. His eyes flickered warily from one man to another. He looked, Chris thought uneasily, like a trapped animal, like even the slightest noise could spook him. Chris kept still, counting on Nathan to calm him down. Nathan was a hell of a lot better at that kind of thing than Chris had ever been--although at the moment Nathan looked like he needed a few soothing words himself.
"JD? You know where you are?" The healer took a step forward and crouched down so he was closer to the kid's eye level. "Talk to me, son."
JD studied him for a moment, then looked beyond him at Chris, and for a moment longer, at Buck. Still without saying anything, he turned his head away and his eyes drifted shut.
Buck sighed, the first sound he'd made since JD had awoken. Chris glanced over at him. The big gunslinger's face had gone dead white; his eyes, if anything, were even more haunted than they'd been on the street earlier that day. For a second, Chris thought he was going to black out.
Before Chris could say anything to him, the door opened and Ezra came through backwards, staggering a little under the awkward burden of one of the full-sized casks from the bathhouse. Josiah followed him, supporting the other end.
"I took the liberty of procuring the services of the bathhouse's water boy to carry up enough heated water to fill the tub," Ezra said as they lowered the cask to the floor. "His orders are to leave the buckets outside the door. I'm afraid he assumes we're housing a dangerous criminal in here."
"Good thinking," Chris said. "We don't know how JD's still alive or where he's been all this time. Until we know if anyone's coming after him, I'd feel better if we were the only ones who knew he was alive."
"We'd better do something about that body in the saloon, then," Josiah observed, rubbing at his back as he straightened up. "You can bet Evans is going to be asking questions about that."
"I'll take care of it," Ezra said, shooting a glance at the still form on the bed that, to Chris, looked distinctly squeamish. "I do believe the poor unfortunate gentleman perished in an altercation involving a game of chance. He really shouldn't have tried to pull that ace out of his sleeve."
"Need help?" Josiah asked.
Ezra shook his head. "Your services would be put to better use here, I'm sure."
"Josiah," Nathan broke in, "I could use those services right now."
Ezra stepped out the door as Chris and Josiah turned back toward the bed. Nathan was working on getting JD's clothes, what was left of them, off. His face was a cold mask that could have been hiding any combination of anger, disgust, or compassion. Chris would have thought he was in complete, nearly rigid control, except for the trembling of his hands.
"Nathan?" Chris said quietly. "You all right?"
Nathan shot him a sharp look, his eyes flashing an emotion Chris couldn't read. "I'm fine, Chris. Don't have much choice about that, do I?"
Josiah broke in before Chris could answer. "What do you want us to do?"
Nathan looked back down at JD, his hands clenching around the buttons he'd been trying to undo. With uncharacteristic roughness, he jerked the shirt open, ignoring the buttons that went flying around the room. Chris wrinkled his nose at the sour smell that got stronger as the cloth parted.
The kid looked like he'd been rolling in a mud puddle. Streaks of dirt covered most of his chest and arms, layering over darker areas that Chris was pretty sure were bruises. With the shirt off, it was obvious that JD's left arm was lying at an odd angle, but Chris wasn't sure if it was broken or had just dropped that way when they'd placed him on the bed.
"Like I said," Nathan answered Josiah, "we gotta get him cleaned up. I can't tell what all's wrong with him with all this dirt."
"You want to try to wake him up?" the preacher asked.
"No." Nathan's voice was harsher than necessary.
Chris gave him a sharp look. They were all thrown by JD's arrival--Buck's continued silence and mesmerized stare that refused to leave JD's face was ample proof of that--but Chris couldn't see how that would leave Nathan, of all people, simmering on the edge of explosion. Whatever it was, though, it would have to wait.
"He woke up once already. Didn't know any of us, near as I could tell," Chris said. "That leg's hurting him, though, and I bet he's going to be hurting in a whole lot more places than that once he knows what's going on. Might be better if he just stayed asleep till we get done jostling him around."
Josiah nodded, his expression dark as he gazed at JD. "Kid doesn't need any more hurting, that's for sure." He knelt down beside the bed and slid an arm under JD's shoulders, lifting slightly so Nathan could pull the filthy remains of JD's shirt out from under him. JD's head lolled back bonelessly.
Chris, suddenly uncomfortable with the sight, turned away and slapped Buck on the shoulder.
"C'mon, help me get this tub filled up."
Buck started, jerking his eyes away from JD to meet Chris's with an expression so full of raw hurt that Chris couldn't take it, either. Hurriedly, Chris walked over to the door and opened it, grabbing roughly at one of the buckets waiting outside and nearly spilling the water as he turned to take it in the room. Chris knew that look, knew it from the inside. Guilt like that could destroy a man's soul.
He didn't look at Buck again as they worked to fill the tub. He didn't look over at the bed, either, keeping his eyes firmly focused on his task. Nathan and Josiah got JD stripped, their occasional curses as they discovered a new injury hitting Chris like physical blows.
"You ready yet?" Nathan asked finally.
"It'll do for now."
"All right, then, Josiah, you get his legs. Mind that knee, now." Nathan bent to lift JD's shoulders.
JD didn't stir as they carried him across the room to the tub, but he stiffened when Josiah lowered his legs into the water. Nathan swore, trying to get a better grip as JD suddenly started struggling.
"JD, it's all right, son, take it easy," Josiah rumbled, somehow keeping his voice quiet even though he had to twist sharply to keep from dropping the kid's legs.
JD calmed for a moment, his eyes blinking open to gaze blankly around the room before shutting again. But then, as Nathan eased him the rest of the way into the water, his left arm bumped against the edge of the tub. The sound he made was very nearly a shriek, but choked off as if he was afraid of someone hearing him.
"Damn it, you're hurting him." Buck tried to shove past Josiah, but the big man straightened up from the tub and grabbed him.
"Easy, Buck, he's all right, Nathan's got him."
Buck stiffened, glaring at Josiah. "He's been through enough. Let him be."
"No one's hurting him, pard. Just getting him cleaned up so Nathan can fix what's wrong with him," Chris said quietly.
"If I can." Nathan said almost to himself, his voice holding an edge that Chris didn't have time to deal with.
Buck looked at Chris pleadingly. "Can't you see they're hurting him?"
Chris looked down at the kid, who was still struggling weakly against Nathan's supporting hands. "He's gonna hurt more if he ain't tended to, you know that. Now let Nathan get to work."
Buck shook his head stubbornly. "He can't take this right now. He needs to be left alone."
Josiah shook his head, tightening his grip on Buck's shoulders. "You ain't thinking real straight right now, my friend. JD's hurting, that's right. He needs Nathan to fix him up so he won't hurt no more. But Nathan can't do nothing if you're keeping him from it."
JD twisted suddenly, nearly pulling out of Nathan's grasp. The healer swore under his breath, then glared up at the men standing over him.
"Get him the hell out of here if he ain't going to shut up. Kid's riled enough without Buck yelling and making it worse."
Buck flinched. Chris shot Nathan a surprised look. He didn't think he'd ever heard the normally gentle man sound so bitter. The look Nathan gave him back challenged him to make an issue of it, though, and that was the last thing JD needed.
Turning away, Chris put a hand on Buck's arm and pulled him out of Josiah's grasp.
"Let's go for a walk, pard. JD'll be fine, and Nathan don't need us hanging around getting in the way."
"I ain't going . . . "
"Yes, you are." Chris tightened his hold enough to leave bruises, giving Buck little choice but to follow as he started for the door.
"Chris . . . " Buck's voice had a dangerous edge to it.
Chris turned to meet his eyes, holding them for a moment until Buck's shoulders slumped.
"He don't need to be hurt anymore," Buck finished with the plaintive tone of a man who knew he'd lost an argument.
"I know, Buck, I know."
Chris led him out of the room and down the stairs. A bench sat on the walkway across the street, and Chris guided his friend over to it. They sat, Buck leaning his elbows on his knees and resting his head in his hands.
There was a long silence. Buck scrubbed at his eyes, then gazed out across the street tiredly.
"He's . . . " Buck laughed suddenly, but there was no humor in it. "That ain't really what I'd call alive, but it's a damn sight better than we thought he was this time yesterday."
The brittle edge in his friend's voice was one Chris knew from hearing it in his own. Guilt, rage, grief . . . they all tore at a man's soul, leaving him hurting in ways no one could help. Chris knew. He'd been there not so long ago, and he wasn't so far away from those feelings that he couldn't feel their dark pull tugging at him, threatening to drag him back under.
He'd be damned if he was going to let Buck go down, though. Buck had had the strength to survive Sarah and Adam's murder, the only thing left of Chris's former life that wasn't completely destroyed in the fire. Buck's strength had held Chris back from sinking entirely into the darkness; it was a debt he didn't intend to leave unpaid.
"I never really thought he was dead. I never . . ." Buck's voice broke. He rubbed his hand across his mouth nervously. "I . . . "
Chris reached out to squeeze his friend's shoulder.
Buck sighed shakily and leaned back. "Kid's strong, you know. He's going to be fine. Whatever he's been through, he made it this far. He's going to be fine."
Chris nodded even though Buck wasn't looking at him. JD might or might not recover, but Chris was willing to have a little faith in his stubbornness, if nothing else.
"And as soon as he's okay again, I'm gonna kill him myself for making everybody worry, the little bastard. What the hell was he thinking?" Buck leaned his head back against the wall behind them. "Stupid punk kid."
There wasn't a trace of humor in the big gunslinger's voice, just a cold fury that masked months of hell. If Chris hadn't known the man so well, he would have thought Buck meant what he was saying.
He'd known Buck a long time, though, so he just waited. After a time, the bigger man shifted slightly. His shoulder, it seemed accidentally, touched Chris's and stayed there.
Voice breaking, he said softly, "Poor kid."
Chris kept his eyes on the buildings across the street, giving Buck what privacy he could until the other man's breathing evened out again. Then he slapped Buck's shoulder and said quietly, "Let's go see what Vin's found."
Neither man said a word as they walked down the street looking for the tracker. Chris absently noted the uneasy looks they received from the few people who'd ventured out into the early morning. The citizens of Four Corners had a well-honed sense of trouble, and they seemed to know that the potential danger that had hovered over the town for the past few months had drawn a whole lot closer than it had been even the day before. None of them approached the two gunslingers, although Mary Travis took a step toward them as if she wanted to join them. Chris stopped her with a shake of his head and a look that promised her they'd talk later.
Chris and Buck had almost reached the edge of town before they saw Vin standing in the cemetery. Chris glanced over at Buck, not sure how he'd take seeing JD's grave again, but Buck's face was unreadable.
Vin didn't look at them when they joined him at the foot of the grave that bore JD's name. He held his mare's-leg loosely in one hand, but his back was rigid and the other hand clenched.
"He was here."
Chris looked at him sharply. "What?"
"He was here. He came in from the south, had a broken heel on one boot and he was limping, so I followed his tracks real easy. But he was here, and he saw that." Vin gestured at the headstone.
Chris looked at the simple inscription and winced. "Damn."
"Oh, God." Buck's voice was strangled. He turned away abruptly and walked off, stopping suddenly to lean over a tombstone and retch.
"Somebody . . . " Vin took a deep breath. "Somebody's got a lot to answer for, Chris."
Nine: In the Beauty of the Lilies
After saddling his horse, Vin picked up JD's trail at the cemetery and followed it out of town. He wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but it was a relief to go. At the best of times, he was more comfortable out in the open, away from the confines of the buildings and all the people that lived in them; now, still reeling from JD's return, he needed to get away even more. Maybe following JD's tracks wasn't the best way to clear his head, though. The further he traced the erratic path, the more times he saw places where the kid had obviously fallen, the angrier he got. JD shouldn't have had to go through this.
The trail wound through woods and underbrush, heading vaguely northwest. To Vin's recollection, there wasn't anything in that area. Angle a little more to the west and you'd end up at Evans' place, and a little more to the north would take you onto Royal's land, but that middle section didn't really belong to anyone. As filled with rocky hills and gorges as it was, it seemed likely no one wanted it.
Which just might explain how JD had managed to survive out there for almost a month with no one knowing. People didn't have much of a reason to ride out there, and it was obvious from JD's trail that he'd done his best not to be seen. He'd stayed in the woods when he could, and picked dense undergrowth with easy hiding where there weren't trees. A small copse of desert broom showed signs of a longer stay; probably where he'd spent the night, if he'd traveled as slowly as Vin suspected he had to.
