The early evening found the hotel lobby deserted, except for four businessmen playing cards with a bigger stack of poker chips than they had had the previous evening.
"I still think we should have left," Childers said nervously as he looked around. "That long-haired mountain man is gonna come through those doors any minute and arrest us."
"Yeah," Tims agreed, his hands not so steady on the cards.
"For what?" Sherson sneered as he waited for Tims to deal. "The money's hidden away. And they probably don't suspect us anyway. Give it a rest."
Tims nodded, but his shuffling was getting sloppy.
The hotel doors opened, and Tims almost lost his hands on the deck. Durning shook his head in disgust, then turned his attention to the man who had come in.
He was about their age, maybe a year or two younger. He was fairly tall, with dark hair liberally streaked with white, and was clean-shaven. His clothes were clean but old, maybe five years out style. He smiled genially at the group and walked toward them.
"Good evening, gentlemen," he said, tipping his hat. "Mind if I join you?"
Durning frowned, looked at the others. Sherson shrugged; Childers and Tims both looked a little frightened.
"This is a private game, mister," Durning said, deciding that it was best if strangers weren't around in case one of the others got stupid and let something slip. "Go to the saloon if you're up to a game."
"Oh, I'm not interested in playing. Not cards, that is." The stranger sat on the edge of a nearby armchair, pulled out a cigarette. "I understand you're all businessmen."
Sherson eyed the stranger. "That's right. So what?"
"I'm a businessman too," the other replied. "And I have a proposition for you. If you're interested in building on your capital from last night, that is."
Childers' head snapped up. "What about last night?"
The stranger held up his hands, smiled gently. "Now, don't worry, gentlemen. I happened to overhear your conversation in the saloon."
"Oh, cripes," Tims moaned, and turned white.
"And I must say," The stranger leaned forward, "I'm impressed. Not many men would have the courage to pull off your little...enterprise...while there was still some law in the town. Yes, I was very impressed."
Sherson shook his head and scowled. "What are you sayin', mister?"
The man took a puff on his cheroot, peered through the smoke, and his voice had a new edge to it. "I'm saying I know you robbed the hotel safe last night. I'm saying I know where there's a lot more money than that in this town, a lot more. You help me take it, and half of it is yours."
Tims looked stunned. "I remember - you were on the porch yesterday, when the tall man was talkin' to the townspeople. Are you a bank robber?"
"No." The other man shook his head, "I used to have a - well, call it an investment. In this town, before Chris Larabee and his men arrived. Now that he's gone, I'd like to take steps to reestablish myself, but I need help."
"Don't you guys have outlaw gangs for that kind of thing?" Childers asked.
"Oh, yes," the man admitted. "But I don't want to tip my hand. Several members of Larabee's gang are still in town, and I don't want to attract the wrong kind of attention. But I would like to get my hands on some money. And so would you, I suspect."
The men traded uneasy glances. Durning shook his head. "You're crazy, mister. What we did was petty larceny. You're talkin' full-blown theft."
"Yes, isn't it marvelous?" The stranger leaned back. "With Larabee gone, and his men too worried about the injured one to pay attention, this town is up for grabs. We have four days before the circuit judge arrives, and I'd like to have my fun and be gone by then. What do you say?"
Tims and Childers looked petrified; Sherson leaned forward and asked, "How much?"
"Oh..." The stranger gazed at the floor. "Maybe only thousands."
Durning shook his head. "We'd get caught. Forget it."
"My friend, by whom?" The stranger stood up. "Larabee is gone, the black fellow never leaves his room, the child is injured. That only leaves four men to contend with, and only one of them patrols the streets at a time. Now, they may increase their watchfulness, so time is of the essence. Tonight may be our last chance."
Tims and Childers' eyes darted to their companions. Durning scratched his chin. "What did you have in mind?"
"Oh, well, not the bank," the stranger answered lightly. "No, I was thinking the jewelry store next to the blacksmith's shop. I've been casing it for days, but I was having trouble figuring out how to open the safe."
"And what 's in the safe?" Sherson asked.
"Diamonds. Rubies. And a lot of money."
Eyebrows went up. Looks were exchanged.
"Come on," the stranger encouraged. "You did it last night. What a story to tell your friends back in the dreary towns you came from. And a fitting revenge on the gambler who snubbed you today, too."
Durning cocked his head. "He's one of them too?"
The stranger nodded. "Ironic, isn't it?"
Durning looked at the others, looked back. "A lot of money?"
"And we won't get caught?"
"Not a chance."
The four businessmen leaned into the table, hissing whispers flying back and forth over the poker chips and abandoned cards. The stranger calmly puffed his cheroot and stared at the wallpaper until the men leaned back, and Durning said, "Before we okay this, what's your name? Wanna know who I'm gonna hang with."
