by Sevenstars


As if he felt Ezra’s eyes on him, Tanner’s own focused, and he slowly brought the harmonica down from his lips in cupped hands. He never moved from where he sat; in his dun-colored buckskins he could have been a part of the very hay and timbers around him, except that none of them ever had the hue of the double-breasted magenta hickory shirt or blue-and-white polka-dot bandanna he wore, the bands of beadwork that circled the crown of his hat and the hem and cuffs of the jacket, or the round rosettes sprinkled along the line where the jacket’s yoke met the body.

He seemed to draw the silence to him, until it lapped about both of them and spread to lay a hush on all the loft; even the rustling of the mice and the cooing of the doves gave way to it. It was not an intimidating or an exclusive silence, rather one that welcomed and soothed.

He breathed into the harmonica again, a sigh as of breeze brushing its way through a curtain of beads. There was no challenge to his cool yet vivid eyes, only a mild interest. His voice was low and raspy, as if he were more used to breathing sand than talking, and he spoke quietly as if to a half-wild colt or a frightened, orphan animal.

"Aloneness ain’t a bad thing," he said. "Friend of mine says that bein’ alone where you cain’t hear no voice but God’s is somethin’ folks been doin’ a long spell. Says Moses sought the silence and solitude of Midian afore God would speak to him, King David was a shepherd boy in the Judean hills, the prophet Elijah lived in a cave. Even Lord Jesus done his forty days and nights fastin’ in the wilderness, resistin’ Satan’s traps, afore he begun his ministry. ’Siah--that’s his name, this friend--he says we’re all still close enough to the beasts of the field that we hunt for a place to be alone with our thoughts when we’re confused or bad hurt or lookin’ for guidance. Injuns do it too. Ain’t a brave in the tribes I know ain’t gone out on a high place somewheres, at least one time, maybe more, to starve and smoke and pray till a vision of help come to him, to show him the way his life should go and the things he should do to call the spirits to his aid." There was a wistful note in the quiet voice that Ezra couldn’t understand. "But a man too much alone can drown in hisself. Times you got to look around and see how help can come from other folks. And it ain’t just a lookin’ you do with your eyes. Trust don’t come through seein’, it comes from somethin’ I ain’t plumb sure we got a word for yet."

For once in his young life Ezra was totally at a loss for a response. All he could manage was, "How did you know I was here?"

A hint of a crooked smile curved the young man’s lips. "You done left the loft door cracked open. We never do that. It don’t rain too often out here, but when it does, ’specially this time of year, it’s like to be cloudbursts and wind. Don’t want none of it gettin’ in here. Wet hay gets moldy and sometimes it takes fire all of its own accord." He looked down briefly, then past Ezra’s shoulder in a nonthreatening, contemplative way. "Funny thing happened this mornin’. Me and Chris and Adam come out to do the barn work, was a strange horse standin’ at the corral bars. Blood bay mare, seventeen hands, race and snip on the face, white sock on the off hind, Hooked M brand on the left shoulder. No gear on her, just her shoes." His eyes shifted to meet Ezra’s. "Now that horse was reported stole from Rincon County a few days back. Thief must’a been takin’ her north and she slipped away from him, come here on account of she smelt our stock."

"How do you happen to know she was stolen?" Ezra asked.

" ’Cause Chris is the sheriff in these parts, and I’m kind of a deputy. JD--he’s th’other main one, stays in town mostly and sees to the jail--he fetched the telegram out for us to see after he got it."

Oh, Lord, the boy thought, of all the utterly impossible, witless, self-incriminatory things to do...a peace officer! And you are domiciled in his home, on his ranch, under his eye! Mother would be aghast. "Why?" he demanded.

