The Magnificent Seven
The Ballad of Bad-Ass Beamington
by Sarah B.
+ + + + + + +
I really ought to congratulate myself, Buck thought as he steered his horse around the low scrubby hill where he, Ezra and JD had been riding for the past hour. I had no idea I was such a talented actor.
Here, he had thought it would be difficult to keep JD's interest in hunting nonexistant snipe alive, given that they had of course not seen any in the hour that JD had led them around, over and through every nook and cranny in the plain. Certainly, Buck had decided, the boy would tire of the game after a while and they would either have to hunt for real, in which case he and Ezra would miss all the fun at Four Corners, or worse, JD would get discouraged and want to head back home himself. And possibly end up in a pine box as a result.
So, Buck had been on edge, trying to think of stalling tactics, but so far it hadn't been necessary. Despite the heat of the day and the lack of success, JD's enthusiasm hadn't flagged. He still eagerly led his horse from place to place like a bloodhound puppy, egged on by Buck and Ezra to check this hole or that clump of bushes. Each time the boy had had his gun out, with a bravado that Buck had to admit was admirable considering what JD thought he was facing, and each time the search came up empty.
"Hm." Ezra would say. "Let's try that hill over there. They do tend to burrow."
Or Buck would scratch his head and intone, "Damn, son, I thought for sure you had one that time. Wait - that's one over there, ain't it?"
Then JD's head would whip around like it was on a spring, and he'd jump back on his horse and they would be off again. And again and again.
And now, Buck and Ezra waited patiently as JD dismounted once more and plunged, at thier insistence,into a thick stand of small trees and dense bushes, his gun out and his hat hanging, discarded, off the pommel of his saddle.
Ezra paused as he watched JD dissappear into the brush, then leaned toward Buck and whispered, "I tire of this game. When do we abandon the boy and return to Four Corners?"
Buck squinted at the late afternoon sky. He'd been wondering about that himself. It nagged him that Bad-Ass was close, maybe in town already, and he wasn't there to watch Chris' back. Even if Bad-Ass was just a mediocre talent, he probably still had enough attitude to be a threat...
Buck leaned toward Ezra, one eye on the rustling bushes in front of them. "We gotta make sure he's occupied enough so he don't notice us leavin'." His keen eyes scanned the surrounding hillside and came to rest on a nearby set of rocky hills, with a deep cleft between them. They weren't close, and the hills between them would cover thier escape. "There."
Ezra surveyed the hills, shook his head. "Those rocks are a maze, but he'll still come out soon enough and see we're gone."
Buck grinned wickedly, an idea forming. "Then we have to make sure he don't come out."
JD was certain he'd never felt so alive as he did at this moment. Hacking through dense underbrush, his face and hands scratched and burning, his heart racing a mile a minute - this was the reason he wanted so badly to come West.
He stopped a moment and looked around, then behind him. Small trees and tall bushes stood at every side, enveloping him and filtering the slanting afternoon sun to dull twilight. It was dangerous, and JD loved it.
I'm finally going to do it, he thought excitedly as he scanned the glittering leaves around him for any sign of animal movement. I'll show them I'm as much a man as any of them, and then they've got to let me in. Maybe Chris will want me to help him with those plans he makes whenever there's trouble. Maybe Buck will stop pushing me out of the way and really let me fight. Maybe Vin will thinking I'm some little kid -
JD jumped, gasping, at the sudden sound behind him. There was a loud, horribly loud, rustling noise, and before he could even think to turn around a brown form shot past him and disappeared into the brush, the sun dappling off its furry coat until it blended into the thickening bushes and was gone a moment later.
JD stared after the animal, his heart pounding in his ears, sudden sweat turning the afternoon heat to chill. Damn, he thought. Damn, I thought I was a goner for sure. If that had been a snipe...hell, if that had been a plain old bobcat I'd be dead. Damn. Damn. Damn.
His breath slowed a little, and he looked back, suddenly ashamed. What if Buck and Ezra had seen him jump like that, and at a harmless old jackrabbit! They'd laugh and laugh and that was the last thing he needed. He looked at the gun in his hand, at the way it was shaking, and once again brushed his thick black hair from his eyes.
Maybe I'm not ready for this, he thought. Don't want to push things, after all they don't know you haven't really ever hunted before. Just tell them you couldn't find any snipe and you can go home. Or maybe you can help Buck and Ezra bring down a cougar, or a coyote.
No, he answered himself, visualizing the looks on the others' faces when Buck and Ezra told them he was the only one of thier group who had never seen a snipe, much less battled one...
But, but Buck said Chris had never bagged one, JD remembered, then realized with a sickening feeling that he probably fought the beast but couldn't win, and if Chris couldn't beat one of those things, if Ezra was nearly killed by one, and Buck's scars...
JD shook his head swiftly, trying to dislodge the doubts. He was tired of being the last one, the youngest, the least experienced. He wanted to be the man everyone else in the Seven was already, and if this is what it took, all right then.
Even if it killed -
JD blinked, looked around. Had Buck just called his name?
"Hey, JD! C'mere! Hurry up!"
The urgency in Buck's voice made JD spin without a second thought, and plunge back through the tangling bushes he'd just come through. He wasn't even entirely sure he was going in the right direction, but sooner than he thought he burst out of the undergrowth, twigs flying off his coat, to see Ezra sitting on the ground holding his arm, his face a mask of pain, and Buck bending over him, coat and hat off, pressing a reddened cloth to Ezra's arm.
At JD's appearance Buck looked at him, desperation in every line of his face, and pointing to a nearby cropping of hills cried loudly, "That way, boy! The snipe! It got Ezra, then just took off in that direction!"
JD gaped at the scene for a moment, every synapse in his brain firing at the same time and confusing the hell out of him. He found himself unable to move, and just stood there in shock, staring at the reddened cloth covering Ezra's arm.
Buck screamed, "What are you waiting for, son? That thing's tasted blood, now it won't rest till it's eaten the whole town!!" He pressed the cloth harder, and Ezra obligingly let out a horrific scream.
JD went white, and jumped a few steps in the direction of the hills. Finally he found his capacity for speech. "What - you - is he - "
Buck jumped up, frantic, his arms flailing. "Stop dawdlin', boy! I can't leave Ezra, it's up to you! You gotta git him, son, now go! Go!!"