"Of course." The man raised his hat. "Jameson Charles. My friends call me Concho Charles."
"Concho Charles!" Tims exclaimed with a laugh, "Like Jesse James or something. A real outlaw!"
Concho Charles smiled.
"Okay," Durning said in a quiet voice, "We're in, but you pull any dirty tricks and you'll be sorry."
The smile grew wider, and predatory, but the businessmen didn't see it. "My friend, I wouldn't dream of it."
+ + + + + + +
The cantina was too loud and bright for Chris, but Darcy Thomas had herded him into the lively little plaza anyway, and Chris was just too tired and wrung out to argue about it.
He'd contemplated just going his own way, getting on his horse and riding off. If this Darcy idiot tried to stop him, Chris would use the best argument he had; his fists.
But something about that course of action made the bile rise in Chris' throat. His hands still hurt, were still red and scarred, and besides that knock on the head had made him dizzy, and it didn't take much thinking to figure out he would be no match for a determined Irishman. That, and he didn't want to go riding in the dark unless he absolutely had to.
So, the noisy cantina it was.
But Chris was determined to make his forceable host as miserable as possible. Darcy had taken a seat in the corner of the plaza, away from the more frenetic goings-on but still able to watch. Chris also noticed that it was one of the few places in the cantina where you had your back to the wall.
So they had sat down, and Darcy had ordered a beer, but Chris hadn't looked at the man once to see if he'd drunk anyof it. Instead he leaned forward in his rickety chair, hunching over and watching the other patrons with wary, exhausted eyes, marveling that if things had gone his way he'd be lying at the bottom of the valley right now, dead and at peace. Instead, he was in a raucous cantina with a stubborn Irishman who wouldn't leave him the hell alone.
Hm. Hell. Maybe he was in hell.
Chris leaned his head forward, ran one scabbed hand through his blond hair. By chance he glanced behind him, caught Darcy looking at him with a strange expression on his face. Oh, God dammit, he's going to try to talk to me. Well, let him try.
But Darcy didn't try.
They sat in the cantina for a good hour, and in all that time the Irishman simply sat and sipped his beer, didn't say a word. Not a sound.
What kind of game is he playing? Chris was getting madder and madder as the minutes ticked by. Finally, he couldn't take it anymore.
Clearing his throat, he said, "You keep taking people's part in things, you're gonna get yourself killed, mister."
Silence. The thump of a beer glass being set on the table. More silence.
Oh, all right then. Chris heaved his body up so he faced this strange man, who looked at him with a combination of anger and pity.
Finally Darcy smiled a bit and said, "Now, that's a mighty peculiar statement comin' from the likes of you, Chris Larabee."
Chris glared at him a moment, let his eyes fall to the splintered table.
"Well, never mind i
," Darcy continued, hoisting the beer mug again. "As I said before, purely me own self-interest."
Chris grunted, felt as if he hadn't slept in ten years, stared at the table. "First that girl at the inn," He muttered, trying to figure it out, "Then me. Why?"
Darcy shrugged. "That girl had no one to take her side. I figured at the least I'd get a good fight out of it." He took another drink.
Chris let a crooked smile cross his face, sort of. "Well, I don't need anybody taking my side."
Darcy set the mug down again, eyed Chris sympathetically for a moment. "That ring ye had out at the inn. Yer wife?"
The way he said those words made Chris aware of exactly what he was asking. That, and the look in those grey eyes of his. Feeling that burning pit in his stomach burn brighter, Chris swallowed hard. "And my son."
"Aw, Jesus, Mary , and Joseph," Darcy said sadly, shaking his head and looking away.
Chris looked at the man. This wasn't empty sympathy, not the I'm-so-sorry condolences he was used to. It was something else, something that prompted him to ask, "You?"
Darcy's eyes shot to him for a moment, sharp and alert. Then he reached into the pocket of his black coat, took something out of it and handed it to Chris without a word.
It was a daguerreotype, an old photograph set in a gilded frame, a dark image protected by a thick plate of glass. Chris tilted it to see it better, and when he did so he made out a young woman with dark hair, set in a tidy net, wearing the wide skirts and bell sleeves that were popular during the war. She was looking very seriously at the photographer, and holding a baby in her lap. The thump of the beer mug. A long silence. Chris studied the picture, the large eyes, the carefully arranged features, and knew without having to ask that he was looking at two people who were dead, and had been for a long time.
"Her name was Meredith," Darcy said, and for the first time Chris heard no humor in that lilting voice, only sadness. "And little Katie."
Chris felt the pit deepen, and he had no idea why. "What happened?"
