Chasfield took the Santa Fe stage out of town two days later. Buck and Ezra moved into the rooms above the store and began the process of settling in. As Buck had expected, Ezra took willingly to finicky detail work like sweeping, dusting, and making sure the displays were neat, the blankets and feed bags properly folded, and so forth. He didnt like to fetch in wood because it got his suit dirty, and he hadnt the height to wash the windows, but he enjoyed grooming and feeding both horses (once Buck had put in a couple of Sundays making alterations to the shed), even though he had to stand on a box to look after Plata, and he contentedly washed and dried the dishes after each meal, never dropping so much as a butter pat. He also made the beds and did the books, set the table and wiped it down, ran errands, and put away their groceries and any new small stock that came in. Buck for his part established a bank account, found a laundress who had room on her client list for a man and a small boy, began teaching Ezra how to braid leather--his deft fingers were wondrously well suited to it--and did the cooking, having learned his way around a stove in his time working cattle, as cowboys tended to. Although their shop didnt attract the volume of custom that Bucklins grocery store, or even Potters or Butterfields, did, all business and social life in this country depended on horses, and when a set of Concord harness sold for fifty-eight dollars, short-tug farm harness for thirty less than that, and a full-rigged stock saddle for anywhere from ten to a hundred and twenty (or more--as much indeed as three hundred--if it was heavily ornamented), it didnt take many sales to provide them with an adequate, if not a spectacular, income. Once or twice a week--always on Sunday--theyd eat at the hotel dining room or the restaurant. Mrs. Travis published a notice in her paper announcing the new ownership of the business, and was invariably gracious and friendly whenever Buck happened to encounter her in his wanderings around town. He liked her but made no attempt to court her. There were other women without her aura of sadness about them, most notably one who worked in the saloon and went by the name of Blossom.
They learned that Four Corners didnt have a doctor, though there had been one, up till he died about a year and a half ago. His place was filled now by Nathan Jackson, a tall Negro who was always careful to explain that he "wasnt a doctor, he just knew somethin about healing." Nathan had drifted into town about three years ago and ended up taking a position as a sort of apprentice to old Doc Brown, which had legitimized him in the eyes of the town, so that when Doc quietly slipped away in his sleep one night, the healer more or less inherited his job by default. He was very good with wounds and injuries of all kinds and a devoted user of herbal remedies. Ezra, who had of course met many black people, accepted him immediately and didnt seem bothered by the notion of a former slave practising what was in essence a major profession. In fact, the boy was fascinated by Jacksons methods and before too long was spending several hours each week at the clinic above Smiths feed store, stringing up plant matter to dry, pounding it in Nathans mortar and pestle once it had reached the proper consistency, rolling bandages, watching over potions on the stove if Nathan got called out, pasting labels on bottles, and so forth. For this Nathan insisted upon paying him fifty cents a week.
One Sunday the reformed gunslinger and his boy went out for a ride and decided to explore the waste country down south, which was gorgeous with color as the brief desert flowers burst into prodigal bloom on every hand. A dozen miles out or so they happened upon a crumbled old Mexican mission church with a crude lean-to nestled up against the south wall and a big sorrel horse grazing in the old garden. Here a burly barrel-chested man with curly graying hair was slowly and stolidly piling rocks one atop another. He greeted them with a kind of reserved cordiality and made no objection to their watering their horses at the mission well, which was still full, and eating their sandwiches under a flourishing fig tree, but didnt join them. "Name is Sanchez," he said when Buck asked, "Josiah Sanchez. Im doing penance." He offered no details.
Ezra eyed the man dubiously and didnt seem quite sure whether to trust him or not. Buck for his part had a vague memory of hearing, from the man whod taught him to use a handgun, about a somewhat notorious person by that name, who had killed three known men in gunfights in Texas back before the War, then disappeared for close to twenty years, only to resurface as town marshal of Ogallala, Nebraska, about six years back. Though not especially renowned for speed, hed shot five or six more men there, and once sent word to John Wesley Hardin that Hardin "wasnt wanted in my town." Hardin, taking him at his word, had avoided the place, and after a year or two Sanchez had handed in his badge and dropped out of sight again.
