Author's notes here.

by Katie

Eight: So With You My Grace Shall Deal

His morning coffee brewed, Josiah settled down on the church's front step.  It was early even for him, the sun merely a hint of light on the horizon.  But after a night of dreams that mostly ended in someone he cared about bleeding on the ground, his bed hadn't held much of an appeal.  With the hot mug cupped in his hands, he had gone out to enjoy the morning's peace and try to clear his head.

Watching Buck in the street yesterday, he'd been afraid that he'd see exactly what his dreams had been showing him.  The relief he'd felt when Chris had taken Buck's gun safely away had been just as strong as his fear.  Hope, though, hope hadn't come until after Chris walked back into the jail after taking Buck to his room.  Chris's eyes had been clearer, steadier than he'd seen them in weeks, and Josiah had seen the other men straighten in response.

"The way I see it," Chris said without preamble, "we've got two problems.  Someone killed JD, and this Evans wants to own the town and isn't afraid to start a war to get it.  Vin, last night you said Evans was talking to someone who sounded like his boss?"

Vin nodded.  "Evans ain't the man in charge, that's for sure.  And the way they were talking, it sounded like they had reason to want JD dead.  I didn't hear a confession, but that's where I'd place my money on finding the killer."

"What about this Easterner, Simon Blake?  The hired gun?"  Chris frowned.  "You think the man Evans was talking to was Blake?"

"I may have a way to shed some light on that subject."  Seated on the edge of the desk, Ezra was fingering a box of playing cards, but hadn't pulled them out yet.  "Just before Buck left the saloon, I was speaking to a man who claimed to be Simon Blake's partner.  Partner in what, he didn't say, and I couldn't find him after things had calmed down.  However, I suspect that once I track him down, we will know significantly more about Mr. Blake and his involvement, or lack thereof, in JD's death."

"Good."  Chris looked out the window at the street, clearly thinking.  "I want to push Evans, see how far he's willing to go and see if we can shake this boss of his out of the tree.  Let's make sure we're seen today.  Talk to people, let them know we're not letting Evans just walk in and take what he wants."

"We giving up on Royal and James, then?" Josiah asked.

Chris shook his head.  "No.  If one of them is responsible for JD's murder, I don't want him getting away with it just because we're watching Evans.  We'll poke at them, too, see if they have any connection to Blake."

He looked around the room, meeting each of their eyes in turn.  "We're stirring up a hornet's nest here, maybe more than one.  I want to get folks mad enough to make a mistake and show their hand.  But that means mad enough to kill.  Watch your backs, boys."

They had spent the rest of the day and part of the night making sure people knew they were around and weren't taking any more crap from Evans or anyone else.  Josiah grinned, raising his coffee mug to his lips.  It had felt good, not having to hide or act like nothing was wrong.  Maybe, finally, they were getting somewhere.

A soft stirring down the street brought his head up, his hand reaching automatically for the gun at his side.  Recognizing the person walking toward him, he relaxed.

"Morning, Ruby.  It's early for you to be out."

She offerd him a faint smile, but even in the dimness of the early morning, he could see the strain in her eyes.

"Josiah.  I was hoping I'd find you up already."

"Something I can help you with?"

"I don't know."  Ruby sighed.  "I've been up all night, trying to decide if I should tell you . . ."

When she didn't go on, Josiah said gently, "How about you tell me, and then we'll decide what to do about it?"

Looking relieved, Ruby nodded.  "Arnie Sykes came in last night.  Sadie's his favorite, but she was busy, so he had a few drinks while he was waiting for her.  After a while, he started bragging like he always does.  Normally I don't listen.  That man is all mouth and nothing to back it up.  But last night, Arnie was talking about Sheriff Dunne, how he thought he was such a big shot and deserved what he got when he was shot.  Arnie kept saying, 'I guess I showed him who's in charge around here.'"

"He did."  Josiah set his mug down carefully, resting his hand on his gun as he stood.  "You wouldn't happen to know where Sykes is now, would you?"

"He's still up in Sadie's room, as far as I know.  He made a big deal out of paying for the whole night, like that made him something special."

Josiah grinned.  "If you'll excuse me, Miss Ruby, I think it's time Arnie Sykes got a wake-up call."

