Author's notes here.
Nine: In the Beauty of the Lilies
After saddling his horse, Vin picked up JD's trail at the cemetery and followed it out of town. He wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but it was a relief to go. At the best of times, he was more comfortable out in the open, away from the confines of the buildings and all the people that lived in them; now, still reeling from JD's return, he needed to get away even more. Maybe following JD's tracks wasn't the best way to clear his head, though. The further he traced the erratic path, the more times he saw places where the kid had obviously fallen, the angrier he got. JD shouldn't have had to go through this.
The trail wound through woods and underbrush, heading vaguely northwest. To Vin's recollection, there wasn't anything in that area. Angle a little more to the west and you'd end up at Evans' place, and a little more to the north would take you onto Royal's land, but that middle section didn't really belong to anyone. As filled with rocky hills and gorges as it was, it seemed likely no one wanted it.
Which just might explain how JD had managed to survive out there for almost a month with no one knowing. People didn't have much of a reason to ride out there, and it was obvious from JD's trail that he'd done his best not to be seen. He'd stayed in the woods when he could, and picked dense undergrowth with easy hiding where there weren't trees. A small copse of desert broom showed signs of a longer stay; probably where he'd spent the night, if he'd traveled as slowly as Vin suspected he had to.
Further on, the trail led into a gully. A hollow log had washed up against a large indention in the earth, forming a shelter. As Vin looked around, he saw signs--faint, but present--that JD had stayed there for a while. Ashes mixed in with dirt as if someone was hiding the remains of a fire. A strip of dirty, faded cloth hidden in the shadow of the log, twisted into a loop for a snare. A few bones, probably from a rabbit, scattered about to look like an animal had been at them.
"Good," Vin muttered, impressed that JD had listened all those times they'd gone riding together. Maybe no one tracking him would be fooled by his attempts to hide, but if someone just rode through, they weren't likely to notice any signs that someone had been living here.
The trail wasn't as obvious once he left the gully. The footprints were fainter, and it took Vin longer to find them. Intent on keeping the trail, he didn't realize where he was until he heard the trickle of water going over rocks.
He'd drunk from this same stream only the day before, and thought about putting a wounded animal out of its misery. Vin closed his eyes. If only he'd taken the time . . .
Cursing softly, he wheeled his horse around. The tracks ended at the water; whatever other signs there might have been of JD's passing had already worn away. He should head back to town.
But something made him keep going. Sykes had said the gorge where they'd dumped JD was ten miles out of town. Vin was pretty sure he knew the one, and for some obscure reason, he felt he owed it to JD to go and look.
The gorge was steep, probably a good ten feet almost straight down. There was no way to ride a horse down it, so Vin tied up his gelding in a small grove of alders, out of sight of anyone who happened to ride by. It took the better part of an hour for Vin to find a way to get down on foot, and even longer to find what he was looking for.
The bones of the horse, picked clean and scattered by whatever scavengers hunted these parts, were his first clue that he was getting close. He looked up at the walls of the gorge and shook his head. Any horse going over the edge of that was almost guaranteed to break its neck. It was beyond Vin's understanding how JD had managed to survive the fall. And then, hurt, he had somehow managed to stay alive for weeks.
Casting about, Vin found other signs: the print of a broken boot heel in the soft earth near the stream, rocks disturbed by stumbling steps, a patch of wild potatoes obviously dug up by human hands. A little further down the gorge, blackberries and devils horn were taking advantage of the water source, and Vin could see where JD had harvested the fruit. Not far past that, there were more tracks around an uprooted mesquite tree. Whatever force had pulled the tree over had left a shallow cave in the wall of the gorge just big enough to provide shelter for one man. Vin nodded approvingly, even though JD wasn't there to see him. The kid had done well.
Turning to go, Vin froze as he heard something on the wall above him. Men's voices. Cautiously, he eased into the cave, out of sight if anyone decided to peer over the edge of the gorge. It was an instinctual move; the men above might not be dangerous, but Vin saw no point in taking chances.
"You think those damn cows might have gone down there?" one voice said, suddenly so clear that he had to be almost on top of Vin's location.
"Hell, if they did, I ain't going after them. I don't care what Evans says, a few head won't make that big a difference."
"Don't let Evans hear you say that. He'll take the price of those cows out of your pay."
"I don't know why he's got such a burr up his saddle about that herd. They're just scrub cows, not purebreds."
"It's what we've got to eat off once the town is gone. It'll be a lean couple of months until the railroad comes through."
"But I'm still not riding back a mile to find a path down into that gorge. Any cows down there can find their own way out."