As February gave way to March, Buck began to get a feel for the political conditions in the area. There were two wealthy ranchers who dominated the range and were the banks chief depositors--Stuart James and Guy Royale--and a slew of smaller ones, plus some Mexican farmers and a few hopeful homesteaders and "stock farmers," people who had found that cultivation alone wouldnt support them in that arid country, and so had hedged their bets by turning to raising livestock, chiefly cattle, in fair numbers, often founding their herds on strays, lamed animals, and newborn calves left behind by trail drives. Like many big cowmen, James and Royale thought they ought to run the whole show, and their cowhands tended to make a considerable fuss on paydays. Theyd driven the preacher right out of his church about two years ago, and ever since then theyd been leaning more and more heavily on the townsfolk. Quite a few of the more timid citizens had decided to try their luck elsewhere, which accounted for all the vacancies in the business district. Mary Travis was the central figure resisting the cattle barons encroachments; Buck privately came to the conclusion that she had more iron in her spine than some men hed met. Her husband, Steven, had been mysteriously murdered last year, and the local sheriff (his jurisdiction only covered the town and its suburbs, since the county wasnt officially organized yet) had never been able to get a handle on who had done it. Buck didnt have a very high opinion of him, or his deputy either. All Western law officers were of necessity gunhands of considerable standing, or they didnt live long, and most were honest and able, but there were a few who were weak and ineffective--"soft sheriffs," these were called, who took the taxpayers money while attracting a rough element by their easy reputation. That the town was a stop on a well-used cattle trail didnt help: trail hands, who had to be fiddlefooted by nature just to like the job, were usually drifters, often very tough and sometimes wanted. Gradually Buck discovered that the town hadnt even gotten its patent, and Sheriff Mobley hadnt been elected--hed been hired by the Federal circuit-court judge for the district, who was about as close as it got to a government. This man, who had retired about a month ago--a replacement was said to be en route, but no one was sure who he was or when he would arrive--was more than suspected of being open to bribes, and it was generally believed that Mobley had purchased his badge. That, Buck thought, explained a good deal. In many towns and counties there was a quiet consensus that their judges, marshals, and other officials deserved anything they could get in return for the unsavory job of dealing with the criminal element, and the law-abiding citizens winked at a certain degree of corruption as long as they werent themselves troubled and could remain undisturbed by the sordid realities around them. The office of sheriff, while not ordinarily offering a high legitimate salary (forty to a hundred dollars a month was common), could be particularly lucrative in this regard, owing to the greater number of opportunities to be had over the breadth of a county, and certainly sufficient to pay off an initial greasing fee with plenty left over. Fines, license charges collected from saloonkeepers and other resort-operators, and not uncommonly weekly protection payments, went to pay the salaries of the peacekeepers, who could do very well indeed by this method. The people unconnected to the business of vice let it go because it relieved them of the necessity of paying taxes.
About the middle of March Ezra was on his way back from collecting the mail (chiefly advertising material) at the post office and literally bumped into a pair of dusty buckskin legs coming out of Watsons hardware store. "My apologies, sir," he gasped, looking up into piercing sky-blue eyes beneath the loose brim of a clay-colored hat with a Cavalry cord knotted around the crown. The man was young, very square-jawed, unshaven, with long light hair that hung to his shoulders in waves; he wore an open hide jacket over a double-breasted red shirt and a bright bandanna loose-knotted at his throat.
The blue eyes blinked, and then a hint of a twisted smile touched the strangers lips and he said, "No harm done, kid," in a raspy Texas drawl.
Ezra gaped a moment, then took off for home as fast as he could pelt. Crashing through the saddle shops doors, he bolted around the counter and grabbed Bucks sleeve, tugging urgently. "Buck! Buck, I saw another wanted man!"
"Slow down, Ez," the big man suggested, "and get your breath. Whod you see and where?"
"V-Vin Tanner," Ezra told him. "Hes--hes wanted for murder in Tascosa. Theres five hundred dollars bounty on him, Buck!"
"Easy, son," Buck advised. "We aint in the bounty business, you know. Were respectable saddlemakers. Where was this Tanner and what was he doin?"
"He--he was just departin Mr. Watsons hardware store."
Buck pulled out his watch. "Well, its close on dinnertime," he allowed, squinting at the dial, "and we aint been out to eat since Sunday. Lets just close up for an hour and wander down that way casual-like. Go get washed, son."