Another pause. Thump. "It was back in Ireland. English. They came and took me. When I got back, Reddie and Kate were dead."
Chris tilted the photograph again, watched the image vanish into the light. Then back again.
He handed the daguerreotype back, felt a twinge of kinship with this stranger, fought it. "Sorry."
Darcy took it with a nod, tucked the photograph back in his pocket. Chris leaned forward again, only now his eyes looked beyond the incongruously bright cantina, beyond the hills, and into another time.
He heard Darcy take a deep breath. Then the Irishman said, very softly, "I won't insult yer wife's memory by pretendin' to know yer pain. But I know what it's like to want to die."
Not just words. Chris sat back a bit, looked at Darcy. The Irishman was regarding him with eyes that Chris thought must have mirrored his own, deep and sad and full of endless anguish. Then Darcy looked down, and took another swig of beer.
He does know. He knows, and it didn't kill him. He knows, and he can stand it.
Chris leaned back in the chair, all the way back, until his hat bumped against the wall. He stretched his long legs out, set them on a chair, and whipped his hair out of his bloodshot eyes.
His expression was grave as he looked across the table at Darcy, who looked back at him calmly, as if waiting.
Chris cleared his throat and spoke. "Tell me about them."
+ + + + + + +
It came quietly, calmly, first a faint streak of pale light against the horizon, edging away the darkness and delicately extinguishing the stars. Then the brightness grew, spread, changed, until the sky glowed with the reawakened light of a brand new day.
People awoke; farm animals began their restless noise making. The dawn deepened, expanded, and before long a sliver of brilliant light was seen, a topaz diamond against the hills. The sunlight touched the chill dew of the fields, flowed over the plains and the mountains, and finally found its way to a small western town.
Shades went up. Doors were opened. At the Four Corners Clarion, Mary finished combing her hair after another night of little sleep, gazing out the window into the sleeping streets as she did so, and fought her feelings of dread.
Down the street, Nathan drew the shades up partway to let in a bit of the rising sun, then turned his attentions to mixing poultices and steeping herbs, and tried to concentrate on doing what he could to heal JD, who still slept peacefully in a world at least a year gone.
Elsewhere, four businessmen were still asleep in their rooms, after staying up too late the previous evening arguing about their latest opportunity. Their opportunist walked the early morning streets, alone, smoking a cheroot and smiling in sly anticipation of a return to chaos.
Buck prowled the streets on his horse, glancing up at Nathan's window every so often to see if the healer was up yet. When he noticed the shade was lifted, Buck turned his mount back to the stables, and tried to bring himself to a better mood.
Josiah rose, and as he did the previous morning checked on the two candles he had lit the night Chris rode out of town. They were still lit, but had burned down to small stumps, so Josiah transferred the flames to a pair of glass votive holders he had found, and left them burning at the altar.
Vin had stabled his horse some time before, after seeing Buck riding the streets. They had acknowledged each other, but Buck had an air of distance about him, and Vin decided to leave him be, and went back to his room to sleep. And dreamed of sickrooms, and his mother, and early death.
Ezra rose early, washed and groomed himself as was his habit, and readied himself with an air of grim determination, fueled by two nights of uneasy visions, confederate grey and empty eyes. JD didn't deserve to be forced into that future. Not by the likes of Chris Larabee. Not if Ezra could help it.
The morning sun was just edging its way over the adobe rooftops of the cantina when Chris rolled out onto the floor and groaned.
Where the hell am I? Chris thought a moment, then recalled that he'd just rolled out of a low cot. Strange, last he remembered, he was sitting in the cantina talking to that Irishman, Darcy Thomas. How'd he get into a bed?
Opening his eyes, Chris squinted at his surroundings. He was lying in the outdoor hallway of the second floor of the cantina, still fully dressed. A slow glance to his right revealed a tumbledown cot, with messed-up bedclothes, sitting against the wall next to an open door, which Chris assumed led to a room.
All right, I somehow ended up outside somebody's room. Why not? Nothing made sense anymore.
Chris ran his hand over his face and sighed, tried to remember the previous evening. Surprisingly, his recollection was clear. There had been no alcohol to muddy it, no drunken stupor to erase it. Chris was astounded at how much he recalled.
They had talked. He and Darcy Thomas had talked for...Chris didn't even know how long. About Sarah. About Adam. About Darcy's wife, Reddie, and his daughter Katie. It was against every fiber of Chris' nature to say more than two words to people, especially strangers, but Darcy's openness about his own loss made Chris trust the man. Even if it was only for a night.
Chris started to get up, trying to ignore the throbbing reminder of the blow to the head he'd received last night. Grimacing, he put one hand to his temple and braced the other against the earthen balcony beside him, and dragged himself to his feet.
