Author's notes here.
Six: Writ in Burnish'd Rows of Steel
"Enough rifles and ammunition to stock a war," Nathan said wearily. "I don't know what we're getting in the middle of here, Vin, but it sure don't look good."
Vin pulled up his horse to wait for Nathan's. "Looks like an invasion, from what I saw. Trying to take over the whole area."
"All those guns, they just might do it." Nathan sighed, then laughed humorlessly. "At least they don't have all the advantages they think they do."
"When I was in the barn, Sykes and another fellow came in and were talking. All about how they'd have more problems if we knew about something. That army they're building, I figure."
Vin frowned. "I sure hope they don't have something else up their sleeves we ain't found out about yet."
"Bastards. I wouldn't put it past them."
Nathan's voice had a hardness to it that Vin wasn't used to hearing. He shot a concerned glance at the healer. Mouth drawn in a straight line, shoulders rigid, eyes red-rimmed with exhaustion--there was anger there, and something more.
"Something bothering you?"
Nathan shrugged, his expression so set that Vin figured he wasn't going to answer. It wasn't until they'd ridden for several minutes more that Nathan finally spoke.
"Not long before it happened, JD stopped by my room. I was heading out to the reservation for a while, planning on seeing Rain and helping out where I could. Didn't much want to wait around, so when JD said he could use some help with something that had come up, I told him I'd get with him once I got back. He didn't act like it was a big deal, but then he got shot before I ever got back to see what was going on."
"You think whatever he wanted to talk to you about had something to do with him being murdered?"
Nathan shrugged. "Ain't never gonna find out now."
Vin sighed. He'd had his own thoughts about how things might have been different if he'd been around. He knew how thinking that way could eat at a man. What he didn't know was how to make Nathan quit beating himself up.
"Don't do anybody any good trying to change the past," he said finally.
Nathan just grunted and rode on, his back rigid with tension. With another sigh, Vin followed.
There was a certain point where the road heading south to Four Corners met up with the eastern road used by Guy Royal's Circle R hands when they came to town. The land in that area varied from gentle hills to steep cliffs ending abruptly in deep-cut gorges. Most of the ground was too rocky for good grazing and not flat enough to farm. It was rare to see anyone out there who wasn't traveling to or from Four Corners.
When Chris reached the point where the two roads merged and saw two riders headed toward him down the eastern road, he didn't think he was being too cautious by loosening the safety strap on his gun. He didn't relax again until he recognized the two men.
"Ezra. Josiah." He nodded a greeting as they pulled up beside him.
Josiah leaned on his pommel. "Chris. Good to see you."
"Mr. Larabee." Ezra tipped his hat.
Chris studied them, a little surprised at how glad he was to see them. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he'd been unable to stop himself from wondering--if JD was dead, what could have happened to the others? Seeing Josiah and Ezra alive and in one piece was a reassurance he hadn't wanted to think about needing. They both looked more tired than he was used to seeing them. Worn and tense, ready for a threat Chris couldn't see.
A vague, whiskey-tinged memory hit, and he frowned at Ezra. "Thought you were headed for New Orleans."
"We came back." Ezra glanced at Josiah. "Perhaps you haven't heard . . . "
"About JD?" Chris cut him off. "I heard. Figured I'd swing back this way and see if anything needed to be done."
Josiah laughed, the sound harsh and humorless. "Killers need to be caught. Son of a bitch trying to take over the town needs to be stopped. There's plenty to do."
"Then we'd best get on it."
Josiah lifted his reins, but Ezra didn't move. The gambler's expression had an evaluating quality that made Chris edgy before Ezra even opened his mouth.
"Mr. Larabee. You figure you'll be running out on us again in the near future?"
Chris wanted to shoot him. It wasn't a new feeling, but it hadn't been this strong in quite some time. "Wasn't my plan, no."
"Then we would certainly appreciate your assistance."
Ezra urged his horse forward. Chris, trigger finger itching, wheeled his own mount around to follow.
Buck's plan was to spend the rest of the day drunk. Preferably in the company of one of the saloon girls, but he'd settle for a table in a dark corner and a whiskey bottle if necessary.