When the boy had disappeared into the little downstairs washroom, Buck reached under the counter next to the till, where he kept his gunbelt and his sawed-off shotgun during business hours, and strapped the Colt easily around his lean hips. Hed heard something of that Tascosa case in El Paso--a small rancher by the name of Jess Kincaid killed, supposedly by a bounty hunter whod hauled his body into town and tried to pass it off as that of an outlaw known as Eli Joe. The deceased had met his death by way of a shotgun blast that had pretty much destroyed his face, but the town doctor, who was also its coroner according to a very common usage, had discovered on the body a couple of distinguishing scars that he knew were Kincaids. The hunter had been jailed and almost lynched, but had contrived to escape and taken off for the tall and uncut. That had been about a year ago.
Buck took his turn at the washroom while Ezra sat on the counter and waited for him, then got his hat and jacket and they walked toward the Gem, passing Watsons on the way. "Hey, Virgil," Buck greeted the older man, who was out on the boardwalk fussing with a display of gardening tools. "Whats new with you?"
"Just hired me a man, Buck," Watson replied, "and high time for it too. Im gettin too old to be heftin barrels and such." He nodded toward the interior of the store, where a lean figure in a bright red shirt and long storekeepers apron was moving slowly about.
Ezra tugged on Bucks sleeve again. "Thats him," he whispered when his guardians ear was inclined toward him. "I recognize his shirt and his long hair."
Buck took a second look. Details werent easy to distinguish in the shadows, but what he could see did match the poster that had been circulated about Tanner. On the other hand, it didnt make a lot of sense for a wanted murderer to be hiring on as a store clerk. It was just possible that Tanner was simply an opportunist who meant to gain Virgils trust, get an idea of his routines, and then make off with the till, but small-time theft like that didnt fit the pattern of a man whod been earning his living hunting wanted men, who were ordinarily worth anywhere from three hundred dollars on up. "Stranger in town, aint he?"
"Thats true," Watson agreed, "but he seems well-spoken enough, and he says hes hungry enough to take just about any honest job thats offered."
Well, this aint Texas, Buck thought, and even if I was wearin a badge, which I aint any more, it wouldnt be any lookout of mine. I know hes here, Ill just keep an eye for a spell and see what he does. "Well, I hope he works out," he said. "Cmon, Ez, lets go put the feedbag on."
Ezra gave him a puzzled look, but acquiesced. "Arent we goin to warn Mr. Watson?" he asked after they were out of earshot.
"The man says he wants honest work, it aint our job to call him a liar," Buck replied. "Well watch and make sure he dont take anything he aint entitled to. If Virgils till turns up missing, well at least be able to give Mobley a name to go on."
Ezra seemed rather doubtful about this course of action, but he apparently recognized that Buck, with his long experience keeping the law, knew more about murderers than he did. "Very well," he said, and they went on to dinner.
One week later Ezra again blasted into the shop, shouting Bucks name frantically. Warned by the note in the boys voice, the big man stood from the harness horse and moved within reach of his armament under the counter. "Whats wrong, Ez?"
Ezra collided with his legs and clung desperately, gasping for breath. "Theyre--theyre--going to hang Nathan!" he stammered.
"What? Who is?" Buck demanded.
"T-trail hands," Ezra replied. "The--the ones whose--whose boss died yesterday. They--they say--Nathan killed him."
"Well, thats damn sure a lie," Buck growled. "Gangrene killed him, not Nate. You stay put, son." He remembered that trail crew: out of somewhere in west Texas and heading up to Colorado with a herd of stockers. Theyd brought their boss in two days ago with a festering leg: some proddy beef-critter--most likely a she-cow whod thought she was protecting her calf--had run a horn into it some ways down the trail. Nathan had done his best, but the infection had just been too far advanced for him to stop: even amputation wouldnt have made any difference by the time the patient reached him. After hed died, theyd taken him to be coffined and spent the time the undertaker was working getting themselves well lubricated at Digger Dans, then rented a buckboard to take the box out to their camp, along with a good many bottles, in defiance of the universal range rule of "no whiskey with the wagon." And now that Buck thought about it, thered been a fusillade of shots outside just a few minutes ago; hed been in the privy at the time, so he hadnt investigated, but there hadnt been a lot of yelling and screaming to suggest that anyone was hurt or the bank was being held up, and the racket had ended quickly.