The balcony overlooked the interior plaza of the cantina, where he'd been sitting with Darcy the previous evening. It was empty now, and Chris could see some workmen cleaning the place up, moving tables and sweeping away scattered debris. There was a peculiar hollowness to the scene, which had been so lively and colorful the night before and was now drab and lifeless. Chris blinked, wondered why he'd even think that philosophically first thing in the morning. Never seen a bar in the morning, he guessed. Not through sober eyes, anyway.
An older woman came up the passageway, the maid Chris guessed, and gave him a questioning look. Glancing at the cot, she tilted her head at him. "Would señor care for some breakfast?"
Chris sighed, gazed out on the plaza, shook his head. The woman nodded, leaned over the bed and began stripping the thin sheets off it.
"You can take it," Chris said, still staring at the empty plaza. "I'm movin' on."
The woman paused, bundled up the sheets, and walked away. Chris watched her as she waddled down the hallway, but he didn't really see her until another maid appeared out of a room and their heads came together in fast, whispered conversation. The other maid looked at Chris, said something. The older woman glanced back, then nodded quickly, and their heads fell even closer together as their words hissed back and forth. They knew.
Chris' jaw tensed, and his eyes dropped to his scabbed hands which were clutching the balcony edge. I wonder how JD is doing? A searing stab of guilt wrenched his gut. Talking to that Irishman had eased his tortured soul, some, but Chris knew there would be no absolution from what he'd done to JD, to the other men, to Four Corners. He wasn't looking for any, but God, he wanted to know if JD was going to be all right. He'd never be forgiven, and he deserved that, he could never go back, he understood, but still he wanted to know. Needed some reassurance that the other men could still hold their heads up, that the town didn't tar them with his black deed, that JD would be back on his feet pretty soon, and someday not hate Chris too much to remember that once he'd looked up to him, like Adam had. If only there were someone who would tell him. But then, maybe that was Hell. To need to know forever, and never find out. That sounded right.
Someone walked into the plaza below, catching Chris' eye. It was Darcy, talking to a man Chris recognized as the innkeeper, chatting quietly as he rolled down the sleeves of his white shirt. The innkeeper nodded, more quiet words were exchanged, then Darcy gave the man a congenial pat on the shoulder and made his way across the deserted courtyard.
Chris gripped the cold adobe harder, and cursed the Irishman. Why had he interfered? That renegade had his pistol at Chris' back, would have finished him off. The loneliness would be over. The anger would be over. The overwhelming guilt would be -
Another movement in the empty plaza caught Chris' eye, and he tensed. Darcy was walking slowly toward the narrow two-story passage that led to the outside, still rolling down his sleeves and softly whistling to himself. As soon as he walked into the passage's shadow, someone else slid out a nearby doorway behind him, a shaggy long-haired man with a crude bandage wrapped around his right arm. Then two other men joined him, men with guns in their hands.
Chris' mind leapt to last night. Jesus Christ -
Darcy stopped, turned around, and even in the shadows Chris could see the mixture of surprise and then, anger on his face.
The men rushed forward.
And Chris Larabee ran for the stairs.
+ + + + + + +
The passageway was narrow, but Darcy was working it to his advantage when Chris came tearing across the plaza with his gun drawn.
"It's a fight ye want, is it!" the Irishman hollered as he slammed practiced fists into the bellies of his assailants. The hallway was too slender for more than one man to attack him at a time, so Darcy had simply taken to punching one man, backing up while he recovered, and looking for a good opportunity to make a run for it.
The shaggy, bandaged man waited until Darcy was occupied slugging his henchmen to raise his gun, in his uninjured hand. Darcy saw the move, shoved his attacker away, and reaching into his pocket pulled out a small Derringer.
Then he spotted Chris, a half-moment before the gunslinger jammed his gun into the shaggy man's side with one hand, and grabbed a large fistful of his mangy hair in the other.
"Call off your dogs," Chris snarled in the man's ear, "or you can come here on the weekends to visit your guts."
The henchmen paused, then looked back at Darcy, who kept his gun level at them and said, "Don't be lookin' at me. I'm for the spillin' guts part, meself."
Chris yanked on the shaggy man's hair. He yelped and dropped his gun, more out of surprise than anything else.
With a guttural growl, Chris dragged the man back into the plaza and threw him to the ground.
Darcy took a step backward and said, "Now, I should be shootin' the both of ye for messin' up me Sunday suit. But if ye hand over yer weapons and let me watch ye runnin' from here with yer tails between yer legs, I'll actually find that much more amusin'."
The henchmen backed up, a few steps. Then, almost at the same instant, they both raised their guns.