The saloon was empty.  The glasses used the night before sat drying on the bar, but the floor hadn't been swept out yet, and the smell of stale beer and smoke hung heavy in the air.

Chris scanned his friends' faces, making a quick decision.  Neither Buck nor Nathan looked like they had slept in a week.  He needed level heads for this job.  Sykes wouldn't be of any use if he was shot before he had time to tell them anything.

"Buck, Nathan, stay here and keep out anyone who might get too nosy," Chris said, and started up the stairs before either man could argue.

Vin followed Chris, the steady thud of Ezra and Josiah's footsteps behind him.  Sykes was supposed to be in the last room on the left.  The plan was to take him quickly and quietly, before he had time to make a scene that might stir up trouble with Evans' other men.

As they stopped outside the correct door, Vin glanced at the other men.  Chris stood on the right side of the door, Ezra a few steps behind him.  Vin was on the left, and Josiah waited in front to kick the door in when Chris gave the signal.  All of their expressions held the same resolve that Vin felt: if Sykes knew anything about JD's death, they were going to find out.

At Chris's nod, Josiah gave a powerful kick.  A woman's scream broke the silence as Vin followed Josiah and Chris into the room.  Gun drawn, Vin looked around quickly for any threat.  All he saw was Sykes, frozen halfway out of the bed, and a terrified blonde woman beside him clutching the sheets to her otherwise bare breasts.  Vin jerked his eyes away from her, focusing on Sykes.

"You've been doing a lot of talking, Sykes," Chris said, his gun leveled on the man in the bed.  "How about you come share some of your wisdom with us?"

"Who the hell are you?  What gives you the right to break into my room?"

"I believe the room is Miss Sadie's, and I'm sure she'd be just as happy if we took this somewhere else," Josiah suggested.  "Don't you agree, Sykes?"

His words were accompanied by a friendly grin and a helping hand on Sykes' arm.  From Sykes' expression, Vin suspected that the 'helping hand' was clenched tight enough to take his arm off.  Just in case Sykes needed extra incentive, Vin rested his gun against the man's temple.

"What do you want?" Sykes asked sullenly.

"Shut up.  Put your clothes on.  Come with us."  Chris grinned.  "Or don't, and we'll send someone to clean up the mess in the morning."

"You will not!" Sadie said sharply.  "You want to kill him, you take him outside.  I just hemmed these sheets."

"I believe my colleague is getting impatient," Ezra drawled.  "You really don't want him to do that.  It makes his trigger finger itchy."

Chris cocked his gun for emphasis.  Sykes gulped.

"Fine, I'll go.  Just get this big ape off me so I can get my pants on."

Sykes blustered the whole way down the stairs, but stopped abruptly when Buck and Nathan stepped out of the shadows.

"Give me a reason, Sykes," Buck said, his voice soft and dangerous.  He held his gun loose at his side, but Vin didn't doubt he would use it.  Neither, apparently, did Sykes; he didn't say another word as Josiah escorted him to a chair.

Chris grabbed his own chair and sat backward in it, while Josiah loomed next to Sykes' shoulder.  To the preacher's left, Ezra leaned against a support post, idly fingering the gun in his holster.  Buck and Nathan took stations on either side of Chris, and Vin stopped a few feet away, where he had a clear view of both Sykes and the front door.  Sykes himself hunched down in his chair, his eyes darting from one man to the next.

Like a trapped rat, Vin thought.  But a rat backed into a corner could still bite.  He didn't intend to forget that.

"I heard," Chris said conversationally, "that you were talking about a friend of mine."

"I ain't talking about nobody," Sykes muttered.

"Yeah?  You didn't say anything about the sheriff being a pain in the ass?  How it was a good thing somebody shot him?"

Sykes shrugged.  "What if I was?  Ain't no crime to say what I think."

"No," Chris agreed.  "No crime in that.  And hell, the kid was a pain in the ass.  Always thinking he was in charge."

"Sure as hell was," Sykes snapped.  "Thought he could order me around, like that damn sheriff's badge was real.  I told him to mind his own business or he'd be sorry, but he just kept poking his nose in where it wasn't wanted."