The first voice laughed, and the voices faded away. Vin gave them time to get clear before he headed back to his horse.
Nathan shut the door gently behind him. Taking a breath of the fresh air, he walked slowly down the stairs and over to the water pump by the side of the building. A few jerks of the creaky handle sent water cascading down into the wooden bucket at the base of the pump. Nathan caught a handful of it to splash over his face.
A bench was set against the wall in the shade of the balcony. Nathan sat, letting his head fall back to rest against the wall. The sounds of the town swirled around him, but nothing came close enough to touch. He was grateful. He couldn't handle much more right now. Not when he still had agonized, muffled screams echoing in his ears.
JD had settled down after Buck and Chris left, mostly due to Josiah's quiet voice keeping up a steady stream of reassurance. Nathan had coaxed him into drinking first some water and then laudanum, and he'd quickly drifted off. Cleaned up, dressed in a nightshirt, and tucked into Nathan's bed, he probably would have slept for hours. Nathan had wanted nothing more than to leave him be.
But the kid's arm had to be reset if he wanted to be able to use it. There was no way it wasn't going to hurt like hell, but Nathan had hoped that JD's exhaustion and the laudanum would numb him to the worst of it. And at first, it had. JD had barely moved when Nathan rebroke his arm. It wasn't until Nathan had started realigning the bones that JD had moaned. Then his eyes had flown open and he had screamed, and Nathan couldn't stop because the arm had to be set. Josiah had clamped a hand over JD's mouth, trying to keep anyone outside from hearing and coming to investigate. Even though it had only been a few minutes before the pain had knocked JD out again, they were some of the longest minutes of Nathan's life.
Someone settled on the bench beside him. Frowning, he opened his eyes to find a silver flask dangling in front of them.
"You look like you could use this," Ezra said.
Nathan took the flask with a hand that shook embarrassingly and took a drink. Brandy burned his throat, but not sharply enough. He took another drink, gulping until there was no more.
"It appears to be a good thing I brought reinforcements." His tone dry, Ezra held up a bottle of whiskey. "Although I had originally intended it for--our friend."
"He's," Nathan coughed, needing to clear his throat, "sleeping."
"How is he?"
Nathan shrugged. "I reset his arm. His knee--I don't think anything's broken. Won't know for sure till I can bring the swelling down. Got a lot of bruises and cuts, but none of them look too serious. Mostly, he needs sleep and decent food."
"That is," Ezra paused, shaking his head. "That is truly remarkable."
Ezra gave him a sharp look. "Is there more?"
Nathan laughed, the sound bitter even in his own ears. "More than the fact that I just tortured someone who's already been through hell?" He reached over and took the whiskey bottle out of Ezra's hand. It didn't mix well with the taste of brandy in his mouth, but he didn't care.
Ezra just looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "You're very skilled at that. In fact, I remember distinctly the agony you put me through when my shoulder was dislocated in the Seminole village." He shrugged, the movement exaggerated. "It seems to work rather well now, however."
Nathan glared at him. "That's not what I meant."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Then please, enlighten me."
Nathan had a feeling he was being laughed at. He got that feeling a lot around Ezra, but at the moment, he really didn't have the patience for it. "You wouldn't understand."
"I'm sure I wouldn't." Ezra's face was suddenly blank. He took the whiskey bottle back and drank a large swallow. "It seems obvious, however, that causing pain when it is necessary to facilitate healing is entirely a different matter than causing pain for the enjoyment of the pain."
Nathan sighed. "I know that, Ezra." He closed his eyes again, abruptly tired. There were a lot of times as a healer when he had to hurt someone in order to help them. He didn't like it, but he wasn't squeamish about it, either. Better a little pain now than a lot later, he always figured. "It's just, he's already gone through so much. Things he shouldn't have had to go through. If I'd stayed in town, listened when he came to me for help--"
"Then perhaps he wouldn't have been hurt." Ezra sighed. "Or perhaps you'd both be dead now. Mr. Sykes seemed to have no remorse for the murders he committed; I'm sure one more wouldn't have bothered him at all."
Especially not when the man he was killing was just a darkie ex-slave, Nathan thought. But Sykes was dead now, and Nathan wasn't going to waste time hating a dead man. Anyway, he had almost as much responsibility as Sykes for JD's condition. If he'd just listened . . .
"It's impossible to know what might have happened," Ezra continued after a few minutes. "However, there is one aspect of the situation that you may not have considered. If you were dead, your ability to help our young friend would be, to say the least, severely curtailed. It could be argued that we all failed him, as well as one another. But you, out of all of us, have the best chance to rectify your mistake."
