Author's notes here.
Seven: An Altar in the Evening
The sun rose.
Over a dusty little town where empty streets disguised a growing turmoil. Over outlying farms and ranches, fields of dozing cattle, and dark, craggy places where wild things slept. Over a cemetery at the foot of a hill, where a freshly dug grave stood out from the worn mounds that lay in neat rows.
Over a man who hadn't slept, but sat still and silent beside the newest mound, an empty glass bottle at his feet.
Ezra hated mornings. Not only did they have an unfortunate tendency to come equipped with abysmally bright lights and dull headaches that lingered right behind the eyes, but they also seemed plagued by a dearth of entrepreneurs willing to line Ezra's pockets with their recklessly gambled cash. Yet for the second morning in a row, Ezra found himself not only awake, but dressed and mingling with the general public well before nine o'clock.
Even more appalling, he was being forced to converse with people. The general consensus reached the night before was that the identity and whereabouts of the Easterner needed to be ascertained. In pursuit of that, Ezra had set himself up, first in the café and later in the saloon, and had engaged in conversation with anyone willing to talk.
It appeared that many of the townsfolk had spoken with the Easterner, Simon Blake. Few, however, knew much about him other than that he was a "friendly fellow" who seemed quite interested in either investment opportunities or ranching, depending on who Ezra was speaking to. He had carried a pistol, but it was ordinary, nothing to draw attention. A few men reckoned he'd probably had a rifle as well, but no one specifically remembered seeing one. Several people remembered him spending time with JD, but none of them knew why.
Midmorning brought the stage. Normally, Ezra would have welcomed the travelers who intended to stay in town a night or two and usually had some spare cash for a round or two of poker. Today, he wished irritably that they'd go eat at the café and leave the saloon to the locals. He wasn't going to learn any more about Simon Blake--if there was more to be learned, which Ezra was beginning to doubt--from new arrivals. Perhaps more importantly, the newcomers didn't know to avoid the big man at the end of the bar.
Buck had come in shortly after Ezra. He'd settled in at the end of the bar without a word and had been drinking steadily ever since. His red-rimmed eyes and expression of frozen rage were enough to warn off anyone who knew him, but newcomers weren't as wary. Ezra was keeping an eye on him, ready to jump in if it looked like trouble was starting, but he couldn't shake a feeling of impending disaster.
Ezra's covert surveillance was interrupted as one of the newcomers took a seat opposite him at the table. Automatically, he took in the stranger's clothing and features. A suit, good quality for all that it was obviously traveled in. Hair dark brown and neatly styled under his bowler hat, a thin face with a neat mustache and a light tan, hands roughened in a pattern that suggested reins and pistols, not manual labor. A man of moderate wealth, perhaps a businessman or a cattleman, likely looking for a game to pass the time until the stage left.
"You look like a man who might enjoy a game of chance," the stranger suggested. He held out his hand across the table. "Ned Grainger."
"Pleased to meet you."
"Traveling far?" Ezra asked as he started to shuffle the cards. The question was automatic, asked out of a long habit of distracting the mark rather than out of curiosity. His real attention was focused on Buck, who had straightened suddenly and was glaring around the saloon as though looking for a fight. What had set him off?
"Actually, I'm not intending to travel any further for a time. I'm in town on business. And yourself?"
Grainger spoke with an educated diction, his accent Southern, but from closer to the eastern seaboard than Ezra had ever lived. Under other circumstances, Ezra would have enjoyed the chance to have a civilized conversation. As it was, Buck was headed for the door, walking with a drunken unsteadiness that did nothing to reassure Ezra.
"I live here," Ezra answered absently, trying to figure out a way he could get to Buck without setting the big man off.
"Oh? Then perhaps you'll have met my partner. He would have arrived here a few weeks ago. Simon Blake?"
Startled, Ezra turned back to Grainger, his mind racing to process what the man had just said. In those few seconds of distraction, he lost track of Buck. With a quick word of apology, he left the table and headed for the door.
As I walked out on the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen
Wrapped in white linen as cold as the clay.
The whiskey burned as it went down, but it wasn't enough. It didn't distract him, and God, he needed distraction. If Vin didn't stop playing that goddamn song, he was going to go right out there and shove that mouth organ where the sun never shined. The words pounded in his head with a relentless, mournful beat. Why could he hear the words when no one was singing? Why couldn't he make them stop?