Buck started forward, but Ezra grabbed his arm before he could get more than a step.  Sykes caught the movement, his eyes narrowing.

"What, you think you're going to get me to confess to something?  You trying to trick me?"

"Confession is good for the soul, son."  Josiah squeezed his shoulder.  "And a man never knows when he might be going to meet his Maker."

Sykes winced, jerking loose.  "You think you can threaten me?  I got nearly fifty men watching my back.  You mess with me, you'll be facing them before you know what hit you."

"I only see one man right now," Chris said.  "One man who talks a lot and don't say anything.  Vin, shoot him."

Vin had heard the slight edge in Chris's voice that warned him something was coming.  Smoothly, he cocked his gun and pointed it at Sykes.

"You want him dead or just bleeding?"

"You can't do that!"  Sweat was running down Sykes' forehead.  "You can't just shoot me in cold blood!"

"You don't have anything to say that I want to hear."  Chris shrugged, glancing back at Vin.  "Might as well just go on and kill him."

"Wait!"  His breath coming fast, Sykes leaned forward, holding up his hands imploringly.  "Wait, maybe I know something."

Chris raised his eyebrows.  "About what?"

"About that damn kid sheriff.  About the night he died."

Buck made a low, growling sound, and Ezra murmured something to him too softly for Vin to hear.  Vin, pushing back his sudden urge to squeeze the trigger, almost wished Ezra would just let go of Buck for a couple of minutes.  It probably wouldn't take longer than that.

Chris scratched his chin as if he was thinking it over.  "Tell me.  If it's interesting enough, I might let you live."

"Okay."  Sykes' eyes narrowed again.  "Okay, well, maybe I know about a couple of men who rode into town that night.  Not me, you know, just some men I might know about."

"And what did these men you know about do in town that night?"

"Maybe they were in town looking for someone.  Some greenhorn from back East who'd been nosing around, asking questions, seeing things he wasn't supposed to see.  Maybe when they found him, he tried to fight them and took a shotgun blast to the face.  And maybe the kid shows up, sees what happens, and isn't smart enough to just walk away."  Sykes looked around, judging their reactions, then settled back in his chair with a smirk.  "And now these two guys, they've got to get rid of the witness, so they knock him over the head and stick him on a horse and ride out of town.  They figure the greenhorn's a stranger in town, but the kid has friends, so if they're going to kill him, they want it to look like an accident."

"Are you saying," Chris said, his voice dangerously soft, "that the body in that grave isn't JD Dunne's?"

Sykes's smirk grew wider.  "Hell, no.  That's the funny thing about it all.  We go to all that trouble making it look like an accident, and then we get back to town and everyone thinks that damn greenhorn is the sheriff."

Someone made a sound.  Vin didn't look to see who it was.  If he caught sight of Buck's face, he was likely to pull the trigger even if Sykes wasn't finished talking.

"What did you do to JD?" Chris asked, so quiet that Sykes' grin finally started to slip.

"There's a gorge about ten miles outside town.  Real steep, with a stream that cuts through the bottom that's pretty high this time of year.  Man goes over the side of that on a fast-moving horse, both him and the horse is going to have broken necks by the time they hit bottom.  Even if they don't, they'll end up drowning in the stream.  It's real hard to see at night, you come up on it before you even know it's there.  I nearly went over the side myself in the daylight."  Sykes laughed.  "You look hard enough, you'll probably still find the body.  Or what's left of it."

"You son of a--"

Ezra and Nathan both grabbed Buck, but it took Chris physically blocking him to keep him from going after Sykes with his bare hands.

"Wait," Chris said sharply.  "I got a few more questions before I let you have him."

"No!  You said you'd let me go if I--"  Sykes stopped, his eyes going wide as he stared past them all toward the bar.

Vin was already starting to move when a shot exploded through the air.  Sykes crumpled forward as all six men drew their guns and turned toward the bar.  Then, almost as one, they stopped.

What looked like a bundle of rags lay on the floor.  Vin blinked, realizing only after Nathan had already started towards it that a man was sprawled there.  A short man, one with long, filthy black hair and a dirt-covered, scraggly-bearded face . . .


Vin wasn't sure who said it, wasn't even sure it wasn't himself.  He couldn't take his eyes off the man's face to look, either.  No way it could be, but he looked like . . .

