Author's notes here.

by Katie

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.

And JD.

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."

"What is?"

"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.