Tanner seemed to understand exactly what he was asking. "Folks talk a lot about first impressions," he said slowly, "but they ain’t always true. And every man’s got a reason for the things he does; mostly to him it seems like a real good reason." He paused, thinking over what he wanted to say before he said it. "When I’s a little feller--younger’n what Buck is, even--my ma died of the putrid fever. There wasn’t nobody else to look after me, and pretty soon I started gettin’ hungry, so I took out walkin’. Comanche huntin’ party come on me, took me with ’em, and I spent the next seven years in their lodges. Then right after the War ended, th’Army found me there and seen I ’s white, so they took me back. Only I didn’t feel white no more. Looked it maybe, but didn’t feel it. Spent the next year and more fightin’ bein’ made a white boy, runnin’ off, once even took a knife to a feller ’cause he tried to gimme a lickin’--Injuns don’t lick their kids, and me bein’ near old enough to be a warrior, I sure wasn’t figurin’ to let nobody lay hands on me. Then I found Chris, or he found me. We’d never met till then, and yet he seemed to understand how it was with me. He led me back, easy and gentle, like you’d do a scared young colt--saddle-broke me, the slow way, you might say." His hand brushed across the beadwork on his sleeve. "Nowadays some folks see me, they think first off I’m a halfbreed. But that ain’t true neither, no more’n that I ’s Comanche--or white exac’ly. First impressions, see? Wrong all around. Only nobody ever stopped to ask me why I ’s doin’ the things I done. Iffen they had, maybe it wouldn’t been so rough on me settlin’ back in amongst my own people."

"And so?" Ezra pressed. "I see that you wonder why two homesteaders’ boys, orphaned by Indians, would have been in possession of a stolen horse. Clearly you were able to follow her trail from wherever you discovered her back to the thicket where you found us. But if you recall, I never specified on what day the attack occurred. Might it not be that our father was a horse thief? That he absconded with the animal as his final act, and died, perhaps, within twenty-four hours thereafter?"

Tanner nodded. "Thought of that. More’n one ’steader gets desperate enough, what with short water and bad markets and such, that they’ll start dippin’ their toes in lawbreakin’. Hide a fugitive for pay, sell him supplies or trade him his wore-out horse for a fresh’un with a hundred dollars boot or so, run off a dozen head or so of cattle from a big neighbor, such as that. Ain’t no long step from there to horse thievin’, just one most men’d think hard on afore they took, knowin’ they’d be riskin’ a short rope off a long branch iffen they got caught. Could be, like you say. Could be your pa had this horse off in his far pasture just so’s no passin’-by posse that took it in mind to search his barn ’d find her." Again his eyes met Ezra’s, not with challenge, but a sort of quiet sadness. "Could be. But I don’t reckon it is. First off, you don’t talk like no ’steader’s boy I ever met--and Chris says the same."

"I explained that to Mrs. Larabee this mornin’," Ezra told him stiffly.

"Bet you had a good story for it, too," said Vin. Then his hand darted out, quick as a striking snake, and grasped Ezra’s wrist, not with the painful twisting grip of punishment or detention, just a firm irresistible hold. It turned his hand palm up and the other forefinger forced his curled digits apart, tracing the lines of freshly healed blisters on the soft skin. "You done told us you and Buck and your folks been out here five years now. Any boy’s been helpin’ out on a farm, even if he ain’t done no real heavy work, ’d have toughened up his hands in that time to where they didn’t blister up no more. Adam’s don’t, and this ain’t even ’xac’ly a farm, we jus’ produce a fair bit of our own food." He relaxed his grip and Ezra yanked his hand back reflexively. "So, I’m thinkin’ you ain’t no farm boy. But somethin’s made you figure it that you ain’t got nobody to depend on ’cep’n you, maybe that you ain’t worth nobody takin’ the trouble to care about you. Know how that is. Been there." This time the blue eyes were bright and diamond-hard. "Thing is, these folks here is my fam’ly. Done lost two fam’lies in my time already, first my ma and then the Comanch’. Ain’t figurin’ on losin’ no others. Don’t want no nasty surprises comin’ down the road at ’em." Again a pause to give Ezra time to think this over. "Now, there ain’t no way we can report this here stole horse yet a spell, not till Nate figures out just what it is Buck’s sick with and whether he needs to go on keepin’ us in quarantine. But judgin’ by what he said last night, that ain’t like to take too much longer. Maybe only a couple more days. I’m knowin’ you got Buck on your mind, and till you’re sure how his chances are, it ain’t fair dealin’s to push you. So I ain’t fixin’ to. All’s I’m wantin’ is for you to think some on which is better, tanglin’ others up in your trouble or sharin’ it and maybe makin’ it lighter to bear. You was sayin’ to Nate last night, a gentleman don’t let his doctor’s bills go unpaid. Does he let other folks get in a hard spot on his account? Or does he own up that he’s in a fix, and maybe see can they help him through it?"