Buck slopped more whiskey into his shot glass and gulped it down, one hand on the bar to keep the room from tilting so much. There were several people in the saloon, but no one seemed inclined to approach him. Their conversations were too soft to reach Buck's ears. The near-silence in the room was enough to choke a man, and through it wound the saddest song in the universe.
"Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
Play the Dead March as you carry me along,
Take me to the green valley and lay the sod o'er me
For I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong."
Another shot, and this one didn't burn. Hell, he didn't even feel it. That was good. That was damn good, because he couldn't think of anything he much wanted to feel. He sure as hell didn't want to think about dead cowboys . . . lying in a cold, uncaring grave . . .
God damn that song, anyway. What the hell did Vin think he was doing? Nobody wanted to listen to that drivel. No one cared about wide-eyed kids who thought you were a hero because you wore cowboy boots and carried a gun.
Buck laughed bitterly and gulped another shot. In the end, no one had cared. The kid hadn't had anyone. No one to sit up and worry about him, no one to make sure he was in his best suit when they put him in the coffin. No one to put a fitting marker on his grave.
"It was once in the saddle I used to go dashing
It was once in the saddle I used to go gay,
First down to the dram-house and then to the card house.
Got shot in the breast, I am dying today."
Couldn't even stay in the saddle, could he? First thing he did was fall out of the saddle into that water trough. Buck swallowed, his throat so tight it hurt. If there was something stupid to be done, you could trust the kid to do it.
Trust him to guard your back, though, too.
"Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin,"
With a low growl, Buck slammed his glass down and shoved away from the bar. He didn't have to listen to this crap.
"Get six pretty maidens to carry my pall,"
Didn't have to think about a bright-eyed kid staring at a bunch of working girls with bewildered awe, not sure how to approach anyone so beautiful.
"Put bunches of roses all over my coffin,"
Didn't want to think about a wooden box being lowered into the ground, the darkness covering it . . .
"Put roses to deaden the clods as they fall."
. . . didn't even get a chance to see him buried . . .
Buck took a lurching step toward the door. If only the floor would quit swaying and the door would hold still. He was going to go out there and rip that damn mouth organ out of Vin's hands and stomp it flatter than a gambler's wallet after a losing streak.
As an afterthought, Buck grabbed the bottle off the bar. No point in sobering up now.
"Before I turned, the spirit had left him
And gone to its Giver --- the cowboy was dead."
Damn kid . . . had he known what was happening to him? Did he feel the life leaking out of him? Did he know how alone he was?
Buck stumbled, caught himself, and made it through the doors without falling. His gun was stuck, but he yanked it harder and it came loose.
Vin was down the street, in front of the jail . . . he'd told the kid he was too damn young to be a lawman, told him he'd get himself shot, but did he listen? It was the jail . . . if he'd burned down the goddamn jail in the first place this never would have happened. Kid never would have found that damn badge, never would have felt so proud of himself for standing up to the townsfolk who tried to lynch his prisoner. Never would have decided it was his duty to stay.
Buck's gaze settled on the jail, and a fierce smile curved his lips as he downed another gulp of whiskey.
Vin slowly lowered his mouth organ from his lips as he saw Buck stagger down the street from the saloon. Damn. They'd all been waiting for this, waiting for Buck to break . . . but Vin had hoped they'd be able to keep it private. The whole town didn't need to see the gunslinger fall apart.
Buck tripped, and Vin winced. Maybe he should go down there, see if he couldn't get Buck to go lie down for a little while. No point letting him make a bigger fool of himself than he could laugh off when he sobered up.
As the gunslinger righted himself, Vin abruptly realized he had more than a whiskey bottle in his hands.
"Damn," Vin muttered, standing and pushing the mouth organ into his jeans' pocket. What the hell was Buck thinking, waving a gun around in the middle of town?
The sudden, sharp crack of the gun made Vin jump more than the bullet ricocheting off the side of the jail. Heads poked out of doors and windows as the curious townspeople looked to see what was going on. Buck swayed in the middle of the street, but somehow managed to stay on his feet. He sighted on the jail again and squeezed off another shot, then took a long swig of whiskey from the bottle in his other hand.
"Son of a bitch," he shouted. "What does it take with you?"
Vin took a step forward, his eyes scanning the street quickly to find the best way to get to Buck without getting in his line of fire. The rapid thudding of several pairs of boots on the boardwalk behind him told him that his friends had come to see what was going on, but he didn't take his attention off the drunken gunslinger in the street.