His luck, as it always seemed to lately, turned against him. He'd barely made it past Potter's store when he heard a voice behind him calling his name. He wanted to ignore it, but innate courtesy and self-preservation forced him to turn, automatically tipping his hat.
"Miss Nettie, how are you?"
Nettie Wells marched down the walk toward him, hands on her hips and a frown on her face.
"Buck Wilmington, it's about time you showed your face around these parts again."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, biting back a sigh as he glanced over his shoulder at the saloon. So close, and yet so far.
Nettie took his arm and turned him, forcing him to walk with her. "I never figured you were gone for good, not when I heard the boy died. I said to myself, they'll be back. They'll come hunting the men who killed young JD."
Buck really didn't want to talk about it, but he couldn't say as much to Nettie without being rude. "Yes, ma'am."
She shot him a sharp glance. "Not an easy thing, is it, losing a friend."
Buck squinted down the street, noting absently that not many people were out in the heat of the afternoon. "Not the first time, nor likely the last. We're just doing what's necessary."
Nettie sighed. "That's the way of it. Now tell me, what're you boys doing to find that killer?"
Frowning, Buck didn't answer immediately. Not because he didn't trust Nettie, but because he suddenly realized he didn't know what the boys' plans were. He'd been too tied up in his own misery to pay attention.
"Just asking around right now. Trying to get a feel for what's been going on," he said finally. It was as good a guess as any.
"If it was me, I'd be looking real hard at folks who might have a reason to hold a grudge."
"Any particular reason you'd say that?"
Nettie shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe just the wanderings of an old woman's fancy."
Buck snorted. "Miss Nettie, I never met a woman who was less inclined to make things up than you."
Nettie stopped walking. They were at the end of town, in front of the church. Not far away stood the gates to the cemetery. Buck kept his eyes turned away.
"JD came out to the farm almost every week for a while there," Nettie said. "Mended fences, fixed some harnesses, whatever odd jobs I needed. He always said he was just riding by, but it didn't take a genius to figure out he was there because of Casey. He was a nice boy, even if he and Casey did fight like cats and dogs. I got to liking him, and Casey . . . well, another year or two, and I doubt they'd have been fighting.
"After you boys took off, JD didn't come out as often. Too busy being sheriff, I guess, and then I sent Casey back East to stay with her cousins for a year. Seemed the best idea after those hooligans of Evans' took notice of her. When JD was killed, I was glad she was gone." Nettie sighed. "No telling what that girl would have tried to do."
She was quiet for a minute, staring off toward the cemetery. "But I was thinking, after the funeral, how I'd been seeing JD with another young man, one who didn't look like anyone from these parts. An Easterner, from his dress. I got to wondering what that Eastern fellow was doing here, and why he wasn't at JD's funeral or anywhere about town afterward. When I asked, no one seemed to know anything about him. But I didn't really think anything of it until I came upon Guy Royal in the street one day, and he was jawing away about how it was about time the town had real law--by which he meant law he could buy, I'm sure. It started me thinking about how that man likes to hire out his dirty work, and how he'd benefit from owning the new sheriff, whoever that might be."
Buck frowned. "Are you saying this Easterner was a hired gun?"
"I'm saying the thought crossed my mind. It might be worth your time to figure out where that Eastern fellow ran off to."
"Even if he was, there's no proof Royal hired him."
Nettie shrugged. "I got reason not to like Guy Royal, but I don't let that blind me. I've heard talk, though, about Royal and James and some of the other big ranchers. Rumors that they're meeting together, maybe working together, too. Now I'm not one to put stock in idle talk, but this has a ring of truth to it."
"Stranger things have happened," Buck admitted. It wasn't hard to picture: a man riding into town dressed like an Easterner. Naturally JD would take an interest, would talk to him, maybe even try to strike up a friendship. Probably he reminded JD of home, or maybe, like Mrs. Spencer had suggested, JD had hoped to figure out why the man was in town. And the Easterner, if he was a hired gun, would see JD's friendliness as the perfect excuse to get closer and make JD drop his guard. All it would take then was a suggestion to meet one night, a dark alley out of sight of the town, and one swift shot to remove one of the ranchers' obstacles to owning the town. Not that JD was a big obstacle, maybe. But as a test, proof that the hired gun could handle what his employers needed him to handle, JD would be big enough.
