Author's notes here.
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.