Two shots from opposite directions sent the outlaw's guns spinning onto the tile. Jerking their hands back in pain, the two men whipped their heads around to stare at Chris, then Darcy, who both stood with guns smoking and faces dark with anger.
Then they almost ran Darcy over in their hurry to get away from that place.
Darcy chuckled at their retreating forms, then walked back into the plaza where Chris was busy tying up the shaggy man. Tucking his gun back in his pocket, Darcy said, "You're up."
Chris tied the last knot. "Songbirds around here make it pretty tough for a man to sleep."
Darcy took out a handkerchief, dabbed at his bleeding lip, and examined his trussed attacker. "Ye do fast work. Were you a lawman once?"
Chris straightened up, sighed, looked at Darcy with polite detachment. "Look, Mr. Thomas, I'm obliged for your help last night and all, but we don't have anything else to discuss. You'd best fetch the innkeeper so's this man can be turned over to the proper authorities. I gotta be movin' on."
Chris tugged his hat, paused as he tried to read Darcy's face. He'd expected surprise, or at least annoyance at his curtness. He was used to that.
But Darcy simply shrugged. "As you please. At least take a moment to accept my gratitude for roundin' up this rascal."
Chris blinked at the bound, cursing man at his feet, felt the rush of justice done, and for a moment he was standing back in Four Corners, after heading off some small-time miscreant, and he almost thought when he lifted his head again it would be Buck, or Vin, standing there waiting for his silent signal to go to the saloon.
But when Chris looked up from the pale-pink tile, it was the stranger Darcy Thomas who was looking athim, and Chris' heart broke again.
Darcy put his hand out, and Chris took it limply.
"Godspeed to ye, wherever ye're bound," the Irishman said sincerely.
Chris suddenly felt very alone. "Thanks. Same to you."
"Eh, I'm certainly hopin' so," Darcy said lightly, turning around and pulling a pair of riding gloves out of one pocket, "I understand that those who travel to Four Corners need a God on their side. I packed a few guardian angels too, just in case."
The innkeeper showed up, his dark eyes wide at the tied-up gunslinger underneath Chris' boot. But Chris was distracted, and waving a stopping hand to the innkeeper he called out the retreating form in the passageway. "Did you say Four Corners?"
Darcy slowed down, stopped. His shoes scuffed against the tile as he turned back toward Chris. "That's right. D'ye know it?"
Chris couldn't find words for a moment. Finally he said, "Heard of it."
Darcy stood there in the cool morning shadows, pulling on his gloves. Finally he looked up at Chris and smiled. "Well, it may be that we're movin' on in the same direction, Chris Larabee. D'ye know any good Irish songs?"
Chris was thinking, he's going there. He can tell me. Then at least I'll know. And shook his head.
"Ah." Darcy snorted as he turned to go down the passageway once more. "Come along then, God help ye. Ye're about to learn some."
+ + + + + + +
JD made a face of impatient frustration at Nathan as he tried to push himself up against the pillows that had been piled at his back. Buck had arrived minutes before with breakfast, and JD was awake, and hungry.
Hungry and petulant. "I can feed myself," JD grumbled, looking peevishly at Nathan and wincing as he inadvertently moved his bad arm under the bandage.
The healer lowered the bowl of broth he'd been helping JD eat out of and sat back, glancing at Buck, who was sitting on the other side of him. "Well, you might not remember who we are yet, but at least you still got a memory for bein' difficult. I guess that's something."
JD sat back against the pillows and gazed at Buck and Nathan sadly. The exertion was clearly too much for him. His face was covered with sweat, and he was breathing heavily, his face flushed against the dark bruises and cuts that crisscrossed over his skin.
But he wasn't giving up; with another effort, he pulled himself up a little more, the anger at his infirmities written large on his young face.
Buck became alarmed, leaned forward and put his hands on JD's shoulders. "Now you just settle down now, son,you trying to hurt yourself? Just calm down."
JD pushed against him, struggled to free himself from the sheets that were binding him down. "Let go of me."
"Buck," Nathan put a cautionary hand on Buck's arm, and the other man leaned back as JD once more stopped his venture and lay panting in the bed. Nathan bent over and said softly, "Now son, I know you want to get on out of that bed quick, and we gonna help you every step of the way. But you gotta go slow, or you ain't gonna go at all."
JD just blinked at him, his eyes full of aggravation.
"You been hurt pretty bad," Nathan continued, not looking at Buck's face as he said the words. "And it's gonna be a while before you gonna be fit to be up and around. Now ain't you sore from tryin' to move so much?"
JD's mouth scrunched around, but he didn't deny it.
"You gotta stay put," Nathan said in an authoritative way. "You do that, and before you know it you'll be runnin' on out that door. But for now, you gotta let those bones heal. You gotta rest."
