Ezra leaned back and shuffled his cards in the golden afternoon sun, pausing after a moment to cast a sly look in JD's direction.
The boy certainly has perseverance. They'd played a number of different card games, mostly variations on the one he'd started with, but they had all held JD's attention, and Ezra felt that maybe - just maybe - it was helping.
But it looked like it would be time to stop soon. JD had already stifled a half-dozen yawns, and was currently stifling another one. With a soft snap Ezra struck the bottom of the deck of cards on the table and said, "Now then, Mr. Dunne, it seems we have exhausted your brain for the moment. Perhaps it's time for you to get some rest."
JD had propped himself a bit on his good arm, and now leaned back against the stacked-up pillows with a petulant look. "I'm not that tired."
Ezra smiled and tucked the cards into his pocket. "Now, Mr. Dunne, I am the only one allowed to play games here. Were Mr. Jackson to apprehend me keeping you from getting your proper rest, he'd have me horsewhipped. And I'd much rather have you angry at me than him."
JD tried to keep his eyes open, frowned at Ezra. "You sure do use a lot of big words. You sure you're not a politician or something?"
Ezra chuckled. "My boy, that's one profession even I would not stoop to."
JD nestled into the covers and closed his eyes. "Wish my mama would get back."
Ezra winced, paused as he watched that beaten face settle into slumber. He didn't know what to say.
After a moment JD opened his eyes and muttered, "Tarnation."
Ezra blinked at him, "What is it?"
"I don't think I locked the stable door last night," JD said in irritation, and started to sit up. "It'll be my hide if anybody finds out."
"Uh - " Ezra noticed JD was starting to climb out of the bed, stood up. "Now Mr. Dunne, I've been told you're not to leave - "
"Oh, I know all that." JD hefted himself to the side of the bed. "But I forget to lock that door one more time and I'll get skinned for sure."
Ezra wasn't quite sure what to do. A quick glance toward the door notified him that Nathan wasn't coming back at that moment, and JD was starting to stand, shakily, seemingly oblivious of his injuries.
"Now, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said in his most severe voice, hurrying to the injured youth's side. "I'm under strictest orders not to let you out of that bed, and - "
JD made an impatient noise and glared at Ezra, one hand on the iron railing at the foot of the bed. "Oh, that Nathan, what does he know! I saw a guy once, get thrown right over a horse's head, and he was up the very next - "
At that moment JD tried to move, and fell.
Ezra jumped forward and caught him around the middle, tried not to hold too firmly onto the bruised ribs he had to wrap his arms around to keep JD from hitting the floor. JD cried out in pain and alarm, and clutched Ezra as he lowered the injured boy to the floor.
"Oh my God," JD gasped as soon as Ezra had him seated. He was pale, and his eyes were wide as they searched Ezra's face. "I forgot. I can't walk anymore, can I? I mean, I - I - "
Ezra was fighting his own panic. "Did you injure yourself? Mr. Jackson left instructions..."
But JD wasn't listening. He was staring, staring at his legs, stretched out before him, still in their bloodstained cotton.
"I can't walk," he said in a breathless whisper, then winced, as if trying to remember something. His good hand went to his head, those black stitches, and he shook his head and whispered, "Oh, my God."
"Now, take it easy, Mr. Dunne." Ezra tried his best, but he knew he wasn't very good at consolation. "It's not as black as it - "
"No, you don't understand." JD turned horrified eyes to Ezra. "I can't work if I can't...Mama's sick, she's counting on me. I've seen...I've seen those men, from the home? You know the one I mean?"
Ezra felt himself go numb, tried not to show it, and nodded.
"I can't be like that," JD's face was slack with denial, "I can't. You said I'd get my memory back. Is this going to come back too? I mean - I can move them, I'm not crippled. Am I?"
Ezra fought the vertigo of fear he was experiencing, stood up and took JD's good arm. "Come on, Mr. Dunne. I've got to get you back into bed."
JD paused, then muttered, "I can do it myself," and tried to raise himself by grabbing the railing and pulling on it.
"You'll sprain your arm," Ezra said lightly, and tugged on JD's arm, "Let me - "
"I said I can do it myself!" JD screamed suddenly, loudly, in such a violent voice that Ezra almost jumped back. JD shook him off and was glaring at him, eyes full of fire and shame, face red with anger, and in that instant Ezra realized that JD was scared, scared beyond comprehension.
He wanted to fight it. And Ezra decided to let him.
The room was quiet for a few moments, then JD continued to pull himself back onto the bed. Ezra watched him, and as he did so he thought of Chris, somewhere out in the desert, where he couldn't see JD's frightened face, couldn't hear his frustrated cries as he tried to perform the simple act of getting back into bed.
Ezra had tried not to think about the reality of JD being an invalid for the rest of his life, but now he couldn't stop thinking about it. He thought about it as he watched the boy finally gain the bed, and collapse into it, sweating and panting. He thought about it as he pulled the sheets back up, and mixed some of Nathan's herbal tonics so JD could get some sleep. And he thought about as he sat by the wounded boy's bedside as JD drifted off, and idly flipped his cards.