Nathan opened his eyes in time to catch Ezra's expression before the gambler could change it. There was a sadness there that Nathan understood completely.
"Seems like coming back counts for a lot, too," he said quietly.
Ezra studied him again, then nodded. "I hope you are right, my friend." He took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "I had Sykes's body removed to the undertaker's, and spread the word that he had died in an altercation over cards. I suspect Evans will know of his death before midmorning. I spotted a couple of his men riding out not long after Sykes was removed from the saloon."
"Chris know about that?" Nathan asked.
"He and Buck are attempting to prepare for Evans' arrival, should he come looking for vengeance. They're warning certain of the townsfolk who can be trusted not to panic."
"But not telling them about . . . " Nathan glanced up at his room.
"No. That seems best kept amongst ourselves for the time being." Ezra sighed and stood. "If you'll excuse me, I need to go disseminate a few more lies about our friend Mr. Sykes."
After he left, Nathan sat for a few minutes, enjoying the quiet before he returned to his room.
It was almost noon before Buck got back to Nathan's room. He stuck his head in quietly, nodding to Nathan, who was reading a book by the window.
"How is he?" Buck asked in a soft voice.
"Sleeping. I'd be surprised if he woke up before morning." Nathan stood. "You going to be around for a while? I'd like to get some food if you can stay with him."
"Sure, go ahead."
Buck went over to the bed, settling down in the chair next to it as Nathan left. With all the dirt gone, JD looked more like himself. An exhausted, bruised, skinny version of himself, but still better than he'd looked in the saloon.
"It's good to have you back, son," Buck murmured, reaching out to squeeze JD's hand. It didn't matter that JD couldn't hear him right now. What was important was that JD was there. Alive. Safe. Buck would see to that, would make up for not looking out for him before. "I'm sorry. I should have been here to watch your back. But I promise I won't let this happen again. You got Sykes already, and I'll make sure the rest of them don't get anywhere near you. You're safe now."
JD didn't move, his breathing slow and steady. Content to keep watch, Buck propped his feet on the edge of the bed. Finally, he could sit back, relax, and enjoy the fact that his friend was alive.
A couple of hours later, he had paced the perimeter of the room enough times to know the turns with his eyes closed. Nathan had stuck his head in, but JD was sleeping soundly. Buck had told Nathan to go on; he was fine watching JD. And truthfully, he didn't want to be anywhere else just then, but that didn't mean he could easily sit still for hours on end.
Finally, he grabbed one of the medical books Nathan had placed on a shelf and started flipping through it, wincing from time to time at the descriptions. He was reading about a cure for quinsy and figuring how he'd rather just have the sickness when a sound from the bed made him put the book down.
JD was stirring, a frown of pain creasing his forehead as he pushed fretfully at the covers.
Buck leaned forward, resting a hand on JD's leg. "Easy, son, you're all right."
Tossing his head, JD moaned. The sound cut off with a gasp as he sat up, staring around wildly.
"JD?" Buck moved over to sit on the edge of the bed. "It's all right. You're safe here. JD?"
JD's eyes slid right past him. With a chill, Buck realized that he wasn't entirely awake. Not wanting to spook him, Buck reached slowly to put a hand on his arm. He was trembling, breath coming fast, eyes fixing on Buck as soon as Buck touched him.
"Hey there." Buck kept his voice low and gentle. "You're okay, son. It's just me. No one here to hurt you."
His trembling increasing, JD pulled back so hard Buck was afraid he'd fall of the bed. He was terrified, trapped, and Buck silently cursed himself for not being more careful.
"Easy, JD, take it easy. I'm not going to hurt you. You're safe here, you know that, right?" Keeping up the steady murmur of reassurances, Buck lifted his hand again. He kept every movement slow and in plain sight as he reached to touch JD's shoulder. "That's right. I know it's been rough, but you're home now, all right? You're safe."
JD was watching his every move but didn't seem to recognize him even now. But then, with painful caution, JD reached up and gripped Buck's wrist. Something flickered in his expression. He sighed, his eyes beginning to close, and his hand fell back to the bed.
"That's right, go on and rest."
Buck guided him back down to lie on the pillow. In a few minutes, he was breathing evenly again, as deeply asleep as if nothing had happened.
As he watched, Buck felt a mixture of sadness and anger settling like a weight around his heart. He hated seeing JD like this, weak and hurting and scared. JD was the last person in the world to deserve whatever hell he'd been through.
Sighing, Buck patted JD's leg. "It'll get better, son," he whispered, his words both reassurance and a promise. "It will."
