Author's notes here.

by Katie

Five: Trampling Out the Vintage

He hid just in time, and is hiding still.  He is so tired.  They were almost upon him before he noticed.  If he had not stumbled and fallen to the ground, they would have seen him as they rode by.

His heart pounds, shaking his whole body.  A sweet, familiar voice calls his name.  He looks up into the beautiful dark eyes of his mother.  Aching, he reaches for her.

She is not there.

The tears come, but instinct keeps him silent.

Another sunrise, this one resplendent with pink and gold.  A fork in the road leading on the one hand down a wide, wagon-rutted dirt road and on the other, down a narrower, almost overgrown path.

A man in black on a black gelding, contemplating the two roads.

And, after a time, a plume of dust rising off the road less traveled.

Josiah had been an early riser since boyhood.  His father had insisted on it, denouncing the sin of sloth as he pulled his offspring from bed before the first streaks of sunrise had cleared the horizon.  In time, Josiah had come to appreciate the serenity to be found in the early morning, before the toil and conflict of the day arrived to distract his thoughts.

He liked to stir up the fire and boil water for his coffee while he performed his morning ablutions.  His father had always made him recite Psalms as part of the ritual, but this morning, Josiah felt the strains of "Clementine" rise to his lips.  He hummed it quietly while stropping his razor blade.

Squinting into the little mirror hung on his wall, he scraped the blade through the lather on his cheek.  Vanity, a deep voice whispered in the back of his mind.  He nodded with a certain satisfaction.  Vain it surely was to worry over standing in front of the always-dapper Guy Royal looking like a vagabond.  Even so, Josiah was wearing his cleaner shirt today.  As for the rest, he would leave it to Ezra.  Ezra could out-dapper the entire Territory even on a bad day.

The coffee had brewed by the time he finished his grooming.  Taking the pot and a couple of mugs, he went out to sit on the porch.  Ezra would be a while yet.

The town was barely awake.  Josiah sipped at his coffee, listening to those first stirrings that told him he wasn't alone in the world.  Usually, Mrs. Potter was the first person he would see as she stepped out her door to sweep her stoop.  She would give him a friendly wave and sometimes call him over to help her lift something or to give him a few slices of fresh-baked bread or pie.  Mrs. Potter seemed convinced that any male in town not living with his wife or mother must be on the brink of starvation.

Today, even before Mrs. Potter had made her appearance, Josiah saw a lone figure ambling down the street.  Josiah raised an eyebrow.  Given the way Buck had been drinking the night before, Josiah wouldn't have expected to see him until noon, at least.

"You're up early," Josiah commented as Buck came into earshot.  "Busy night?"

"Bella don't like anybody lingering on washing day," Buck answered shortly.  There was no hint of the lascivious grin that would usually accompany such a statement.

"She's a hard woman," Josiah agreed.  He'd had his own run-ins with Miss Bella, who ruled the second floor of the saloon with an iron fist.  "Coffee?"

Buck took the mug Josiah held out to him and sat down on the step.  He didn't seem inclined to talk, so Josiah let him be for the moment.  The coffee tasted better hot, anyway.

It wasn't until after Mrs. Potter swept her stoop clean and he'd drained the last dregs in his cup that Josiah decided to poke around a little.

"You look like something's weighing on your mind, my friend."

Buck gave him a long, cold look.  "Not much in the mood to talk about it."

"You got to clean out a wound before it'll heal."

Buck snorted.  "I ain't the one who got hurt."

Josiah gave him a sharp look.  "We all got hurt, Buck.  Like having an arm cut off.  It won't ever grow back, but maybe we can learn to live without it if we try."

"It never should have happened in the first place."  Buck swilled the coffee around in his mug.  "I'll worry about living when I'm done making sure the people responsible are all dead."

"Hating's a hard habit to break."

Buck laughed bitterly.  "Then maybe I won't break it."

That was exactly what Josiah was worried about.  "JD wouldn't want . . ."

"If I'd worried less about what he wanted, he'd be in New Orleans with me and Ezra right now."  Buck stared down into his cup.  "I should've hauled his scrawny butt out of here even if he kicked up a fuss the whole way.  Or stayed myself and just told Chris to go to hell.  Ain't like he don't know the way."

Josiah still hadn't come up with an answer for that when he saw Ezra approaching from the hotel.

"Good morning, gentlemen."