Ezra thought about what Chris had done. And hated him for it.
"The minstrel boy to the war is gone, In the ranks of death you will find him. His father's sword he has girded on, And his wild harp slung behind him. 'Land of song,' said the warrior bard, Though all the world betrays thee, One sword at least thy right shall guard, One faithful harp shall praise thee!"
Chris looked over at Darcy Thomas as the last notes of his song mingled with the sound of their horses' hooves on the tree-lined path, then faded into the late-morning sky. "Don't your people have any songs that aren't about folks dying?"
Darcy gave Chris a sad smile as their horses meandered through the shading brush. "Not any good ones."
Chris shook his head, bent over slightly as they passed through some low-hanging branches. He was marking time, riding with Darcy back to Four Corners. They were taking their time, which was fine, but even as they inched closer Chris felt the burden of his guilt weigh heavier, as if it were a physical thing pushing him away from the town. His hands ached, as if themselves reliving the night when Chris had beaten JD, and several times he considered making excuses to Darcy and turning around. Four Corners had nothing but bad memories for Chris now, and he wanted very badly to never see it again.
But he had to know, before he left the earth. He'd hang on the outskirts, lurk in the hills like an outlaw, and when he'd gotten Darcy to tell him how JD was, what was happening, about Mary, then he'd go, and nobody would ever suffer from his demons again. Including himself.
Darcy sat back in the saddle and took a deep breath. "We Irish have made poetry out of suffering. But ye should listen closer, Chris. They're not really about death."
"Oh, really?" Chris arched an eyebrow. "I've been ridin' with you since sunrise, and all you've been singin' about are bandits and outlaws and men gettin' hung. Sounds like death to me."
"Ah, to the untrained ear perhaps," Darcy commented as they guided their horses around a bend. "But we know - those of us who've suffered for Ireland know they're about honor, and courage, and never lettin' the bastards win. Life is more than just breath and body; it's doin' what's right, fightin' for what you believe in, even if it means ye die. Because to do any less isn't livin' at all."
Chris pondered this, then looked down at his torn hands. After a moment he looked back up and said, "You never told me why they arrested you. The English. Mind if I ask?"
"Oh, not at all," Darcy replied easily, "It was back in sixty-seven. Ireland had been trying to separate from England for many years, but they wouldn't budge. They'd been hangin' and jailin' us for centuries, and didn't seem in a hurry to leave. Well, some of us got tired of watchin' our women and children starve, so we got up a group to try and force the English out."
Chris nodded. He'd remembered hearing stories about that subject from Irishmen he knew during the war. "The Young Ireland movement?"
Darcy swung his head over, gave Chris a sad smile, then turned his eyes back to the road. "That was one of 'em. I was pretty young meself then, scarce twenty. Reddie and me had only been together two years, and Katie was still in swaddling clothes. I figured I'd be damned if Katie had to grow up bound to the English. Reddie thought me friends were too hotheaded to do right by Ireland, but I was full of piss and vinegar, and didn't give it a second thought. It was wrong, what the English were doin', and I figured any course that would set it right again had to be worth tryin' out."
Chris nodded a little, peered at the dusty land around them.
Darcy took another deep breath. "Well, me friends and I, we started gettin' up arms for a rebellion, but the English found us out. They rounded us up. I barely had time to say goodbye to me wife and daughter before..." He trailed off, gazed into the morning sky a moment. "Five years is a long time, but ye don't know how long till you've spent it doin' naught but starin' at the inside of a prison wall."
Chris heard the melancholy timbre in Darcy's voice, remembered his own incarceration. He had been imprisoned only ten days, but it had seemed like eternity. And five years...five years ago Sarah and Adam were still alive. "Then what happened?"
Darcy blinked, looked down at his hands, fiddled with the bridle. "When they let me out, I vowed revenge. They'd killed me friends, enslaved me country. No red-blooded Irishman would stand for such injustice. I knew Reddie wouldn't like it, but...then I came home and found out she and Katie were dead."
So leaden, those words. Darcy's eyes looked haunted as he glared at the trail ahead. "Truth be told, I don't remember much about that time. I got stinkin' drunk every night, went after anyone who came near. Reddie's family disowned me, called me a radical. I had nothin' left, nothin', but memories and a heart so black I thought it would be a mercy to die. I loved my country, but I knew if I stayed there I'd end up shot or hung, so I jumped the next ship, didn't even ask where it was goin'."
"And ended up here," Chris said, thinking their stories weren't too dissimilar.
"After a few other adventures, yes," Darcy admitted, looking around the vast land around them. After a pause, he cast chagrined eyes in Chris' direction and said, "Now that ye've heard my story, I'm hopin' ye won't think less of a man who's put more poor bastards in the ground then he'd like to remember."
Chris shook his head, and thanked God Darcy didn't know.
"It's the anger," Darcy said philosophically, nodding to himself. "That's what does it. I must have torn apart every pub from one end of Ireland to the other, lookin' fer peace. And didn't find it. I'd get drunk, pick on total strangers, just to get the anger out. But there was always more waitin'."