Even with all of the excitement surrounding JD's return, Ezra hadn't forgotten his conversation with Ned Grainger, Simon Blake's alleged partner. Off and on throughout the day, he had searched for the man, but never managed to learn more than that he was registered at the hotel and wasn't in his room any time that Ezra stopped by. The need to conceal JD's return and the possibility of Evans' arrival in town seeking revenge took a higher priority anyway, so he didn't worry too much when he hadn't located Grainger by the end of the day.
He'd barely made it through his first cup of coffee at the café the next morning, however, when he looked up to see the subject of his search bearing down on him.
"Mr. Standish? May I join you?"
Grainger looked much the same as he had the day before: a brown business suit and bowler hat, neither of particularly note-worthy style, his narrow mustache and brown hair combed neatly, his expression blandly friendly. Ezra gestured to the chair across from his own.
"Please, have a seat."
Grainger sat, waving away Marlene, the waitress, when she approached the table.
"I was hoping to run into you again, Mr. Standish. I wasn't aware when we spoke yesterday that you are affiliated with the law in this town." He smiled faintly. "It appears you had a busy day, what with the shooting in the saloon."
Ezra studied him, but the man seemed sincere enough. "Yes, but that was a fairly open and shut affair. The dead man cheated at cards. Most people around here don't appreciate such activities."
"Ah." Grainger nodded. "I assume the injured man that was taken to the healer's at about the same time was the man he cheated?"
Ezra had learned how to bluff before he'd learned how to tie his shoes. It took all of his skill now not to react. "Yes. A hand at one of the local ranches, I believe. Took a bullet to the shoulder, but he should recover without complications."
"Oh? That's interesting. I only heard one shot."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "You're an early riser, Mr. Grainger."
"I hate to waste the day. I usually start my day with a constitutional."
And Ezra had some lovely seaside property about five miles out of town. "I prefer a cup of coffee, myself."
He matched Grainger's smile, aware that the man had as much belief in his ignorance of current affairs as Ezra now had in Grainger's. That was fine with Ezra. He enjoyed verbal sparring as much as the next man, but there came a time when cards needed to be placed on the table. Grainger was aware, at least to a certain extent, of JD's existence. If he couldn't be trusted, he'd have to be put somewhere where he couldn't cause trouble.
"You said you were in town looking for your partner," Ezra said. "What business are you in?"
Grainger reached into his breast pocket, his movements slow and careful. Pulling out a card, he handed it across the table to Ezra. The logo, a single human eye, was familiar enough that Ezra didn't even have to read the words surrounding it.
"I'd prefer you didn't share that information," Grainger said, taking the card back and putting it back in his pocket. "I would prefer certain people didn't know anyone in my line of work was in town."
"That's understandable." Ezra took a sip of his coffee. "Why tell me?"
"From the rumors that are floating around, I suspect that we share a common enemy." Grainger hesitated, studying Ezra for a moment before continuing. "Also, my partner appears to have been missing for at least three weeks. It isn't like him not to be in touch or to leave me some kind of message. I was hoping someone familiar with the lay of the land might be able to help me find him."
There was one thing Ezra had forgotten in the previous day's excitement. JD's grave wasn't empty, even if JD wasn't in it. Taking another drink of his coffee to stall for time, he tried to think of a way to break the news to Grainger.
"I have something to show you," he said finally. It was the coward's way out, true, but he'd never claimed to be a brave man.
Grainger followed him without comment, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man's back stiffen when they approached the cemetery. Ezra hadn't worked himself up to visiting before; even so, it wasn't difficult to find the grave. Grainger stared at the inscription on the wooden cross, frowning.
"I don't understand," he said finally.
Ezra had learned to trust his instincts sometime after he'd learned to bluff, but since that time they had rarely failed him. Taking a deep breath, he showed his hand.
"There's a young man at the healer's whom we believed to be dead until early yesterday morning. We believed, in fact, that he was buried in this grave. Apparently, he had a similar appearance to your partner. And his continued safety depends on certain people remaining unaware that he lives."
Grainger looked at him for a long time. "My partner," he said finally, his voice tight, "he's here."
Ezra nodded. "I'm sorry."
Grainger looked back at the grave. "And the man killed yesterday? Sykes?"
"Was involved. As was his employer, whom I suspect you are here to investigate?"
Grainger nodded, rubbing at his mouth with one hand. "If you don't mind, I'd like to have a few minutes."
"Of course." Ezra paused. "The young man I mentioned. That's information I'd prefer you didn't share. In fact," he touched the butt of his gun gently, "I insist on it."
Grainger didn't even look at him. "On the condition that we work together to catch the men behind this. Simon Blake was a good man. I won't have his murderers going free."
"Come find me when you're done," Ezra said, and left him to his thoughts.