"JD?" Nathan said softly, brushing the lank hair out of the man's face.  "Dear God . . .  "

Buck pushed past Vin, moving like a sleepwalker as he crossed the room to kneel beside Nathan.  He reached out hesitantly, touching JD's arm as if he wasn't sure he'd feel something real.  The movement seemed to break the spell that had held the other men frozen.

Barely sparing a glance at the bloody, surprised looking remains of Arnie Sykes, Vin walked over, crouching down beside the other three.  He picked up the gun that lay next to JD's hand, frowning as he recognized it.  It was the Peacemaker that Billy kept behind the bar with his shotgun.  Chris, Ezra, and Josiah followed him, their expressions, as he looked up at them, all stunned and a little haunted.

"How is he?" Chris asked finally, breaking the strained silence.

Nathan shook his head slowly.  "Hard to say.  Gotta get him cleaned up before I'll be able to see if he's hurt or how bad.  Right now, all I see is dirt."

"You want him up in your room?" Josiah asked.

"Probably best."  Nathan frowned down at JD.  "He might have something broken, so I need someone to help me carry him, and I'm gonna need a tub from the bathhouse and some water to get him cleaned up.  Chris, you think we should take him out the back way?"

Chris rubbed a hand over his face, then nodded.  "No point in letting Evans know something he don't already."  He put a hand on Vin's shoulder.  "Vin, why don't you go see if you can find any tracks, maybe figure out where he came from.  Josiah, you and Ezra go get that tub.  Buck . . .  " he trailed off, studying the blank, shell-shocked look on Buck's face, then finished almost gently, "Buck, you come with Nathan and me to get JD taken care of, all right?"

Buck didn't answer, his eyes still on JD.  Vin wasn't sure he'd even heard Chris's words, but then he stood slowly when Nathan and Chris lifted JD, and followed them out of the room with his eyes never leaving the kid's still form.  Vin shook his head, hoping Chris would have the sense to keep an eye on the big gunslinger, and then dismissed the problem from his mind as he went outside to see if he could find JD's tracks.

It was pretty damn obvious the kid hadn't been anywhere near civilization recently, Chris thought as he helped Nathan maneuver the still unconscious JD up the stairs to Nathan's room.  Or at least, not near food or a bathhouse.  He was only half-recognizable as the kid who'd stayed behind when the older men had left.  He looked like he'd been to hell, and the trip back had left him so worn that he didn't even stir as Chris and Nathan manhandled him from the saloon to Nathan's room.

"Watch his leg with that rail," Nathan said, more than a little breathless as they neared the top of the stairs.  JD might have lost weight, but he wasn't a child, and the stairs were steep.

Chris grunted, not wanting to waste his breath to answer.  They cleared the stairs and Nathan glanced over his shoulder at the door.

"Buck, you want to get that door open for us?"

Buck, coming up behind Chris, didn't seem to hear.

"Buck."  Chris snapped, shifting his grip a bit desperately on JD's legs as he felt them slip.  "Get the damn door."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Buck jump.  The big gunslinger pushed forward and opened the door, stepping clumsily out of the way as Nathan and Chris carried their burden through.

They lowered JD carefully onto the bed.  Nathan grabbed a bowl of water and a rag off the washstand and wet the cloth, patting JD's face with it.  The rag came away filthy, but did little more than smear the dirt on the kid's face.  Chris, wanting to do something useful, started working on JD's boots, wincing when he saw the broken heel on one of them.  That must've been hell to walk on.

Neither boot wanted to come off easily.  After a minute's frustrated tugging, Chris glanced up at Buck.

"Give me a hand here, pard."

Buck jerked his eyes away from JD, blinking at Chris as if he wasn't sure what Chris had said.  Then slowly, he stepped forward and put a hand on JD's left leg, right below the knee, to hold it still while Chris pulled.  Before Chris could start, though, Buck yanked his hand back as if he'd been burned.

Chris and Nathan both jumped, and Nathan asked sharply, "What?"

"His knee," Buck answered hoarsely.  "There's something wrong with his knee."