Chris swallowed hard, felt again that heady rush, flinging JD into the wall, the euphoria of bloody victory over the demons who were, in reality, laughing at him. Clearing his throat, he asked, "So how'd you get rid of it?"
"Oh, I didn't," Darcy said lightly. "Not all of it. I simply channeled it toward more worthwhile pursuits than knockin' mens' heads together. Not that I don't miss it every once in a while."
Chris smiled in a ghostly way, paused and thought. "So what's waiting for you in Four Corners?"
Darcy reached up, scratched his cheek. "Oh, merely a stop in me wanderin's. Heard it was a very lively town."
Chris shrugged. "Maybe lively in all the wrong ways."
"Ah, but that's the way that sends me blood singin'. Just like home." Darcy glanced at Chris' face. "Seems to me I heard your name and the town's in the same breath. That you had somethin' to do with keepin' the peace there."
Chris' head ducked down. "Did."
Darcy nodded, left the question unspoken.
Chris brought his head up again. "I did once, but that's through now. You'll probably hear about it, if you haven't already. You know that anger you were talkin' about?"
Darcy looked Chris up and down, nodded.
"Well, it finished me in that town. Finished me so's I can't ride in there with you, or show my face there, ever."
They topped a small rise of low trees and scrub brush, and both men stopped their horses and took in the view. The sun was fast rising now, casting a kaleidoscope of color across the plains in front of them.
Chris took a breath in, sighed it out, and cast his eyes over the plains. "What I done I can't make right. But I'd sure appreciate it if you could ask some questions for me, before I head back out."
The wind blew, cool and gentle on the low hill. Darcy looked across the plain, then back at Chris and asked in a low voice, "That bad, was it?"
Chris' heart tightened, and he ran one injured hand over his left leg. "Yeah. It was bad."
A pause. A minute passed, two, and the breeze still blew its quiet song through the trees around them.
Then Darcy spoke. "After Reddie died I sank into a pit, a pit I thought I'd never want to climb out of. Then one day a friend of mine said to me, don't be foolin' yerself. Ye get drunk and beat up half of Dublin, but it's not you pushin' yer fists into people's faces. Ye scream bloody murder against the English, but ye let 'em use yer body every time ye give up and crawl into a pint of ale. It's not you fightin', Darcy. It's them, with yer permission. They're inside ye, in yer head, and ye get drunk and let 'em bash people bloody. Yer lettin' em, Darcy. And ye're too good a man for that."
Still the breezes blew, tousling Chris' hair and feeling springlike against his face. He thought of that night, the bleary memories of Fowler, Fowler's man, the Warden. All that rage he held, all the pain and frustration that he had flung at the defenseless boy he was beating. Uncontrolled. Unchecked. It was terrifying, how good it felt to beat someone.
"Sounds like your friend was speaking from experience." Chris said in a strained voice.
Darcy cocked his head. "Aye, I suppose he was. He was recoverin' from a couple of bruised ribs at the time. And I gave 'em to him. And still he forgave me. So I figured the least I could do was listen."
Silence. Only the sounds of the desert for a moment.
Then Darcy spoke again. "I hardly know ye, Chris Larabee, but I can see ye're a good man. Whatever ye've done, ye'll be surprised at what can be forgiven if ye're willin' to pay the price."
Chris knew Darcy was trying to help, but...he shook his head, the memories coming back, Buck's eyes, the church in the candlelight, Josiah's words, he got slammed into that wall pretty hard. "Ain't no price I can pay to make up for it. All I can do is make sure it don't happen again."
Darcy eyed him, his face an open expression of sympathy. "Well, there's more than one way of doin' that. I should know, I tried me own hand at most of 'em. But I only found one way that truly worked."
Chris squinted at him. "What's that?"
Darcy turned a smile on him. "Stay alive. Don't let the bastards win. And make sure tomorrow isn't worse fer the people that are countin' on ye."
Darcy turned his gaze to the bright landscape that bloomed around them and then gently urged his horse forward. Chris paused a moment, thinking, then followed him into the morning sun.
+ + + + + + +
As Buck and Nathan walked easily down the sunlit boardwalks of Four Corners, Buck peered up at the sun and grunted.
"Must be almost two," he commented. "Reckon we better get back to JD?"
Nathan took a puff on the cigar he was smoking and nodded. "Ezra's prob'ly wore him out by now."
"Who'd have figured," Buck said as Nathan waved him in the direction of the general store, "that Ezra would be interested in helpin' JD out? From what I know of the man, it don't make sense."
Nathan tilted his head, looked both ways, then crossed the street. "Who knows? I ain't gonna question it. Leastways, it gives the boy somebody new to look at."
Buck nodded. "So, Nathan, you think that maybe JD's gonna be all right? I mean, he seems better today, don't he?"
There was a forlornly hopeful tone in Buck's voice, a yearning against reality, that Nathan hated to shatter. "Yeah, a bit. But he's got a long way to go, Buck."
"Well, I know that," Buck said as they stepped up to the boardwalk on the other side of the street, "But he'll get his memory back, an' the other problems he got, they'll get better, and then, well, it'll be just like old times then, won't it?" Old times. The old times of three days ago, before this all happened. Nathan shook his head. "I hope so , Buck. But things are mighty changed."