He slung his rig around his hips, reached for his shotgun, broke it at the breech to make sure it was loaded, and strode out of the shop. Down the other end of the street, just past Smiths building, a noisy mob of men in cowboy dress was surging toward the little cemetery at the outskirts of the town; Buck could just make out Nathan in their midst, chiefly owing to his height. His eyes tracked back along the mobs trail, picking up Mary Travis in the middle of the street with Stevens huge old shotgun lying in the dust beside her, pushing herself erect and shouting demands to the onlookers to take a hand--and then, nearer, a lean figure in a bright-colored shirt just stripping off its apron and stepping off the edge of the boardwalk in front of Watsons, a Winchester swinging from one hand. Opposite, a second man, dressed all in black, had also moved out into the street and was matching the anachronistic store-clerk step for step. A long duster swirled around his legs, and though Buck couldnt see his face, he knew that walk. "What the hell," he muttered, "Chris?"
He started after the pair, his long legs eating distance.
Not in three years had Chris Larabee felt as he did at this moment. It was as if he was coming to life after a long hibernation. He seemed more alert, more awake, than he had since the day he and Buck rode home to find there was no home left any more. He sensed colors, sounds, smells, as he hadnt in too long. He knew the odds were against him, as they had been many times before. But this time there was meaning to what he was doing; he had set a task for himself, and he was determined to do it. He cared about doing it, as he had cared for no job in three years. He had found something he genuinely wanted to do--not simply something he was getting paid for, and generally paid well, however just the cause--and someone he wanted to do it with. He had watched the blonde woman with the outsize shotgun defy the trailhands and found himself thinking how like Sarah that was, and then had met the vivid blue eyes across the dusty street, and suddenly something inside him had stood up with a little shout of recognition, like the dying flame in Scrooges fireplace leaping briefly as Marleys ghost entered the room, and he knew--he knew--he couldnt stand by and not act. This scruffy young man in the bright shirt and shabby buckskin pants didnt propose to, so why should Chris Larabee?
The pair of them, matching strides like soldiers on parade, strolled steadily in the wake of the rowdy trail crew. The men had set up their bosss coffin up on its end with the lid off, the dead man staring out with unseeing eyes. "Figured youd want to watch your killer swing, Mr. Fallon," one was saying in a drunken slur. He laughed, then registered the two silent men on the other side of the fence. "What the hell do you want?" he demanded.
"Cut him loose," Chris ordered evenly.
The young man raised his Winchester to a level. "Reckon yall be happier if yjust rode away," he added in a raspy drawl.
"Not a chance, boys," the trailhand retorted. His men laughed mockingly.
Chris sensed a new figure falling in directly to his right, a tall long-legged man with a thick black lock flagging over his brow, and heard the menacing snick! of twin hammers drawing back as the newcomer swept the eight-gauge sawed-off shotgun off his shoulder and cocked both barrels. "Id listen to these gents if I were you, friend," came a soft steely voice. Larabee didnt need to look to know that the newcomers eyes would be narrowed down and gone near black with cold anger, the handsome hearty face wiped clean of every hint of good humor.
The trailhand seemed to hesitate a moment, knowing as well as anyone else did that a weapon like that could slice a man in half at this range. But hed gone too far to back down now; if he did, hed lose face with his crew, not to mention giving the townsfolk the impression he was a coward. "Back off," he said. "This aint your lookout."
"We think different," Buck told him.
"Hes right," said Chris.
"Aint gonna happen," confirmed the young man with the Winchester.
"You try and hang that man there," Larabee continued evenly,
"...and your next breath," the soft Texan drawl picked up the thread,
"...will be the last you take," Chris finished.
"Last chance, boys," Buck invited. "Lets twirl or get off the piano stool, what do you say?"
Chris kept his gaze centered on the spokesman, letting his peripheral vision scan the mans nearer followers, knowing that Buck and the nameless rifleman would be keeping track of the rest. He could feel the tension ratcheting up a notch and wondered at the sense of calm preparedness that seemed to emanate from the young man beside him. Some sense or instinct, something he didnt pause to question or analyze, told him the ball was about to open, supplied him with a kind of foretaste of the strangers strengths and weaknesses, his reactions and timing. Bucks, of course, he already knew. "You shot a lot of holes in the clouds back there," he observed easily. "Anybody stop to reload?" In his mind he began counting down from five, seeming to hear two other voices sounding side by side with his own. Four. Three. Two. One. Go!