Further on, the trail led into a gully. A hollow log had washed up against a large indention in the earth, forming a shelter. As Vin looked around, he saw signs--faint, but present--that JD had stayed there for a while. Ashes mixed in with dirt as if someone was hiding the remains of a fire. A strip of dirty, faded cloth hidden in the shadow of the log, twisted into a loop for a snare. A few bones, probably from a rabbit, scattered about to look like an animal had been at them.
"Good," Vin muttered, impressed that JD had listened all those times they'd gone riding together. Maybe no one tracking him would be fooled by his attempts to hide, but if someone just rode through, they weren't likely to notice any signs that someone had been living here.
The trail wasn't as obvious once he left the gully. The footprints were fainter, and it took Vin longer to find them. Intent on keeping the trail, he didn't realize where he was until he heard the trickle of water going over rocks.
He'd drunk from this same stream only the day before, and thought about putting a wounded animal out of its misery. Vin closed his eyes. If only he'd taken the time . . .
Cursing softly, he wheeled his horse around. The tracks ended at the water; whatever other signs there might have been of JD's passing had already worn away. He should head back to town.
But something made him keep going. Sykes had said the gorge where they'd dumped JD was ten miles out of town. Vin was pretty sure he knew the one, and for some obscure reason, he felt he owed it to JD to go and look.
The gorge was steep, probably a good ten feet almost straight down. There was no way to ride a horse down it, so Vin tied up his gelding in a small grove of alders, out of sight of anyone who happened to ride by. It took the better part of an hour for Vin to find a way to get down on foot, and even longer to find what he was looking for.
The bones of the horse, picked clean and scattered by whatever scavengers hunted these parts, were his first clue that he was getting close. He looked up at the walls of the gorge and shook his head. Any horse going over the edge of that was almost guaranteed to break its neck. It was beyond Vin's understanding how JD had managed to survive the fall. And then, hurt, he had somehow managed to stay alive for weeks.
Casting about, Vin found other signs: the print of a broken boot heel in the soft earth near the stream, rocks disturbed by stumbling steps, a patch of wild potatoes obviously dug up by human hands. A little further down the gorge, blackberries and devils horn were taking advantage of the water source, and Vin could see where JD had harvested the fruit. Not far past that, there were more tracks around an uprooted mesquite tree. Whatever force had pulled the tree over had left a shallow cave in the wall of the gorge just big enough to provide shelter for one man. Vin nodded approvingly, even though JD wasn't there to see him. The kid had done well.
Turning to go, Vin froze as he heard something on the wall above him. Men's voices. Cautiously, he eased into the cave, out of sight if anyone decided to peer over the edge of the gorge. It was an instinctual move; the men above might not be dangerous, but Vin saw no point in taking chances.
"You think those damn cows might have gone down there?" one voice said, suddenly so clear that he had to be almost on top of Vin's location.
"Hell, if they did, I ain't going after them. I don't care what Evans says, a few head won't make that big a difference."
"Don't let Evans hear you say that. He'll take the price of those cows out of your pay."
"I don't know why he's got such a burr up his saddle about that herd. They're just scrub cows, not purebreds."
"It's what we've got to eat off once the town is gone. It'll be a lean couple of months until the railroad comes through."
"But I'm still not riding back a mile to find a path down into that gorge. Any cows down there can find their own way out."
The first voice laughed, and the voices faded away. Vin gave them time to get clear before he headed back to his horse.
Nathan shut the door gently behind him. Taking a breath of the fresh air, he walked slowly down the stairs and over to the water pump by the side of the building. A few jerks of the creaky handle sent water cascading down into the wooden bucket at the base of the pump. Nathan caught a handful of it to splash over his face.
A bench was set against the wall in the shade of the balcony. Nathan sat, letting his head fall back to rest against the wall. The sounds of the town swirled around him, but nothing came close enough to touch. He was grateful. He couldn't handle much more right now. Not when he still had agonized, muffled screams echoing in his ears.
JD had settled down after Buck and Chris left, mostly due to Josiah's quiet voice keeping up a steady stream of reassurance. Nathan had coaxed him into drinking first some water and then laudanum, and he'd quickly drifted off. Cleaned up, dressed in a nightshirt, and tucked into Nathan's bed, he probably would have slept for hours. Nathan had wanted nothing more than to leave him be.
But the kid's arm had to be reset if he wanted to be able to use it. There was no way it wasn't going to hurt like hell, but Nathan had hoped that JD's exhaustion and the laudanum would numb him to the worst of it. And at first, it had. JD had barely moved when Nathan rebroke his arm. It wasn't until Nathan had started realigning the bones that JD had moaned. Then his eyes had flown open and he had screamed, and Nathan couldn't stop because the arm had to be set. Josiah had clamped a hand over JD's mouth, trying to keep anyone outside from hearing and coming to investigate. Even though it had only been a few minutes before the pain had knocked JD out again, they were some of the longest minutes of Nathan's life.
Someone settled on the bench beside him. Frowning, he opened his eyes to find a silver flask dangling in front of them.
"You look like you could use this," Ezra said.
Nathan took the flask with a hand that shook embarrassingly and took a drink. Brandy burned his throat, but not sharply enough. He took another drink, gulping until there was no more.
"It appears to be a good thing I brought reinforcements." His tone dry, Ezra held up a bottle of whiskey. "Although I had originally intended it for--our friend."
"He's," Nathan coughed, needing to clear his throat, "sleeping."
"How is he?"
Nathan shrugged. "I reset his arm. His knee--I don't think anything's broken. Won't know for sure till I can bring the swelling down. Got a lot of bruises and cuts, but none of them look too serious. Mostly, he needs sleep and decent food."
"That is," Ezra paused, shaking his head. "That is truly remarkable."
Ezra gave him a sharp look. "Is there more?"
Nathan laughed, the sound bitter even in his own ears. "More than the fact that I just tortured someone who's already been through hell?" He reached over and took the whiskey bottle out of Ezra's hand. It didn't mix well with the taste of brandy in his mouth, but he didn't care.
Ezra just looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "You're very skilled at that. In fact, I remember distinctly the agony you put me through when my shoulder was dislocated in the Seminole village." He shrugged, the movement exaggerated. "It seems to work rather well now, however."
Nathan glared at him. "That's not what I meant."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Then please, enlighten me."
Nathan had a feeling he was being laughed at. He got that feeling a lot around Ezra, but at the moment, he really didn't have the patience for it. "You wouldn't understand."
"I'm sure I wouldn't." Ezra's face was suddenly blank. He took the whiskey bottle back and drank a large swallow. "It seems obvious, however, that causing pain when it is necessary to facilitate healing is entirely a different matter than causing pain for the enjoyment of the pain."
Nathan sighed. "I know that, Ezra." He closed his eyes again, abruptly tired. There were a lot of times as a healer when he had to hurt someone in order to help them. He didn't like it, but he wasn't squeamish about it, either. Better a little pain now than a lot later, he always figured. "It's just, he's already gone through so much. Things he shouldn't have had to go through. If I'd stayed in town, listened when he came to me for help--"
"Then perhaps he wouldn't have been hurt." Ezra sighed. "Or perhaps you'd both be dead now. Mr. Sykes seemed to have no remorse for the murders he committed; I'm sure one more wouldn't have bothered him at all."
Especially not when the man he was killing was just a darkie ex-slave, Nathan thought. But Sykes was dead now, and Nathan wasn't going to waste time hating a dead man. Anyway, he had almost as much responsibility as Sykes for JD's condition. If he'd just listened . . .
"It's impossible to know what might have happened," Ezra continued after a few minutes. "However, there is one aspect of the situation that you may not have considered. If you were dead, your ability to help our young friend would be, to say the least, severely curtailed. It could be argued that we all failed him, as well as one another. But you, out of all of us, have the best chance to rectify your mistake."
Nathan opened his eyes in time to catch Ezra's expression before the gambler could change it. There was a sadness there that Nathan understood completely.
"Seems like coming back counts for a lot, too," he said quietly.
Ezra studied him again, then nodded. "I hope you are right, my friend." He took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "I had Sykes's body removed to the undertaker's, and spread the word that he had died in an altercation over cards. I suspect Evans will know of his death before midmorning. I spotted a couple of his men riding out not long after Sykes was removed from the saloon."
"Chris know about that?" Nathan asked.
"He and Buck are attempting to prepare for Evans' arrival, should he come looking for vengeance. They're warning certain of the townsfolk who can be trusted not to panic."
"But not telling them about . . . " Nathan glanced up at his room.
"No. That seems best kept amongst ourselves for the time being." Ezra sighed and stood. "If you'll excuse me, I need to go disseminate a few more lies about our friend Mr. Sykes."
After he left, Nathan sat for a few minutes, enjoying the quiet before he returned to his room.
It was almost noon before Buck got back to Nathan's room. He stuck his head in quietly, nodding to Nathan, who was reading a book by the window.
"How is he?" Buck asked in a soft voice.
"Sleeping. I'd be surprised if he woke up before morning." Nathan stood. "You going to be around for a while? I'd like to get some food if you can stay with him."
"Sure, go ahead."
Buck went over to the bed, settling down in the chair next to it as Nathan left. With all the dirt gone, JD looked more like himself. An exhausted, bruised, skinny version of himself, but still better than he'd looked in the saloon.
"It's good to have you back, son," Buck murmured, reaching out to squeeze JD's hand. It didn't matter that JD couldn't hear him right now. What was important was that JD was there. Alive. Safe. Buck would see to that, would make up for not looking out for him before. "I'm sorry. I should have been here to watch your back. But I promise I won't let this happen again. You got Sykes already, and I'll make sure the rest of them don't get anywhere near you. You're safe now."
JD didn't move, his breathing slow and steady. Content to keep watch, Buck propped his feet on the edge of the bed. Finally, he could sit back, relax, and enjoy the fact that his friend was alive.
A couple of hours later, he had paced the perimeter of the room enough times to know the turns with his eyes closed. Nathan had stuck his head in, but JD was sleeping soundly. Buck had told Nathan to go on; he was fine watching JD. And truthfully, he didn't want to be anywhere else just then, but that didn't mean he could easily sit still for hours on end.
Finally, he grabbed one of the medical books Nathan had placed on a shelf and started flipping through it, wincing from time to time at the descriptions. He was reading about a cure for quinsy and figuring how he'd rather just have the sickness when a sound from the bed made him put the book down.
JD was stirring, a frown of pain creasing his forehead as he pushed fretfully at the covers.
Buck leaned forward, resting a hand on JD's leg. "Easy, son, you're all right."
Tossing his head, JD moaned. The sound cut off with a gasp as he sat up, staring around wildly.
"JD?" Buck moved over to sit on the edge of the bed. "It's all right. You're safe here. JD?"
JD's eyes slid right past him. With a chill, Buck realized that he wasn't entirely awake. Not wanting to spook him, Buck reached slowly to put a hand on his arm. He was trembling, breath coming fast, eyes fixing on Buck as soon as Buck touched him.
"Hey there." Buck kept his voice low and gentle. "You're okay, son. It's just me. No one here to hurt you."
His trembling increasing, JD pulled back so hard Buck was afraid he'd fall of the bed. He was terrified, trapped, and Buck silently cursed himself for not being more careful.
"Easy, JD, take it easy. I'm not going to hurt you. You're safe here, you know that, right?" Keeping up the steady murmur of reassurances, Buck lifted his hand again. He kept every movement slow and in plain sight as he reached to touch JD's shoulder. "That's right. I know it's been rough, but you're home now, all right? You're safe."
JD was watching his every move but didn't seem to recognize him even now. But then, with painful caution, JD reached up and gripped Buck's wrist. Something flickered in his expression. He sighed, his eyes beginning to close, and his hand fell back to the bed.
"That's right, go on and rest."
Buck guided him back down to lie on the pillow. In a few minutes, he was breathing evenly again, as deeply asleep as if nothing had happened.
As he watched, Buck felt a mixture of sadness and anger settling like a weight around his heart. He hated seeing JD like this, weak and hurting and scared. JD was the last person in the world to deserve whatever hell he'd been through.