Ezra said nothing, though it occurred to him to wonder at how well a man’s appearance could conceal so accurate a sense for the obligations of honor. "One thing more," Tanner went on seriously. "Comanch’ taught me how to be patient. Chris, he ain’t so easygoin’ as me, nor so forgivin’. Part of that’s just who he is, part’s that he knows he’s the head man in this fam’ly and we’re all dependin’ on him--plus so’s Judge Travis, who pinned the badge on him, and all the folks ’round these parts that care whether the law gets enforced and the bad’un’s put away where they can’t do no more hurt. Iffen a man comes to him, admits he ain’t been plumb honest, but is willin’ to explain why and to do better from there on, Chris’ll call him on it, tell him not to do it again, and forget it. As long as you ain’t done hurt to him or his, he’ll take you for who and what you’ve been while he’s knowed you. He don’t care none about what you was afore that. He’s been too long on the frontier to think any other way. But the one surest way to make him hate you is to hurt or even ’danger somebody that he loves, or sees as innocent or his job to take care of. Might be you didn’t have time to think just how much harm you could be doin’ by tellin’ a lie. Might be you was just hopin’ to give yourself some time to make up your mind to us, to figure out could you trust us. Now I done give you a heap more to chew on, and I know you’ll be needin’ time to get past it. But I won’t be able to cover for you much longer. Wouldn’t want to without I knowed what might be follerin’ after you. So you think on it, Ev. You’re a smart feller, I seen that from the first. Got guts, too. Times it takes a lot more courage to own up than to keep on hidin’. You think, like I said." He stood, his fringes swaying gently, and wrapped a hand around the nearest upright of the ladder, swinging his wiry body down the shaft with casual grace. Before Ezra could do more than catch a breath, he was gone as quietly as he had come.


Saturday nights in Four Corners could be lively, to say the least, but didn’t usually ratchet up to a full roar until after dark, in part because many people had shopping to do before they gave themselves over to amusement, in part because while the working girls in the saloons might start coming downstairs in the early afternoon, the professional gamblers and the women in the cribs and bordellos weren’t ordinarily ready to receive customers until after they’d done their own errands (usually an afternoon activity, since they had to use the mornings to catch up on their sleep) and gotten dressed and made up. Until then, even the cowboys tended to restrict themselves to getting cleaned up, window-shopping, billiards and horseracing and other fairly innocent sports, and a little harmless girl-watching. JD and Josiah and Nathan had gotten into the habit of patrolling the town in a shifting pattern beginning around nine A.M., since altercations could arise over store bills, bank loans, and the like, but even without Chris and Vin to help out, it hadn’t been too bad up till now. They had agreed that each would take a little time out to eat while the other two covered for him, and the first to do this would be Josiah. When he entered the hotel dining room, he was surprised to see Maude Standish at a corner table with a man he didn’t recognize. He had hoped--although nothing definite had been set--that she would keep him company this evening; it would, he thought, have refreshed him for the long night of peacekeeping that lay ahead. He studied the pair thoughtfully and noted that Maude seemed to lack the vivacity and animation that had so charmed him during their times together. Instincts honed in more wars and fights than his sinful soul liked to contemplate set off an alarm in his mind, and he strolled casually over to the table. "Miss Maude," he said smoothly, removing his hat, "is everything all right?"

There was a shuttered look about her eyes and face, a coolness to her that he hadn’t seen before, but she responded politely. "Indeed, Mr. Sanchez. You need have no cause for concern. May I present Jarrod Addison, Sheriff of Rincon County? Mr. Addison, this is Josiah Sanchez, one of the peacekeepers of this lovely community."