"Morning, Ezra," Josiah answered, a little relieved at the interruption.  "Have some coffee?"

"Having partaken of your finely brewed turpentine before, I do believe I'll pass, thank you," Ezra answered, absently straightening his cuffs.  "Buck, will you be joining us this fine morning?"

"Where you headed?" Buck asked without much interest.

"We're going to pay a little visit to Guy Royal and Stuart James.  We'll probably swing by the Dorough place on the way out," Josiah answered.  "Every one of those folks might have reason to want JD dead, so we thought we'd poke around a bit and see if we can get some answers out of them."

Buck frowned.  "Seems to me it'd make more sense to corner that Sykes fellow."

"Vin and Nathan are endeavoring to learn more from that quarter," Ezra replied.  "We thought it wise to check out all our potential opponents' decks, as it were, before we played our own hand."

Buck shrugged.  "You do what you want.  I'm going to have me another chat with Sykes.  I think it's about time he started telling what he knows."

"Man like him, I'd be surprised if he knew where his own feet were."  Josiah stood with a grunt, wincing at the creak in his knees.  "Going to be midnight before we get there if we don't get going soon."

"Lead the way, my friend," Ezra replied.

They headed for the Dorough place first.  It was a small spread set out on the scrubby land left over after Royal, James, and the other big-name ranchers had staked their claims.  The log cabin where the two brothers lived was well built and obviously cared for.  The older of the two brothers, Robert, was standing out on the porch, sipping a cup of coffee as he watched Josiah and Ezra ride up.

"Morning, boys," he called when they drew near.  "Something I can do for you?"

He had a faint Irish accent that went with his black hair and blue eyes.  His expression was friendly, no signs of guilt that Josiah could see.

"It's a fine morning for a ride," Ezra said blandly.  "I haven't been out this way in some time.  You've done quite a bit with the place."

Robert nodded, looking around with a proud smile.  "It's nothing fancy, to be sure, but me and Sam put a lot of sweat into it.  It's coming along."

Behind him, the door opened, and a slightly shorter and wider version of Robert came out.

"Hey, Robbie, you didn't say we had visitors."  Samuel Dorough gave them both a friendly, if questioning, smile.  "We don't get many folks out this way.  What brings you out?"

"We were just going for a ride, enjoying the fine weather," Josiah answered.  "Haven't seen you boys in town for a while, so we thought we'd check and make sure everything's all right."

Robert shrugged.  "We don't get into town much.  There's only the two of us, and it takes us both to keep the place running smoothly.  We only go to town about once a month or so for supplies."

"And a bit of fun," Sam added.

He gave Robert a sly look.  Josiah couldn't help but notice the sudden redness in Robert's cheeks.

"Robbie here likes his liquor," Sam continued cheerfully.  "And singing."

"You made just as much a fool of yourself as I did," Robert snapped, then glanced at Ezra and Josiah as if he'd forgotten they were there.  "We celebrated a little too much last time we made it to town.  Ended up spending the night in jail, which was no more than we deserved.  Our Sam likes to tell the story like I was the only one drinking."

"Hell of a way to end your night on the town," Josiah commented sympathetically.

Robert shrugged again.  "Like I said, no more than we deserved.  Probably should have gotten worse, if the truth be told.  The sheriff just made us sleep it off and pay for our breakfast.  He could have done a lot more, and we both knew it.  He's a decent fellow and a good sheriff, even if he's not much older than our Sam."

Ezra gave them both a sharp look.  "You haven't heard, then?"

"Heard what?"  Sam asked.  "Like I said, we don't get visitors much.  We haven't heard anything but cows bawling since the last time we were in town."

"The sheriff was murdered a couple of weeks ago."

Both brothers looked shocked.  As he studied their faces, Josiah was pretty sure they weren't faking.

"The Blessed Virgin keep him," Robert murmured, and Sam crossed himself.  "How did it happen?"

Josiah sighed.  "No one knows.  Lots of people had reason, but no one saw the shooting to say who did it."

Sam shook his head.  "That's a terrible thing.  You'll be looking for the murderer, then?"

"That's our intention," Ezra agreed.

"I hope you find him soon.  It's not right, a decent man like the sheriff being shot and the man who did it going free."

"That's the truth," Josiah said.  "We'd best be moving along.  Good to see you boys again."

Sam nodded.  "You too, Preacher.  Come by any time."