"I'll be expecting to hear what you find out." Nettie patted his arm, then released it. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to pay my respects before I head back to my farm."
Buck nodded and let her go. Lost in thought, he turned back toward the town. He still needed a drink, but after that, he needed to sit down for a long talk with the boys.
Vin crouched by the edge of the stream and dipped his hand in, splashing his face with water. Several feet down, Nathan was watering the horses. The healer had been silent since their conversation about JD. Vin didn't know what to do besides let him be. It was what Vin would have wanted under the same circumstances, but Nathan wasn't Vin. Nathan regularly said more than three words in a day, while Vin--Vin had always found it easier to track a man than talk to him.
Maybe Vin's silence did some good. As he walked up to Nathan and the horses, Nathan greeted him with a nod that seemed more welcoming than before.
"Horses are about done."
"Might make it back before nightfall, then."
"Yeah." Nathan handed Vin his reins. "I was looking at those tracks across the water. Not sure what would have made 'em."
Vin looked at the other bank, barely a foot away. Sparse grass covered most of the area leading to the water, but one section was nothing more than sun-bleached dirt that stretched in a thin trail back into the underbrush. The tracks in that section of dirt were strange, more like something being dragged than something walking. A big thing, at least the size of a timber wolf or wildcat.
"Hurt animal of some sort?" he suggested. "Don't look like it was walking on all four feet."
Nathan frowned. "You think we should try to find it? Put it out of its misery if need be?"
It might be the kindest action to take. Any animal that was too injured to walk would likely either starve to death or be forced to suffer while the wound festered and poisoned its blood. At any other time, Vin would have hunted it down.
"We got business back in town," he said reluctantly. "The boys need to know about Evans' stockpile. Those tracks look to be at least a day old. Whatever made them could be anywhere."
As they mounted up to ride back to town, Vin cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder. He hated leaving things undone, and hated more the thought of some animal suffering for days before it died. He'd be back, if he could find the time.
They took a roundabout way back to Four Corners, keeping their eyes open for further signs of the animal or Evans' men. Vin thought he saw the animal's tracks a few times, but never fresh enough to hint that it was still close by.
By the time they arrived at the saloon, the western sky was shading to red. Inside, townsmen gathered at the tables, sharing a drink before they headed home for supper. Only one corner toward the back stayed mostly empty.
"Buck," Vin said, stopping at the corner table. "Mind company?"
Buck looked up at them, his eyes clear in spite of the partially empty whiskey bottle on the table.
"Have a seat." Buck gestured with the shot glass in his hand. "I was waiting on you boys."
"Something happen while we were gone?" Nathan asked as they sat.
"I had a mighty interesting conversation with Nettie Wells," Buck answered. "Might even have a lead on who the murderer is."
As Buck told them about the Easterner and Nettie's belief that he might be a hired gun, Vin watched him, trying to figure out what was different. Buck was talking, for one; Vin hadn't heard as many words out of him since he'd left for New Orleans. But he also seemed calmer, the always-present anger under tighter control than it had been since Buck's return. He was focused on the investigation now, ready to hunt down this Eastern fellow, and it seemed to be bringing him back to himself.
"Be interesting to hear what Ezra and Josiah have to say when they get back," Vin said as Buck finished his story. "If they saw anything to make them think Royal or James might have brought in a hired gun."
"Could have been Evans just as easy as them other two," Nathan suggested.
Vin rubbed his chin, thinking about that. "Seems like most of the men Evans has working for him are gunslingers. Now, Royal and James both, their men are rough, but they're cowpunchers, not gun fighters. They'd have reason to bring in an outside man, but Evans could just send one of his own."
Nathan shrugged. "Unless he didn't want it traced to him."
Vin sighed. It seemed like every new bit of information they got led them right back to the same spot. They had at least three reasonable suspects, and so far, nothing that pointed clearly to any one of them. Meanwhile, JD's murder wasn't getting solved.
"Be simpler just to round 'em all up and shoot 'em," Buck said, his mind apparently following a similar path. "Never had much use for James or Royal either one, and this Evans fellow's cut from the same cloth."