He ducked back and fell off to the right, his Peacemaker up and blasting, instinctively moving at an angle that would keep him from getting tangled up with Buck. At the same moment the big mans shotgun Little Pepper let go with a bellow all out of proportion to her size, the twin loads of Number One shot ripping into the left chest of one man and the right arm and thigh of the one beside him, and he tossed the empty weapon aside and pulled his own Colt as he dropped to one knee, firing coolly, steadily, spacing his shots, picking out the target for each even as he took down the one previous. On Chriss other side the young rifleman had leaped left, tucked and rolled, and come up with one leg thrown out to the side as a brace, levelling the Winchester, lining it and squeezing the trigger all in one fluid catlike movement. The first shot chipped bark off the limb that supported the hangrope, nicking the line itself, as the buckboard team spooked and lunged, leaving the black man dangling briefly, kicking; the second sliced the cord cleanly and dropped him in a breathless heap to the dusty ground. Chriss first shot had taken the spokesman under the heart; the rest of the gang, their leader gone, fired back randomly, not following any set plan, just trying to save themselves. Bucks Peacemaker roared staccato accompaniment to his old partners; the rifleman, having done what probably only he could have, kept up a steady suppression fire from a few feet further back. Five men plus the spokesman were down already--No, make that seven, Chris thought in the cool idle part of his mind, and then, as his next round drilled through a cowhands leg just under the hipbone, eight. The last survivor broke, fleeing wildly. A slight figure dressed in brown charged up out of nowhere, levelling a Colt Lightning, yelling, "I got him! I got him!"
Chris pivoted by a fraction of an arc, his last bullet kicking up sand just in front of the newcomers shoes. The kid--which was all he was, just a thin black-haired kid in a city suit and a bowler--skidded to a stop, almost dropping his gun. "You dont shoot nobody in the back!" Chris barked at him. And he turned, dismissing the young would-be backshooter, to face the two who had fought at his side. "Names Chris," he offered.
"Vin Tanner," the rifleman responded, and Larabee caught a flicker passing across Bucks face as he slowly returned his Peacemaker to its holster. "New in town?"
"Yesterday," Chris told him. "You?"
"Hell," said Buck, "Im an old-timer next to the pair of you. Been here best part of a month." He hesitated a moment, scanning the two faces. "Good to see you, you old war dog. How you been?"
Chris only shrugged. "Heard you were in town," he admitted. "Heard you took over the saddle shop here." His pale eyes asked a question. Buck felt a pang of sorrow as he registered how much thinner his old friends face had become, the hard mouth and the taut lines around it, the coldness of the eyes.
"Yeah. Made up my mind it was time." He offered a tentative hand to Tanner. "Buck Wilmington."
"Seen you round," the other admitted. "You two know each other?"
"Did," said Chris, "once," and Bucks heart sank. "Buffalo hunter?" he guessed.
" Mong other things," Tanner agreed. "Not many left to hunt, any more."
"Hey!" came a shout from under the hanging tree. "One of yall wanta pull the knife out of that feller and cut me loose here?"
"Damn," said Buck, "we forgot all about him."
Nathan was sitting up; hed used his hands, bound in front of him, to slip the noose off over his head. For the first time Buck registered the dead body lying beside the healer, the empty homemade rawhide knife case at its belt, and the bone hilt projecting from the chest of a second body about fifteen feet away. He also noted that the morbidly curious crowd, which had come to see a hanging and ended up with a gunfight, was beginning to drift away, leaving only Mary Travis standing off to one side, studying Larabee and Tanner curiously. It suddenly occurred to Buck that respectable saddlemakers probably werent supposed to jump into lynchings--or, for that matter, gunfights--and he wondered if it was going to make a difference in how the town behaved toward him. But the unease was drowned by a sensation of disgust that made him question whether he really wanted to stay, or raise Ezra, in a town where no one except a woman, a stranger, a fugitive store clerk, and a reformed gunslinger were willing to step in to prevent the death of the nearest thing they had to a doctor. And where the hell was that useless miserable sheriff, anyway? This was just the kind of ruckus he should have made it his business to put a stop to.
Chris and Tanner had gone over to help Jackson to his feet; the Texan removed the knife from the body, glanced at it curiously, stabbed it into the sand a few times to clean the blood off the blade, and began cutting the healers bonds. Buck hung back where he could keep an eye and make sure none of the bodies abruptly came to life. He didnt realize that Ezra had crept out of the shop to investigate the sudden silence until a small flying projectile hit his leg and wrapped its arms desperately around it. "Buck, are you injured? Were you able to assist Nathan? Will he survive?"