Still shocked, JD took another look at the hills, then at Buck, then at Ezra, and took off running toward the distant rocks.
"No, son, your horse! Take your horse!!"
JD skidded to a stop, ran back, and stumblingly mounted his horse and tore off in the direction of the hills.
Buck stood and shouted,"You can't come back till you get him, JD! We're countin' on you, son!!"
JD waved an acknowledgement without looking back, and a moment later was swallowed up in the rocks.
Buck waited until his young friend was out of sight before collapsing in laughter on top of Ezra, who was only slightly less amused.
"Hoo-hoo-hooo!" Buck exhulted. "Did you see that face?"
"You are a genuine talent, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra agreed, wiping tears from his eyes and removing the wet rag from his uninjured arm. "However, I do wish you had not wasted my best brandy."
"Ah, forget it." Buck gasped, finally standing and scanning the rocks. "He's gone. Come on, let's go."
"Right." Ezra said, swiftly getting to his feet and walking toward Chaucer.
As Buck swung himself into the saddle, Ezra squinted at the direction JD had gone. "You know, in those rocks he could be out here all night."
Buck shook his head. "Don't worry. After we help Chris take care of Bad-Ass I'll come back and get him. "
Ezra cocked an eyebrow at him. "Are you going to let JD in on our little charade?"
Buck nodded his head, shook his head, opened his mouth, then closed it. "I don't know." And it was true, he didn't know.
With that, the two men prodded thier horses in the direction of Four Corners, leaving the stand of scrubby brush and the neglected bowler hat, now covered with dust.
The afternoon sun was slanting toward early evening when Nathan walked up to the door of Josiah's church. He hadn't seen his friend all afternoon, and now as he approached the church Nathan noticed several shaggy horses tied to the hitching posts outside. Parishioners? But it was 5 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon. And these weren't kind folks' horses - they looked underfed and ill-used. His hackles rising, Nathan felt for the knives he always carried on his back and cautiously opened the door and stepped inside.
"Brother Nate!" Josiah said amiably from the front of the church, and walked down the aisle to meet his friend.
"Brother Josiah," Nathan answered , looking around in confusion at the hulking teenagers lounging around the church. One, standing by the window and now regarding him with red-rimmed eyes, said something in low tones to the boy standing next to him and they both laughed derisively. Nathan decided to let it pass, and said as Josiah approached, "What is - "
"These young men are here to see the show that's coming to town." Josiah said meaningfully.
Nathan nodded, understanding immediately. "Should we assume there's gonna be an encore?"
"Quite possibly." Josiah smiled thinly. "We need to make arrangements."
"Understood." Nathan looked around again, judging the group. All young, but some were large and muscular, and were glaring at both of them with undisguised contempt. "I'll go take care of it."
Nathan turned and made to go, feeling the hostility in the room as if it were a mass, enveloping him. He almost made it to the door before Jimmy slurred out, "Hey, darky!"
Josiah's head snapped up, and he watched Nathan pause at the door, stiff as an oak board. Josiah tensed, thought, these boys have been in here all day, they're restless, agitated, could blow any moment. He cast his eyes to where his gunbelt was, two steps away...
Nathan paused, opened the door.
"Hey, you stupid coon! Don't you got no respect for your betters? I'm talkin' to you!"
Jimmy was swaggering toward Nathan now, spoiling for a fight. Josiah licked his lips, edged closer to the gunbelt.
Nathan opened the door wider, but before he could leave the other boy jumped forward and slammed it shut, then turned to sneer right in the healer's face.
Nathan regarded him coolly, knew a confrontation was inevitable. "Can I help you?"
Jimmy snickered, his eyes hard, glittering. He looked Nathan up and down, shook his head in disgust. "Darky scum. " And he gave Nathan a push.
Josiah reached his gunbelt, nerving up as he saw the other boys begin to gather around the impending fight. He ventured a glance out of one of the windows, saw the saloon, and knew that if things got out of hand, Chris and Vin were doubtless not far away.
Nathan stood where the boy had pushed him, and as the other boys gathered around them, ready for a brawl, looked at his opponent with cool eyes. Don't start it, he thought, fighting the rising anger. Let him strike first . "You want to let me by?"
"Shit, no!" The other boy barked. "I want to whip your sorry black ass!" And slapped Nathan's face.
Well, you didn't make me wait, Nathan thought, as he rubbed his jaw and smiled faintly.
From his seat at the small felt-covered poker table, Chris checked the slant of the afternoon sun before looking at the hand Vin had just dealt him.
The buffalo hunter watched his friend frown at the amber light glinting dully on the rough-hewn floor. Then Chris reached into his vest and pulled out his pocket watch and frowned more. "It's getting pretty late. Bad-Ass had better show up pretty soon or I'm gonna have to start getting drunk."
Vin smiled tightly across the sea of empty beer mugs between them and studied his hand. "He'll be here."
Chris sighed and put a card down. "Wonder how the hunt's going."
Vin stared at his cards with unreadable eyes. "Fair, I bet."
"Hm." Chris gazed at his hand, then the table, then his hand again. He cast an eye around the saloon, at the small collection of Four Corners' citizenry milling about. "With luck, we can clear this little problem up without spilling too much blood."
Vin was taking a long pull on his beer, stayed silent.
Chris looked over the tops of his cards at the shaggy young man sitting opposite him, and thought how odd it was that the two of them had become friends. Chris' only other real friend was Buck, and two more opposite people that Vin and Buck couldn't possibly exist. Chris had alway thought, or at least Sarah had told him on one of those occasions when she felt like analyzing things, that the reason he and Buck got along was that Buck's boisterous charm complemented his own quiet, reticent nature perfectly. And Chris had to agree - it was very easy for him to keep company with Buck, since whenever they went out together Buck was always the life of the party, drawing every eye and ear and relieving Chris of the responsibility to actually have to talk to people. He merely watched, and listened. And so they had been a perfect team.
So why did he feel equally comfortable around this man, who was not an opposite but almost a second self? He hardly knew Vin, but he trusted him with his life, and knew he had a steadfast reliability that, he had to admit, sometimes Buck did not possess. You can count on Vin, Chris decided. Even though his past was a mystery, Vin had made it clear very early on that no matter what else, you could trust him, and that was something Chris knew he needed. He could trust Buck too, sort of, but Buck had a carefree nature, was too busy flirting and having fun to confront his heart's pain like Chris had been forced to. Buck didn't have the weight of grief on him, weighing him like an anchor, holding him to the earth. For all thier years of friendship, Chris knew Buck didn't, couldn't understand that side of him, and maybe never would.