Sighing, Buck patted JD's leg. "It'll get better, son," he whispered, his words both reassurance and a promise. "It will."
Even with all of the excitement surrounding JD's return, Ezra hadn't forgotten his conversation with Ned Grainger, Simon Blake's alleged partner. Off and on throughout the day, he had searched for the man, but never managed to learn more than that he was registered at the hotel and wasn't in his room any time that Ezra stopped by. The need to conceal JD's return and the possibility of Evans' arrival in town seeking revenge took a higher priority anyway, so he didn't worry too much when he hadn't located Grainger by the end of the day.
He'd barely made it through his first cup of coffee at the café the next morning, however, when he looked up to see the subject of his search bearing down on him.
"Mr. Standish? May I join you?"
Grainger looked much the same as he had the day before: a brown business suit and bowler hat, neither of particularly note-worthy style, his narrow mustache and brown hair combed neatly, his expression blandly friendly. Ezra gestured to the chair across from his own.
"Please, have a seat."
Grainger sat, waving away Marlene, the waitress, when she approached the table.
"I was hoping to run into you again, Mr. Standish. I wasn't aware when we spoke yesterday that you are affiliated with the law in this town." He smiled faintly. "It appears you had a busy day, what with the shooting in the saloon."
Ezra studied him, but the man seemed sincere enough. "Yes, but that was a fairly open and shut affair. The dead man cheated at cards. Most people around here don't appreciate such activities."
"Ah." Grainger nodded. "I assume the injured man that was taken to the healer's at about the same time was the man he cheated?"
Ezra had learned how to bluff before he'd learned how to tie his shoes. It took all of his skill now not to react. "Yes. A hand at one of the local ranches, I believe. Took a bullet to the shoulder, but he should recover without complications."
"Oh? That's interesting. I only heard one shot."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "You're an early riser, Mr. Grainger."
"I hate to waste the day. I usually start my day with a constitutional."
And Ezra had some lovely seaside property about five miles out of town. "I prefer a cup of coffee, myself."
He matched Grainger's smile, aware that the man had as much belief in his ignorance of current affairs as Ezra now had in Grainger's. That was fine with Ezra. He enjoyed verbal sparring as much as the next man, but there came a time when cards needed to be placed on the table. Grainger was aware, at least to a certain extent, of JD's existence. If he couldn't be trusted, he'd have to be put somewhere where he couldn't cause trouble.
"You said you were in town looking for your partner," Ezra said. "What business are you in?"
Grainger reached into his breast pocket, his movements slow and careful. Pulling out a card, he handed it across the table to Ezra. The logo, a single human eye, was familiar enough that Ezra didn't even have to read the words surrounding it.
"I'd prefer you didn't share that information," Grainger said, taking the card back and putting it back in his pocket. "I would prefer certain people didn't know anyone in my line of work was in town."
"That's understandable." Ezra took a sip of his coffee. "Why tell me?"
"From the rumors that are floating around, I suspect that we share a common enemy." Grainger hesitated, studying Ezra for a moment before continuing. "Also, my partner appears to have been missing for at least three weeks. It isn't like him not to be in touch or to leave me some kind of message. I was hoping someone familiar with the lay of the land might be able to help me find him."
There was one thing Ezra had forgotten in the previous day's excitement. JD's grave wasn't empty, even if JD wasn't in it. Taking another drink of his coffee to stall for time, he tried to think of a way to break the news to Grainger.
"I have something to show you," he said finally. It was the coward's way out, true, but he'd never claimed to be a brave man.
Grainger followed him without comment, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man's back stiffen when they approached the cemetery. Ezra hadn't worked himself up to visiting before; even so, it wasn't difficult to find the grave. Grainger stared at the inscription on the wooden cross, frowning.
"I don't understand," he said finally.
Ezra had learned to trust his instincts sometime after he'd learned to bluff, but since that time they had rarely failed him. Taking a deep breath, he showed his hand.
"There's a young man at the healer's whom we believed to be dead until early yesterday morning. We believed, in fact, that he was buried in this grave. Apparently, he had a similar appearance to your partner. And his continued safety depends on certain people remaining unaware that he lives."
Grainger looked at him for a long time. "My partner," he said finally, his voice tight, "he's here."
Ezra nodded. "I'm sorry."
Grainger looked back at the grave. "And the man killed yesterday? Sykes?"
"Was involved. As was his employer, whom I suspect you are here to investigate?"
Grainger nodded, rubbing at his mouth with one hand. "If you don't mind, I'd like to have a few minutes."
"Of course." Ezra paused. "The young man I mentioned. That's information I'd prefer you didn't share. In fact," he touched the butt of his gun gently, "I insist on it."
Grainger didn't even look at him. "On the condition that we work together to catch the men behind this. Simon Blake was a good man. I won't have his murderers going free."
"Come find me when you're done," Ezra said, and left him to his thoughts.
Ten: Sounded Forth the Trumpet
Chris walked into the jail, glancing around at the other men. Vin and Nathan both leaned on the bars of the cell, Ezra sat in a chair next to the desk, and Buck was propped against the wall beside the door, yawning hugely. Since he'd just left Josiah keeping watch over JD, everyone was accounted for.
Settling on the corner of the desk, he looked at Ezra.
"You said you had news."
Ezra nodded. "I just had a talk with Ned Grainger, the man who approached me in the saloon a couple of days ago claiming to be Simon Blake's partner. It seems Mr. Grainger is a member of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency."
"He's a Pinkerton?" Nathan asked, shaking his head. "What's a Pinkerton doing here?"
"Investigating Evans, apparently," Ezra said.
"So that fellow they buried in JD's grave . . . " Vin said slowly.
"Was a Pinkerton as well, yes."
Chris frowned. "How did Pinkertons get involved in this?"
"Actually, we were hired by the head of the Central Pacific railroad."
The new voice came from the front door. Buck's gun was on the man before he could say anything more, but Ezra stood up and into Chris's line of fire before he could draw his own gun.
"Buck, that's Grainger. He's okay."
Chris relaxed slightly, but still shifted to where he had a line on Grainger if he needed it. Lowering his gun, Buck looked Grainger up and down.
"So you're a Pinkerton, huh? I always thought you guys would be taller."
Grainger blinked at him. Knowing how Buck could be when he got going, Chris interrupted quickly.
"What about the Central Pacific?"
Stepping into the jail, Grainger said, "The president of Central Pacific likes to keep an eye on potential problems. The company has a contract with the government to lay a certain amount of rail in a certain amount of time, and delays can be very costly. Consequently, Central Pacific also has a contract with Mr. Pinkerton to keep several agents on retainer. We investigate for potential difficulties along the planned rail lines. Colter Evans' name has come up several times in our investigations, so Simon--my partner--came out here to see what he could find out."
"Only Evans found out about him first," Buck said.
"I would like very much to make sure Evans doesn't get away with that." Grainger looked around the room at each of them in turn. "Gentlemen, I believe we have a common purpose. If we pool our resources, we stand a much better chance at obtaining our goal."
Chris studied him. He seemed straightforward enough, and Ezra believed him. If there was anyone Chris trusted to smell out a double-dealer, it was Ezra.
"All right," he said abruptly. "You tell us what you know, we'll fill in the blanks, then we'll see where we go from there."
Grainger nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee."
Chris gave him a sharp look.
Grainger's smile was a tiny bit smug. "I do my homework. The folks in this town enjoy gossiping about their peacekeepers quite a bit."
"They say anything useful about Evans?"
"Probably nothing you don't already know."
Glancing around, Grainger spotted the chair behind the desk. He started for it, only to be brought up short by Buck's hand on his arm. The look on Buck's face stopped any argument he might have had. Chris didn't bother to hide his smirk. He'd been on the wrong end of that look a few times himself.
"Um, Evans," Grainger said, obviously trying to get back on track. "We didn't have much information on him in our files. We know he's originally from Texas and worked some shady deals involving cattle and a whole lot of money down there. Nothing he ever got caught for, unfortunately. He disappeared for a while, then showed up again waving money around and hiring men who were better shootists than cowpunchers. We were able to discover that it wasn't his money, but we haven't been able to find out who the real man in charge is. Blake's last message said that he was onto something, but he never had a chance to tell me what he had discovered."
"He's here," Vin said. "Evans' boss. I saw him out at Evans' place."
Grainger raised an eyebrow. "Good. We can take them all down at once, then."
"We also saw signs that Evans has enough men and ammunition to take this town apart," Nathan said sharply. "We're not careful, we'll be the ones getting took down."
"He's got himself a good-sized herd of cattle, too," Vin added. "And I heard a couple of his men talking about how they're going to have to live off it when the town's gone."
"That doesn't make sense." Tilting his chair back, Ezra frowned. "We know Evans' men have been attempting to bully people into selling their businesses at unreasonable prices. Obviously, if Evans--or whoever he's working for--owns the town, then he stands to make a great deal of money when the railroad comes in. But the money comes from the businesses and the influx of new customers. Why would he want to eradicate the town?"
"Not just the town. Evans said something about going after the big ranches, too."
Ezra shook his head. "Why take on Royal and James? If he already has the town, what does he need with them?"
"Their land," Grainger said. "The rail lines run directly through a portion of Royal's land--one I believe he gained rather recently. Once they've gone through town, the lines hit a section of James' land, as well."
Chris nodded. "Whoever owns that land will make a decent amount of money when Central Pacific buys it off them. Maybe not what it's worth, but if you don't pay anything for it in the first place and only want it to be able to sell it, anything's a profit."
"Rather clever of them, isn't it?" Ezra said. "And somewhat ironic, when you consider how Guy Royal acquired his portion of the land in the first place."
"That'd explain why Evans hired so many men," Vin said, almost to himself.
When he didn't continue, Chris gave him a questioning look.
Vin grinned. "If I was going to try to take Stuart James' land from him, I'd sure as hell take an army with me."
Ezra sighed. "That still leaves us with the question of why Evans--or his boss--wants to eliminate the town rather than merely owning it."
"Two questions," Nathan corrected. "How're we going to fight more than forty men?"
"Perhaps some of your fellow detectives?" Ezra asked Grainger.
Grainger shook his head. "It would take weeks to get that many men here, and Mr. Pinkerton wouldn't pull them off their current jobs for anything short of the President of the United States himself."
Chris frowned, scratching his chin as he thought. "We don't need them. Vin's right, it would take an army to get Stuart James' land from him."
They were all looking at him, but only Vin seemed to get it.
"You want to bring Stuart James in on this?"
"And Guy Royal. It's their land, they've got the men to defend it, why not let them do some of the work?"
"You really think either of them is going to throw in with us?" Buck asked.
"They can fight Evans with us or by themselves. Only thing is, neither of them have enough men to win on their own." Chris was willing to gamble that both of the ranchers were smart enough to figure the odds for themselves. He didn't have a lot of liking for either of them, but they hadn't gotten where they were by being stupid. "Ezra, find someone to ride out to both their places and invite them in for a meeting. I don't want any of us too far from town until we know what Evans' next move is."
"I think we're about to find out," Nathan said suddenly. He was looking out the window, his face set in hard, cold lines.
Chris crossed over to the door. Looking down the street, he could see three men riding toward the jail. The one in the center rode a little ahead of the rest; Chris pegged him for the leader.
"Evans?" he asked Nathan.
"Let's go see what he wants." Chris stepped out the door, knowing the others would be right behind him.
Evans pulled his horse to a halt in front of the jail.
"I'm looking for Chris Larabee."
"You've found him."
Evans eyed him up and down. "I hear you think you're the law in this town now."
Chris wasn't finding much in the man to like. "I think it's my town. What're you doing in it?"
"One of my men was murdered yesterday. I'm here to collect his body and make sure justice is done."
At Chris's left shoulder, Buck made a noise somewhere between a snort and a growl. "What would you know about justice?"
Evans gave Buck the same inspection Chris had received. "And you are?"
"Out of patience," Chris interrupted. It was too early yet to let Buck start shooting; until they had James and Royal's men to back them up, Evans was going to have to go free. "Sykes is at the undertaker's. It was a fair shooting. He was cheating at cards and got caught. You want to collect his body on your way out of town, you go right ahead."
"What if I don't believe you? I want to see the man who killed Sykes."
Buck took a step forward, but Chris reached back and grabbed his arm, feeling the tension running through his muscles.
