Author's notes here.
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.