But Vin did. It was unspoken, from the time thier eyes met, it shot like a lightning bolt between them, and Chris knew that Vin was weighted to the earth too. What Vin's pain was he didn't know, and didn't ask, because you don't pull those sorts of things out of a man before he's ready. Starts the bleeding all over again...
Damn! Chris thought suddenly, shaking his head, what's the matter with me. Sitting too long, always makes me think too much...
Sudden shouts snapped him back to full attention, and looking at Vin he noticed the bounty hunter was already up and halfway out the door. Chris followed close behind.
A crowd of people were gathered outside the church, where to Chris' surprise he saw Nathan and a youth he'd never seen before slugging it out in the clouds of swirling dust. Looking about quickly, he noticed a large group of unkempt young men clustered by the church door, whooping and cheering on thier comrade. Then he saw Josiah making his way over.
"What's going on?" Chris asked calmly, unholstering his gun and checking to make sure it was loaded.
"Nathan's got his dander up." Josiah explained. "Seems these young men came into town to join up with Bad-Ass, and they don't take too kindly to..."
"Doctors?" Chris said drily, hoisting his pistol. He looked at Vin, who had unsheathed his sawed-off Winchester, and Vin nodded at him.
Josiah commented as he watched the two wrestling in the dirt. "You may want to give Nathan a chance to throw a few more punches. Man is a proud creature, after all."
Chris paused, observed the fight for a few more seconds. Then he said, "Now?"
The sudden gunfire caused everyone in the crowd to jump. Nathan and the other boy stopped and looked up at where Chris and Vin were standing, their guns still pointed in the air. The group by the church door were shocked silent.
Chris smiled humorlessly. "Gentlemen. Allow me to introduce myself. I am your escort to jail."
Nathan, panting hard, looked down at the ground and slowly got to his feet. The other boy, who had definitely gotten the worse of the brawl, glared at Chris and spat. "Try it!" He challenged.
Chris strode forward and in two steps had the youth by the collar. Surprisingly, despite his bruises and cuts the youth had a lot of fight left in him, and he bucked against Chris' grip with feral ferocity.
"Calm down, junior." Vin cautioned as he deftly removed Jimmy's gun from his pocket.
"Go to hell!" Jimmy shouted.
The crowd was milling about, casting worried glances at the scruffy crew who were now huddling, uncertain but still menacing, at the front of the church. Chris noticed them and said loudly, "Gentlemen, your friend here is going to be spending the night in the town jail. Unless you'd like to join him I suggest you find somewhere else to be right quick."
The group glanced at each other, clearly unsure what to do. Chris looked at Josiah, who was helping Nathan take stock of his injuries, and asked, "Can you tell me what happened?"
"That darky attacked me!" Jimmy snarled, flailing against Chris' iron clench.
"Shut up!" Chris responded, giving the boy's collar a shake. Then he turned back to Josiah.
"This boy said unkind things to this man, and struck him." Josiah said simply. "I would testify to it before God."
Vin nodded. "Good enough for me."
Chris grinned at Nathan. "Me too. Physician, go heal thyself."
Nathan, who was still examining his torn shirt, gave Chris a shamefaced look but said nothing and allowed Josiah to help him away.
Chris surveyed the group at the church entrance again. He could tell they were lost without thier leader, but knew also they wouldn't let him just sit in jail. It was going to be a long night.
Jimmy wrenched himself once again in an effort to break Chris' grip on him and screamed at his gang, "Drill him! Drill the son of a bitch!!"
"Didn't I tell you to shut up?" Chris growled, rattling the boy's collar once again. Addressing the small group once again, Chris said, "Go home, boys. You really don't want to piss me off."
"It's true," Vin drawled, "You don't."
The group seemed to pause, then visibly deflate.
Chris shoved Jimmy at Vin. "Take him to jail. Make sure he's uncomfortable."
Vin nodded, catching Jimmy's collar firmly and making sure the youth saw his sawed-off Winchester. "Come on, sonny." Vin dragged the struggling boy away, oblivious to the steady stream of curses coming from Jimmy's mouth.
Chris walked toward the motley group in front of the church, but before he had gone ten steps he knew that, temporarily at least, the fight had gone out of them and they were cowed. They scattered before he got very close, walking gingerly to their horses and making to mount up.
Turning his head, Chris saw Mary Travis almost next to him and tipped his hat. "Ma'am."
"Mr. Larabee," Mary said, "I was just wondering, when did you become sheriff of this town?" She said it with a smile, but he knew she was genuinely curious.
"Oh, just taking over temporarily." He smiled benignly, unwilling to tell her yet about Bad-Ass. "It's not in my blood."
"Oh." Mary's eyes batted in confusion. "Well, you certainly could have fooled me. But where's JD?"
Chris cleared his throat, looked out at the distant hills that Bad-Ass would come from, then at the dispirited band meekly mounting thier horses and meandering toward the edge of town, then at the cursing youth being dragged to jail and thought, not over yet. "He's out hunting with Buck and Ezra."
JD carefully led his horse around the rocks and bushes at the edge of the rocky canyon, cursing the close quarters and approaching darkness.
He had calmed down a bit since bursting from the brush to find Ezra injured and Buck nearly beside himself with panic. A bit, but not too much - after all, the snipe was probably still in these hills somewhere, and he needed to stay on edge to catch it.
But where was it? He'd been slowly advancing , pistol raised, on every halfway suspicious-looking object for the last half-mile, and all had been dead-ends. He'd heard no growling, rustling, seen no tracks, had no clue given him that might help him track the beast down. It was downright discouraging...
But I have to go on, JD thought resolutely, brushing the restless black hair from his eyes for the hundredth time. Dammit, why had he left his bowler hat back at the bushes? Buck may have thought it looked silly, but at least it kept the hair out of his eyes.
Reining his horse in, JD lowered his gun and took a moment to survey his surroundings. In the fading sunlight he saw the high, rocky hills Buck had pointed out, flanked by smaller hills and jagged outcroppings. Altogether, a desolate scene.