When they were out of earshot, Josiah looked over at Ezra.  "You thinking what I'm thinking?"

"That those boys aren't guilty of more than youth and the occasional bout of boorish behavior?"  Ezra nodded.  "Unless they are consummate actors, I am positive that neither knows anything of JD's death."

As the crow flew, Stuart James' compound wasn't too far from the Dorough's cabin.  The place was quieter than the last time they'd been there, with only a few men in evidence by the barn and one keeping watch up on the ledge above the entryway.  Apparently a runner had been sent to the main house, because Stuart James came out onto the porch as they approached, flanked on either side by men Josiah had seen before, but didn't know by name.  He suspected that he might have held a gun on at least one of them, given the way the shorter one on the left was glaring at him.

"Gentlemen," James said without much warmth.  "I'd invite you in, but I don't like you that much.  What do you want?"

Josiah could appreciate a man who took the direct approach.  He favored it himself.  "You know JD Dunne was murdered a few weeks ago."

"And you think I had a hand in it."

"The thought crossed our minds," Ezra said dryly.

James laughed, a short, hard sound.  "If I did, what makes you think I'd be fool enough to admit it?"

Josiah shrugged.  "Don't need a confession if we got proof."

"Which you won't get, because I didn't have anything to do with it."  James spat onto the ground.  "Not that I mind the kid being dead.  I had no liking for him after what he did to Lucas, and I never made a secret of that.  But I pride myself in being a man who doesn't make the same mistake twice.  I went up against you boys and that pig-headed judge once and lost my nephew to a cell in the penitentiary.  I didn't hate the kid enough to risk losing everything else just to see him dead."

"Can you prove that?" Ezra asked.

James' eyes narrowed.  "You calling me a liar on my own property, mister?"

Ezra gave him a cool smile.  "I'm merely attempting to ascertain the veracity of your statement, sir."

"And I'm merely going to ask these boys to blow your asses out of those saddles if you're not off my property in the next two minutes."

"Then you have no proof?"

"My word is the only proof I've ever needed."  James turned back toward the house.  "Good day, gentlemen."

Josiah turned his horse and rode out without any great haste, even though his back itched with the thought of the rifles pointed at it.  Beside him, Ezra kept to the same pace, his hand resting on his revolver.

"I don't think he likes us much," Josiah commented once they were out of the compound.

"You don't say."  Ezra shook his head.  "I wish I could be as certain of his innocence as I could be of his dislike."

"You think he was involved?"

Ezra was silent for several minutes.  Finally, he said, "I'm not sure.  I didn't see anything that convinced me he was involved.  On the other hand, I would hardly expect him to confess the moment we arrived."

Josiah nodded.  "I wouldn't put him at the top of the list of suspects, but I wouldn't take him off, either."

"Precisely."  Ezra squinted up at the sky.  "I believe we have enough time to visit the Royal spread if we hurry."

Josiah grinned in anticipation.  "That sounds like a good plan to me."

Ezra shot him a worried glance.  "Perhaps you should let me do the talking?"

Guy Royal wasn't any happier to see them than Stuart James had been.  Josiah considered the feeling mutual.

"You think I murdered that boy?" Royal asked.  He laughed sharply.  "If I were to kill any of you, it would be that big ape over there, not a boy playing at wearing a badge."

Josiah bared his teeth in an insincere smile.  "Why don't you try it."

"Perhaps when we don't have a previous engagement," Ezra said smoothly.  "Mr. Royal, do you have any proof to offer that you were not involved in Mr. Dunne's murder?"

Royal gave them a scornful glare.  "If I had wanted Mr. Dunne dead, he would have been dead months ago."

They got nothing further out of him.  Riding away, Josiah entertained himself with visions of beating the smirk off Royal's face until Ezra interrupted his thoughts.

"I'm afraid I'm somewhat inclined to believe the reprobate."

"That he didn't have JD killed?"  Josiah shrugged.  "I wouldn't put it past him, but he's arrogant enough that he probably wouldn't bother hiding it."

"So we're back where we started."  Ezra sighed.

"We'll just have to hope Vin and Nathan got further than we did."

In Chris's mind, his home still burned.  The sight of the charred, still smoking timbers had etched itself on his brain, blotting out the memory of happier times.