"I said, get out of town. Take the body or don't. You got ten minutes."
He could see Evans weighing the odds, his three against the six in front of the jail. Evans obviously didn't like the results he was coming up with.
"Come on," he snapped at his men, wheeling his horse around.
Chris didn't move until they'd thrown the body over Sykes' horse and ridden out. He didn't let go of Buck, either, and the big man never relaxed.
It had been a long day, Josiah thought as he eased himself down on the church's front stairs. He had taken over watching JD early in the morning, then spent the afternoon making his presence known around town. Chris wanted the townsfolk to be confident enough to stand up to Evans when the time came. Somehow, that meant all six of them spent a lot of time walking the streets. If they didn't have a showdown with Evans soon, Josiah was going to need new boots.
But, overall, he had to concede that it had been a good day. JD was getting stronger, even if he still didn't seem to recognize anything during the few minutes at a time that he was able to stay awake. It would take time for the boy to get back on his feet, but Josiah felt confident that he would make it. He'd come too far and been through too much to give up now. And even if he faltered, he had friends to pick him up and help him on the journey.
A thought struck Josiah suddenly, and he smiled. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." He glanced upward. "I guess You were, weren't You?"
There was no answer, but Josiah didn't mind. His conversations with the Almighty tended to be one-sided affairs most of the time. He was used to it.
His stomach rumbled, reminding him that supper was waiting for him in the saloon. He stood, then realized he'd forgotten something. Glancing upward again, he said quietly, "Thank You."
His eyes slit open without his telling them to. A warm, slightly flickering light glows on rough wood walls, dim enough that it is gentle on his eyes. The part of his mind that can't let down its guard notes that it must be night for the lanterns to be lit, and that the pain he can't remember being without has dulled to a vague ache.
Something has happened. He can't remember what, but something has changed. A drowsy calm wraps around him, cushioning him from the fear that still lurks somewhere not too far away. He feels heavy, but in a drifting sort of way, as if he could sink through the ground and keep floating downward forever.
Sighing softly, he looks about the room, taking drowsy comfort in its familiarity. Every time he opens his eyes, it is the same. A worn quilt pulled up over his shoulders, a small bedside table covered in bottles made from dark glass, a chest seated against the wall under a shelf that holds a few well-used books. A pitcher and basin sit opposite the bed, next to a second, smaller chest cluttered with odds and ends. The faint, earthy scent of dried herbs mixes with more pungent lineament, a smell that has become familiar, too, and comforting.
And on the far side of the bed, dusty boots create a sag in the mattress just within reach, if he wants to put out his hand to touch them. Beyond the boots, Buck sits precariously with his chair tilted back on two legs, his eyes focused somewhere past the windowpane.
JD doesn't stir, but it is only a few minutes later that Buck looks over at him. Warmth kindles in Buck's eyes, wrapping around JD with the same familiar comfort as the quilt that covers him.
"Hey, look who decided to wake up." Buck's voice is barely above a whisper, as calm as if he is talking to himself.
JD listens, and daring everything, lets his eyes open further.
"I was beginning to think you was gonna sleep till Christmas," Buck continues in the same tone. "Which would be a shame, seeing as how you'd wind up missing that pumpkin pie Charlie over at the hotel makes come Thanksgiving. Not to mention Nathan'd have to find himself a new room."
JD blinks. His throat feels like he's swallowed hot sand, but talking is too much to contemplate just yet. For now, it is enough that Buck is talking, that Buck is still there and that the mattress sags under his boots.
But his eyes have a mind of their own, drifting over to settle on the water pitcher.
"I reckon you could use a drink, huh?"
Buck's boots thud on the floor as he stands. Crossing over to the pitcher, he pours water into a mug and walks back to the bed.
JD watches him intently, muscles tightening even though it is Buck, Buck's voice and Buck's weight on the edge of the bed and Buck's arm under his shoulders, helping him sit enough that he can swallow the water. Cool relief slides down his throat a sip at a time, and it almost doesn't matter whether it is Buck holding the cup or just another fever dream.
"That's enough for now," Buck murmurs finally, setting the cup down on the nightstand. He lowers JD back down to the pillows, resting his hand for a moment on JD's forehead before standing up.
JD holds himself rigid against the trembling that threatens. His eyes are growing heavy, but he doesn't surrender. Buck is still standing, still moving, so he keeps cautious watch.
With a tired sigh, Buck lowers himself back into the chair he'd been sitting in when JD first awoke. He smiles at JD, as much with his eyes as with his mouth, and JD feels the need to tremble ease a bit.
"S'okay to go back to sleep, son." Buck props his feet back on the bed, making the mattress sag again, and leans back in his chair. "I ain't going nowhere."
JD can't find the courage to close his eyes, though. Exhaustion drags at him, makes him ache, but there is just too much at stake.
His own eyes half-closed, Buck shifts in his chair so that one booted foot presses lightly against JD's hip. JD barely has to move his hand at all to rest his fingers on the worn leather tip. He lets his eyes close.
Vin watched the morning unfold through Nathan's window. Sipping on a cup of coffee, he stood looking out at the street and wishing, somewhat guiltily, that he were somewhere else. They were all taking turns watching JD, in part to protect him from Evans and in part because JD kept waking up confused and scared. Even though he hadn't spoken to any of them yet, he still calmed down when one of the boys talked to him.
Vin was glad of the chance to make sure JD was safe. He'd defend any of his friends to the death if need be. But he didn't know what the hell he was supposed to do if JD woke up and started panicking. Buck, Josiah, and Nathan all just talked to him, but they were men who knew how to make a person feel better with words. Vin wasn't. Like as not, he'd say the wrong thing and JD would get upset and wind up hurting himself worse.
He'd spent most of the morning hoping JD would stay asleep. Just long enough for Nathan or Josiah to get back from whatever errands they were running and take over. After all, the kid needed sleep, Nathan had said so himself. Was it too much to ask that he get most of it while Vin was on watch?
A low scuffling sound behind him answered that question. Wincing, Vin turned, then nearly dropped his mug when he saw JD not only awake, but out of bed, limping painfully toward the door.
"Hey, kid," Vin said, trying to keep his voice calm. He set down his mug and started toward JD, pausing again as JD froze. The kid was staring at him like he was a predator and JD was his next meal. "Where you going?"
JD jerked his eyes away and started walking again with dogged, painful determination. With his broken arm pressed against his stomach and the way he barely put any weight on his bad leg, he looked like a breath could knock him over.
Cautiously, Vin stepped between JD and the door. If need be, he'd throw JD over his shoulder, carry him back to bed, and hold him there, but it was the last thing he wanted to do. JD was scared enough as it was.
"JD? What's wrong, kid?" He held out a hand, not quite touching JD's good arm.
JD stared at him, eyes showing nothing but fear. But then he blinked, and something that might have been recognition flickered.
"I have to leave," he said in a rough, hoarse voice. He took another step forward, only stopping when Vin didn't move.
"You're safe here." Vin carefully placed his hand on JD's arm. "You made it, kid. It's okay to rest now."
JD looked down at Vin's hand for what seemed like a long time. He was starting to sway, whatever strength he had quickly giving out.
Taking a chance, Vin put his other hand on JD's shoulder, and when the kid didn't protest, turned him gently back toward the bed. Vin could feel the faint tremors running through JD's body with every step, but somehow JD made it. Easing him down onto the mattress, Vin pulled the covers back over him. JD's dark eyes tracked every move he made.
"Go on to sleep now," Vin said softly.
The tone was questioning, like JD wasn't entirely sure that Vin was really there. It made Vin's chest ache, but he forced his voice to be calm as he answered.
"What do you need, JD?"
JD studied him for a minute before answering. "You don't lie to me."
Frowning, Vin shook his head. "Try not to, anyway. Why?"
"Am I dead?"
The question threw Vin. He almost laughed, but he was sobered by the absolute seriousness in JD's tone, and the edge of fear in his eyes like he thought Vin might say yes. That, and the memory of JD's footprints in the cemetery.
Slowly, he sat down on the side of the bed. "No, kid, you're not dead."
A hint of distrust was back in JD's eyes. "I saw my grave."
"Yeah, but--" Vin stopped. He didn't think JD needed to know about Simon Blake just yet. "It's fake. Like when we buried the judge."
The distrust was gone, but there was still something in his expression that Vin didn't like. Doubt, not of Vin, but of himself. That wasn't right, not after what Vin had seen in the gorge.
"Hey." Vin squeezed JD's shoulder gently, wanting to be sure he was paying attention. "You went through hell. You were hurt, people were hunting you. But you kept your tracks hidden, found food, water, shelter. You stayed alive. You did real good, kid. I'm proud of you."
JD turned away, but not before Vin had seen the shimmer of tears in his eyes. He waited for a minute, letting JD collect himself, before touching the kid's chin to make him look at Vin again.
"You made it back, JD. You're home, safe. It's okay to rest now."
JD sighed, his eyes suddenly growing heavy as the tension left him. The smile he gave Vin was faint, but unshadowed.
"Okay," he whispered, nearly asleep already.
Vin stayed still, not wanting to disturb him. It wasn't until JD's steady breathing showed he was asleep that Vin let his hands start shaking.
Eleven: Crush the Serpent With His Heel
The meeting with Stuart James and Guy Royal was set for midday at the saloon. Whether either of them would show up, Buck didn't know. The part of him that didn't trust them as far as he could throw them hoped they'd stay away. His more practical side admitted that taking on all forty-plus men in Evans' employ without help was a good way to commit suicide.
So when he looked down the street and saw Guy Royal and three other men riding toward him, he wasn't sure if relief or trepidation was the stronger emotion coursing through him.
"That's one," Ezra commented from beside him.
"Yeah." Buck straightened as Royal drew closer. "One's not enough."
Royal led his men past them and into the saloon without a word. One of the men stopped just outside the door, resting his hand on the butt of his gun.
"Howdy," Buck said, trying to be friendly. The man just glared at him.
"Here comes Mr. James," Ezra interrupted before Buck could comment on the man's manners.
Stuart James had only brought two men with him, neither of them looking any friendlier than Royal's. Buck and Ezra followed them into the saloon. They had decided that Grainger's presence would be difficult to explain, so it was only Chris and Vin who sat with Royal at a table in the back. Josiah was a hulking shadow up against the wall. Royal's two men had stopped at the bar, but Buck noticed that they stood where they had a direct line of fire on the table. James took his seat, gesturing to his men to join Josiah against the wall. Buck and Ezra both took up position between the table and the rest of the saloon, blocking any curious bystanders.
"Well?" Stuart James said as soon as he set down. "I don't got all day. What's this all about?"
"That's what I want to know," Royal snapped. "If you're trying to accuse me of killing that boy, I already told your men, I had nothing to do with it."
"We know who killed him." Chris gave them both an assessing look. "The same man who's trying to ruin the town and steal your land."
"Colter Evans?" At the surprised looks turned his way, James gave a short laugh. "I'm not blind. He's been making a bid to own the territory since he showed up."
Royal nodded. "He offered me a ridiculous amount for my land several months ago. He didn't seem too pleased when I turned him down."
"It's not just Evans," Chris said. "He's working for someone. We don't know who, but whoever it is has a lot of money to throw around and isn't scared of killing to get what he wants."
James was studying Chris. "So you want revenge for the kid. Why should I get involved?"
"Like you said, Evans and his boss are trying to own the territory, and they've brought in the men and weapons to make it happen."
"I was out there a couple of days ago," Vin added. "Counted upwards of fifty men and more than enough rifles and ammunition to go around."
Buck felt a glimmer of satisfaction at the flummoxed expressions on both ranchers' faces. It was about time someone else got bad news.
"By ourselves," Chris said, "we don't stand much of a chance against that many men. I've got five men, plus maybe a few from the town. Royal, you've got twenty, maybe twenty-five men, right? And James, you've got about the same. If we go up against Evans one at a time, we'll all lose. But if we throw in together, we outnumber him."
James tapped his fingers on the table thoughtfully. "I didn't survive this long not being able to fight my own battles."
Chris shrugged. "It's your land. Evans intends to own it before the railroad comes through. I don't reckon you've survived this long by letting people walk off with what's yours, either."
James stared at him for a long minute, his eyes hard enough that Buck slipped his hand up to rest on the butt of his gun. Royal was watching the two avidly, apparently not intending to make up his mind until he saw which way the wind was blowing.