Buck took a stumbling step forward. "Tell you over 'n' over, keep the badge out've sight . . ." He pulled the trigger again, barely bothering to aim this time. The bullet plowed into the ground at the corner of the jail.
With a sigh, Vin gave up on trying to find a safe way to get to Buck. Somebody was going to get hurt if someone didn't get that gun away pretty quick. Vin stepped down off the boardwalk, then stopped as a heavy hand gripped his shoulder.
"This don't have nothing to do with you," Chris said softly. It wasn't a slight, just a statement of fact, and Vin stepped back as Chris walked on toward Buck. This had started a long time before any of them had come to Four Corners.
Chris had almost crossed the distance to Buck before the drunken gunslinger noticed him. Slowly, with the care of a man who knew he didn't have his balance, Buck brought up his gun to aim at Chris. Chris stopped, his spurs still jangling slightly in the deadly silence of the street.
Vin fingered his pistol, wondering if there was any way he could shoot Buck's gun out of his hand without hurting him or risking the lives of the people in the store behind him. He heard a soft curse behind him and glanced back at Ezra. From the look on the gambler's face, he'd been considering the same thing and had come to a similar conclusion.
"Maybe if I go out the back of the jail and go 'round . . ." Nathan said, almost to himself. Josiah murmured an answer that Vin didn't hear, but the lack of movement behind him told him that Nathan had stayed put.
The two men in the street faced each other down like dueling gunfighters, Buck's gun trembling slightly as it pointed at Chris, Chris's hands hanging loose and ready at his sides. The wind was barely blowing, just enough to stir Chris's hair and kick up little puffs of dust along the street.
The silence drew taut, and then it snapped as Chris said evenly, "Give me the gun, Buck."
Buck blinked at him, still swaying slightly, as if the soft breeze was enough to move him. He had a look in his eyes that Vin didn't trust, a half-crazy anger on the verge of exploding. "You son of a bitch, you can't tell me what to do."
"Give me the gun, Buck." Chris's voice stayed steady and calm as he took a step forward. Vin held his breath, expecting a gunshot any second.
"Want to know what it feels like to bleed to death in the street?" Buck took another gulp of whiskey, his eyes never leaving Chris. "You left him. He depended on you, and you left him."
Chris took another step, his hand outstretched. "You're drunk, Buck. You're not thinking straight. Give me the gun."
"Man depends on you, you should stick 'round. Not go running off when he needs you."
Vin winced again. Even drunk, the raw pain in Buck's voice came through clear as a wolf's cry on a crisp winter's night. He didn't think even Buck knew whether he was talking about JD, Chris, or Buck himself anymore. This had been building up for months, maybe even years, but it shouldn't be played out here on the street where the town could use it as an afternoon's entertainment.
Chris met Buck's eyes steadily, his hand still waiting for the gun. "Give me the gun, Buck."
Buck shook his head, the gun in his hand trembling so much Vin was sure he'd either drop it or fire it accidentally. "He didn't deserve to die, Chris."
Chris's voice somehow grew gentle. "No, he didn't. But this ain't helping him. All it's going to do is get someone hurt. Give me the gun."
"Why'd you leave, Chris?" The question was soft, aching, but it carried in the stillness of the street.
Chris took a slow step forward. He was within reach, but he didn't try to grab the gun. "Because I'm a son of a bitch who made a damn lousy hero. Now give me the gun."
Slowly Buck let go of the gun, letting it slide around on his finger so that the butt was facing Chris. He was shaking, his grip on the whiskey bottle loosening until it fell harmlessly to the ground. Chris took the gun from him and tucked it into his waistband, then took the final step forward. Gently, he gripped the back of Buck's neck and gave him a slight shake.
"You're going to hurt yourself if you don't watch where you point that thing," he said softly. Vin didn't catch Buck's answer, but Chris pulled him closer, letting his head rest on Chris's shoulder for a brief minute. Chris said something to him too low for anyone else to hear, then turned him and guided him down the street.
Vin, taking a deep breath for the first time in forever, watched his two friends walking toward the boarding house. He couldn't help but think that this man was the Chris Larabee Buck had always seen and admired, no matter how far down the real man fell. It was just a damned shame Buck was too drunk to see it now.