Nature had a shorter memory.  Already grass grew up through the blackened floorboards.  In the yard, scrub bushes were taking over the area Chris had cleared for Sarah's garden.  A bird's nest peeked out of the house's partially exposed rafters.

Chris closed his eyes, swallowing irrational anger.  Nature was what it was.  It didn't mourn, but neither did it deliberately set out to eradicate all traces of Chris's family.  That crime lay on other shoulders, and someday Chris would see justice done.

Turning away, Chris walked the short distance to the spot where he had dug their graves.  There, too, grass had grown up, but at least the wooden crosses he had erected still stood.  Kneeling, Chris rested the palm of his hand first on Sarah's grave, and then on Adam's.

His beautiful girl.  His boy, so earnest one moment and so gleeful the next.  They had changed his life, changed him.  Before he fell in love with Sarah, he had been a carefree gun-for-hire who never thought past the next good time.  Sarah had turned him into a man who enjoyed nothing more than a night spent in front of his own hearth, Sarah humming as she sewed something in her rocker across the fire, and Adam giggling on the floor between them, like as not leading his wooden Indians on a charge against Buck's cavalry men.  All that had been stolen from him in an act of cowardice he would never forgive.

The last time he had been out here, he'd thought he might finally be closing in on the killers.  Fowler's death had destroyed Chris's hope, leaving him feeling like he had failed his family again.  He had fought the feeling as long as he could, throwing himself into his job as peacekeeper during the day and making sure he had enough whiskey in him of a night that he could sleep without dreams.

Days in the hole at the prison outside Jericho had stripped him of all that.  With nothing to distract him, the memories stampeded through his mind.  Each one only pounded the truth in harder than the last.  He had failed his family, left them alone to die and hadn't even brought their murderers to justice.  He should have been the one to die, not Sarah and Adam.

"I'm sorry," he said to them, his voice rough from disuse.  "I'm so sorry."

Chris wasn't superstitious.  The wind that ruffled his hair just then, brushing across his forehead just like Sarah's fingers used to, was nothing more than an everyday breeze.  But the thought of Sarah standing nearby, seeing him like this, made him abruptly ashamed.  She would not have been proud.

Not of his drinking, not of his brawling, not of his furious attempts to push away anyone who tried to help him.  Most of all, not of his abandonment of the town into the hands of a greenhorn kid who deserved more than to die young just because the men he called friends weren't around to back him up.

"You made a promise," she would have said, her eyes snapping angry fire, "to watch out for those folks and lead those men.  And if there's one thing I can't abide, Christopher Larabee, it's a man who won't keep his promises."

Chris bowed his head.  The one thing he couldn't abide was Sarah's scorn.  He would have walked through hell on a Sunday to avoid it.  And yet, here he was.

"I'm sorry," he said again.  With one last, lingering look, he stood and went back to his horse.

As he rode away, the wind danced again through the trees, sending a shower of brightly colored leaves to cover the graves.

Nathan let Vin lead the way toward Evans' ranch, following the tracker's chosen path without question.  It wasn't that Nathan didn't know his way around the woods.  The need to avoid slave catchers' dogs had taught him well.  But all the knowledge in the world couldn't compare to Vin's natural instincts, so Nathan followed, putting his feet where Vin pointed and avoiding the areas that Vin didn't walk.

Soon enough, Vin led him to a small, tree-covered rise that looked down on Evans' ranch house.  From that vantage point, they had a clear view of the front and side of the house, but couldn't be seen by the men working around the barn and corral, or by the sentries on duty on the front porch and a short distance up the road.

"Looks like they're ready for a war," Vin whispered into Nathan's ear.

Nathan nodded.  Though the distance made exact details hard to make out, it was obvious that a large number of well-armed men were working down in the yard.  They were unloading boxes that, from the size, stood a good chance of carrying rifles and ammunition.

"How many men you figure are down there?" he murmured.

Vin shrugged.  "Could be ten, fifteen.  Hard to tell with them coming in and out of the barn like that.  But those two bunkhouses over there could each hold twenty men, easy."

Nathan squinted in the direction Vin had indicated.  He'd been too busy watching the men to notice, but there were two bunkhouses and another barn up against the trees on the far side of the yard.

"You could probably fit thirty in a pinch," he agreed.  "Guess we'll have to get a closer look to know for sure.  You want to split up?"

Vin gave him a look that Nathan couldn't read.  For a moment, he seemed like he was going to argue, but in the end, all he said was, "Watch your back."