Addison looked up and smiled a bland politician’s smile. "Mr. Sanchez," he acknowledged. He was perhaps Chris’s age or a little younger, a tall man, broad-shouldered and well-built, though perhaps beginning to get a little soft with good living, with perfectly groomed hair just starting to go a sort of piebald roan color with age, and a sweeping mustache that only half concealed a thin-lipped, rather harsh mouth. He wore a plain black frock coat with generous skirts, gray and black striped trousers tucked into polished knee-high black boots elaborately decorated and hand-tooled, long-shanked Texas spurs with eight-point rowels on the counters. A crisp ruffle spilled down the front of his white silk shirt, which was finished off with a high starched collar and a perfectly knotted red string tie, and a brilliant green brocade waistcoat over it. There was no sign of a badge, and not knowing his title, most people would have taken him for a successful cattleman, or perhaps a gambler; even his cream-colored Stetson, with its conservative carved-leather band and wide brim rolled on either side over the ears, and the businesslike black-bone-handled Remington at his side furthered the picture. But it was his soft well-kept hands--the hands of a gun for hire--and his eyes that gave him away. There was a certain look that all the best gunfighters had, cold, jade-hard, and expressionless, and for some reason their eyes generally seemed to be light in color--green, blue, or gray like Addison’s. And the face, despite its hearty handsomeness, had a certain subtle brutality graved deep into its lines, such as always seemed typical of men who were peace officers but little concerned with justice. Josiah disliked him immediately, and not just because of Maude, or even of what he’d heard about the way Addison ran his county.

He made his excuses and went off in search of JD, supper forgotten. He found the young deputy, with Nathan’s help, separating a couple of homesteaders who’d been going at it for reasons unclear. "JD, can you spare a minute?" he asked.

"Well, I guess so--Nathan, can you take these fellas down to the jail and throw ’em in a couple cells till they cool down? Better not put ’em in together or they’re likely to just keep on like they started. What’s up, Josiah?" he added, as the healer dragged the two farmers off by the scruffs of their necks, ignoring the occasional wild pokes they continued to take at each other.

"Have you heard anything more about Miss Maude’s son?"

"Well, not exactly," JD admitted. "Had a telegram from some stageline agent down in El Paso named Gilleran--said he was out with the ague around the time the kid would’a gone through town, so he couldn’t swear to him bein’ there, but there’s a driver named Mason Danner on his way up here by way of Santa Fe, Gilleran says he might have some information that’s related to the case. From what he said, I figure Danner should get in Monday. Why?"

"Jarrod Addison’s in town," said Josiah flatly.

"You sure?"

"He’s in the Gem dining room this minute, having supper with Miss Maude--she introduced us," Sanchez explained. "Now we figured the boy would come straight north from El Paso, though we can’t be dead sure; he could have taken the same route this Danner is taking--it’s a little longer, but it would get him here eventually. The only person who could tell us which is the agent who sold him his ticket, and that isn’t happening. But if he did take the more direct way, he’d have had to go through Broken Bow, and that’s Addison’s town. So why is Addison here in ours, and having a meal with the mother of a missing boy who conveniently might have passed through his territory?"

"You think it means something?"

"We’ve all heard rumors enough of the man’s methods--but Miss Maude is a stranger and may not have," Josiah observed. "It just seems a little too coincidental, that’s all I’m saying."

JD considered and shook his head. "I dunno, Josiah, it’s kinda shaky ground to base anything on. Are you sure you’re not just a little bit jealous?" He shrank back a bit as the big man’s expression darkened. "Still, if he’s up here officially, he should’a checked in, that’s plain courtesy. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to go over and have a little talk with him."

A few minutes later Addison was distracted from his supper companion by a light, even voice behind him. "Jarrod Addison?"