JD sighed and scratched his head. It was hopeless - regardless of how dangerous the snipe was to humanity, there was no way he was going to find it now, with the sun almost down and so many places for an animal to hide. Feeling a twinge of guilt that he had failed Buck, and probably the whole town, by losing his quarry, JD gave a final look at the area and gently turned his mount to head back the way he came.
Suddenly he heard a hugely loud snarl, and his gun was back in his hand instantly as he thought, the snipe! Whipping his head around, JD saw nothing, but heard the snarling continue, bouncing off the rocky walls from somewhere ahead of him. His heart in his throat, JD was about to obey his first impulse, running away, when he heard another sound.
Bolting upright, JD without another thought spurred his horse into the hills, where he could hear a man's voice yelling, mixed with angry growls and snarls. The snipe's got somebody! Raced through JD's brain as he raced frantically to save the savage animal's victim.
Finding himself on a narrow path between two high hills, JD saw ahead of him the light of a campfire, and beside it a large man wrestling an animal, rolling around as dust and grass flew in all directions. As he galloped closer, JD saw it wasn't a snipe, but a mountain lion, and yelling as loud as he could brought his horse to a skidding stop and fired a round at the ground, hoping to frighten the beast.
It worked, sort of. Jumping off the man in fright, the big cat landed on four gigantic paws, then turned to JD and opened its jaws wide, showing two massive rows of razor-sharp teeth. For a moment JD forgot the other man and just stared at the ferocious beauty of the animal, its short fur gleaming in the golden light, rippling off its tight muscles. Then the mountain lion bunched back and sprang on him.
"Argh!!" JD yelped, firing off one useless round before being swept off his saddle and landing painfully on the ground. Vaguely he saw his spooked horse gallop out of sight into the hills. The cat clamped its powerful front legs around his chest, its jaws biting at his right shoulder, looking for purchase. Panicked, JD felt its knifelike claws dig into his back and thought, "Damn! I'm going to get killed, and it isn't even a snipe!"
Then, suddenly, there was a tremendous roar of gunfire and the cat relaxed and fell off him, dead. Gasping and numb with shock, JD stared stupidly at the animal for a moment, then at the large man standing four yards away from him with a giant shotgun.
The other man was big, about 200 pounds, with greying blond hair and a gently craggy face. He was shabbily dressed in a dark shirt and vest. Glaring at the dead mountain lion for a second, he turned to JD with glittering blue eyes and said in a slight Southern drawl, "Damn, boy, where'd you come from? I thought that cat had me for sure!"
JD blinked at him. "Uh -uh - " He felt around, seeing if anything was broken. Nothing seemed to be, but he was sure he was bleeding somewhere. Vaguely he pointed up the passage. "I was - I was just - "
"Aw, hell, never mind. I'm grateful, son." The man lowered the shotgun and strode forward, limping a bit on his right leg. He bent over and offered JD one black-gloved hand and a smile.
JD took his hand and came to his feet, shakily, thought, something's wrong, then realized the man's hand was lacking an index finger, thought nothing more about it. He flexed his arm and felt the hot pain of the claw marks on his back. His hand went to his right shoulder and he winced.
The other man peered at him. "Say, sit down son, and let me look at that shoulder." He sauntered back to where a small cookfire was going, several implements spread on the ground. Taking a seat, he said, "What'd you say your name was again?"
"Uh, JD. JD Dunne." JD sat down next to the man, felt the warmth of the fire. "And you are - "
"Oh - Jonathon Porter. Pleased to make your acquaintance." The other man smiled amiably, picked up a nearby handkerchief and dipped an edge in the boiling water on the fire.
JD took the cue and removed his vest and shirt, grimacing at the bloodstains he saw on the shoulder and back of his best - and only - white shirt.
"Well, this don't look too bad..." Jonathon soothed, dabbing at the red marks on JD's shoulder with the cloth. "So, why are you out here, son? You lost?"
"No," JD said, "Hunting."
Jonathon laughed. "Well, I guess you almost bagged a cougar."
"Yeah, but I was hunting for snipe."
Jonathon stopped, looked at JD intently. "Come again?"
"Snipe. One ran in here about two hours ago, after it got one of my friends. They sent me in here after it."
Jonathon blinked slowly, said in soft, bemused voice, "I see." Then he took the cloth away and said, "Well, that should take care of it. You didn't get beat up too bad."
"Thanks." JD smiled, and shrugged his shirt back on. He looked at Jonathon and raised his eyebrows. "Now how about you? The mountain lion get you anywhere?"
Jonathon laughed, waved his hand dismissively, "Aw, hell, son, that old cat couldn't do nothin' to me ain't been done already. He's got about two inches of scar tissue to bite through before he'd hit anything vital."
JD decided to take him at his word, and stood up - a little too quickly as it turned out, when the canyon suddenly began spinning and he had to sit down just as fast.
"Whoa there, son," Jonathon steadied him with one hand. "You've had quite a ride, no need to run off just yet."
"I, uh, I guess you're right," JD admitted, rubbing his temple. "Mind if I just sit here for a few minutes?"
"Mind?" Jonathon's grin grew wider. "Hell, son, I'm a lonely old wandering man, I'm happy for all the company I can get. You care for some rabbit stew?"
JD hadn't thought about it, but realized he was pretty hungry and nodded. "Sure. Thanks."
"No need to thank me," The other man insisted, picking up a tin plate and reaching for a spoon, "Least I can do for the man who saved my life."
He grinned again at JD, who grinned back and thought, he called me a man, and puffed up just a little bit as he accepted the plate of steaming stew, completely unaware that carved in crude letters on the underside of the plate were the large words PROPERTY OF BADASS BEAMINGTON.
The sun had just finished casting its last feeble rays on the streets of Four Corners as Vin walked across the street to where Chris was leaning in the open doorway to the jail, smoking a cigarette.
"Evenin', cowboy," He smiled, his eyes twinkling at the inside joke he and Chris shared. If anyone else had called Chris Larabee a cowboy,they'd have been picking their teeth out of the building across the street.
Chris smiled back, gazed at the deepening sky. "All clear?"
"Yeah, me and Josiah checked. Them boys must have took to the hills." Vin peered into the dimly lit jailhouse. "How's our guest doing?"
Chris shrugged. "Not happy."
"Kids these days."
Chris stood up from the doorway, took another drag on the cigarette. "Keep your eye out, Bad-Ass might still be coming. Get Josiah to take one end of town, you and Nathan take the other. I'm tired of surprises today."
Vin tipped his hat and walked away.