JD frowned, his eyes hot and accusatory. "I can't run. I can't even walk. What happened to me?"
Buck and Nathan traded glances. Buck stood up and walked a few feet away.
"You still don't remember?" Nathan asked, setting the bowl down. The soup could wait.
JD shook his head, his black hair falling against those red marks, his battered face full of anxiety. "I don't remember anything. I don't know you, and I don't know him. I don't know where I'm at, and I don't know where my mother is, but I think she needs me."
He was becoming agitated, trying again to move. Nathan put a hand out then, one gentle hand on the shoulder to calm JD down, and he looked into those deep brown eyes. "Why you say that, son?"
JD let his head flop back against the pillow, sighed and closed his eyes. "She's sick. She's sick somewhere. I remember that." He opened his eyes again, looked at Nathan imploringly. "Have you seen her? Is she going to be okay?"
Nathan pursed his lips, patted JD's shoulder. "She's going to be fine, son. But I think if she were here, she'd be tellin' you to get some rest."
JD sighed again, a heavy sigh tinged with tears, and stared at the ceiling.
Nathan leaned back in his chair, and looked at Buck. The gunslinger was standing at the foot of the bed, regarding JD with a look of fear and something like bewilderment. It reminded Nathan of a time when he was a boy, and his friends had built a raft to use on the little river that wound around the plantation he lived on. He really wanted to ride that raft, but he was just thirty seconds too late to join the others as they pushed it off shore. He had to stand there and watch them sail away without him. They didn't even look back.
The way he'd felt, Buck was wearing on his face at that moment.
I don't know you, and I don't know him...
Nathan sighed, hating the helplessness he felt. He dipped a clean cloth in the washbasin, wrung it out, and pressed it against JD's flushed face. The boy closed his eyes against the cooling dampness, and swallowed a gulp of air.
"Now, you're learning," Nathan said in gentle chastisement, and added quietly, "You'll be fine, JD. We got it all figured out."
JD just blinked at him, and was perhaps going to reply, but he was interrupted when the door to Nathan's room opened and Ezra came in.
Buck, who was standing closer to the door, stepped back and took a good look at the gambler. He hadn't been to Nathan's room since the previous day. Nathan thought perhaps he wouldn't come back to JD's bedside at all, given the high emotions that were running in that small space, including Ezra's.
But here Ezra was, not red-faced with anger like yesterday, but with a congenial, almost cheerful look on his fair face. He smiled at the group, and it seemed to Buck at JD in particular, and said, "Good morning, gentlemen. I trust I'm not interrupting."
Nathan glanced at JD, who was peering at Ezra with a kind of rapt curiosity. Nathan removed the cloth from JD's face, and the gambler winced at the red-black lacerations and purple bruises that were revealed to him then. But Ezra looked down and swallowed quickly, and when his eyes met JD's they were full of sunshine.
"You ain't interruptin'," Nathan said as he sat back. "We're just trying to keep JD from killin' himself tryin' to get out of bed."
"Well, a noble endeavor to be sure," Ezra said lightly as he sat in the chair Buck had vacated.
JD turned his head, stared at Ezra, his wounded eyes going over the red jacket, the brocaded vest, the pack of cards that Ezra was flipping in his hands.
"Are you a gambler?" JD asked in fascinated tones.
"Certainly not," Ezra replied with mock indignation. If he was bothered by JD not knowing who he was, he didn't show it. "I am a dealer of chance, my young friend, a purveyor of amusements for the financially speculative."
JD's eyes got wider. "Oh," he said, clearly impressed.
There was a small table by Nathan's bed, and Ezra drew it close and began cutting his deck of cards on it. Buck and Nathan both watched him. They were interested, but JD was riveted, his brown eyes focused on the flying deck as Ezra talked.
"My associates tell me," Ezra said conversationally as his hands worked the deck, "that as a result of your...injury...you've lost your recollections of our association."
JD's eyes widened again, this time in real surprise. "I know you?"
A look darted across Ezra's face, very fast; only Nathan noticed it. Then the winning smile. "You most certainly do, and might I add your esteem for me knows no bounds."
JD nodded, of course. Then his face drooped a bit. "I - don't remember. Sorry."
"That apology is not accepted," Ezra said darkly as he tapped the deck on the table. "No, Mr. Dunne, your sad and sorry lot must not be allowed to continue." He held up one of the cards. "Can you tell me the identity of this card?"
"Uh - " JD squinted. "It's the ace of spades."
"Very good." Ezra didn't even look at the card, set it on the table, drew another. "And this one?"
JD's eyebrows came together in confusion, but he said, "That's a two of hearts."