"Easy, little pard," Buck soothed him, reaching down to tousle the boys hair--hed run so fast that hed lost his hat somewhere. "Im fine, and sos Nathan."
He saw Chriss shoulders flinch at the unmistakeable high voice of a child, and the man turned slowly, scanning the picture before him. "He with you, Buck?"
Buck straightened his shoulders a bit. He could guess how it must hurt his old friend to see another little boy, not much bigger than Adam had been, alive and healthy, but he wasnt going to lie--least of all because he knew what being rejected, even temporarily, might do to the childs fragile self-image. "Yeah, hes with me. Told you I made up my mind it was time to quit driftin--this is why. My boy Ezra. Ez, you remember me tellin you about my old partner, dont you? This is him. Chris Larabee."
Ezra shrank back behind the strong column of Bucks leg, still embracing it, and eyed the man in black dubiously. "How do you do, Mr. Larabee?" he inquired with his usual impeccable politeness.
Chriss lips tightened, but before he could say anything that might have pushed Buck into doing something unfortunate, Mary Travis, unable to contain herself another moment, stepped forward and announced, "Gentlemen, I run the Clarion News. Where did you come from?" The question took in Vin as well, though not Buck, which eased his misgivings somewhat.
"Saloon," said Chris briefly, apparently relieved not to have to deal with Ezras presence. He set off, his duster swirling, Tanner close behind him. Nathan, massaging his throat, followed.
"Hey, I--I want to talk to you," Mary protested. "Where are you going?"
"Saloon," Larabee and the Texan answered with one voice.
The newspaperwoman, looking bewildered, turned to face Buck. "You seemed to know that man, Mr. Wilmington. Who is he?"
Buck sighed quietly. "Didnt you recognize him, Miz Travis? Thats Chris Larabee." He looked up the street at the trios retreating backs. "Maam, would you mind keepin Ez here with you a spell? I need to go see a man about a gun."
"Of course, Ezra is always welcome," the woman assured him, extending a hand to the boy. "Come along, Ezra, you can help me look through my husbands files."
"Buck?" Ezra looked up at his guardian with wide questioning eyes.
"Its okay, son. You go on with Miz Travis and Ill come get you after a while. Aint seen Chris these two years. Just need to catch up, is all."
Somewhat reluctantly Ezra peeled himself loose from the mans leg and slid his hand into Marys. "You wont be long?"
"No, I dont reckon I will," Buck replied. "Go on now." He pushed his forelock out of his eyes and set off in pursuit of the three other men, who had paused in front of Watsons, where Tanner was apparently having an exchange with Virgil over the rifle.
By the time Buck walked into the towns larger (and better) saloon--the one where Blossom worked--his erstwhile battle-companions had claimed a table and Chris was addressing the bartender. "Whiskey."
"One for the doc here," Tanner added.
Nathan shook his head and offered his usual denial. "Like the man said, ain't no darky doctors. I was a stretcher bearer in the Union Army. I picked up what I could in the field hospital. Then I came here and Doc Brown gave me a job, and when he died I just sort of stepped into his shoes. Didnt seem right to leave the place with nobody to see to folks hurts."
"Mind if I join you?" Buck asked, but his eyes were on Chris. As long as theyd known each other, Chris had always ended up the leader of whatever group he happened to be in. It seemed to be a mantle he assumed automatically, without thinking about it or questioning it.
Larabee twitched his head sidewise, indicating a vacant chair. Buck slid slowly into it, letting the tautness of the fight flow out of his long body, and accepted the glass of whiskey Nathan passed to him. He sipped at it, the warmth of the liquor easing his gut. He wanted desperately to say something, but didnt feel right about airing old laundry in front of two men who lacked the history he and Chris shared. Maybe there would be an opportunity later on. For now, he just wanted to keep himself in Chriss eye and make sure his old partner didnt go sliding off somewhere before theyd had a chance to talk.
A shadow fell across the table and the quartet looked up. A white-haired Indian in an elaborate turban and a chocolate-colored, middle-aged Negro wearing a broad-brimmed floppy hat had come up from somewhere. "We want to hire you," said the Indian.