That reminded Vin of Evans' arsenal. He was just starting to say something about it when the saloon went silent. Already reaching for his gun, he turned toward the doors. He was prepared for any kind of trouble, but not for the sight of Chris Larabee walking in, flanked on either side by Ezra and Josiah.
Vin's first reaction was relief. Part of that was born from knowing Chris hadn't gotten himself killed, but a larger part came from the thought that now Chris could take over. Chris would know what to say to Nathan and to Buck, and would know how to defend a town full of women and children from the army currently camped a few miles away. Chris could take back his place as the leader, and Vin could quit worrying about getting everyone killed.
Then a crash from Buck's corner reminded him that Chris's return might not be the solution to every problem they had.
Buck was on his feet, his face as hard and angry as it had been when he first arrived in town. One hand rested on the butt of his gun. The potential for violence hung so heavy in the air that Vin could taste it, a slick, coppery flavor on the back of his tongue as he and Nathan stood slowly.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Chris stopped at the sound of Buck's voice, eyes glittering in a way that would have warned a smart man to back down.
"Last I heard, it's a free town."
"You ain't wanted here."
"I got as much right to be here as any man. Unless you want to try and make me leave?"
"Buck." Nathan broke into the conversation, putting a calming hand on Buck's arm. "Take it easy, now."
"Gentlemen, there's no need for a scene," Ezra added. "Mr. Wilmington, regardless of your feelings toward Mr. Larabee, his assistance would be invaluable in our attempt to find Mr. Dunne's killer. Might I suggest a truce?"
Vin remembered the last time these two had faced each other, Chris's pistol pointing between Buck's eyes, and got ready to grab whoever went for his gun first. Chris and Buck stared at each other, the silence a living thing between them.
Then Josiah stepped between them, directly in the line of fire if either one reached for his gun.
"Brothers," he said, and Vin flinched at the scorn in his voice, "we're here for a reason. Is this how you honor his memory?"
Chris blinked. Buck jerked back as if he'd been hit, then cursed softly.
"He wants to help, then fine. Let him help. But I ain't drinking with him."
Grabbing the whiskey bottle, Buck stalked out of the saloon. After a long moment, Josiah went after him, the townsmen whispering in their wake.
"Under the circumstances, I think we could all use a libation," Ezra said. "Gentlemen, would you care to join me?"
"You buying?" Nathan's eyebrows shot up. "I thought it was a might cold in here."
"One round only, I assure you. Perhaps you'd care to assist me in fetching the drinks?"
Nathan followed him to the bar, pausing to clap Chris on the shoulder in greeting.
Vin sat back down, shoving a chair toward Chris with one foot.
"Been a while," he said quietly.
"Thought you were gone," Chris answered in the same tone. Calm, as if they'd only been talking a few hours before.
As if nothing had happened in the time they'd been apart. But Chris looked worn and tired, and Vin had knelt just days before at the grave of a friend. Nothing was the same.
"Chanu hunted me down, told me what happened to JD." Vin shrugged. "Coming back seemed the right thing to do."
A moment later, Ezra and Nathan returned with a new bottle of whiskey and shot glasses. Once they all had drinks, Nathan raised his glass.
"Chris, it's good to have you back."
Chris touched his glass with one finger, but didn't pick it up.
"Buck doesn't seem to think so," he said, his voice dry.
Nathan sighed. "Buck's been taking this mighty hard. He and JD--well, you know how he felt about the kid. He's said a lot of stuff he don't mean lately."
"He meant what he said." Chris finally picked up his drink and tossed it back. "All right, boys, why don't you tell me what you know about JD's murder."
It is night, but he doesn't sleep. He tries to walk. It hurts. Fire shooting up his leg, a familiar dull ache in his arm, a steady pounding in his head. He keeps walking, though, because to stop would be to get caught. He's very, very afraid of getting caught.
Sometimes he remembers why he walks: there is a place somewhere up ahead that is safe. Other times, he merely stumbles forward, only knowing that stopping is worse than going on. They'll find him if he stops.
There's water up ahead. He falls once, and then again, but finally he can drink. It is heaven. And better than heaven, because suddenly he isn't alone. He hears familiar, warm voices, not the voices of the ones chasing him. He sees them, so close. He reaches out to them.
They aren't there.
He presses the back of his hand to his mouth, hard, so that he won't betray himself with a cry.