"True," James said finally. "All right, then. I'm in. If you double-cross me, I'll have your guts for a clothes line."
Chris raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment. Chris always had been better than Buck at knowing when to let things lie.
"What's the plan?" Royal asked.
Chris answered, "We need to hit them all at once. The longer this draws out, the more likely we'll lose people."
"You're not suggesting we attack Evans' ranch." Royal shook his head. "If he has the weaponry you claim he has, that would be suicide."
"An ambush?" James suggested. "Draw them out, make them come to us, then hit them on all sides."
Chris nodded. "That's what we were thinking. There's a point where the road coming from Evans' ranch into town leads through a bottleneck between a couple of hills. There's enough rocks and brush for our men to take cover. Once Evans and his crew ride through, we can send one group around to block their retreat, and we should have them without too much danger of getting killed ourselves."
"And how do you propose we get Evans to bring all of his men through that particular spot while we're waiting for them?" Royal asked.
Buck bit down on a grin. He'd asked the same question when they'd discussed the plan the day before. He still didn't entirely like the answer, even if he did admit it made sense.
"We're going to send a small group out to attack the ranch house." Chris raised a hand to stall their objections. "Just a hit-and-run attack, but we're going to make sure Evans knows who hit him. We want to make him mad enough to bring his men and come after us, right into our ambush."
"What if he doesn't take the bait?" Royal asked.
Chris gave him a dry look. "Then I'll send Buck and Ezra out there with a stick of dynamite and blow the place up."
Royal's wince made Buck's entire day.
Opening his eyes, JD looked around sleepily and realized that he was alone for the first time in . . . a long time. There was a heart-pounding moment of I knew it wasn't real before he heard the voices coming from outside the door. Chris and Nathan, he thought tiredly, knowing the voices even though he couldn't hear the words. He closed his eyes again and waited for his heart to slow down.
It was stupid. He was a grown man; he didn't need someone to watch over him constantly. He'd survived for--for a long time in the wild without anyone around. He could certainly handle lying in a bed all by himself. It would just be easier if he didn't have that crazy voice in the back of his mind asking how he knew he was in a bed and not huddled up under a bush somewhere? How did he know the guys were really there? He'd seen them enough when he was hiding, fever and exhaustion making him imagine all sorts of things that weren't real.
But he wasn't sick anymore. He knew the difference between what was real and what wasn't, and letting himself think anything else was stupid. He could just imagine the look on Buck's face if he said he didn't think Buck really existed. Not that he would ever admit to it. He'd messed up enough in front of the guys to last him a lifetime.
Sighing, he shifted position, trying to find a way to lie that didn't make his arm or his knee or some other random point on his body ache. He was tired of lying around all the time, tired of hurting, tired of being tired. He wanted to get up and do something, but when he'd suggested it earlier that morning, Nathan had offered to tie him to the bed until he grew some sense. Of course, he thought morosely, it was probably better that he stay in bed anyway, since he couldn't seem to stay awake for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Nathan had promised him that would pass, but it wasn't going quickly enough to suit JD.
Footsteps moving toward the bed jerked him awake before he even knew he'd drifted again. Heart pounding, he was ready to run, to fight . . .
"Hey," Chris said, sitting in the chair near the bed. "Didn't mean to wake you up."
JD swallowed, trying to get his voice under control. "That's okay."
JD shook his head. He'd just eaten breakfast earlier, when Nathan was there. Oatmeal, eggs, and toast, all things he'd wished for when he was out in the wild, but which had left him feeling a little queasy when he actually ate them.
Cautiously, he pushed himself up into sitting position, ignoring how the movement set everything to throbbing.
"I've got something for you," Chris said suddenly, as if he was just remembering. Pulling something out of his pocket, he tossed it at JD.
With one arm bound and the other helping to hold him upright, JD could only watch the thing fall onto the bedspread that covered his lap. The silver metal of the star stood in stark contrast against the simple brown blanket. As recognition hit, he was almost overcome with the familiar, desperate urge to run.
"It's not mine," he said, hating how breathless his voice sounded but not able to control it.
"It was in the alley where you ran into Sykes. Mary Travis was holding onto it for you."
"No." He closed his eyes. Maybe, if he was really lucky, this would turn out to be a fever dream. He'd open his eyes and both Chris and the badge would be gone.
He felt Chris pick up the badge, but Chris's tone said clearly that this wasn't over. Resignedly, he opened his eyes.
Chris was still there, his frown even deeper.
"Why don't you want the badge, son?" he asked quietly.
JD looked away, rough fingers ripping the badge off his coat and tossing it down on the ohgodsimonhe'sdead body at his feet while a sneering voice said you don't . . .
"I don't deserve it."
Suddenly angry, JD gestured with his broken arm. Which hurt, yes, but when did he not hurt anymore?
"Because I don't."
"Because you got beat up? That doesn't mean you can't do the job, it just means you ran into somebody bigger than you."
Chris almost sounded amused. JD glared at him.
"That's easy for you to say. You're not the one that screwed up so bad everyone thought he was dead."
Abruptly, the amusement was gone. For a second, JD almost felt afraid, and then Chris sighed.
"JD, do you think Judge Travis is a smart man?"
JD frowned. What did that have to do with anything?
"Yeah," he said cautiously.
"And when he wanted someone to be the law here, how many people did he hire?"
JD sighed. It wasn't like he didn't get Chris's point, but none of them had almost wound up dead because they weren't strong enough to do the job.
"He knew one man couldn't do the job. Not me, not Buck, not Josiah, none of us. You were trying to do a job no one could handle on his own."
But Chris didn't know how terrified he'd been. Every time he faced down a troublemaker, every time he had to take a gun away from a drunk, every time he confronted one of Evans' bullyboys. The judge wouldn't have hired him at all if he'd known JD was a coward. Chris wouldn't be offering him that badge back, either.
"I was scared." He said it out loud, determined to get it out in the open so Chris would leave him alone.
"Good. Means you got some sense." Chris leaned forward, his eyes suddenly intense. "Son, the way I see it, you got two choices here. One, you can hang up your guns and go back East and figure yourself for a failure. Or two, you can pick up that badge and get back to work. Learn from the mistakes you made and be proud you survived them." He tossed the badge on the bed, where it lay gleaming dully in the sunlight. "But before you make that decision, I want you to think on something. There's nothing wrong with being scared. No shame in needing your friends to give you a hand from time to time. But when you got a job to do and you walk away from it, when your friends need you and you're not there to help them out, then you got something to be ashamed of."
He didn't say anything else. JD didn't either, but he did pick up the badge and look at it, thinking, until sleep pulled him under again.
By the time Nathan got to the jail, the other men were already there. Chris leaned against the desk with Vin at his shoulder, while Ezra and Grainger both stood near the door. Three men Nathan thought were Royal's stood together by the cells, while four other men, whom he assumed were James', had found spots by the gun rack. Hoisting the saddlebag he'd filled with bandages onto one shoulder, Nathan slipped in beside Ezra.
"We're stirring up a hornet's nest," Chris was saying. His eyes scanned the room, catching each man's gaze in turn. "We're not there to take Evans out, we just want to make him mad. So it'll be a quick, in-and-out raid. Cause the most damage you can in the shortest time, and try not to get shot in the process."
"Good advice for any situation," Ezra murmured, and Nathan didn't quite keep himself from grinning.
"What do we do if we see Evans?" one of James' men asked. "Kill him?"
Chris's stare fixed on him. "Leave him. We want him in jail, not dead."
After tending to the damage that Evans' men had inflicted on JD, Nathan wasn't sure he agreed with that. Judging from the sour expressions on several of the men's faces, neither did they.
"You're the boss," James' man said, not sounding at all like he meant it. "When do we ride?"
"As soon as we're done here. I don't want to hit Evans' place until after everyone's asleep; that'll make them slower to react and give us time to get back and set up the ambush. That means when we get there, we'll split up in two groups. Four of you'll go with me and Tanner, the other four with Jackson and Standish. Vin and Nathan here have seen the place before. They know the layout, so we'll follow their lead until we get in close enough to see what we're doing. When I give the signal, we'll ride in, stir up trouble, and get back out. If you get separated from the group when we pull out, head back to town. We'll meet up in the saloon when it's over. Any questions?"
A few of the men shook their heads.
"All right, then. Benton, Sinclair, Carter, and Grainger, you go with Jackson and Standish. Luttrell, Morgan, Black, and Pickens, you're with us. Let's ride."
The night was clear and a little cool, with an almost full moon to light the way. Nathan rode at the head of his group and couldn't help but wish he felt more confidence in the men at his back. Just yesterday, they'd been--if not enemies, then certainly not friends. There was a good chance he'd held a gun on or even shot at some of them. This would be a bad time to find out someone was holding a grudge.
As they were passing through the bottleneck, Ezra rode up beside him.
"I believe I have located the perfect rock," the gambler announced.
Nathan shot him a look, trying to see his expression in the dim moonlight. "What?"
"The perfect rock. For when we lure Evans and his cohorts into our ambush." Ezra's voice was dry. "The one behind which I am least likely to get shot."
Nathan grinned. "Sounds like a good rock to me."
"One does what one can."
They rode in silence for a while, then Ezra said quietly, "We need to keep an eye on Grainger. His partner's death has left him a little hot-headed."
"I was just thinking we needed to keep an eye on these other fellows, too. Just in case any of them want to shoot us in the back." Nathan sighed. "I think I'd like this whole plan more if it wasn't depending on trusting people we were shooting at not too long ago."
"The thought had occurred to me, as well."
When they neared Evans' compound, Nathan led his group through the trees toward the area where the bunkhouses were, while Vin took his group in the opposite direction. Once they were in position, Nathan drew his gun and waited.
A sharp whistle pierced the air. The men who were carrying torches struck their matches to light the wood, and the sizzling crackle of the flames broke the silence. With a shout, Nathan kicked his horse forward, shooting off his pistol into the air.
The compound sprang to life as they rode in. Men poured out of the bunkhouse, shouting and waving their guns. Nathan saw a torch land on the roof of one of the bunkhouses and hoped briefly that everyone got out. Still shooting his gun into the air, he rode through a tangle of Evans' men, scattering them like chickens.
From time to time, he caught sight of Grainger. There was a wildness to his eyes that Nathan didn't like, but he seemed to be following the plan.
One of the barns was burning. At the main house, someone was shouting orders. Chris rode into the light from the fire and stopped, deliberately in view of the men on the porch of the main house. He didn't move until one of them raised a rifle and took a shot at him.
Shaking his head, Nathan fired off a shot at the porch, aiming high so he wouldn't be likely to hit anyone. The point was to make sure Evans knew who to blame for the raid, but that didn't mean Chris needed to get himself pumped full of lead. He fired off another one, and this time, he got a clear look at the two men standing there. One was Colter Evans, looking extremely pissed off.
The other one made Nathan jerk his horse to a halt so he could get another look. It couldn't be, but--
"Nathan, get down!"
Instinctively, he ducked. A bullet plowed into the barn behind him. Looking around, he saw Ezra riding past one of Evans' men, kicking out with one foot to knock the man over.
"All right, boys, let's ride!"
That shout came from Chris. Nathan looked back at the porch one more time, but both men were gone. Wheeling his horse, he galloped back to the trees.
It wasn't until they were on the road back to town that he finally caught up to Chris, Vin, and Ezra.
"I want you to hang back," Chris was saying to Vin. "Keep an eye on them, make sure they're taking the bait. When you know they're coming the way we expect them to, ride into town. We'll be at the saloon. I don't want to find out they're heading for James' or Royal's place or coming a different route into town when we're already out at the ambush point."
Vin nodded. "I'll make sure you have enough lead time to get in position."
"Watch your back."
Vin wheeled around and rode back into the darkness. Nathan drew his horse up level with Chris's.
"We need to talk," he said. "I know who Evans' boss is."
An insistent throbbing pulled JD from sleep. Automatically stifling a groan, he tried to move away from the pain, but his body felt too heavy. Realizing he was trapped, he lunged forward with all his strength, determined to get away. A shot of fire seared up his arm. Bright light surrounded him. He needed to hide, they were close, they'd hear him if he moved but he couldn't stay still . . .