"That’s my name, yes." He turned in his chair to find himself facing a slight, black-haired young man in a three-piece brown suit and Eastern bowler, twin ivory-handled Colt Lightnings around his waist. His first, very natural, supposition was that this was some young wannabe out to challenge him and assume the mantle of his reputation; he’d encountered his share of the type before, as did any gunfighter once he began to build a name. "What can I do for you?"

"You can tell me what your business is in Four Corners," the kid replied.

Addison was surprised but not about to show it. "Hardly any of yours, boy," he said.

The kid turned back the lapel of his coat to reveal a nickel-plate star pinned beneath it. "First Deputy JD Dunne," he declared, "and that makes it my business, you bein’ a little off your range, Sheriff."

Addison shifted tracks of thought and turned on his politician’s charm. "Well, yes, I suppose I am," he agreed. "But I haven’t encroached on your authority, have I, Deputy? And I haven’t broken any laws here that I’m aware of, unless a casual stopover and a meal with a lovely lady has suddenly been made illegal."

JD got the feeling he was being laughed at, and he didn’t like it. Broken Bow wasn’t so far away that any man coming from there who was accustomed to riding should feel compelled to stop and rest here--unless his horse had come up lame, in which case why wouldn’t he just say it had? But he wasn’t going to start a fight in a crowded hotel dining room; there were too many innocent people around who might get hurt. He really didn’t have any cause to make an issue out of Addison’s presence; he couldn’t prove anything on him, rumors notwithstanding, and even if he could have, his authority only involved Four Corners and its environs, not any felonies or misdemeanors committed in Rincon County. "You’re not here on business?" he pressed.

"If I were, I’d have stopped at your office and told you so, just as I’d expect you to do if you came down to Broken Bow in an official capacity," said Addison.

Maude followed the exchange with narrowed eyes, hoping that this young deputy, whom she had heretofore considered at least something approaching a gentleman, would back off before he queered the whole deal. As a grifter, she had had to develop, and train to a high degree of acuteness, a number of important traits, including the ability to estimate other people accurately at little more than a moment’s window of opportunity, to think fast, and to react to changing situations as they demanded. When Sheriff Addison had first introduced himself last evening, while she was en route to the hotel for midday dinner, she had sensed something not quite right in the man, or in the story he told. It had been plausible enough on the surface: that he was the sheriff in the next county south; that twelve days ago a northbound stage had arrived in the town where he had his office, and its driver had reported a passenger kidnapped on the road between there and the third relay stop down, describing the victim as a slight, fair-skinned, green-eyed, well-dressed boy named Ezra Standish, who spoke with a Southern accent and had told the driver he was bound to Four Corners to meet his mother; that Addison had immediately led a posse in pursuit of the abductors, but had been unable to find them despite five days on the trail; that he had returned to his office to find that an anonymous note had been tucked under the door while his deputy was out, demanding a thousand dollars in ransom for young Standish’s safe return; and that, not wanting her to receive this news by a cold, unfeeling telegram, he had ridden up to find her and give her the word. All very logical--but Addison didn’t realize what he was dealing with. It was said that it took a thief to catch a thief; Maude believed it took a con to smell a con, and she smelled one now. Addison was far too genial and sympathetic, too smooth, and he had too pat an answer for everything. She recognized a mirror of herself in him--but he wasn’t as subtle as he wanted to believe. In addition, Ezra knew better than to confide his destination and business there in anyone, even a stage driver he would probably never see again. When Addison offered to serve as a go-between, to drop the ransom off as the note had instructed and to see that her son was returned to her, she knew without any doubt that he was somehow involved in this abduction.

When she first came to Four Corners, she had hesitated a little over the concept of approaching the law for help; in her business it was better not to call the attention of the legal machinery to oneself--and in any case she had never had much respect for peace officers as individuals. But she had also recognized that she was out of her element in this wild, dusty country, and that there could be any number of quite legitimate reasons for Ezra’s tardiness; he might even have fallen ill somewhere in the course of his journey. She had selected this rendezvous precisely because it was so small and out of the way; no one would expect a grifter to stop there for any length of time--cons were best run in larger communities, where people didn’t all know one another. At the same time it was a crossroads of travel, with a stage going through in one direction or another almost every day of the week, which meant that there were several possible escape routes in case of need. She had very little fear that the local law would recognize her; she knew very well that people who have been conned are more often than not embarrassed to admit they’ve been tricked, and so fail to report what has happened. But now she also knew that her son was very probably in danger, and that only by making Addison think her ineffectual, then calling for assistance after he had departed to deliver the money to his cohorts, could she save him.