Buck tilted his head, and Nathan glanced at his eyes. Buck hadn't mentioned Chris' name, not brought up the subject of his guilt or return, since the day before, and Nathan knew without having to ask that the only reason Buck's mood was any lighter today was that for him, Chris Larabee simply didn't exist anymore. Nathan - all of them - had been careful not to bring up his name around Buck, not sure how the gunslinger would react. Maybe someday, when this was all over, Josiah would have a talk with him. Nathan hoped so, because in Buck's eyes was a wealth of hurt and betrayal and anguish that had to betapped. Had to, or he would burst as Chris had.
But not now. Now, today, Buck was in a better mood, about halfway to himself again, and for the moment at least that was good, because that was what JD needed. So Nathan let it go, and together the two men walked into the general store.
There were a few other customers about, but no one waiting at the counter. Nathan walked up to it, smiled at the older woman who ran the place.
"Good afternoon, Nathan," the woman said, giving him a pleasant smile. "How's Mr. Dunne doing?"
"Better, thank you, ma'am." Nathan smiled. "I need some more of that camomile, if you got any."
The woman nodded, turned to some wooden canisters behind her. "Such a shame, he was a nice young man. Sometimes I simply can't believe the depths some people will stoop to."
"Yes, ma'am," Nathan said automatically. He hadn't really been listening, because he'd been looking around the store, and noticed something.
People were glaring at them. Well, not him so much, but Buck. The other man hadn't noticed yet, was studying something in a glass case, but two women in the corner were whispering to each other and pointing at him, shaking their heads. Another man near the door gave Buck a dirty look before heading out into the street. And a young couple near the pickle barrels was eyeing him almost fearfully, the thin woman grasping her husband's arm with a frankly scared look on her face.
What the hell? Then the store owner returned and said, "Here you go, Nathan. Fifteen cents."
"Hm." Nathan dug around in his pockets.
Suddenly the woman leaned forward and whispered, "Of course, it's none of my business, but you really ought to stop associating yourself with those men, Nathan. You're too fine a man to hang around such riffraff, especially after what happened to Mr. Dunne."
Nathan blinked, looked at her. "Um - well, thanks for the concern, ma'am, but - "
"Well," the woman continued, casting conspiratorial eyes at Buck, whose back was to them. "Like I said, it's none of my business, but now that Mr. Conklin is the sheriff he told me those men won't even be welcome here much longer, and I'd hate to see you mixed up in any...well, any unpleasantness should they be forced to leave."
Nathan fished the money out, put it on the counter without looking at it. 'Did you say Conklin is the sheriff?"
"Oh, didn't you know?" The woman shook her head. "The town fathers elected him last night. He - might not be much, but you just can't trust these men, Nathan! Mr. Dunne did, and look where he's at now." She paused, and her eyebrows arched in gossipy anxiety. "Is it true he's turned idiot?"
Nathan felt himself start to get angry, but checked it. "No, ma'am, JD's gonna be fine, he's not - "
"Well, that's a relief," the woman replied, stabbing Buck with another glare. "Because I wouldn't put it past those brutes to kill a man for lookin' at 'em cross-eyed, and I'm not the only one who thinks so."
Nathan tried not to let his annoyance show, reached out for the block of tea. "Well, thank you for the tea, ma'am. But you're wrong about these men. I been with 'em a long time, and you're wrong."
The woman blinked, as if she wasn't expecting an argument. She leaned back a bit, and her expression changed to one of covert suspicion. Her voice went from cozy warmth to brittle pique, all in a flash. "Well - if you say so, Nathan." Her eyes flashed to Buck, who was eyeing her now with an uncertain look. "Have a good afternoon."
Nathan backed up a few steps, nodded to the woman, then making sure Buck was with him almost ran out of the store.
"Was it me," Buck said as soon as they were on the sidewalk, "or was it gettin' cold in there?"
Nathan scarcely heard him. He looked up and down the street. "I'm goin' back to JD. You better go get Josiah and Vin, and meet me back at my place."
"Huh?" Buck put his hands on his hips. "Why?"
Nathan shook his head in bewilderment. "That woman done told me. Conklin got hisself voted in as sheriff."
Buck's face fell, then crinkled in disbelief. "Aw, crap."
Nathan's eyes darted among the people walking around them. He hated the paranoid feeling he was getting, but... he licked his lips. Suddenly everyone looked hostile. "If there's any trouble, this could go down mighty hard. Best we be prepared for it."
"Right." Buck said, and trotted off down the street toward the church.
Nathan watched him go, and tried not to think about what would happen if his newest fears became reality. Then he turned and trotted just as quickly back to JD.
+ + + + + + +
Concho Charles leaned against a post outside the saloon and casually lit a cheroot, blowing its white-grey smoke into the afternoon sunshine. Behind him, another man leaned against the saloon window, a scruffy-looking miscreant who looked at Concho with an expectant air.
After a few minutes the saloon doors opened, and Durning came out, leaning against the post right next to Concho. He struck a match against his shoe and lit a cigar of his own.