Nathan shoved past him to the bottom of the bed and ripped JD's pants-leg open from the cuff up to where it exposed his knee.  The joint was bruised every color from yellow to black and swollen to the point that it looked malformed, with odd lumps that Chris hoped weren't broken bones sticking out.  Chris swore softly under his breath, trying to ignore the sick feeling the sight created in his stomach.

Nathan touched it lightly, moving his fingers over the lumps and pressing carefully at a few spots.  Sliding his hand under the knee, he lifted it slowly and started to flex it.

The response startled them all.  JD's eyes flew open, a sound that was more moan than scream bursting from his lips.  He looked up at them wildly, and Chris couldn't see any recognition in his eyes.

Nathan froze, his hands suddenly trembling.  Then, very carefully, he lowered JD's leg back to the bed and said in a low, strained voice, "It's all right, son.  You're safe now."

JD didn't seem to hear.  His eyes flickered warily from one man to another.  He looked, Chris thought uneasily, like a trapped animal, like even the slightest noise could spook him.  Chris kept still, counting on Nathan to calm him down.  Nathan was a hell of a lot better at that kind of thing than Chris had ever been--although at the moment Nathan looked like he needed a few soothing words himself.

"JD? You know where you are?"  The healer took a step forward and crouched down so he was closer to the kid's eye level.  "Talk to me, son."

JD studied him for a moment, then looked beyond him at Chris, and for a moment longer, at Buck.  Still without saying anything, he turned his head away and his eyes drifted shut.

Buck sighed, the first sound he'd made since JD had awoken.  Chris glanced over at him.  The big gunslinger's face had gone dead white; his eyes, if anything, were even more haunted than they'd been on the street earlier that day.  For a second, Chris thought he was going to black out.

Before Chris could say anything to him, the door opened and Ezra came through backwards, staggering a little under the awkward burden of one of the full-sized casks from the bathhouse.  Josiah followed him, supporting the other end.

"I took the liberty of procuring the services of the bathhouse's water boy to carry up enough heated water to fill the tub," Ezra said as they lowered the cask to the floor.  "His orders are to leave the buckets outside the door.  I'm afraid he assumes we're housing a dangerous criminal in here."

"Good thinking," Chris said.  "We don't know how JD's still alive or where he's been all this time.  Until we know if anyone's coming after him, I'd feel better if we were the only ones who knew he was alive."

"We'd better do something about that body in the saloon, then," Josiah observed, rubbing at his back as he straightened up.  "You can bet Evans is going to be asking questions about that."

"I'll take care of it," Ezra said, shooting a glance at the still form on the bed that, to Chris, looked distinctly squeamish.  "I do believe the poor unfortunate gentleman perished in an altercation involving a game of chance.  He really shouldn't have tried to pull that ace out of his sleeve."

"Need help?" Josiah asked.

Ezra shook his head.  "Your services would be put to better use here, I'm sure."

"Josiah," Nathan broke in, "I could use those services right now."

Ezra stepped out the door as Chris and Josiah turned back toward the bed.  Nathan was working on getting JD's clothes, what was left of them, off.  His face was a cold mask that could have been hiding any combination of anger, disgust, or compassion.  Chris would have thought he was in complete, nearly rigid control, except for the trembling of his hands.

"Nathan?" Chris said quietly.  "You all right?"

Nathan shot him a sharp look, his eyes flashing an emotion Chris couldn't read.  "I'm fine, Chris.  Don't have much choice about that, do I?"

Josiah broke in before Chris could answer.  "What do you want us to do?"

Nathan looked back down at JD, his hands clenching around the buttons he'd been trying to undo.  With uncharacteristic roughness, he jerked the shirt open, ignoring the buttons that went flying around the room.  Chris wrinkled his nose at the sour smell that got stronger as the cloth parted.

The kid looked like he'd been rolling in a mud puddle.  Streaks of dirt covered most of his chest and arms, layering over darker areas that Chris was pretty sure were bruises.  With the shirt off, it was obvious that JD's left arm was lying at an odd angle, but Chris wasn't sure if it was broken or had just dropped that way when they'd placed him on the bed.

"Like I said," Nathan answered Josiah, "we gotta get him cleaned up.  I can't tell what all's wrong with him with all this dirt."

"You want to try to wake him up?" the preacher asked.