Waiting until Vin had disappeared into the shadows in the direction of the main barn, Nathan headed off in the other direction.  Trees encircled Evans' yard, leaving the route toward the bunkhouses fairly concealed.  Nathan moved as quietly as he knew how, but even so, twigs and leaves crackled under his feet.  Cautiously, he skirted wide around the areas close to where Evans' men worked.

He could hear voices, orders and curses mixing with ordinary conversation.  Moving away from them, he circled along the perimeter of the trees until he finally reached the bunkhouses.  Small, glass-covered windows dotted the walls of the closest building.  Keeping low to the ground, Nathan crept up to the nearest window and raised his head to peer inside.

The glass was grimy, but enough light came through from the open front door to see into the bunkhouse.  From Nathan's perspective, he could count at least twenty-four bunks, all showing signs that someone had inhabited them recently.

That didn't look promising.  Even if the other bunkhouse was empty, Evans had obviously assembled a strong force.  Bringing them down wouldn't be easy.  The thought lit a fire in Nathan's belly.  He was more than ready to get started.

Moving on to the second bunkhouse, Nathan found an identical set-up.  More than twenty bunks, all obviously used.  And the barn, when Nathan slipped in the back door, contained in addition to the horses, a storeroom full of the same long boxes that the men had been unloading into the other barn.

During the War, Nathan had seen the supply wagons bringing in fresh ammunition for entire companies.  He could remember thinking how much death had been carried in those wagons.  He had hoped, once the War was over, never to see it equaled again.

Today, he did.

A sudden creaking from the front door sent him slipping into the shadows.  Peering around the corner, Nathan watched as two men entered the barn.  He didn't know one of them, but the other made him clench his fists and swear softly under his breath.

"I signed on to take on the town, not those gunslingers," the taller man was saying as he walked over to one of the stalls.  "I ain't sure . . .  "

Arnie Sykes snorted.  "Hell, Slim, you know they ain't no match for us.  We outnumber them almost ten to one."

"Yeah, but if they find out about . . .  "

"They ain't gonna find out."  Sykes grabbed the blanket hanging off the nearest stall door and entered the stall, clucking at the roan that walked up to meet him.  "That's what those rifles are for.  That, and scaring the backbone out of Royal and James."

"Rifles don't do much good if they come up from behind looking for pay back."

"They ain't got no reason to think they need pay back.  And that type likes things all proper and lawful.  They ain't gonna shoot anyone in the back."  Scratching the nose of his horse, Sykes laughed shortly.  "They ain't no smarter than that damn fool kid sheriff was."

"Kid caused us enough trouble, smart or . . .  "

"One kid, five gunslingers, a posse of Texas Rangers, it don't matter.  We got them out-gunned and out-manned.  They won't be any trouble."

"I sure as hell hope not, Arnie."

They finished saddling their horses in silence.  Nathan stayed still until they were gone, then left the same way he had come in.

During his bounty hunting days, Vin had found that the best place to hide was often in plain sight.  He wanted to get closer to the main house and barn, but both sat out in the middle of the yard with no cover to speak of.  If he went sneaking up to the house, he was sure to be seen.  However, there was a lot of activity going on, and if he went in looking like he was just another hand doing his job, there stood a good chance that no one would notice him.

He scouted around a bit, finally spotting a wheelbarrow half-filled with grain bags near the barn.  Walking as if he belonged, he went over to it and shoved the bags around, taking the opportunity to glance inside the barn.  It was a large barn, with more horses than he could count in such a quick glance.  The men at work unloading the ammo boxes were carrying them through the main section of the barn into a room in the back.

Wary of drawing attention, Vin didn't stay there long.  He finished arranging the bags and started pushing the wheelbarrow toward the main house.  Two men stood on the porch now, both smoking cigarettes as they watched the men work.  They both looked better dressed than the hands; Vin figured it was a good bet that one of them would be Evans.  If so, he wanted to hear what the man had to say.

Pulling to a stop near the porch, Vin knelt and started playing with the wheel as if it had come loose.  He focused most of his attention on the voices drifting toward him.

"I must admit, I had expected to be further along at this point," the older of the two men was saying.

"Yes, sir."