Chris squinted at where the sun had been, now a mere orange streak against the darkening blue sky, and wondered how Ezra and Buck were doing in their campaign to keep JD out of town. So far, the ruse hadn't been needed, but Bad-Ass could still show up. Unfortunately, with the sun down the men would have to come back, and Chris had to decide whether to try to keep JD in the dark about Bad-Ass or let him find out his dime-novel nemisis was in town and probably get himself killed in a stupid showdown.
Chris winced, thought, you should give the boy some credit. JD had come a long way from when they'd first met. He'd started out brash and thoughtless, running at his enemies with both guns senselessly blazing, but he'd been learning, and was often as not pretty useful in a fight. It was even possible that JD would decide not to fight Bad-Ass, and the whole thing was unnecessary.
But Chris shook his head. He'd had enemies at nineteen, remembered the hot fire of impetuousness, knew that if it had been him he would rather have died than not faced his demons - at least, the ones he could shoot at. He could not reasonably expect JD to back down from a chance to prove himself; all he could do was stand by and hope that the boy had learned enough from his friends to keep a cool head.
Jimmy called out from the dark jail cell. Chris slowly turned his head.
"When do I get something to eat?"
Chris turned, meandered into the dim jail. Jimmy was standing defiantly at the bars, both fists clutching the metal rods, his young, hardened face a mask of anger and contempt.
When he got about four inches from the cell, Chris stopped and stared the youngster down. Finally he said, "When you learn to say please."
Jimmy glared at him, glassy blue eyes crackling in the lantern light, and spat on the ground.
Chris smiled, shrugged, turned away. "Suit yourself."
Jimmy let out a barking laugh. "You won't be so smart when Bad-Ass comes to town and gets me out. I'm gonna eat your guts for breakfast!"
Chris turned back, looked at Jimmy quizzically. He walked back to the cell, stopped about two feet away and said, "That so?"
Jimmy sneered. "Yeah, that's so."
"You want to ride with Bad-Ass?" Chris asked in light, conversational tones. "Why?"
"Why!" Jimmy cackled, as if the very question was ridiculous. "Cause he's a real man! He don't take nothin' from nobody."
Chris nodded slowly. "According to what I've read, he shoots innocent people, robs and burns and destroys everything in his path. You want to be like that?"
"Hell, yeah! Finally get me some respect! Get people to treat me like a man." He paused, noticed Chris' lack of expression, and puffed out his chest. "I killed six men already."
Chris cocked his head, as if to say, and?
Jimmy smiled, thinking Chris was impressed. "One just 'cause I didn't like his face. I done it all - robbed a bank, a stage, knifed a man in the back once."
"In the back?" Chris said disgustedly.
Jimmy nodded proudly. "Yeah. " His eyes narrowed to slits. "It was fun."
Chris brought his head back, looked at Jimmy closely. What could he be, seventeen, he thought, but look at his face, already lines of age, and the eyes, dead and hard as nails. But the hair, still the tousled tow-head of a child, the frame still the awkward colt stage on its way to adulthood. And the mind, the bitter resentful mind of an old man. All in one person, and so many others like him.
"Hey, what are you starin' at?" Jimmy simmered, backing away from the bars. "Why don't you go away, you give me the creeps."
"Tell me something," Chris said suddenly, his cool blue eyes snapping up to meet Jimmy's. "Where do you think riding with Bad-Ass is gonna take you?"
Jimmy nodded his head in anticipation. "Top of the world, and never look back. We're gonna take it all, and anybody who don't like it is gonna be six feet under!"
"Including maybe you and your friends."
"Hell, yeah, but so what? Nobody cares about us. We got a chance to do something with our lives, and we ain't wasting it."
Chris regarded him calmly. "You think joining a known criminal is doing something with your life?"
Jimmy laughed. "Hell, yes. Beats workin' till you're dead."
"It's a hard ride, Jimmy. You die too soon, and wish you were dead a lot sooner."
Jimmy screwed up his face. "What would you know about it. You're just some washed-up old loser."
Jimmy made to leave the bars, but before he'd gone two steps Chris lunged forward and grabbed the throat of his shirt through the bars, pulling him forward, pinning him face-first against the bars. Too startled to scream, Jimmy regarded the tall man with saucer-wide eyes.
"Now you listen to me, son,"Chris' voice was calm, but icy. "I can't stop you from gettin' yourself killed, but I can tell you that I've seen my share of what you want so bad, and it didn't scare the hell out of me. It scared Hell into me, and I've been trying to shake it ever since."
Jimmy said nothing, just stared at Chris with empty, shocked eyes. Finally, Chris let go, and the youth cringed into the farthest corner of the cell.
"You're crazy!" He spat, fiddling with his collar nervously.
Chris didn't blink. "Just think about it." He rasped, and turning around quietly went back to the door, leaned against it, and stared at nothing.
JD wiped his mouth on his sleeve and put the tin plate down on the nearest rock. "That was really good, Mr. Porter. Thanks."
"Oh, it wasn't much," Jonathon demurred as he began cleaning the pot in the large washtub near the fire. JD noticed that he had removed his black gloves, and his hands were swirling around in the soapy water. "Just something I whipped up from the local fauna."
JD smiled at the older man's modesty and stood, his hazel eyes on the sky above the hills. Large clouds were beginning to scuttle in front of the full moon. It's probably gonna rain, JD thought. "Well, Buck's probably already taken Ezra back to Four Corners, so I reckon I'd better get back there myself." He looked around at the little campsite. "Where you headed?"
Jonathon didn't take his eyes off the pot in the washtub, just shrugged. "Nowhere, really. I guess I'm what you might call a wanderer."
JD cocked his head. "Well, if you got nowhere to be tonight, why don't you come on into town? They got a nice hotel."
Jonathon shook his head. "Oh, son, I can't afford no hotel. I'm just as happy to stay out here."
Well, if he's happy, JD shrugged mentally, wishing he could offer to pay for the kind old man's lodging. Oh well, a dollar a week doesn't get you much.
"Well, I'd best get started," JD said ruefully, "It's gonna be a long walk, since I lost my horse." He walked to where Jonathon was still scrubbing the pot and, remembering the manners his mother had tried so hard to teach him, stuck out one hand. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Porter."
Jonathon looked up, regarded JD's hand as if it were a poisonous snake, then very quickly grabbed it, shook, and plunged it into the soapy water again. "The pleasure was all mine, son."