Concho looked at him. "You got the time?"
Durning nodded, took out his pocket watch, leaned toward Concho.
Concho said, "Midnight, next to the livery. Don't be late."
Durning's eyes flicked to him, and he said, "It's about two." In a lower voice he said, "Got it."
Concho searched the boardwalk around them. It was empty, so he said, "I'm about to make you and your friends rich men. I hope you appreciate it enough to not bungle this."
Durning's eyes burned with avarice. "They're not my friends. We're just stuck here together. But you can count on me."
Concho smiled. "I knew I could."
Durning frowned suddenly. "You sure about this?"
Concho's smile grew slicker. "Chaos, my friend. And it's gotten worse. They'll never notice us."
Durning smiled back, a weasel's smile. "Great. I'm lookin' forward to this."
Concho leaned back against the post, puffed his cheroot, and didn't look at Durning again. After a moment Durning turned and went back into the saloon, puffing on his cigar with an air of confidence.
Concho watched the man go, shook his head in disgust. The scruffy-looking man sauntered up to him and growled, "That's our break-in man? You're crazy."
"Quiet, Torres," Concho answered in silky tones. "He'll do. I have a message for you to take to the boys."
Torres didn't look convinced, kept looking after Durning. "What is it?"
Concho looked across the street, noticed one of the town's law going by, the moustached one. He was hurrying, looked worried. In his wake, Concho noticed people were staring at him and scowling.
Concho paused, took a drag on the cheroot, blew out his words in a trail of white smoke.
"Tell them the door is about to open." he said to Torres with a smile, watching the gunslinger disappear into the sunshine, "And I want them to be ready."
+ + + + + + +
As the sun began its downward journey, six tense men gathered on Nathan's porch.
Nathan had arrived first, somewhat surprised to find JD asleep and Ezra sitting pensively by his bedside, flipping a deck of cards through his fingers and gazing at the boy with a thoughtful expression. When Ezra related what had happened earlier, Nathan could offer no more comfort than to say, sometimes he'd seen men with JD's injuries bounce back, and be just fine. And it's not so bad that JD's mad about it. He might just be mad enough to make those legs walk again, you know how he likes to show off. Ezra nodded, but it was in the gambler's green eyes. He was not entirely convinced.
JD was still asleep when Buck and Josiah arrived. Buck went straight to JD's side, sat down in the chair that had become his second home, told them to get him when Vin got there. Josiah stayed out on the porch, out of Buck's earshot, and as Nathan lit a cigar asked in a low voice, "How's it lookin', doc?"
Nathan eyed Josiah carefully, glanced to see Ezra stretching his legs on the other side of the balcony. Then he let his shoulders droop and shook his head. "His memory might come back, but...I don't know what to do about the other problem." Josiah turned a concerned eye to the half-open door, the pool of sunlight inside. "He's a fighter."
Nathan nodded, but his expression was bitter. "He's gonna need every ounce of it to fight what's wrong with him. At least he don't know it was Chris that done it."
The grey eyes were on him, dark and troubled. "Think he'll ever remember?"
Nathan took a drag on the cigar, blew it out. "Maybe not. I've seen folks, like in the war, they never remember the shell that took off their arm, or the cannonball that took off their legs. Sometimes the mind just blocks out what it can't handle."
Josiah's eyes traveled to the door again. "Then it's a blessing if JD never remembers what Chris did to him. I doubt Chris will ever forget."
"Yeah, well, why should he?" Nathan said angrily, leaning his elbows on the railing. "I wish he was here, instead of runnin'. I'd make him change those bandages myself, and he'd be sober when he did it too, so's he got nothin' blocking his memory. I don't want him to ever forget what he done to that boy."
Josiah listened, looked at his hands as he leaned next to Nathan. "I hear you, doc. But you didn't see Chris' eyes that night in the church. There's no doubt in my mind he went out seeking repentance, not escape. And I may be alone in this, but I hope he finds it."
"Yeah, well..." Nathan took another drag, a long one, and blew the smoke out, said nothing for a minute. Then, still gazing out on the street he said in a low voice, "Repentant or not, he gets around me he better be ready to pay. Cause I seen that poor boy's ribs too many times to let it go."
Josiah reached out, patted Nathan's arm.
But Nathan wasn't finished. His eyes turning hard he said, "I keep thinkin', it's like when I was a boy on the plantation. One of us would try to run, or mouth off, or not shine the carriage up just right, and there'd be a whippin'. My mama didn't want me to watch, but I had to, cause I couldn't figure it out." He turned to Josiah then, eyes suddenly childlike and full of bewilderment. "I'd stand there thinkin', the man's cryin' out. The white man whippin' him, he's got to know it hurts. He's got to, and he keeps doin' it. And I'd ask my mama, why's he do that to that man if he knows it hurts?"
Nathan paused, took another drag, and when he looked back at Josiah his eyes were brittle, full of old anger. "I 'm really hopin' Chris comes back, cause I got questions for him. Questions I been meanin' to ask somebody all my life. Questions like, how come you can't stop it? You know it ain't right, and you let it go on. You know you're hurtin' folks, how can you not care? You gave up the power to change things, and now just look at what's come out of it. How could you?"