Vin risked a look up.  The first speaker was a man of about fifty, tall and distinguished looking with black hair turning to silver at the temples and a silver mustache.  He dressed a lot like Ezra, his clothing obviously tailored to fit him.  The other man was likely in his thirties, with brown hair and a darkly tanned face that spoke of time spent weathering the elements.  He wore a black ten-gallon hat and the denim pants and cotton shirt of a typical cowhand.  If Vin had passed him in the street, he wouldn't have taken special note of him, except to see that he carried himself with the confidence of a man who had faced trouble and lived through it.

The younger one was Evans, Vin decided.  He fit the descriptions given by Josiah and Nathan and by the folks in town that Vin had talked to.  But who was the man Evans answered to?

"The men have encountered problems that we didn't anticipate, sir," Evans continued.  "Dunne proved more stubborn than I expected, and his death seems to have drawn back the rest of the gang like flies to a corpse.  Some of the townspeople are taking their return as an excuse to refuse our offers."

"Then you'll just have to make the offer more compelling, won't you?  What of the ranchers?"

"They're not proving open to negotiation, but we had anticipated that.  We'll have to run them off."

"Not until I have control of the town," the older man said sharply.  "And these gunslingers?  How much trouble are you suspecting there?"

"They were working for that federal judge before they all took off," Evans answered.  "Even if they're not working for him anymore, he might notice them all disappearing from the same place at the same time.  I want to poke around a little to see how close they are to the judge before I make any firm plans, but most likely we'll have to stage something that gives a good explanation for them all ending up dead.  Maybe a run-in with a band of renegade Apaches or bank robbers.  Something that can't be attached to us."

The older man sighed.  "Just remember we're on a schedule, Evans.  Take too long, and all your work will be for nothing."

"Yes, sir.  It'll be done on time."

"See that it is."

As the older man turned to go back into the house, Vin picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow again and started back the way he came.  He was almost at the barn when he heard someone come up behind him.

"Hey, you, that grain needs to go over to the other barn, not this one," a voice called.

Vin glanced back, wondering if he was going to have to go for his gun.  Luckily, the man talking to him had a box of ammo on his shoulder and seemed more interested in balancing it than in noticing that Vin didn't belong.

"Sorry.  I'll get it right over there," Vin said.  His back prickled as he altered his course, expecting at any second to hear someone shout after him.  Or worse, to feel a bullet plow into him.  Every step made the prickling stronger, but nothing happened.

Finally, he reached the second barn.  Without looking over his shoulder, he parked the wheelbarrow next to the door and kept walking around the barn and back toward the trees.  Only when he had reached their relative safety did he dare turn and look.  Business continued in the yard as if he had never been there.  With a sigh of relief, Vin slipped into the shadows and headed back to the horses.

Buck had spent most of the morning hunting for Arnie Sykes.  By noon, he had to concede that Sykes wasn't anywhere to be found in town.  He had also walked off most of the effects of the previous night's alcohol, leaving him unpleasantly clear-headed.  The saloon beckoned, but he had one more place to go first.  After a quick stop at the stable to collect his belongings, he headed down the street to the boarding house.

The widow Spencer ran the boarding house with a poker in one hand and a feather duster in the other.  The entire house stayed clean and silent, and woe betide anyone who disrupted either.  But good food and comfortable beds more than made up for Mrs. Spencer's iron hand.  Buck had rented a room here before; he hoped she had a vacancy now.

"Mr. Wilmington," Mrs. Spencer said as he walked up to the front desk.  "You'll be wanting your room again?"

She was a short, round woman with graying blonde hair and an expression that never slipped from stern.  Her eyes showed the only hint of softness about her.  Before he'd left, Buck had made a game out of trying to get her to crack a smile.  As best he could recall, she was winning.

"Any room would do, ma'am."

"The room you were using is empty.  There was another man who took it for a short time, but he left town some weeks ago."

"Then I'll take it."  Buck reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins.

"Thank you."  Mrs. Spencer paused, taking a deep breath.  "Mr. Wilmington, there's a matter I could use your assistance with."

For a normally straightforward woman, she seemed hesitant.  Frowning, Buck said quietly, "I'll do anything I can, ma'am."

She motioned for him to follow, then led the way back to the small storage room at the end of the first floor hall.  Unlocking the door with one of the keys hanging from her belt, she paused again with her hand on the doorknob.

"I didn't know, you see, if he had family somewhere.  There was no one around to ask, so I just kept his things here."