She reasoned that if Addison were indeed hand in glove with the kidnappers, he might or might not know where Ezra actually was, but certainly the boy would be in some secure place, probably guarded, and his abductors would expect to hear from Addison within a certain period of time. In fact he’d as much as told her so himself, saying that he would need to be back in Broken Bow no later than Friday, the exchange being set for next Saturday when the town would be busy and full of people. She knew she could report her suspicions and try to have him arrested, but that would still leave Ezra in the hands of his accomplices even if she was able to convince the peacekeepers that there was in fact a scheme afoot. It would be better to seem to go along, to lull him into a false sense of security, and then to send the law after him when he was convinced that he’d gotten what he wanted. It was chancy, but taking chances was part of her business.

She had played the part of a worried mother, willing to pay any price for her child’s liberty, but had told Addison that, while she did have a letter of credit for her expenses in San Francisco, she didn’t want to cash it in Four Corners and find herself carrying a large amount of cash the rest of the way. She would need to telegraph her bank in St. Louis to send her the precise amount of the ransom, which, if all went well, could reach her in about three days. She had counted on Addison knowing enough not to be obvious about what he was doing, and letting her go about that business without his supervision. He had met her expectations and had agreed to meet her this evening so she could update him on the response, if any, that she had gotten from the telegram she would send. In actual fact she had no intention of risking hard-earned money when there was no need for it. She would simply work a variation of the pigeon drop on him, and then, once he was out of town, would go to Deputy Dunne and pretend to have believed in his honesty, but suggest that Addison might need some help in extracting Ezra from his captors’ clutches.

That had been her plan at first, but now, seeing that the deputy for some reason liked Addison no more than she did, she decided it would be possible to change the story she had meant to tell. Apparently these peacekeepers were honest men who had some cause to think Addison wasn’t telling the whole truth about his business here. Although it went against Maude’s grain to trust anyone--especially officers of the law--she was a pragmatist who knew her own strengths and weaknesses, and knew she had no chance of dealing on their own terms with the man and whatever accomplices he had by herself. Now if only the two men didn’t get into a shootout right here in front of her-- She was debating whether to break in and offer her original version of events, knowing that Addison was the only link between her and Ezra at this moment, when she realized that the deputy’s body language suggested that he was going to back off, whether because he accepted Addison’s word or for some other reason.

JD was new to the West and lacked the keenly honed instincts of Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, or even Josiah, but he had been working for a living since he was eight years old, largely among adults, and had had to develop a keen insight into their moods and thought processes--who was a threat, who could be trusted, who had a short temper and who didn’t. It had been simply a matter of self-defense: when you were too small to defend yourself, you had to be able to estimate who to keep out of reach of. Colonel Colt’s double-actions might now make him the equal of men twice his size, but he still preferred to pick his own time and place for fights if he had any choice in the matter. Besides, he somehow got the feeling that Miz Standish wasn’t very happy about whatever was going on under the surface. "Guess that’s true," he said slowly. "Just keep in mind this ain’t your county. You get in trouble, you let us handle it."

"I’ve got no intention of getting in trouble," Addison assured him, and in that, at least, he thought the man was telling the truth. "And if anyone tries to make any with me, I’ll be perfectly happy to leave him to you."

"That’s good enough for me," said JD, and he touched his hat to Maude-- "Miz Standish--" and left the room.

Josiah was loitering just outside the doors to the street, where he’d be hard to see from inside. "Well?"

"Somethin’ don’t feel right," JD told him. "I got a notion we should maybe keep an eye on Sheriff Addison while he’s in town."


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