"Excellent." Ezra slapped that card down too, drew a third. "What am I holding now?"
"Don't those cuffs get awful dirty?"
Buck and Nathan shared a chuckle. Ezra sighed, "No, Mr. Dunne, you must concentrate on the cards." He held the card up again.
"Sorry. Jack of clubs."
"Very well." Ezra shuffled the cards, set them aside, then moved the table closer to JD's bed.
"Now..." As JD watched, Ezra moved the cards around on the table, then tapped the center one. "Do you recall which card this is, Mr. Dunne?"
"Oh - " JD pursed his lips, studied the cards on the rickety table, thought very hard.
Nathan's eyes went to Ezra's face as he waited for JD to answer. The gambler looked very intent, and very nervous in a way that was completely unlike Ezra, at least the Ezra Nathan knew. It was very strange.
"Um, the ace of spades?"
Ezra held up the card and smiled warmly. "It is indeed."
JD smiled at his triumph, but Ezra was quick to put the card back on the table and shuffle it among the other two. He tapped the card on the left.
"Hm," JD thought. And thought.
"Take your time, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said in an encouraging voice, "You'll remember."
A memory game. Nathan smiled to himself. It's a memory game.
"Queen of clubs."
Ezra's face twitched just a bit as he presented the card. "Close, Mr. Dunne, but we have the jack here, not the queen."
JD lay back against the pillows and frowned in disappointment.
"But, take heart," Ezra said lightly as he moved the cards around again, "We can try again. After all, Rome was not built in a day." He tapped one of the cards.
JD looked at it, somewhat forlornly, as his brows knit with frustration. "Two of..." He paused, licked his lips.
Ezra didn't move his green eyes from the young man's face.
JD opened his mouth, closed it again.
Buck was watching with his arms folded, head cocked sideways. Nathan was intrigued.
JD took a deep breath. "Diam - no, wait, it was hearts. Two of hearts."
Ezra broke into a wide grin as he held up the card. "Very good, Mr. Dunne!"
JD grinned back, his first real smile since that night in the alley, and he looked at Nathan. The healer gave him a reassuring smile, and over JD's bed Nathan's eyes met Ezra's with a question.
Ezra wasn't ready to answer yet, however, and put the three cards back in the pack and shuffled them. "Yes, Mr. Dunne, excellent work. You'll be remembering the vast amounts of money you owe me in no time."
JD grinned at Ezra in mock irritation. "I don't owe you any money!"
"See?" Ezra gave Nathan and Buck a knowing nod. "Already a distinct improvement."
Nathan stood up and took the washbasin in his hands, began walking toward the door.
"Come on, Buck," he said as he passed where Buck was standing at the foot of the bed, one hand on his hip and the other scratching his neck.
"Hm?" Buck glanced at Nathan, then back at Ezra and JD. The youth seemed absorbed in the cards, and was watching Ezra's movements with focused admiration.
"Come on," Nathan repeated, and taking Buck's sleeve pulled the gunslinger out the door.
"We'll see you later, kid!" Buck called as he left.
"OK," JD answered, but his eyes were still on the cards.
Nathan smiled as the healer leaned over the balcony railing to dump out the dirty water.
Buck's voice was confused as he asked, "Nathan, what's Ezra doin', showin' JD card tricks? Is that helpin' him in some way?"
Nathan nodded as they walked across the wide balcony toward the stairs. "It'll help JD with his memory, maybe get some of it back. Maybe all of it, dependin."
"Huh," Buck shook his head, followed Nathan. "How'd Ezra know that stuff?"
"Beats me," Nathan responded. "But I'm sure glad he does. It'll help JD out an awful lot."
"Good," Buck breathed as they headed for the bottom stairs and the water barrel. "But I don't care how much fancy stuff he knows. If he turns that boy into a card sharp, I'm gonna whop him right into next week."
+ + + + + + +
Mary was busy sorting type, and so didn't know anyone had come into her office until she heard the unmistakable sound of someone clearing their throat. Then she looked up from her wooden boxes and squinted into the sunlight, which was streaming through the open door.
It was Mr. Conklin.
"Good morning, Mrs. Travis," he said cheerfully, tipping his curl-brimmed hat.
"Oh." Mary wiped her ink-stained hands on her apron, walked around the table. "Good morning, Mr. Conklin. How are you today?"
"Fine!" the man crowed, giving Mary a broad smile as he grasped one lapel proudly. "Just fine."
He's certainly acting strangely. Then Mary's eyes traveled to where Mr. Conklin was running his hand up and down his lapel, trying to get her to notice something on his lapel.
A sheriff's badge.