Buck's stomach had already tightened even before Mrs. Spencer opened the door.  Placed on a shelf along the back wall, the pile of belongings seemed pitifully small: three dog-eared dimestore novels, a pair of neatly folded pants and a shirt, and a wooden box about the size of a cigar box.

Abrubptly, the room wasn't big enough.  Buck needed air.  Almost against his will, he stepped forward and picked up the box.  He gently eased open the latch and lifted the lid.

There wasn't much inside.  A couple of envelopes bound with a faded hair ribbon, a small penknife Buck was pretty sure had been Casey's at one time, the stub of a ticket bearing the mark of the Overland Stage Company.  And carefully wrapped in a woman's handkerchief, a black leather dauggereotype case containing the image of a dark-haired woman with JD's smile.  Buck folded the handkerchief around the case again and set it back into the box, then gathered up the clothes and books with hands that threatened to tremble.

"I'll . . .  "  He had to swallow against the dryness in his throat.  "I'll take care of them."

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington."  Straightening her shoulders, Mrs. Spencer turned and bustled back down the corridor.  "If you'll come along, I'll just check and make sure your room is ready for you."

Buck followed, resolutely not looking at his burden.  It seemed too light, even lighter than the saddlebags slung over his shoulder.  Hardly a fitting legacy at all.

Mrs. Spencer continued on, oblivious to Buck's complete lack of attention.  "The room is clean, I can guarantee that, but I don't recall if I put oil in the lantern, and I'm sure there's no water in the pitcher.  There hasn't been anyone in the room since that gentleman who took it after you left, and he pulled up stakes right after young Mr. Dunne was killed."

That got Buck's attention.  "Who was this fellow?"

Mrs. Spencer glanced back at him, frowning slightly.  "An eastern gentleman called Blake.  Simon Blake.  I wasn't sorry to see him go.  He was too secretive for my comfort.  He never said what he was in town for, just 'business.'  Every time I asked, it was always 'business.'  I always felt he was up to something.  Mr. Dunne seemed to like him, though."

"He did?"

"They certainly spent time together.  I wondered at first if Mr. Dunne was trying to discover what Mr. Blake might be up to, but nothing ever came of that, did it?"  She stopped to open the door to Buck's room.  "It was probably nothing more than my imagination running away with me, anyway."

Buck stepped inside, moving absently to place the kid's belongings in the drawer of his bureau.  With a gentle tug to straighten out the wrinkles in the shirt, he shut the drawer and turned back to Mrs. Spencer.

"This Blake fellow.  When did you say he left?"

Mrs. Spencer pursed her lips thoughtfully.  "It was right around the time of Mr. Dunne's death.  A day or two before, I believe, although there was such a tizzy after the shooting that it's a bit hard to remember."

"Why did he leave?"

Mrs. Spencer snorted.  "Business, I suppose.  Funny thing, though.  I thought I saw him in town the night Mr. Dunne died, even though I know he had been gone at least the day before."

"From what I heard, there were a lot of people in town that night.  Might have just been someone who looked like him."

"I suppose," Mrs. Spencer said slowly.  "But he had a very distinctive rifle.  Very expensive, and made for long-distance hunting, he said.  I've never seen one like it before, but the man I saw that night was definitely carrying that rifle."  She paused again.  "To tell the truth, Mr. Wilmington, I wondered if there might be a connection until I overheard the undertaker say that Mr. Dunne was shot with a shotgun.  And Mr. Blake and Mr. Dunne were such friends."

Buck thought for a moment.  "Was there anyone else Blake was friendly with?"

"Why, everyone, after a fashion.  It seemed like he talked to anyone who crossed his path.  Very friendly as long as you didn't want him to talk about himself."  She studied him, her stern expression softening slightly into curiosity.  "Do you think he had something to do with the murder, Mr. Wilmington?"

Buck's gut told him yes, but he wasn't ready to say so to Mrs. Spencer.  Buck shrugged.  "I don't know, ma'am, but I sure hope to find out."

Mrs. Spencer nodded.  "I'll be leaving you to your room, then.  I'll bring up some water and a fresh lamp shortly."

"Thank you, ma'am."

Left alone in his room, Buck busied himself shoving the contents of his saddlebags into drawers.  The top drawer called to him, but he refused to open it.  He would, when the time was right.  But not yet.  And in the meantime, the voice of the saloon could drown out anything.