That was strange, JD thought, but let it go. He started to leave, but curiousity overwhelmed him and he turned back. "Uh, if you don't mind my asking, Mr. Porter, how did you - what happened to your hands?"
"Oh, a little accident years ago," Jonathon said in pleasant tones, not looking in JD's direction.
"Oh - ok, sorry, didn't mean to, I mean I was just..." He sighed, and decided to end his own torment. "Well, so long."
"Goodbye, JD." Jonathon said, and waited until the young man had turned his back before picking up a thick cloth and reaching for the grate that was still over the fire.
At that moment the wood in the fire shifted, sending sparks and flame roaring through the grate and over Jonathon's hands. He let out a hiss of pain and JD whirled around.
"Are you okay?" He asked quickly, trotting back to lean over where Jonathon was sitting on the ground, grabbing one hand with the other.
"Yes, yes I'm all right," Jonathon stammered, "You don't need to - "
"Oh, no, don't worry," JD smiled confidently, as he grasped the man's hands. "I have a friend, he taught me how to - "
He finally got ahold of Jonathon's hands, and leaned close to take a look at the burns. There were no burns - instead he saw a hand without an index finger, and the tattooed letters BAD inked onto the knuckles.
JD's eyes grew huge, and he suddenly felt numb. He couldn't move, he realized, and seemed to stand there forever, staring stupidly at those three letters. After a moment, he turned the other hand and read ASS on the knuckles. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he shifted his frozen eyes to Jonathon and stuttered hoarsely, "Are - are you Bad-Ass Beamington?!"
But it couldn't be. It was still a nice old man with a weathered face who was now looking at him with a mixture of shame and resignation as he sighed and said, "Not you, too."
JD started blinking rapidly, unable to fathom this unexpected nightmare. He was trapped alone in a desert canyon with Bad-Ass Beamington! Frantically he pushed Jonathon's hands away from him and thought, I've got to get my gun! But instead he jumped up, lost his balance, and fell backwards over a rock.
Jonathon stood up slowly, hands spread in surrender. "Now son, don't worry, I'm not gonna - "
"You're Bad-Ass Beamington!!" JD squeaked, still unable to comprehend it. His mind blurring, he groped around his gunbelt, but his hands were shaking so bad he couldn't accomplish anything.
"Son, will you relax?" Jonathon entreated, coming toward where JD was sprawled. "I gave up the gunslinging trade!"
JD could hardly hear, his heart was pounding so hard. Finally his quivering fingers found purchase on the butt of his gun and he yanked it out, still flat on his back, and using both hands to steady it pointed the trembling pistol at Jonathon and stammered, "I - I - as s-sheriff of F-our Corners I - " He gulped, blinked again, and gasped out, "You're under arrest!"
"I am? Fine!"
JD was so shocked at the response he just laid there for a moment, panting and blinking the sweat from his eyes, the pistol still jumping around in his quaking hands. After a moment he said simply, "What?"
"I said fine!" Jonathon walked around the rock and leaned over. "Son, you need a hand up again?"
JD couldn't believe how hard he was shaking, and for a moment stared at Jonathon with his mouth hanging open, forgetting that the pistol in his hands was no longer pointed at his supposed prisoner. Then, numbly, he lowered the gun and accepted Jonathon's proffered hand.
"I - I don't get it," JD stuttered as he sat on the rock, still staring wide-eyed at Jonathon's hands. "You really are Bad-Ass Beamington?"
"Was, son." Jonathon sighed, sitting down on an opposite rock and examining those incrimating tattoos. "Was, a long time ago."
"And - and you're just going to let me arrest you? You're not even going to try to kill me?"
Jonathon gave JD a sharp questioning look and said drily, "Would you like me to?"
"No!" JD shook his head rapidly, his black hair falling once more into his eyes. "No, it's just...well...I read about you when I was a kid. I never thought - "
"You never thought I'd turn out to be an old man who just wanted a little peace?" Jonathon chuckled softly, "Probably not, son, but that's what you got."
JD looked down at his gun, still not understanding. His heart was beating slower now, but his lungs hurt from breathing so hard. After a moment he raised his head and asked softly, "You'd really let me take you to jail?"
Jonathon nodded. "I really would, if you're a proper law official, that is. You're not just pretending?"
"No, I'm real all right." JD straightened up a little, and squared his shoulders. "Judge Travis appointed me himself."
"Well, he did a good job," Jonathon said graciously.
JD couldn't help grinning. "You think?"
Jonathon grinned back. "Well, sure! Just think, son - you're gonna bring in Bad-Ass Beamington. You're about the only lawman in four states who gets that distinction."
JD could feel himself flushing with excitement and gratitude. "But, do you really want to go to jail?"
Jonathon sighed again and looked around him. "Son, I was a gunslinger for twenty years. Killed more men than I care to think about. One day I decided I was sick and tired of it, and quit."
"Then I found out I couldn't quit. Nobody wanted me around, nobody took my word that I'd given up lawless ways. I tried to turn myself in, but every town I went to thought I was there to rob it and the sheriff wouldn't come near me cause he thought I was gonna kill him. Then they thought I wasn't really Bad-Ass, just some crazy publicity-seeker, and they said they couldn't arrest me for that."
"Didn't you show them your hands?"
"Sure I did! That's when they told me that there were kids doing the same thing to their own hands, trying to copy me. It made me sick to hear that."
JD nodded again, noting the sad, anguished look on the old man's face.
"Well, then I decided it was time to just hide, live on my own and hope the legend of Bad-Ass Beamington would just die out." He stole a guilty glance at JD. "Guess it hasn't, huh?"
JD gave a weak little shrug.
Jonathon shook his head and raised weary eyes to the clouding sky. "Believe me, JD, right now a roof over my head and some peace and quiet sounds like the hosts of heaven to this old man. "
"You'll get it." JD promised, looking at him steadily.
"I been trying to pay for what I done for twenty years," Jonathon said firmly, lowering his gaze to meet JD's hazel eyes. "And if you could oblige me in that, I'd be mighty grateful."
Ezra could hear the first soft patter of raindrops hitting his felt hat as he and Buck moved at a quick trot towards the bright lights of Four Corners.
"I do hope we are not too late for the festivities," he remarked, replacing the hip flask he had been nipping from. "Tardiness is such a social sin."