"No."  Nathan's voice was harsher than necessary.

Chris gave him a sharp look.  They were all thrown by JD's arrival--Buck's continued silence and mesmerized stare that refused to leave JD's face was ample proof of that--but Chris couldn't see how that would leave Nathan, of all people, simmering on the edge of explosion.  Whatever it was, though, it would have to wait.

"He woke up once already.  Didn't know any of us, near as I could tell," Chris said.  "That leg's hurting him, though, and I bet he's going to be hurting in a whole lot more places than that once he knows what's going on.  Might be better if he just stayed asleep till we get done jostling him around."

Josiah nodded, his expression dark as he gazed at JD.  "Kid doesn't need any more hurting, that's for sure."  He knelt down beside the bed and slid an arm under JD's shoulders, lifting slightly so Nathan could pull the filthy remains of JD's shirt out from under him.  JD's head lolled back bonelessly.

Chris, suddenly uncomfortable with the sight, turned away and slapped Buck on the shoulder.

"C'mon, help me get this tub filled up."

Buck started, jerking his eyes away from JD to meet Chris's with an expression so full of raw hurt that Chris couldn't take it, either.  Hurriedly, Chris walked over to the door and opened it, grabbing roughly at one of the buckets waiting outside and nearly spilling the water as he turned to take it in the room.  Chris knew that look, knew it from the inside.  Guilt like that could destroy a man's soul.

He didn't look at Buck again as they worked to fill the tub.  He didn't look over at the bed, either, keeping his eyes firmly focused on his task.  Nathan and Josiah got JD stripped, their occasional curses as they discovered a new injury hitting Chris like physical blows.

"You ready yet?" Nathan asked finally.

"It'll do for now."

"All right, then, Josiah, you get his legs.  Mind that knee, now."  Nathan bent to lift JD's shoulders.

JD didn't stir as they carried him across the room to the tub, but he stiffened when Josiah lowered his legs into the water.  Nathan swore, trying to get a better grip as JD suddenly started struggling.

"JD, it's all right, son, take it easy," Josiah rumbled, somehow keeping his voice quiet even though he had to twist sharply to keep from dropping the kid's legs.

JD calmed for a moment, his eyes blinking open to gaze blankly around the room before shutting again.  But then, as Nathan eased him the rest of the way into the water, his left arm bumped against the edge of the tub.  The sound he made was very nearly a shriek, but choked off as if he was afraid of someone hearing him.

"Damn it, you're hurting him."  Buck tried to shove past Josiah, but the big man straightened up from the tub and grabbed him.

"Easy, Buck, he's all right, Nathan's got him."

Buck stiffened, glaring at Josiah.  "He's been through enough.  Let him be."

"No one's hurting him, pard.  Just getting him cleaned up so Nathan can fix what's wrong with him," Chris said quietly.

"If I can."  Nathan said almost to himself, his voice holding an edge that Chris didn't have time to deal with.

Buck looked at Chris pleadingly.  "Can't you see they're hurting him?"

Chris looked down at the kid, who was still struggling weakly against Nathan's supporting hands.  "He's gonna hurt more if he ain't tended to, you know that.  Now let Nathan get to work."

Buck shook his head stubbornly.  "He can't take this right now.  He needs to be left alone."

Josiah shook his head, tightening his grip on Buck's shoulders.  "You ain't thinking real straight right now, my friend.  JD's hurting, that's right.  He needs Nathan to fix him up so he won't hurt no more.  But Nathan can't do nothing if you're keeping him from it."

JD twisted suddenly, nearly pulling out of Nathan's grasp.  The healer swore under his breath, then glared up at the men standing over him.

"Get him the hell out of here if he ain't going to shut up.  Kid's riled enough without Buck yelling and making it worse."

Buck flinched.  Chris shot Nathan a surprised look.  He didn't think he'd ever heard the normally gentle man sound so bitter.  The look Nathan gave him back challenged him to make an issue of it, though, and that was the last thing JD needed.

Turning away, Chris put a hand on Buck's arm and pulled him out of Josiah's grasp.

"Let's go for a walk, pard.  JD'll be fine, and Nathan don't need us hanging around getting in the way."