The Indians name was Tastanagi; his friend went by Eban. Tastanagi explained that he was a Seminole, the headman of a small band which had migrated out of the Indian Territory fifteen years ago in order to escape the vicious intratribal feuding that was then tearing all the Five Civilized Tribes apart. Eventually they had ended up in New Mexico and decided it was as far west as they wanted to go: at least the Apaches here (who had since gone onto a reservation) werent as nasty as the Chiricahuas out in Arizona. Theyd squatted on some land down in the south wastes that nobody else seemed to want, and there theyd been left in peace until recently, when a gang calling itself "the Ghosts of the Confederacy" had suddenly invaded their village and demanded gold. Their leader, a man named Anderson who was apparently a former officer of considerable rank, had given the village one week to produce it, promising to be back to collect. "We have a little, it is true," the Indian admitted. "We sometimes find small nuggets in the hills around our village. We use them to buy what few things we cannot provide for ourselves, if we lack enough of our own products to trade." He produced one from a pouch at his waist. The four men passed it around, examining it. It shone evenly, without blinking, in the light of the saloons oil lamps, and felt smooth to the teeth when Buck bit at it experimentally. Not fools gold, then: the genuine article. It didnt weigh very much--probably not even as much as a full cylinder of bullets. The bartender, who often dealt with wandering prospectors, supported this guess, putting its value at thirty-five dollars.
"How many of these Ghosts are there?" Chris wanted to know.
"Would twenty men scare you?" the Indian asked.
Tanner shrugged. "Hell, I s makin five dollars a week at the hardware store thout anybody shootin at me. Iffen they aint but twenty, seems like it shouldnt take no moren that to suade em to back off."
"Assume we pay five dollars a head, that gets us all of seven men," Larabee mused.
"The Seminoles put themselves on the line for many an escaped slave," Nathan observed. "They took us in when nobody else would. For five dollars, they can have a week of my life."
"Or all of it," Tanner added. "Hell...I wasnt plannin on dyin with a broom in my hand anyway."
"Hold on, Nate," Buck interrupted. "You just said yourself you stayed on here cause it didnt seem right to leave folks without a healer. What happens if you get yourself shot? You reckon you got a right to take them kind of chances?"
"I owe these men, Buck," Jackson pointed out. "Owe you too, but you aint asked me for any favors back."
Larabee lifted his head, watching the emissaries from under the low-pulled brim of his flat black Californio hat. It was, Buck thought sadly, almost the only physical sign remaining of the man he had known--that and the bone-handled Peacemaker worn high at his waist. "All right," he said. "Tomorrow afternoon, then."
Tastanagi and Eban withdrew, after providing directions to their village. "If theyre askin for help from the white man theyre desperate," Tanner mused. "How are we gonna find hired guns for five dollars?"
"I think I know a man who can help," Nathan offered. "He dont live too far from here either, maybe a dozen miles south. We could go see him now."
Buck sat up straighter. "Sanchez? That who youre talkin about?"
The healer looked surprised. "You know him too? Damn, Buck, is there anybody you dont know?"
One, Buck thought. "Ez and me stumbled on him while we were out ridin that way a couple weeks ago," he explained. "Didnt know you and him was friends."
"We go back a spell," the healer admitted. "Met durin the War, and again in Nebraska some time back."
Chris pushed to his feet. "Might as well get started."
Tanner stood, eyeing the two former partners. "Nate and mell go on ahead, get saddled up."
For a moment Buck felt a combination of gratitude and surprise--Howd he know? Chris frowned slightly but didnt object, and the Texan and the healer left the room, talking quietly as they went.
"Chris," Buck began.
"Not here." Larabees voice was thin. He strode toward the doors and Buck had no choice but to follow.
Outside, the gunfighter paused a moment on the boardwalk, looking around, and then turned and entered the alley alongside the building. "You got somethin to say, Im waitin," he declared.
"Howd you know I was in town?" Buck asked.
"Make a point of knowin whos in town," Chris told him. "Live longer that way."
"What I hear, you aint exactly been behavin like you was lookin to beat old Methuselah," Buck pointed out boldly.
For a moment Larabees nostrils flared and his breathing quickened. "You been keepin cases on me?"
"No, Chris. I just...aint been able to keep from hearin about you, time to time." He wanted to ask whether his old friend thought Sarah and Adam would approve of the way hed been living, but he knew if he did that Larabee would walk off without another word at the very least--and maybe shoot him before he went. Buck had learned, at some cost to himself, that Chris didnt want to talk about Sarah and Adam any more, didnt want to hear or think about them. That was why the two of them had parted company in the end. Buck knew that to deny your past--however painful it might be--was to cut yourself off from a big part of who you were. Chris either didnt know that or refused to admit it.