Warm hands grasped his shoulders, but let go as he tried to jerk free. He blinked, tried to focus, and realized Buck was sitting on the bed by his legs. Taking a shaky breath, he closed his eyes. He didn't want to see the pity on Buck's face.
"How you doing, son?" Buck asked as if nothing had happened.
"I'm okay." Or he would be as soon as his heart quit beating so fast. He opened his eyes and glanced around. Nothing had changed except the darkness that showed through the window. "What time is it?"
"Past midnight, I reckon."
It had been daylight when he was awake last. He rubbed his face. "What day is it?"
"Friday?" Buck didn't sound sure. "I don't know, kid. I haven't been keeping track of the days too good."
JD laughed, the air catching painfully in his throat. "Me neither."
The look Buck gave him was part humor and part something darker, but it eased the tightness in JD's throat. With a sigh, he sat back against the head of the bed. The position eased his throbbing knee, but set his arm to aching bad enough he was almost sick to his stomach.
"Can I have a drink of water?"
Buck patted his good leg. "Sure, kid. There's some bread left over from supper, too, if you're hungry."
JD shook his head. As Buck went to get the water, he leaned his head back against the wall and let his eyes slide shut. He'd learned that if he was very still and breathed evenly for long enough, sometimes the pain would go away. Quiet and still. It was the only way to survive.
He'd learned that lesson, as well.
"How long was I gone?"
Buck's footsteps stopped, just for a moment, before drawing closer to the bed. JD opened his eyes in time to take the cup Buck was holding out to him, but he didn't take a drink yet. Buck sat on the edge of the bed, his expression somber.
"I don't know exactly. It takes about three weeks to get from New Orleans to here, and me and Ezra caught a steamboat the day after we got Josiah's telegraph. I think he sent it a few days after you went missing, and we were here in town a few days before you showed up. So about four weeks, I reckon."
"Oh." JD tried to understand that, but somehow his mind didn't want to wrap around it. Four weeks. It had to have been longer. Days had run together in a long stream of pain and fear and confusion, but surely there had been more of them than would make up four weeks.
"Hell of a long time to make it out there on your own," Buck said gently. "Especially when you're already hurt."
"Yeah." JD's throat was tight again. He took a sip of the water, then drained the cup as he suddenly realized how thirsty he was. Without a word, Buck took the cup and filled it again, and JD drained it once more before setting it on the stand by the bed.
"You want to tell me about it?"
JD had been trying not to think about it beyond the barest facts. But when Buck asked, he suddenly realized how much he needed someone to know what had happened to him. Even so, it was hard to get the words to come.
"I don't remember everything," he said finally.
"How about I tell you what I know already, and you can fill in the blanks?" Buck asked. At JD's nod, he continued, "I know Colter Evans came into town with a bunch of hired guns not long after I left. I know he's been trying to buy out all the businesses in town as cheap as he can get them and run the owners out of town. I know Arnie Sykes was causing trouble around town and that he was there the night you were attacked. I know that Simon Blake was a Pinkerton and he was investigating Evans, and that he was killed that night." Buck paused, and his voice softened as he added, "What I don't know is what else happened that night, and how you made it back here."
JD looked down at the blanket across his legs, trying to get his thoughts in order. It was hard, between the pain and the tiredness seeping back into his mind. He wanted to sleep again, but he needed to do this first.
"It was a crazy night. Trail herd in town, and most of Evans' outfit, too."
The memory was so clear, he could hear the gunfire splitting the air from time to time, and the shouts of both anger and laughter that rang out up and down the street. At least no one seemed to be trying to shoot at anyone. JD knew better than to try to stop it. There were too many of them, and he had no one to watch his back. The best he could do was attempt to keep the carousing confined to the saloons. He patrolled the street, steering drunks back into the saloon when he could, and over to the other saloon when they insisted on leaving the first one. He thought of how Chris or any of the other guys would have handled it, cool and calm as they demanded the cowhands' guns before the cowhands went out on the town, and realized for the thousandth time how unfit he was for this job. There just wasn't anyone else around to do it.
"I was walking around, trying to keep an eye on things, and I saw Arnie Sykes and Slim Chapin push Simon into the alley over by the jail. So I went over to see what was going on. Just as I got there, I heard a shotgun go off, and I saw they'd killed Simon."
JD paused, his hand gripping the blanket tightly as he tried to keep it from shaking. He'd liked Simon. They'd talked a lot about living back East and how the West was different, and Simon had given him advice about handling things around town a few times without acting like JD was too young or incompetent to do the job himself. At the time that Simon had died, JD hadn't had time to feel more than shock, but later, he'd wondered if he might have been able to stop the shooting if he'd just gotten there faster.
Buck rested his hand on JD's leg, the weight of it warm and real enough to pull JD back from his thoughts.
"What happened then?" Buck asked.
Shock held him still for a few precious seconds. Light from the watch fires on the street threw strange shadows against the walls of the buildings, illuminating Sykes and Chapin standing over the body that had once been Simon Blake.
Sykes spotted him and yelled. Before he could draw his guns, Chapin grabbed him, throwing him up against the wall of the jail and hitting him in the stomach so hard he couldn't catch his breath.
"What are we going to do now?" Chapin asked sharply.
"Mr. Evans wanted to get rid of him anyway," Sykes said with a shrug. "Might as well do it now." He leaned up close to JD, his sour breath making it even harder for JD to breathe. "I told you to stay out of my business, kid. Guess now you're gonna figure out I wasn't joking."
JD took a gasping breath and kicked out, fighting wildly to get loose. For a second, he was free, his hands scrambling for his guns. Then Chapin hit him, a hard blow to the temple, and he fell back against the wall again. His vision blurred. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and realized he had two pistols pointed at his face.
"Stupid, kid." Sykes sneered at him. The little man's eyes trailed down to the badge on JD's chest, and his mouth twisted in a sneer. "Stupid little pissant like you don't deserve to be sheriff. Ain't got the brains or the balls for it."
Sykes ripped the badge off and threw it down. JD's last memory before pain exploded in the side of his head was of the dully gleaming silver star lying on Simon's blood-spattered chest.
JD blinked. "Oh. Sykes and Chapin got the jump on me. Knocked me out. Next thing I knew, I was lying at the bottom of a cliff, feeling like a whole herd of horses just ran over me."
Buck was rubbing his leg, the motion oddly soothing. JD tried to focus on that, on Buck's big hand moving steadily back and forth. He didn't want to remember the next part.
"Sykes said they were trying to make it look like an accident," Buck said. "Damn lucky, too. If not for that, they would have just shot you."
JD nodded. It was lucky, he guessed. It just hadn't felt like it at the time. At the time, it had felt like the most intense, breath-stealing pain he'd ever experienced. He didn't want to think about it, but even so, the images crowded his mind.
He didn't know what happened. Vaguely, he remembered Sykes, Chapin, and the alley, but now he was lying on the ground and he hurt, dear God he hurt, and he thought maybe he'd been falling. Somewhere above him, he heard laughter, Sykes' laughter, and the sudden rush of hatred gave him the strength to draw in a breath of air.
"My knee was busted up, so I couldn't walk much at first. There was a stream there, and I found some plants I was pretty sure were okay to eat. So I figured I'd just stay put a couple of days until I could walk better, then I'd head back and try to find Nathan."
It was hard to think. He was cold and dizzy, and every time he put weight on his leg or moved his arm, the pain nearly made him throw up. He knew there was no way he could walk back to town, let alone climb the walls of the gorge. But he had food and water, he was young and strong and healthy enough aside from his injuries. All he had to do was wait until they healed a little.
But then he woke up once--time slipped away from him just like his thoughts did, so he couldn't have said if it was morning or afternoon--to see a pair of cows wandering past the hollow he'd taken to sleeping in. His only thought for them was to hope vaguely that they went a little downstream to drink so they wouldn't muddy the water he was using. It wasn't until he heard voices that he forced himself up to look.
Further down the gorge, there were a couple of men trying to drive the cows up a faint trail to the top. JD stared at them, not sure they were real. Sometimes he dreamed. But he thought this was real, and he very nearly called out to them.
Then he heard one of the men curse again, and he recognized the voice. Slim Chapin.
Heart pounding, he huddled back down into the hollow, trying to be as still and quiet as he could manage. If they rode this way, they'd see him, and then they'd kill him for sure. He had no way to fight. His guns were gone, and with a broken arm and busted up knee, he didn't stand a chance. His only hope was to hide and hope they didn't come this way, and then get out as soon as they were gone.
Except he wasn't strong enough to make the climb. He'd tried, fallen, and things had grown even more confusing after that. Later, he figured he must have hit his head, but at the time, all he'd known was that he was hurt and he needed to hide.
And he was afraid.
He could feel the same fear now, burning in his chest and making it hard to talk. He hated the feeling, hated being such a coward. Hated the men who made him feel like that.
"You made it back," Buck said, almost as if he could hear JD's thoughts. "All that way, and then you shot Sykes at the end of it. Which just saved me the trouble of doing it myself."
JD closed his eyes for a second. He'd thought that part was another dream. Like seeing Vin and Nathan near the stream and hearing his mother call to him. He could remember seeing the saloon and thinking maybe Nathan would be there, maybe Nathan could do something to make his thoughts stand still again, and then he'd heard Sykes' voice. Laughing. There was a gun right by his hand, and he was so angry, so scared, he couldn't breathe . . .
"Good." The voice didn't sound like his own. JD swallowed hard. He was safe here, he knew that. He was still tired and hurting, but he was in a lot better shape than he'd been in a long time. And even if he couldn't defend himself, Buck and the other guys wouldn't let anyone near him. He knew that. Still, somewhere in the back of his mind, he couldn't stop being afraid. It made him angry, but that was good. Anger chased away the fear. "Good. I'm glad he's dead."
"Yeah." Buck was frowning slightly. "And we'll get the rest of them, too. Chapin, Evans, all of them. Make sure they stand trial and get put away."
JD stared at him. "Trial? No. I'm going to shoot them, Buck. Chapin and Evans both, just like Sykes. They killed Simon and they tried to kill me. I'm not letting them get away with it." He squeezed his shaking hand into a fist, trying to stay still.
"Hey, take it easy. No one said they were going to get away with anything." Buck sighed. "I know how you're feeling, son. You want them to pay for what they did. So do I. But if you let anger take you over, all you do is turn into the same kind of man who did this to you."
"So, what, just stick them in prison? Like that's enough?" The shaking wouldn't stop. It hurt, and hurt even worse when he tried to steel himself against it. He had to make it stop before it gave him away.
"Maybe," Buck said gently. "Or maybe the judge will decide they've got to hang. Either way, it's got to be the law's decision, not yours."
"They killed a man, Buck. I watched them kill him." And couldn't do anything to stop it. He'd been too weak, too helpless. He'd just stood there, Simon's body at his feet, and then Sykes and Chapin had turned on him.
The memory stole his breath. He had to gasp in air, couldn't help it even though it was loud, too loud. Buck was frowning at him, the hand that had been rubbing his leg tightening into a hard grip.
"JD, calm down, now."
Buck didn't understand. He hadn't been there to see Simon die, hadn't experienced the sharp agony of broken bones or the terror of being alone and hurt and hunted.
"They have to pay, Buck." His voice was all wrong, high and broken and dangerously loud. It didn't sound like him at all, and he wondered for a moment if it really was. Maybe he wasn't really here; maybe he was still in the gorge, and the voice he thought was Buck's was really the man coming to kill him. "They left me out there to die. They have to pay for that. I want them to pay for that."
Then Buck's arms held him tight. JD flinched back, lost between danger and it's just Buck. He took a chance and grabbed on, digging his fingers into Buck's shirt. Buck didn't let go, which was a good thing because he was afraid he was going to fly apart. Buck's voice was low and intent as he said, "We would have come looking, son. We thought you were dead. If we'd known, we would have come."
His eyes burned, and he was glad his face was pressed against Buck's shirt where Buck couldn't see. He hadn't known he needed to hear that until Buck said it. Some of the rage slid away, leaving him with only pain and so much exhaustion he felt like it was dragging him downward.
Buck seemed to understand, because he didn't let go. He kept his arms around JD, still and quiet, for a long time.