They were half-yelled, even in Nathan's low tones. There was nothing Josiah could say.
Nathan backed up a step, took another drag, let it drift out over the streets and nodded to himself. "Yeah, that' s the one question I got, and it ain't never gonna get answered. How could you."
Josiah peered down at the floorboards, knew that any attempt at sympathy would be an insult. So he remained silent, and Nathan went back to smoking his cigar.
A minute later Vin walked up the stairs, still wiping sleep out of his eyes.
"Buck told me we got trouble," he said simply as Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra gathered around him. He tipped his head toward the door. "How's JD?"
"Sleepin'," Nathan responded as the door behind him opened partially and Buck came out, leaning against the doorframe.
Vin nodded, then looked at Nathan with a bewildered expression. "What's this I hear about Conklin gettin' voted in as sheriff?"
Nathan made a face, but it was Ezra who answered as he watched the cards in his hands. "Yes, indeed. It seems being able to actually defend oneself and intimidate people is not a prerequisite for being the constabulary in this town."
"So it's true?" Vin asked, and he looked more than a little worried.
Nathan nodded. "I s'pose it is
Question is, what does that mean for us?"
"More time to fix up the church," Josiah said with a quiet smile.
Ezra grinned at him and added, "I might actually be able to enjoy a poker game without worrying about getting shot at."
Vin wasn't smiling. "If there's any trouble between now and when the judge gets back, Conklin won't be able to handle it."
"And that is our business how?" Ezra asked lightly. "If the good people of this fair city do not see fit to accept our further services, I for one do not feel a pressing need to render them. I do not go where I am not wanted."
"Lot of nervous people in this town," Vin said quietly with the same grieved expression. "Their blood's up, but it won't last. They need protectin'."
"And they have it," Ezra said sarcastically, flipping the cards in his manicured hands. "In the person of Mr. Conklin, lion of Four Corners. We've been replaced; what else is there to say?"
Josiah was shaking his head. "We've got a bunch of scared people here who don't know what they're doing. When the outlaws start coming, it will be like the plagues of Egypt. This place will be a ghost town in a month."
Ezra's eyes never left the cards. "Sounds like a good time to raise our fees."
The sound of someone coming up the stairs made everyone pause, and Josiah leaned over the railing just as Mary appeared, looking as if she hadn't slept in a year.
"Ma'am," Vin said, touching his hat. The others followed suit, but Mary barely acknowledged them.
"Gentlemen," She said, in almost pleading tones, "I - I know I'm probably interrupting, but ... well, I trust you've heard about what happened."
"You mean Mr. Conklin proclaiming himself sole lawkeeper of the known territory?" Ezra asked with a smile.
Mary let out an exasperated sigh and clutched her skirts. "I just wanted you to know, I had nothing to do with it. It's - well, it's absurd! And I'm sure Orin will set things right just as soon as he arrives." So please don't go, her tone said, but Mary stopped before those words left her lips, and looked around her in pleading dismay.
Nathan looked at the others, then back at Mary. "We know you ain't involved, ma'am. We're just tryin' to figure out what' s best to do."
"Do? Well - " Mary seemed to be breathing very fast. "Well, it's simple, really, just go about your business, and when Orin arrives day after tomorrow he'll talk to Mr. Conklin and everything will be back to the way it was."
"Except the people don't want it the way it was," Josiah pointed out. "Pardon me, Mrs. Travis, but I'm not sure we're welcome here anymore."
Buck was leaning back, looking into the room, and Mary's eyes flew to him for a moment as she sputtered, "Well, of course you - " She paused, closed her mouth, read the truth in Josiah's eyes, and Nathan's, as the preacher shook his head.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Travis," Josiah said. "But if people won't accept our help, we can't give it."
Mary's face was one of shock, and she looked around the group in amazement. "Well, you're - you're not just going to give up! What about JD? You're not just going to abandon him, are you?"
"Now, no one said they were leavin', Miz Travis," Nathan said, raising his hands in a calming gesture. "Leastways, I ain't goin' nowhere, cause this is my home. But if folks is scared of us, an' thinkin' we're the enemy, well..." He paused, shrugged with a helpless look on his face. "What can we do?"
Mary opened her mouth, closed it again, cast her eyes once again on the men around her. She had seldom felt so helpless in her whole life.
Vin's voice. Mary looked at him.
"If there's trouble - I mean real trouble - can Conklin handle himself at all?"
Mary heaved a breath in, shook her head and let it out again. "I don't think so."
Vin nodded. "Well, I can't stand by and watch a man get himself murdered just cause he's got the brains of a jackrabbit. I reckon you got my gun for a little while yet."
Mary gave him a small, appreciative smile.
"Like I said," Nathan remarked around his cigar smoke. "I ain't goin' nowhere."
Mary looked at Ezra, who gave her a cockeyed smile before going back to flipping his cards.
"Dear Lord," he muttered. "If mother ever hears of this, I'll be completely disowned."
"We'll keep watch, Mary," Josiah said evenly, looking at her with his sad eyes. "But Conklin has legal authority. We cross him, we'll end up in jail. And we can't help anybody from there."