"Just because I got nothin left to lose," Chris retorted, "dont mean I figure to let somebody else choose where and how I do my dyin." He stared evenly at the bigger man. "So which of your women does the boy come from, and howd you find out about him?"
The words hurt, as they were meant to do. Back before, Buck knew, Chris would never have expressed himself in such terms. For all the occasional exasperation hed demonstrated over Bucks love for the ladies, hed always seemed more amused by it than anything. "He aint mine by blood," the reformed gunslinger said as evenly as he could. "Hell, I never met his ma in my life till about nine months back." He sketched the circumstances as briefly as possible, seeing the skeptical tilt of Chriss eyebrow as he listened--but at least he was listening. "Shit, Chris," he exclaimed, "a liar dont lie unless he hopes to be believed--and when did you and me ever lie to each other anyhow? I know it sounds plumb crazy, but thats how it happened."
Larabee considered this. "Reckon thats reasonable," he allowed after a moment. "So," he added, "youve quit the trail. Settled down. Figure to be a quiet respectable townsman from now on. That it?"
"No need to make it sound like it wasnt natural," Buck said. "Ida been as willing to be a quiet respectable horse rancher. And, yeah, Ive settled down. For the boys sake, I felt I had to. You think the two of us used to lead a driftin life, that kid dont hardly know what a home is. You and me at least started out in stable homes with people that loved us. Ez aint ever had that. I mean to give it to him if I can. Hell, you know what my Ma was. There was plenty made me feel like the scum of the earth when I was growin up. Reckon I got a feel for when its been done to somebody else. I came out with some scars, but Ma taught me to keep my self-respect, to believe in myself and always look for the best in everything. If I can help Ez get a solid base like she done me, Ill figure Ive done my job even if Maude ends up takin him back some day--and she wont, not if I can help it."
Chris thoughtfully removed a cheroot from his pocket, bit off the end and spat it out, scratched a match on the siding behind him, and slowly drew the smoke alight. "This job the Seminoles are offerin," he mused, "three, four to one--some years back Ida said it was just our kind of fight. Course the pays not much, but when did that ever enter into our thinkin?"
Buck nodded. "I remember." He couldnt stop a rueful chuckle. "Some of the ructions we got into back then...whoo-hoo, them was the days."
For just a moment a gleam showed in Larabees eye at the memory. "Yeah. But like the man says, that was then and this is now. Youve got a responsibility."
"So does Nathan, it dont stop him," Buck pointed out.
"Like he said, he figures its an obligation on him--to the Seminoles and to Tanner and me. Not the same thing." He straightened, a lean blade of shadow in his black clothes. "Times wastin. If were meanin to go see his friend Sanchez, wed best be ridin."
"My horse is out back of the shop," Buck ventured. "If youll give me an extra couple minutes to run over and ask Miz Travis to keep Ez till I get back--"
"No." Chris cut him off, voice flat. "I cant make it much plainer, Buck. Not...this...time."
Bucks head went back, and his face took on a look of profound and outraged sorrow, so simple and truthful that it gave him a kind of dignity. For a moment he was struck speechless by the brutal directness of this rejection, and in a deep inner part of himself wondered why he should be: God knew he ought to be used to it after that terrible time the two of them had spent in between the loss of their family and the day he had finally given up and struck out on his own again. His throat worked and he licked his lips, struggling not to give as he had received. He aint the man he was three years ago, he reminded himself. You knew that. You saw it plain enough, its why you left. "Dont it seem to you that it should be my choice?" he asked, keeping his voice steady with an effort.
"You dont have the right to make that choice, Buck," Larabee told him. "Not any more, not like the rest of us do." He lifted his hand, palm flat, as Buck took breath. "Damn it, are you gonna make me say it? I dont want you with us. I wont look at you and think of that little boy and how youve got somethin I lost."
"It wasnt no doin of mine!" Buck snapped defensively.
"You took him on," Chris answered relentlessly. "You know it makes a difference or you wouldnt have settled here to begin with. What the hell right do you have to think it wouldnt make a difference to me? You made your bed--lie in it!" And with that he swung around and strode off across the street.
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org