Mary froze, and her mouth dropped open. She hoped she didn't look too alarmed, it might be embarrassing, but - "Mr. Conklin, are you - "
"Am I the sheriff? Yes, ma'am!" Conklin almost bounced, he looked so happy. "Temporary, of course. Just till the judge gets back."
"I...see." Mary suddenly couldn't breathe, and quickly stepped past the man to the walkway outside.
Conklin followed her, came to stand next to her as she gasped in the morning sunshine.
After taking a few deep breaths, Mary turned to Mr. Conklin and said, "Mr. Conklin, are you sure about this? This town is dangerous, and - "
"It certainly is!" Conklin snapped. "Or, it was. Those outlaw guns roaming the streets. I knew it was only a matter of time before they showed their true colors. And, thank God, they have. So..." He leaned back, put his hand back over that shiny star. "We called a meeting yesterday, and I was selected sheriff pro tem."
"Hm." Mary folded her arms, looked at Conklin sternly. "And why wasn't I asked to attend this meeting?"
"Oh. Er." Conklin's eyes left Mary's, nervous now, darting up and down the street. "Well...well, I understand your situation, Mrs. Travis, after all, Stephen was a good husband to you. And we're all aware of how...lonely women in your situation get, how some slick smooth-talker can get a girl so mixed up she don't know whether she's coming or going."
Mary's eyes blazed as she unfolded her arms and put them on her hips. "Excuse me?"
Conklin sighed, gave up. "It ain't your fault, Mrs. Travis! These men make their livin' preying on the weak and the susceptible. We figured you'd be better off if you just let us handle this."
Mary glared. "Mr. Conklin, when my husband died he didn't take my mind with him. I'm a contributing citizen of this town, and I demand that my voice be heard."
"And it will be," Conklin said in a patronizing tone, backing away from Mary a step, but still not looking at her. "Later, after we rid the town of those murderers, you can say anything you want."
Rid the town? "Mr. Conklin, my father-in-law hired those men. You can't just turn them away without his consent."
"But he don't know!" Conklin spat defensively. "He don't know Larabee got drunk and beat that boy senseless. He don't know the rest of 'em helped him run off before he could be brought to justice. Now you know Orin, Mrs. Travis. He'd do the same thing, wouldn't he? He wouldn't just let Larabee go free!"
Mary felt an odd jump at the mention of Chris' crime, felt that need to defend him, but quelled it. "Rest assured, Mr. Conklin, that if Mr. Larabee is responsible for - for this, Orin will see that he's punished. But the other men had nothing to do with it, and I'm sure he'll leave them alone."
Mr. Conklin gave Mary an almost pitying look. "Now, see, that's just what I mean, Mrs. Travis. They turn those eyes on you and smile and you're just putty in their hands."
It was said in a calm, reasoning tone, like you'd use on a child, and Mary wanted to scream and swat Mr. Conklin, very badly. But no, keep control. "Mr. Conklin - "
"No, it's all right, don't you worry," Conklin said in a condescending voice, "I'll keep an eye on things until Orin arrives, and then we'll see who's right."
"And in the meantime?" Mary crossed her arms again, no longer worried that Conklin would see how much she was hating him at this moment. "Are you going to run Mr. Tanner and the others out on a rail?"
Conklin actually seemed to be considering this, then shook his head. "They don't bother me, I won't bother them. But they'd better just stay out of my way. I know their kind, and I know how sick this town is of being humiliated by having riffraff posing as the law. They go interferin' with my duties, and there'll be hell to pay. I can promise you that!"
Mary thought of Conklin, trying to arrest some criminal, and resisting Buck's or Josiah's attempts at assistance. She tried not to smile.
A voice up the street made Mary and Conklin both turn toward the jail. A man Conklin's age was waving to him from the porch.
Conklin returned the wave jauntily. "Ah, I have to go, Mrs. Travis. My deputy needs me."
"Your deputy?" Mary blinked at the waving figure. "That man is your deputy?"
"You have a problem with that?" Conklin asked smugly.
"That's Gerald Townsend, isn't it? Don't you two hate each other?"
"Oh - well, not anymore!" Conklin backed up and tipped his hat. "We may disagree on some issues, but on this one I assure you, we're on the same side. Good day, Mrs. Travis."
He turned on his heel and strolled away, and Mary slapped a hand to her forehead and thought she was going mad. Conklin was the sheriff, she was a dreamy-eyed idiot, and mortal enemies were banding together to drive her father-in-law's hired peacekeepers out of town. She knew she was going mad.
Or the town was. Either way, it was going to be rough until Orin arrived.
Mary's eyes traveled down the street, watched Conklin greet Townsend with a huge handshake and a slap on the arm. Then she couldn't take it anymore and went back inside.
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