Author's notes here.
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.