Buck just grunted. He was frustrated that they had had to slow down once the daylight was gone; until they hit the main road he and Ezra had to move their horses carefully over the now-invisible terrain; and now, with Four Corners not a half-mile away, he didn't see any evidence of a gunfight or other disturbance. Damn, he thought. We're too late.
With the road now well-lit by the town's torches and fires, Buck stepped up his horse's pace, eager to find out what had happened while they were gone. Ezra, however, reined his horse back and said in a low voice that had some urgency in it, "Buck, wait."
Confused, Buck reined in, stopped his horse, and turned in his saddle, glaring at Ezra impatiently until the gambler had caught up to him. " What is it?" He whispered, then wondered why he was whispering.
Ezra regarded him coolly and said in similar hushed tones, "I am going to assume your need to get back to courting the fair demoiselles has dulled your otherwise keen senses, otherwise," He pointed one ruffled hand at a large group of boulders ahead of them and to their right, "you would have noticed that."
Buck looked. In the blackness of the boulders he could barely make out the faint glint of three or four gun barrels, and the shiny tails of some horses. After a moment a head popped up from behind the boulder, looking not at them but toward the town.
Buck frowned, squinted, couldn't make anything else out. "Bad-Ass?" He guessed.
Ezra shook his head. "Notorious gunslingers generally do not need to bunch up behind rocks in pitch darkness twenty yards from town." He calmly unholstered his gun, checked for bullets in the chamber. "I would surmise these are more common bandits."
Buck sighed. "I wonder why they didn't jump us. They had to hear us comin.'"
Surprisingly, Ezra grinned. "A mystery. And I do so love mysteries. What do you say we give these ruffians a wide berth for the moment, seek an alternate path into the town, and see if we can solve it."
Chris was sitting in a chair outside the jail, watching the stray drops of rain spatter the dry dust of the main street, when he heard horsemen approach. Tipping his hat up for a better look, he saw Buck and Ezra and stood up.
Buck grinned amiably, happy that whatever they missed at least Chris was still in one piece. "Howdy, Chris."
"Evening." Chris smiled back, leaning one arm on the nearest post and looking at both men. Then he looked down the street. "Didn't you misplace somebody?"
Buck jumped nimbly off his horse and busied himself hitching the animal. "Nope, don't think so."
"I believe he is referring to Mr. Dunne." Ezra said a bit edgily as he dismounted.
"Oh!" Buck looked at Chris, who was nodding expectantly, and suddenly remembered that Chris didn't know they had ditched JD in the hills. "Naw, he ain't misplaced." He looked past Chris' shoulder into the jail. "What'd we miss?"
Chris' eyebrows came together in consternation. "Not much. Badass hasn't shown up yet."
"Oh. Good!" Buck took a few steps toward the saloon. "Now you got two more guns to fight him with."
Ezra could see that Chris was beginning to lose his cool. "Buck, where's JD?"
Buck screwed his mouth around, avoiding his friend's eyes, thought furiously.
"You didn't get him into any trouble, did you?"
Buck did look at him then. "Aw, hell, Chris, you know me better than that. Naw, he just was havin' such a good time he didn't want to come home, so we said - "
Chris looked at Ezra. "Ezra, where's JD?"
Damn it, Ezra thought, and decided to phrase his answer very carefully. "After...some deliberation Mr. Wilmington and I...decided it would be best if we effected a course...whereby Mr. Dunne would be occupied outside of town while we were at liberty...to return and assist you in...defending it."
It took Chris a moment to translate what Ezra had said, but once he had he turned obviously angry eyes at Buck. "God damn it, Buck, you took him on a snipe hunt?!"
Fear flashed through Buck's eyes for a moment before being replaced with jaunty bravado. He laughed and said, "Well, shoot, Chris, we couldn't just leave you here with Bad-Ass comin'! You said you wanted us to make sure JD didn't go off doin' some stupid thing like challenging Bad-Ass and gettin' his butt shot off, right? You wanted us to get him as far from here as possible, didn't you?"
Chris shot his friend an aggravated look. "Buck - "
"And we did! We did just what you said, so how can you be mad at us for that?"
"I didn't tell you to drag him out into the middle of nowhere and just leave him!"
Buck lifted his hands defensively, "Now Chris, don't I treat that boy like he was my own flesh and blood? JD's all right, I know right where he is. We just figured that once we were done helpin' you with Bad-Ass we'd just trot right on back there and pick him up."
Chris continued to glower, first at Buck, then Ezra. Then he raised one hand and wearily drew it across his eyes.
Buck decided now was a great time to change the subject and asked, "So who's the little fella you got in the jail?"
Ezra leaned back from where he was standing to peer into the room as Chris sighed and answered, "Some kid, wants to join up with Bad-Ass. He started a fight with Nathan, so I put him in here to cool off."
"Oh. Huh." Buck stuck his head into the jail house and called happily, "Hey there, kid! How you doing?"
"#$!@# off!" came the loud reply.
"Hmph." Buck came back out, gave Chris a sour look. "Quite a mouth on him, isn't there. I'm gonna go get a drink."
Ezra cleared his throat loudly, having decided against his better judgement not to slink away quietly. "Buck, we have yet to relate what we saw on our way into town."
"Oh - yeah." Buck looked at Chris, didn't like the sharp glint of recrimination in his eye, looked at the street instead. "There's a group of gunmen about half-mile out of town, saw about four guns, some horses."
Chris pursed his lips. "How many men?"
Buck shrugged. "Dunno. Know 'em?"
Chris nodded lazily and tilted his head back toward the jail. "He had a small gang with him, about nine boys, kind of rough but lost without their leader. They left town after he was arrested. We'll leave them alone unless they start something."
"Do you think that would be wise?" Ezra wanted to know. "They may attempt to initiate a jailbreak for our young friend here."
Jimmy said something very nasty from inside the jail, but too low for any of the men standing outside to hear.
Chris dipped his head, looked into the jail, then down the street. "I don't want to be responsible for killing hotheaded kids. We'll keep our eyes open and wait to see if they start something."
"And if they do?" Ezra asked.
Chris looked at him, his face serious. "Then we'll finish it."
Vin looked up from his poker hand as soon as he saw Buck and Ezra come through the swinging doors. Smiling in his usual, small way, he said, "Howdy, guys."