Even after JD's body had relaxed and gone limp, Buck sat and held onto him for a few minutes, not wanting to disturb him by moving. He needed the sleep. And Buck needed to do something, even if it was just for a few minutes, that felt like it might be of some help.
After a bit, though, Buck settled him back against the pillow, mindful of his broken arm. JD frowned slightly at the movement but didn't wake up. Needing to stretch his back, Buck stood and walked over to the window to peer out at the dark street. No sign that Chris and the others were back yet. He didn't think it would be too much longer.
Unless they ran into trouble.
Buck sighed. He half-wished he'd gone with them, but when Chris had pulled him aside earlier and told him to stay with JD, something in Chris's expression had made him agree. Looking down at his shirt, where tears he'd never admit to noticing had dampened the fabric, he was pretty sure he knew why Chris had wanted him to be the one to stay behind.
Not that he would have minded a chance to roust Evans and his entire crew. He glanced back at the bed as that thought sent a slight chill down his back. When he'd thought JD was dead, he'd wanted nothing more than to rip apart the men responsible. Hearing those same thoughts from JD's mouth had left him a little shaken. He couldn't help but remember Josiah's words a few mornings before. Hating's a hard habit to break. It hadn't seemed like such a terrible thing for himself, but JD was a different story.
But he hadn't wanted to hear Josiah, and he doubted JD was ready to hear him yet, either. Buck would just have to make sure the kid didn't do anything he'd regret once some of that anger had a chance to settle.
Turning away from the window, Buck went back to the chair by the bed. It wasn't the most comfortable chair he'd sat in, but when he propped his feet on the bed and slouched a little, it wasn't too bad. He let his eyes close; he wouldn't sleep, but it couldn't hurt to get a bit of rest before whatever trouble the new day would bring.
It had to be more than an hour later when he heard footsteps on the stairs outside. Sitting up, he eased his gun out of the holster and had it pointed at the door when he heard a soft knock. Ezra stepped in a moment later, raising his eyebrow at Buck's still-drawn gun but not commenting.
"How is he?" Ezra asked, glancing at the bed.
"Better. Just needs rest and time to heal." Buck holstered his gun. "How did it go?"
"We accomplished our objective, and Nathan discovered some information that sheds new light on the entire situation. Chris asked that I stay with our young friend while you go to the saloon to be briefed on the latest developments."
Buck stood and reached for his hat, but stopped abruptly when he heard a tired voice from the bed.
"I'm going too." JD sat up, rubbing at his face. "Hey, Ezra."
Both of Ezra's eyebrows went up. "JD. I must say, it's good to see you alive and coherent, but I'm not sure that leaving the safety of this room is the best plan at this juncture."
Awkwardly, JD pushed aside the blanket and stood, grabbing onto the nightstand for balance. He was on the other side of the bed from Buck, too far to grab, but Ezra reached out and caught his good arm before he could fall.
"The wiser course would be to . . . "
"Ezra." JD's voice had a determined ring to it that Buck was glad to hear, even under the circumstances. "Buck. I've been hiding long enough. I need to do this."
Ezra looked at Buck, obviously deciding that it was in his hands. JD looked at Buck, too, and it wasn't so much the look of stubbornness on JD's face as it was the lingering fear behind that look that made up Buck's mind.
"All right, but you're going to have to put some pants on."
JD glanced down at his bare legs under the nightshirt and blushed.
"Good thing Mrs. Spencer saved your clothes. I brought them over earlier for when you were ready to use them." Buck looked around, his eyes finally stopping on the shelf where Nathan had put the pants and shirt. "Here you go. Ezra, you think maybe you could put your hands on a gun and rig for him? I'd just as soon he didn't go out without a weapon."
"And boots," JD added. "Unless you've got mine stashed away somewhere?"
Buck shook his head. "I think they were a lost cause."
"I'm sure I can procure something. If you'll excuse me?" Giving JD's arm a quick pat, Ezra left.
Buck watched JD lower himself carefully back to the edge of the bed. As JD started to get dressed, every movement slow and painful, Buck could only hope he hadn't made a mistake.
"Okay, kid," he said, moving to help, "looks like it's time for you to return from the dead."
Twelve: Before His Judgment-seat
The raiding party arrived back at the saloon in the early morning. At Chris's best guess, it was probably another hour until the first signs of dawn, but Stuart James and Guy Royal were still waiting at the saloon with their men. The members of the raiding party who worked for the two ranchers went over to report to their bosses while Chris sent Ezra after Josiah and Buck.
On his way into the saloon with Nathan and Grainger, Chris suddenly found himself confronted by Mary Travis, her eyes sharp with a look he had come to dread. Whatever it was that she wanted, when she got that look in her eye, nothing would change her mind.
"Chris, I saw the commotion over here and thought there was trouble. What's going on?"
Chris frowned. "What are you doing up this early?"
"I couldn't sleep. I intended to work on typesetting the next edition, but then I saw all the men out here. I was concerned that Mr. Evans might have done something to cause trouble."
Chris couldn't help but grin. "More like us causing trouble."
"Chris," Nathan interrupted. "Mrs. Travis knows more about that thing I was telling you about than I do. Maybe we should fill her in."
Mary's face lit up, and Chris knew any wishes he had to keep her safely out of the situation weren't going to be filled.
"Come on in the saloon. You can hear the whole story," he said with a sigh.
Mary glanced back at the batwing doors doubtfully, then raised her chin and walked in without a backward glance. He shook his head. He'd hoped, somewhere in the back of his mind, that the saloon would deter her. Proper ladies had no business in there. But Mary, proper lady though she was, would never let a simple rule like that stop her from uncovering a story.
Sighing again, Chris led Nathan and Grainger into the saloon.
Ten minutes later, he'd filled Mary in on the reason for the raid. Josiah had shown up, but Buck was still missing. Chris hadn't wanted to go into Nathan's discovery until everyone was present, but if Buck didn't show up soon, they were going to run out of time.
He was wondering irritably what Buck could have possibly found between Nathan's room and the saloon to distract him at this time of night when there was a disturbance at the door that seemed bigger than Buck's arrival should cause. Standing, he rested his hand on his gun, but all he saw was Ezra, with Buck a few steps behind. He frowned. Ezra was supposed to stay with JD; why was he here? Unless something had happened.
Chris started forward, his shoulders tightening in preparation. Then Ezra stepped a little to the side, and Chris realized that JD was there, walking between Ezra and Buck. The kid looked shaky; he was limping and holding his broken arm carefully to his chest, but his head was up and there was a determined set to his mouth that Chris was glad to see.
Chris looked at Buck questioningly. Buck gave him a tiny shake of the head--it wasn't his idea, but he didn't want Chris to say anything. Fair enough, for now.
"Dear God," Mary said suddenly from behind him. "JD?"
The entire saloon had apparently noticed his arrival; Chris could hear the muttered conversations spreading from one group to another. JD's eyes flickered nervously from one person to another. Ezra pushed his way through to Chris, his expression a little grim, and Buck glowered at anyone who got too close. Then Josiah fell in beside them, putting himself between JD and most of the saloon.
James gave JD an assessing glance. "Hmph. You're pretty lively for a dead man."
JD squared his shoulders, looking James in the eye. "I didn't like the accommodations."
James snorted. "Don't reckon I would, either."
"Hiding something, Larabee?" Royal asked.
Chris shrugged. "Didn't seem to be any point in giving Evans a second chance."
Her face pale, Mary walked over and put a hand on JD's arm. "It's good to see you, JD. I don't understand how all this happened, but I'm very happy that it did."
She gave him a light kiss on the cheek, and Chris was pretty sure he saw JD blush before he ducked his head.
"Thanks, Mrs. Travis."
"So how is it that he," Royal nodded at JD, "isn't dead? Is that the news you said you had for us?"
"It was another man that got killed, a Pinkerton agent here to investigate Evans and his boss." Chris paused, figuring that was all they needed to know of JD's story. He looked over at Nathan. "As for the news, Nathan can tell you what he saw."
"When we were riding past the main house, I looked up on the porch," Nathan said. "I saw two men. One was Colter Evans. The other was Jonathan Case."
"It couldn't be." Mary shook her head in disbelief. "He moved away years ago. Why would he be involved in this?"
"Who the hell is Jonathan Case?" Buck asked.
"A power-hungry son of a bitch who used to own pieces of half the businesses in this town," James said sourly. "He wanted part of my ranch, too. Always wanted me to let him 'invest.'"
"He was involved in bringing the railroad here," Mary said, frowning thoughtfully. "He was run out by Wheeler and Elliot right before they made their bid for those land deeds. But if he wanted to return, why would he be hiding? Nathan, are you sure that's who you saw?"
Nathan nodded. "It was him. Looked a little older, but not so much that I couldn't recognize him."
"What's this about Pinkertons?" Royal said suddenly. "Why was a Pinkerton agent investigating Evans? And Case, if it's really him?"
Grainger stepped forward. "Simon Blake, my partner, was here to discover whether Evans and his employer would have a detrimental effect on the progress of the railroad through this area. As you can imagine, one man holding a monopoly on all the land and businesses could create a situation where the laying of the rails was essentially held hostage to that man's demands. Central Pacific doesn't take kindly to such tactics."
"You're another Pinkerton?" Royal frowned. "Are there any more of you running around?"
"There will be when the report of my partner's death reaches Mr. Pinkerton's desk. He will also be interested to know that Jonathan Case is involved. We have a file on him as a suspect in several land scams, but until now, we didn't have any information that he was involved with this situation."
"Does it seem likely that knowledge of Mr. Case's presence led to Mr. Blake's demise?" Ezra suggested. "You mentioned that he had believed he was onto something before his death."
"Only one way to find out," Chris said. "We'll just have to catch this Case and ask him ourselves."
"Shouldn't be hard, seeing as how he's riding right toward you," a familiar voice drawled.
Vin pushed his way through the crowd to Chris's side, frowning as he spotted JD.
"They coming?" Chris asked.
"Headed straight for the bottleneck. It took them a while to put out the fires and round up the horses, but I think damn near all of them are riding this way now. I figure we've got a little less than an hour."
Chris looked around, seeing his own tension reflected in the other men's faces. "Everyone know the plan? Then let's ride."
As the men left the saloon, JD stopped in front of Chris. His expression, Chris noticed, looked a lot like Mary's had earlier.
"I can fight."
"Like hell," Buck snapped, stopping just behind him.
Neither Chris nor JD looked at him, or at Nathan, who had joined the conversation as well.
"You don't have any business riding a horse with that knee all busted up."
But Chris was remembering another conversation, a kid so eager to be a man that he didn't care he was going up against nearly impossible odds. He's young. Proud, a voice whispered in Chris's mind, and he nodded slightly. It was a damn good thing, too, or that kid might not have survived long enough to stand here today, the full understanding of what he was getting into in his eyes as he demanded his rightful place.
"Okay, kid. Just make sure you don't fall off your horse."
Bright fingers of pink and gold stretched from the eastern horizon. The sun had risen enough that it was possible to see the road, if only in a dim outline. The group of men, over fifty strong, rode at an easy pace.
JD, somewhere near the back of the crowd, had spent most of the ride so far reminding himself how much it would hurt to fall off his horse. Not that he was all that comfortable on the horse, but hitting the ground would definitely be worse. The way his knee completely refused to grip the side of his horse made falling a distinct possibility, but the real problem lay in his arm. Even though Nathan had insisted on putting it in a sling before he mounted up--muttering savagely about "damn fools" and "pigheaded stunts" the whole while--it still shot fire up his shoulder with the shock of every step the gelding took.
He wasn't going to back down, though. He couldn't live his life afraid, hiding from every threat. If he couldn't face the men who were responsible for hurting him, he would never be able to trust himself to watch the guys' backs. He'd have to hang up his guns and go back East, and he just wasn't ready to do that.
Buck rode just ahead, the ramrod straightness of his back showing clearly how angry he was. If Chris hadn't said JD could come, JD had no doubt Buck would have hog-tied him to the bed to keep him in town. It had been a close call, anyway; Buck hadn't backed down until Chris pointed out that if they didn't get going, Evans was going to ride into town and shoot them all while they stood around arguing. Buck hadn't said another word to Chris or to JD. Knowing Buck, JD didn't figure that would last.
The voice interrupted his thoughts. JD looked around and saw the Pinkerton agent pulling up beside him.