Buck's room at the boarding house was plain, little more than a bed, bureau, washstand, and chair. Whatever belongings Buck had brought with him were tucked away. Nothing in the room showed that it was inhabited, but then, Chris thought as he sat in the lone chair, Buck always had traveled light. No doubt it was a habit born from leaving town just ahead of one too many irate husbands.
Tilting his chair back, Chris looked across the room at the bed where Buck was sprawled. Chris had half-carried him up the stairs and poured him into bed, pulling off his boots with a feeling of déjà vu. He'd put Buck to bed many a time over the years, and Buck had returned the favor more often than Chris could remember.
Sighing, Chris set the chair back on all four legs, but didn't get up. There was no need for him to stay. Buck wouldn't wake up for several hours, and he didn't need Chris sitting over him, watching him while he slept. He'd laugh if he even knew Chris had thought of it. But the room was quiet, no one was likely to disturb them, and Chris needed time to think.
He depended on you, and you left him.
Buck's words out on the street had hit as hard as bullets. Chris had thrown enough accusations at Buck after his family had died to recognize that Buck was talking as much to himself as to Chris, but that didn't take any of the truth from the words. JD, Buck, the rest of the boys--hell, the whole town--had trusted Chris, and he had left them all. Even if he hadn't wanted or deserved the responsibility, it had still existed.
And he'd failed, as surely as he'd failed to protect his family. JD was dead, Buck seemed hell-bent on destroying himself, and the town was about to be taken over by an army of hired guns. He didn't know if he had the strength to fix any of it.
He knew he didn't have the strength to walk away.
Standing abruptly, Chris headed for the door. There was a lot to be done, and probably less time than he'd like to do it in. Pausing for just a moment, he looked down at Buck again. Lines he didn't remember cut through his friend's face, leaving him looking old.
Buck wouldn't hear him, but he said it again anyway, the same words he'd said out on the street. "I'm sorry, pard. I should have been here."
Out on the street again, he saw the quick, speculative looks the townsfolk were shooting him. No one seemed quite brave enough to meet his eyes. Settling his hat more firmly on his head, he set off down the street, ignoring the whispers that trailed behind him. It wasn't the first time people had stared, and probably wouldn't be the last. He didn't have time to waste on anyone who couldn't say what they were thinking to his face.
The voice was a familiar one. He turned, bracing himself.
"Mr. Larabee." Mary Travis walked up to him, wiping ink-stained hands on her apron. She smiled. "Chris. It's good to see you back."
She didn't look any different, Chris couldn't help but notice. Still beautiful, with the sun glinting off her golden hair and that proud tilt to her chin. And Chris still didn't know if he should smile back at her or take off running.
"How is Buck?"
She looked genuinely concerned, so Chris shrugged. "He's sleeping it off."
"It's hard for him," Mary said. Her eyes widened. "For everyone, of course. But he and JD were close."
"Yeah." They were, but Chris didn't really want to talk about it. Especially not out on the street where the whole town could listen in. "Was there something you needed?"
"Actually, I was hoping to talk to you about something." Mary looked down, one hand sliding into the pocket of her apron. "You may not want this, but . . . "
Frowning slightly, she pulled something from the pocket and held it out to Chris. "I was thinking it might help if people saw someone wearing it."
In the palm of her hand sat a metal star, the word 'Sheriff' carved into the center. Chris reached for it, feeling the edges bite into his hand as he took it from her.
"Where did you get this?" he asked, even though he was pretty sure of the answer.
"It was on the--the body. It fell to the ground when they took him to the undertaker's, and I picked it up for safekeeping." Mary touched his arm. "Chris, we need someone to take charge. Someone who can stand up to Evans' men and bring order back to this town. If people saw you wearing it, they'd feel more confident that they could stand up to Evans and . . . "
"No." Chris put his free hand on Mary's, squeezing gently. "We'll take care of Evans and make sure JD's murderer gets what he deserves. But this," he ran his thumb over the face of the badge, "this doesn't belong to me."
He could feel her eyes on his back as he walked away.
It is almost dawn.
He is almost there. So close. He will be safe, free from the ones who hunt him. He will be able to rest.
He stumbles on, falls, rises, stumbles on. Falls again, and realizes he's pulling himself up against a headstone. He doesn't understand, and so he just walks on. The ground is uneven, his leg full of molten knives. He trips and catches himself on a wooden cross. He looks at it, and then is afraid to look down. He knows what he will see. But his eyes are drawn downward against his will, and a low moan escapes his lips. He stifles it immediately.
He walks on.
He is so very, very tired.