"I know," Mary said tiredly, running one hand across her forehead. "I just - I just needed to know that there was someone I could count on. It's - getting a little frightening."
Josiah gave her a reassuring smile. It felt warm to her, and Mary wondered how he did it. Maybe even he didn't know.
"So we agreed?" Vin said, casting his blue eyes around the group. "We keep an eye out. We see anything, we tell Conklin, but we stay out of it till it's obvious he needs our help. Then I don't reckon even he's gonna turn his nose up at it. All right?"
There were general nods, weary and accepting. Mary glanced around the cluster on the balcony, thought how strange it was that everyone was there except Chris. And yet - Vin had taken quiet command, and they were listening to him. She felt as if the hole Chris had left had narrowed, and was closing. They were all accepting the unspoken truth that they all knew: Chris was no longer their leader. Seven had become six.
Or five, Mary thought suddenly, her eyes flicking to the door to where JD still lay, amnesiac and unable to walk. But no - she wasn't ready to think about that possibility yet. Not yet.
The men seemed to drift apart then, except for Buck, who turned to go back into the room. Mary approached him and said, "Mr. Wilmington?"
Buck turned back to her, sad and tired. "Ma'am?"
She paused, then said, "I - I didn't hear your response. How do you feel about all this?"
Buck looked at her, pursed his lips. Mary saw the tremendous hurt in his eyes, that had been there for three straight days, and Mary realized she couldn't remember what he had looked like before. He leaned against the doorpost, cast a look at the sleeping figure in the bed, then looked at Mary with such sorrow, fear and hatred mixed in his blue eyes that she felt a horrible shock in her stomach. She waited.
Buck cleared his throat and said in a raw voice, "I think the whole situation stinks. You'll excuse me, ma'am."
And went into Nathan's room, closing the door.
+ + + + + + +A dark room, one lamp. Holding hands, don't suffer anymore, mama. I'll be all right. Her hand getting colder, colder, oh, no, oh, please, no -
People in black, whispers, a cold day. Some money, but not enough, and scared, so scared, all alone now.
What can i do?
Running, running, get away that's all. A train, going west, nothing for me here anymore. It's okay, she understands. I can't have college but I can have this.
I can have this.
A stagecoach, never rode in one before. Hot, dusty, in my mouth. They're staring but I don't care. Gunshots. Is that what they sound like? Oh my gosh, here, here, get off here, don' t even wait for it to slow down just jump jump jump. Ha!
Cold, friendly. I'll show them I can shoot. Following. He thinks he's so smart, I just want to prove to you that I can...
Just want to prove...
Dark, it's too dark, can't see. So tired. Getting colder, forgot my coat.
Lights, a few, not enough, down this way. There he is. Chris? Chris?
- oh -
+ + + + + + +
JD gasped himself awake to see Buck's concerned face hanging over him in the lamplight, the setting sun casting golden squares onto the walls behind him. He felt the light weight of the gunslinger's hands as he held them on JD's shoulders.
JD blinked, let out a shaky breath. He hurt all over, and his heart was racing as fast as a rabbit's.
"Buck?" he croaked, trying to shake the hair out of his eyes; even that slight movement brought forth a burst of agony. "What - "
Then he stopped. He knew who Buck was.
Well, of course. Images raced through JD's mind, a smart-ass man with a moustache who had joked and roughhoused with him in the Seminole village, and later saved his life. Not once, but twice. JD blinked; the blank face of yesterday filled in, swelled and became known, and it was Buck. His friend Buck. Of course.
+ + + + + + +
For Buck's part, he'd been worried since he noticed the pained look on JD's battered face as he slept. Then JD had started moaning and twitching. Buck had become a little alarmed, had decided to risk incurring Nathan's wrath and wake the kid, to get him out of whatever nightmare world he was in.
But he hadn't been prepared for what he saw in those brown eyes when the moaning eased, stopped, and the long-lashed eyelids trembled, then opened.
A little confusion. Then, miraculously, recognition.
Recognition. Jesus Christ.
"Well - " Buck's heart soared at the familiarity present in JD's eyes, and he fumbled with embarrassment, coughed. "Well, hey there, kid."
JD peered at Buck, his eyes still confused. "You trying to kiss me or somethin'?"
"Well - you were havin' a nightmare, kid," Buck said with an overjoyed grin as he eased himself back in the chair by JD's bedside. "You were startin' to get a little active there. You OK?"
JD nodded a little, licked his lips and winced.
Buck saw this, cocked his head. "JD?"
The youth grimaced, swallowed uncertainly. "Got a bad taste in my mouth."
"How about some water, then," Buck suggested, walking around the bed to the pitcher.
JD's voice followed him, still a little faint but more certain. "I - I think I'm starting to remember things. Besides who you are, I mean."
"Y'are?" Buck looked up hopefully from where he was pouring water into a glass. Hurrying back with it he said, "Like what?"
JD paused as Buck returned with the glass, setting it down and carefully arranging JD's pillows so the boy was sitting up enough to drink. JD sucked in his breath as Buck gently eased him up. His averted eyes told Buck he was fighting a lot of pain.