"Hey," Buck answered, swinging a nearby empty chair around and straddling it. He looked at the table that Vin, Nathan, and Josiah were seated around and asked as Ezra went for beers, "So what'd I miss?"
"Kids." Josiah added, throwing a chip into the center of the table.
"Fight." Nathan said simply, his eyes on the cards in his hands.
"Jail." Vin finished, taking a swig of beer. He paused, looked at Buck curiously. "Where's JD?"
"Not you, too," Buck growled in low tones, tugging at his hat as he looked down.
Nathan and Josiah both looked at Buck questioningly, then at Vin, who shrugged and went back to his cards.
A few moments later Ezra returned with two mugs of beer, and set one down in front of Buck. "Well, we have had quite the day, haven't we, Mr. Wilmington. And to return here and discover that things have been equally exciting here, well - "
Josiah smiled as he flipped a card onto the table. "Your cup runneth over?"
Ezra smiled and shook his head as he lifted the mug. "No, the bartender said that would be a nickel extra." With that, he wandered away from the table.
Vin was still shaking his head at Ezra's quip when Buck looked at him and said, "So, Bad-Ass hasn't showed?"
"Nope." Vin's eyes flicked from the cards to Buck, then back down again. "Just some coyote pups lookin' to join him."
"Hm." Buck said, looking down at his beer.
"Maybe we're lucky," Nathan hypothesized as he showed his cards. "And Bad-Ass just rode on by."
Josiah laid his cards out. "Or he might be out there somewhere, waitin' to come in tomorrow morning."
Vin set his hand down, expressionless even though he'd just won. "Best be prepared." He said, raking the chips into his hat.
Nathan picked up the deck, began shuffling. "You in, Buck?"
Buck's head snapped up. "What?"
"I said, are you in?"
"Oh - " Buck gave a lopsided smile, nodded. "Sure."
"Something troubling you?" Josiah asked softly, looking at his friend sideways as Nathan doled out his hand.
Buck grimaced, thought, damn, I didn't know Bad-Ass was still out there, and JD's wandering around some godforsaken pile of rocks in the dark. I should go and get him...but Chris needs me here. Damn.
He blinked, looked up, noticed Josiah regarding him steadily, smiled disarmingly.
Josiah's gaze didn't waver, and Buck noticed Vin and Nathan were looking at him too.
Suddenly supremely irritable, Buck picked up his hand and glared at it as he spoke. "Well, if you must know, me and Ezra took the boy snipe hunting and we left him in the hills and knowing him he'll find some stupid mess to get into and he's probably gonna get himself killed and in no way is that in any manner my fault!"
He heard Vin chuckle, and risked a glance at the buffalo hunter, who was now regarding him with amused eyes.
"Did you say snipe hunting?" Vin asked.
Buck paused. "Yeah."
"You abandoned JD out in the desert?" Josiah said incredulously, apparently not knowing whether to be amused or angry.
Buck shrugged. "Well, you know...Chris said get him out of town, make sure he don't get into no trouble here, but we wanted to help Chris out too, so we...compromised."
Nathan looked down at his cards and shook his head. "I didn't think you'd actually go through with it."
"Yeah, well, we did." Buck said in grudging tones. "Only I wasn't counting on Bad-Ass not being dead by sundown."
Josiah tilted his head slightly, eyes still on the cards. "And JD's still out there."
"Damn fool." Buck grumbled, picking up his hand and burying his face in it. "Hasn't got two licks of sense to rub together."
"Well, if you thought that," Nathan piped up, "Why'd you ditch him in the desert?"
Buck shot Nathan a nasty look, irritated that he couldn't come up with a flip answer to that very obvious question.
Vin looked at his hand, threw down a card. "JD's been bright enough to get this far, Buck. I reckon he can go a little farther."
Buck considered this, didn't say anything.
"Besides," Vin continued, picking up his mug. "Ain't nobody out in the hills for miles around. What kind of trouble could...he...possibly..."
Buck noticed Vin had trailed off, and looked up. The buffalo hunter was motionless, mug still halfway to his lips, and staring at the saloon door. So were Nathan and Josiah.
Buck turned. Chris stood in the doorway of the saloon,smiling tightly, his hands holding the reins of a chestnut horse with a star on its forehead. JD's horse.
But no JD.
"Buck!" Chris called out in sarcastically amiable tones. "Guess where you're going!"
Jimmy shifted lazily on the filthy cot in his jail cell and scratched his stubbled cheek. He ventured another look through the cell bars, and saw that the civilian Chris had asked to watch over things while he was at the saloon was still hovering in the doorway, watching him nervously. Scowling, he called out, "Hey!"
The man jumped, turned, looked fearfully in his direction.
"Gimme some grub. I'm starvin'."
The man, an older white-haired fellow in a flat hat and spectacles, shook his head and fiddled with his tie. "Can't. Mr. Larabee said to stay right here till he got back."
Jimmy heaved himself off the cot in disgust, began pacing the small cell as he had been since he was arrested. Digging into one pocket, he pulled out a cigarette and stuck it in his mouth, felt for a match. He looked up, saw the man was still watching him. "Hey, I need a light."
The man walked a few hesitant steps into the office, then stopped. "You're a little young to be smoking, aren't - "
"Shuttup, old man, and throw me a match!" Jimmy bellowed, grabbing the bars.
"No." The man said resolutely, backing through the door.
"Shit." Jimmy snarled loudly, hunching over and walking the small length of the cell, the unlit cigarette still hanging from his mouth.
Jimmy started, looked up. Very high up on the wall, almost to the ceiling, there was a very small barred window. It was almost invisible in the gloom of the cell, but Jimmy could see that there was a tiny bundle seated on the sill of the window.
Looking quickly toward the door, he saw that the old man had seated himself outside the door. Biting his lip, Jimmy tested the strength of the cot frame; it creaked, but held. Swiftly he balance himself on the edge, stood on it, grabbed the bundle, and came back down.
The man outside turned at the loud creaking of the cot, but all he saw was the ruffian boy huddled up on his cot. Good, the man thought. Maybe the little bastard will shut up and go to sleep.
Inside his cell, Jimmy checked once more to make sure the old man wasn't watching. Then, his dirty hands dexterously untied the ripped handerchief and the bundle fell open. And Jimmy smiled.
Laying in his lap, still partially concealed by the handkerchief, was a hastily scrawled note, a snub-nosed revolver, four bullets, and a match.