"I'm Ned Grainger, Simon Blake's partner."
He was a thin, well-dressed man, not as obviously Eastern as Simon had been, but no one would mistake him for a cowhand, either. Simon had spoken of him a few times; JD knew they'd been friends as well as partners.
"I'm sorry," JD said, even though he knew that wasn't enough. "He was a good man. I wish I could have--"
"There's no need, Mr. Dunne. Mr. Standish has filled me in on what happened. I feel confident that you did everything you could for Blake. I just wanted to express my appreciation for your efforts."
JD winced. He would have felt better if Grainger was angry, accusing him of being too slow, too inexperienced. He'd done nothing to deserve anyone's thanks.
"I also was hoping I could ask you a few questions about that night."
Trying to keep his expression blank, JD nodded. He didn't really want to think about it, but he owed Grainger something.
"Primarily, I was wondering about the identity of the men who attacked you and Blake," Grainger said. "I know Arnie Sykes was one of them, but no one has ever mentioned the name of the other man."
"Slim Chapin." JD let out a slow breath, relieved that he was getting away with so little. "I don't reckon that's his real name, but that's all I ever heard anyone call him."
Grainger nodded. "Thank you. And, one more favor, if I may ask?"
JD's gut tightened, but he nodded again.
"Should you happen to spot Slim Chapin at any point today, would you mind pointing him out to me?" Grainger's expression stayed pleasant, but suddenly his eyes were intent. "I have some unfinished business with him."
JD glanced up toward Buck, but the older man didn't seem to have heard. Good. He wouldn't approve at all. "I'd be happy to, Mr. Grainger."
"Thank you, Mr. Dunne." Grainger tipped his hat and sent his horse forward.
The sun was halfway over the horizon by the time they reached the ambush point. The road cut through two hills, a natural pass that saved riders at least an hour of picking their way over rocky outcroppings. The hill to the left jutted down into a sandy arroyo that threatened to break the legs of any horse unlucky enough to wander into it, and the one on the right ended up against a larger, rockier hill, leaving the road as the only logical passage. There were other ways around, but the time and effort involved almost assured that anyone traveling to town from that direction would go by way of the road.
It also created the perfect set-up for an ambush. Rocks and scrub thickets dotted the two hills, giving perfect cover for attackers. The hills themselves were tall and wide enough to obscure mounted riders from anyone approaching on the other side. There was even a short ridge on the side opposite from town, just big enough to hide four or five men until they were ready to close in behind a party of riders and hit them from the flank.
JD looked over the steep climb up either hill and decided he was going to stay on his horse. Plenty of men were taking cover behind the rocks and bushes; he wasn't needed. Besides, he wasn't entirely sure he'd be able to mount up again once he got off.
Buck pulled up beside him, expression still thunderous.
"Have you considered," he asked acidly, "how you're going to hold a gun and your reins at the same time?"
JD frowned, but he wasn't about to admit that he hadn't even thought about it. Shooting Buck a glare, he slid the sling off his arm and grasped the reins with that hand, then drew his gun with the other hand. With luck, he'd be able to keep the gelding still; if not, well, he'd already had his arm broken twice in one month. He was used to it hurting.
Buck sighed. "Listen, son, stick close, okay? You're not back in shape yet, and acting like you are won't prove anything but that you're stubborner than a Mississippi mule."
"I'll be right beside you," JD promised, then grinned. "There's only room for one jackass in town, anyway."
Buck snorted. "You're short, kid, you don't take up that much room."
The low call of a dove made JD sit up straight; that was Vin's signal that he'd spotted Evans and his crew. Buck gave him a long look but didn't say anything. Voices sometimes echoed among the hills. If Evans' crew heard them, they'd be ready for attack.
The plan was to trap Evans, Case, and their men with as little bloodshed as possible. Once they rode in between the two hills, Josiah would lead his group from behind the ridge to flank them, and the riders JD was with would box them in at the front. The men up on the hills would have the drop on Evans' crew; it was possible that they'd manage to capture all of Evans' men without a shot being fired.
Or, JD thought, it could just as easily end up being a bloodbath. He wasn't sure which he'd prefer. He'd seen too many gun battles to want one just for the supposed glory of it, but there were men riding toward him who deserved to die. Chapin, for sure. Evans and Case, too, if they were the ones who had ordered Simon Blake's death in the first place. JD didn't plan to shoot them on sight, but if a gun battle started, he'd keep his eyes open for them.
"Get ready, JD," Buck whispered, faintly enough that JD only just heard him.
Hoof beats coming forward at a steady pace echoed off the hills, and then the men around JD were surging forward. As promised, JD kept close to Buck, his gelding following the familiar horse without much urging from him. They were close enough to see Chris, Ezra a few paces behind him, draw up in front of Colter Evans. Next to Evans was an older man who wasn't dressed like a cowhand. Case, JD thought, and he scanned the other men, looking for one particular face. Chapin, two men down from Evans. Chapin reached down for his rifle; JD recognized the unusual shape of the stock even from a distance. Simon had been very proud of that rifle.
JD looked around. Spotting Grainger a few feet away, he pointed to Chapin and nodded. Grainger's eyes narrowed as he looked at Chapin, down at the rifle Chapin hadn't drawn from its boot, and back up.
"What's all this about?" Case snapped. He was looking from one face to another angrily, but his expression turned slightly uneasy when he saw Stuart James and Guy Royal sitting beside one another a few feet from Chris.
James shook his head disbelievingly. "Case, you son of a bitch, it is you. What the hell are you doing back here?"
Case glared at him. "It was my town, James, until the ungrateful bastards who live there ran me out. I'm here to take it back, and I intend to make sure everyone involved knows exactly what it feels like to lose everything you spent your life working for."
Chris cocked his gun. "It's my town now, mister, and I don't appreciate the trouble you're causing it. I intend to put a stop to it."
Evans looked at the men in front of him with a sneer. "Just how do you plan to do that? We outnumber you two to one."
Chris grinned. "Hey, Vin!"
At Chris's yell, Vin stood from where he'd been concealed at the top of the hill. Seconds later, another man stood, and another, and another, until both hills were spotted with rifle barrels gleaming in the early morning sun. JD felt a sharp rush of satisfaction as the sneer dropped from Evans' face. The man was starting to be afraid.
"What are your conditions?" Case asked.
Chris raised his voice, making sure all the men could hear him. "Most of you, I don't got a problem with. You turn around and ride out now, make sure you never come back, and I'll guarantee you safe passage. But I've got a federal judge who'll be wanting to talk to Evans, Case, and Chapin."
At the sound of his name, Chapin started, then kicked his horse forward as if he thought he could get away. Without hesitation, Grainger lifted his rifle and shot. Chapin fell to the ground, obviously dead.
In the sudden silence, JD could only stare at the corpse of the man who had caused him so much harm. He would have thought he'd be happy to see Chapin dead. Instead, he felt strangely numb.
He wasn't given time to understand what he was feeling. Most of Evans' men had drawn their guns and were scrambling for cover, firing wildly into the mass of men in front of them. JD saw a couple of Royal's men fall, and then Buck pushed forward between him and the fighting. The sickening image of Buck getting shot trying to protect him flashed in front of JD's eyes. With a yell, he kicked his horse forward, determined to fight shoulder to shoulder with Buck.
But the gelding was hard to control with a broken arm and one bad leg. Somehow in the fighting JD lost track of Buck. He found himself surrounded by faces he didn't know and realized that he wasn't sure if they were on his side or Evans'. Most of them didn't seem to be shooting at him, though, so he kept his head down and tried to spot one of his friends.
Then he was face to face with Colter Evans. How, he didn't know, but he had the presence of mind to level his gun at Evans' face and cock it, even though he was almost breathless with anger. And fear, too, but he wasn't going to think about that. Not with Evans right here in front of him.
"Don't move," he warned, and was amazed that his voice sounded steady.
Evans stared at him. "You're supposed to be dead."
JD couldn't stop a laugh. "I'm not."
Around him, the sounds of battle were dying, but he didn't pay much attention. He had Colter Evans in front of him, the man who had wanted him dead. The man who had ordered Simon Blake's death, who had started this whole nightmare. All he had to do was pull the trigger.
Someone rode up behind him, but he didn't look. He couldn't take his eyes off Evans.
"JD." Chris's voice was commanding, but he still didn't turn.
"Damn it, JD, I said stay close," Buck's voice was on his other side, then, flatly, "Evans."
Out of the corners of his eyes, JD saw the others move in: Nathan and Vin on one side, Josiah and Ezra on the other. Restively, his horse moved under him, but still he held the gun steady. Evans looked from him to the gun and back, his face pale.
"JD, we'll take him in," Buck said, the gentleness in his tone not quite hiding its urgency. "The judge will make sure he gets what he deserves. Put the gun down."
"His choice, Buck," Chris said softly.
JD listened, but it felt as if they were somewhere else, talking about someone other than him. His own world had narrowed to himself and Evans and the gun. He could pull the trigger. It wouldn't be hard, and a part of him wanted to more than it wanted anything else on earth.
But he remembered the sight of Slim Chapin's body. How he hadn't felt any different, any better, seeing Chapin dead. How Ned Grainger hadn't looked any happier, or any less alone.
If he pulled the trigger, Evans would be dead. But Simon Blake wouldn't come back to life. JD's arm would still be broken, and his knee would still ache. He would still have the memories of those weeks in the wild. He wouldn't gain any of the things he really wanted.
He'd just lose the respect of the men he admired most in the world. He had no doubt that Buck, Chris, Vin, all of them would choose to take Evans in, even if they'd been through what he'd been through. None of them had ever, in the time he'd known them, shot a man in cold blood. In self-defense, yes, and in the defense of others. But not just for vengeance. They'd understand if JD pulled the trigger, but they wouldn't respect him for it.
Slowly, he lowered the gun and slid it into its holster.
"You're not worth it," he said to Evans, and turned his horse away.
He didn't go far, just past the edge of the rocks, far enough away that he didn't have to look at Evans. Buck pulled up beside him and just sat, a silent reminder that he wasn't alone. He was suddenly tired, so tired he could have fallen asleep right there, if the ground just hadn't been quite so far away. The pain was starting to come back from wherever it had hidden in the heat of the battle, leaving him very close to throwing up.
"You ready to head back?" Buck asked. "I think everyone's about done here."
JD looked around, forcing his eyes to focus on his surroundings. It looked like most of Evans' men had taken off, except for a few who were too hurt to ride. There were some dead, as well, although JD suspected a few of the bodies belonged to either James' or Royal's men. He saw Nathan, Josiah, and a couple of men he didn't know tending the wounded. Ezra and Vin stood guard over Evans, and there were a few men working to collect the bodies and strap them to horses for the ride back to town.
Chris had stopped next to Royal and James, who were standing together, looking down at one of the bodies. As Buck and JD started toward them, JD realized that the dead man was Jonathan Case.
"Stupid son of a bitch," James said, shaking his head. "All that trouble to get revenge on people who didn't even know he was back in the territory."
"And all he ended up getting," Royal added, "is dead."
"Sounds like justice to me," Chris said, and sent his horse forward to meet Buck and JD. Looking at JD sharply, he said, "Kid, now's not the time to fall off that horse, either."
JD couldn't take his eyes away from Case even though the sight was making him even more queasy.
"I'm not . . . "
Things went dark for a second. When he could blink again, Buck had an iron grip on his good arm, keeping him in the saddle. Chris had moved closer on the other side. JD's knee felt like someone was shoving a hot poker through it, but he felt strangely distant from the pain. He frowned at Buck, wondering why his friend looked so far away.
Buck sighed. "Come on, son, let's go home."
Epilogue: Read His Righteous Sentence
A sunset, a sea of glowing crimson and amber, of towering blue-shadowed clouds and vast stretches of molten gold.
A cemetery, where a thin man stands by a still-fresh grave. Carved into the simple wooden cross, the inscription: Simon Blake, 1840-1867--He always got his man.
A boarding house, where a young man lies in drugged and exhausted slumber. On the table next to his bed, left by a friend who moved quietly so as not to disturb his slumber, a small pile of belongings: three dog-eared dimestore novels and a small wooden box.
A newspaper office, where a woman sits lost in thought. Written on her paper, the headline for the next day's newspaper: Sheriff Alive, Murderers Brought to Justice.