Buck handed JD the glass and sat down, looking at him eagerly. JD stared at the glass mournfully for a few moments and then said in a soft voice, "My mama..."
Buck leaned close, nodded sympathetically. When JD didn't speak for a moment, just looked at the water glass, he patted the youth's arm and said, "I know, son, it's tough. I'm sorry."
JD sniffed a little, took a drink, swallowed with some effort. Then he changed the subject. "I remember you now."
"Is that right!" Buck grinned with genuine joy. "Only the good stuff, I hope."
JD nodded. "You saved my life."
Buck stroked his moustache, not sure which time JD was referring to. "Well, you know - "
"Did Nathan stitch your chest up?"
Buck blinked. "Did he - "
JD's brown eyes swept Buck up and down. "I must have been out for a week. You look all right. Does it hurt?"
Buck was beginning to catch on. "Does my chest hurt?"
"Yeah - you know, from where that reb got you with the saber."
Buck winced. "JD, that was over six months ago."
JD looked extremely confused for a moment. "No it wasn't. It was just..." He paused, and his face fell. "Oh."
Buck sighed, gave JD's arm a light, encouraging slap. "Don't worry, JD, it'll all come back to ya. Just takes time, is all. You remember anything else?"
JD stared at the ceiling a moment, shrugged with his one good shoulder. "The others. Chris, and Vin. Josiah, Ezra, Nathan." He pursed his lips. "I remember you think you're so hot with the ladies."
"Hmph." Buck folded his arms in mock anger. "Your memory's still faulty, son. I KNOW I'm well-liked by the ladies."
JD chuckled, and Buck felt like laughing himself. He was back. JD was back.
It almost made up for everything else...
JD's brow knit with concentration as he watched the lamplight flicker on the ceiling. "Hey, Buck?"
A pause. "I think I'm beginning to remember what happened. I mean, how I got here."
Buck felt a chill. "You do?"
JD nodded, bringing up one scratched hand to gingerly touch the stitches that sat like a spider just behind his hairline. His eyes were focused on something Buck couldn't see as he said, "I - I don't know, I just get...dark. Somewhere dark. And..." His eyes went to Buck's, questioning. "Chris?"
The chill went colder. Buck tried to keep his face calm. "What about Chris?"
"He's...I guess I had a dream about him. Where is he?"
Buck paused, looked at the floor. Don't tell the boy. He couldn't handle it.
"Did he go someplace? I don't remember seeing him."
Buck cleared his throat. "Well, son, he did go...he went after the sumbitch who did this to you." It wasn't a lie.
JD's eyes widened. "You mean I was attacked?"
"Well - " Buck suddenly felt panicked. He didn't know what was safe to tell JD, and what he should let the kid remember on his own. Best to err on the side of caution. "You're sayin' you don't remember?"
JD felt the stitches, closed his eyes. The bruised face flushed with concentration, and finally he shook his head. "Not really. Just...a few pictures. Just the dark, and then..." He trailed off, closed his eyes.
Buck took advantage of JD's not being able to see him anymore to lean forward in the chair and run his hands over his face, once, then again. He looked at JD. The crisis was over, at least for the moment, but the kid still looked so...so broken, all bruises and cuts and fragmented memory, his arm still bound to his side, his face still a jigsaw puzzle of pale cream and dark blue. It would be months, maybe, before he would be all right, but before that they had to get him walking again, and before that probably Chris would either come back, and JD would realize that his hero had beaten him senseless, or Chris wouldn't come back, and Buck would have to tell JD why they were forming a posse against his icon. And to top it all off, Conklin had gotten himself made sheriff, and that had to be settled too, one way or another. It would be a rough ride, no matter how you looked at it.
No matter. Buck knew he wasn't going anywhere till it was through. He didn't care if people were giving him dirty looks. Hell, he didn't care if they tried to pull him out of there with a hangman's noose. Chris was gone, well, good riddance, but JD was here and he needed a friend. And Buck had a vacancy in that department.
Buck looked at JD, thought he was asleep, but as he rose to go outside and get some fresh air, the boy opened his eyes and said, "Hey, Buck?"
Buck swung back toward his young friend, tried to arrange his visage into pleasant, unworried features. "Yeah, kid?"
"You said Chris went after whoever did this to me?"
"Uh - yeah. Yeah, he did."
A look of admiration crossed JD's beaten face. "Gosh. He hardly knows me. I can't believe Chris Larabee is doing that for me."
Buck cleared his throat. "Well, he's...that's the kind of man Chris is."
JD nodded, winced as his sore collarbone nagged him, but smiled at Buck. "He'll get 'em too. You watch."
Buck had always kept a reasonably tight rein on his emotions, but the quiet confidence that burned in JD's eyes as he talked about Chris nearly brought him to tears. Buck did his best to smile, but it hurt, it really hurt to smile, and as JD's eyes drifted shut Buck still looked at him and prayed, I hope you never remember. He watched JD until the boy's bruised face grow slack in the dying glow of the setting sun, and still he prayed. Dear God in Heaven. I hope you never remember.
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