"I ain't going . . .  "

"Yes, you are."  Chris tightened his hold enough to leave bruises, giving Buck little choice but to follow as he started for the door.

"Chris . . .  "  Buck's voice had a dangerous edge to it.

Chris turned to meet his eyes, holding them for a moment until Buck's shoulders slumped.

"He don't need to be hurt anymore," Buck finished with the plaintive tone of a man who knew he'd lost an argument.

"I know, Buck, I know."

Chris led him out of the room and down the stairs.  A bench sat on the walkway across the street, and Chris guided his friend over to it.  They sat, Buck leaning his elbows on his knees and resting his head in his hands.

"God, Chris."


There was a long silence.  Buck scrubbed at his eyes, then gazed out across the street tiredly.

"He's . . .  " Buck laughed suddenly, but there was no humor in it.  "That ain't really what I'd call alive, but it's a damn sight better than we thought he was this time yesterday."

The brittle edge in his friend's voice was one Chris knew from hearing it in his own.  Guilt, rage, grief . . .  they all tore at a man's soul, leaving him hurting in ways no one could help.  Chris knew.  He'd been there not so long ago, and he wasn't so far away from those feelings that he couldn't feel their dark pull tugging at him, threatening to drag him back under.

He'd be damned if he was going to let Buck go down, though.  Buck had had the strength to survive Sarah and Adam's murder, the only thing left of Chris's former life that wasn't completely destroyed in the fire.  Buck's strength had held Chris back from sinking entirely into the darkness; it was a debt he didn't intend to leave unpaid.

"I never really thought he was dead.  I never . . ."  Buck's voice broke.  He rubbed his hand across his mouth nervously.  "I . . .  "

Chris reached out to squeeze his friend's shoulder.

Buck sighed shakily and leaned back.  "Kid's strong, you know.  He's going to be fine.  Whatever he's been through, he made it this far.  He's going to be fine."

Chris nodded even though Buck wasn't looking at him.  JD might or might not recover, but Chris was willing to have a little faith in his stubbornness, if nothing else.

"And as soon as he's okay again, I'm gonna kill him myself for making everybody worry, the little bastard.  What the hell was he thinking?"  Buck leaned his head back against the wall behind them.  "Stupid punk kid."

There wasn't a trace of humor in the big gunslinger's voice, just a cold fury that masked months of hell.  If Chris hadn't known the man so well, he would have thought Buck meant what he was saying.

He'd known Buck a long time, though, so he just waited.  After a time, the bigger man shifted slightly.  His shoulder, it seemed accidentally, touched Chris's and stayed there.

Voice breaking, he said softly, "Poor kid."

Chris kept his eyes on the buildings across the street, giving Buck what privacy he could until the other man's breathing evened out again.  Then he slapped Buck's shoulder and said quietly, "Let's go see what Vin's found."

Neither man said a word as they walked down the street looking for the tracker.  Chris absently noted the uneasy looks they received from the few people who'd ventured out into the early morning.  The citizens of Four Corners had a well-honed sense of trouble, and they seemed to know that the potential danger that had hovered over the town for the past few months had drawn a whole lot closer than it had been even the day before.  None of them approached the two gunslingers, although Mary Travis took a step toward them as if she wanted to join them.  Chris stopped her with a shake of his head and a look that promised her they'd talk later.

Chris and Buck had almost reached the edge of town before they saw Vin standing in the cemetery.  Chris glanced over at Buck, not sure how he'd take seeing JD's grave again, but Buck's face was unreadable.

Vin didn't look at them when they joined him at the foot of the grave that bore JD's name.  He held his mare's-leg loosely in one hand, but his back was rigid and the other hand clenched.

"He was here."

Chris looked at him sharply.  "What?"

"He was here.  He came in from the south, had a broken heel on one boot and he was limping, so I followed his tracks real easy.  But he was here, and he saw that."  Vin gestured at the headstone.

Chris looked at the simple inscription and winced.  "Damn."

"Oh, God."  Buck's voice was strangled.  He turned away abruptly and walked off, stopping suddenly to lean over a tombstone and retch.

"Somebody . . .  " Vin took a deep breath.  "Somebody's got a lot to answer for, Chris."

"Somebody will."