Author's notes here.
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.