Candles of the Wicked
Another night passed, and with it the storm. Yet a gloriously fresh dawn withered fast before the scorching return of the August sun. The telegraph came back up, late that same morning. JD stood in the small office, at Chris' bidding scratching out more curt messages to law enforcement in outlying towns. Calvin Bell. Wanted for attempted murder. Age 45, height 5 feet 9 inches, brown hair, brown eyes, medium build. Identifying marks, one chipped front tooth. Consider armed and dangerous. Warrant pending. The physical description was inexact, but it was the best he could call from memory of a stranger who had roomed down the hall. Hopefully Judge Travis would not mind him jumping the gun, a bit.
Out on the muddy boardwalk again, JD paused, sniffled messily, coughed painfully, and squinted into the marvel of sunlight. Over thirty-six hours had passed, and Buck showed no change, no change at all. Vin roamed out there somewhere, once again sniffing like a human hound for any faintest clue of Calvin Bell's whereabouts. Chris, Josiah, and Ezra rode with him, to expand their canvass of the area. No one had hope that any sign would survive the rain, but perhaps a rancher or homesteader, someone out there, had seen something of a stranger fleeing in the storm. His body fairly begged for rest, but even if JD did lie down, he knew there would be no rest, for him. For one thing, the humidity rising off the streets and rooftops steamed to nearly stifling. Darnedest country a man ever saw, where he could stand in mud up to his knees whilst the sun baked him crisp.
This morning the Chronicle carried a front page, two-column article on Calvin Bell. Mighty strong stuff, as Mary had minced not a word in her description and denunciation of a coward's act, or her reminders of the debt the town owed to its seven peacekeepers. There was fight in that woman, and JD only wished he could think of something to do that would be half so useful. Chris had already gotten the key from the landlord of the boarding house, to see if the man's now-empty room offered any clues. However, they had found nothing but a couple worn pieces of clothing, and some men's toiletry items. Next . . . well, next JD would try talking to some people, especially at the boarding house, and see what anyone might remember about Calvin Bell.
Anything, just so he wasn't looking up towards Nathan's door every five minutes.
+ + + + + + +
Casey Wells knew better than to push a horse too hard on muddy roads, what with the risk of laming the poor animal in a bad spot. However, that restraint nearly drove her to screaming. A neighbor had stopped by, after being stuck two days in town with the rain. The man merely thought to pass along local gossip, but one careless sentence nearly stopped her heart. Buck Wilmington was dying. Aunt Nettie knew there would be no holding her, and merely cautioned the girl to be careful, and make sure she checked in with Mary Travis.
Far ahead, the buildings of town huddled as dark, sodden squares in the sunlight. Almost there. Please, Buck, be all right. JD couldn't stand it, if you weren't. Casey gulped against the knot jammed in her throat, and strained to see a familiar, bowler-hatted form ahead, even though she knew that was impossible. No matter, she would find him. JD would need her. She . . . needed him. From the very first, Buck had been like a big, silly, lovable older brother, teasing her with that dumb grin, trying to coach her in matters of romance - as if he actually knew a thing about women. Sometimes he was so thick - but she loved him anyway, and all the more because she knew he loved JD. Buck was hurt, yes. But he was not, could not be - Casey refused to finish that thought. Nudging the horse to extend his trot, she set her jaw firmly.
Now the town limits drew closer. The sky shone brightest blue, but the streets became visible as rutted quagmires, water pooling everywhere like great spills of steaming brown paint. A storekeeper pursued the unending task of sweeping dried mud off his walk, and glanced up at the spatter of trotting hoof beats. Everyone knew the half-wild little Wells girl, who rode astride like an exuberant boy, yet for once, she ignored his cheery wave. People were also used to Casey Wells popping up in the most unlikely places, but that didn't stop the bartender from almost leaping out of his skin, as she slapped open the saloon's swinging doors.
"Where's JD?" she demanded.
"Why, miss, I have no -."
The doors whacked shut as she vanished, quick heels drumming to the next stop. No, JD had not been by the newspaper since this morning. How is your aunt?
"She's fine, Miz Travis - I'll be back later -." And Casey fled again.
There, crossing the street! Her heart leaped at the sight of him, of his familiar brown coat and bowler hat. The usual assault of butterflies hit her stomach, but she had no time for that, and forced a suddenly dry mouth to swallow. Oh, he looked so tired!
He stopped short at the edge of the walk, one foot on the boards, head snapping around at her cry. Casey? The only bright spot in all the world had just appeared.
Her heart almost broke, at the look on his face, his wonderful smile framed in such weary sadness. Casey glanced both ways and darted across the street to join him.
"JD, I just heard. I'm so sorry. I -."
JD's voice came as hardly more than a whisper, as he looked into that sweet little face, those soft brown eyes staring up at him. Without thinking, he reached out to touch the little line of worry between her brows then awkwardly dropped his hand.
"How is he?" she asked.
Her eyes searched his face for some clue, some promise, but her stomach dropped as the dark brows tilted up, and JD looked away over her head. Oh, please -."
"We don't - Nathan doesn't know. It's too early to tell."
Studying him more closely, Casey said, "You look so tired."
"I guess I am."
"And you don't sound so good. Are you feelin' poorly?"
That seemed the wrong thing to say. JD's jaw went rigid, the corners of his mouth turned down in an ugly line.
"Yeah, I got a sniffle." His tone took on a hard, nasty twist. "Buck's maybe dyin' 'cause I got a little sniffle!"
Casey stared in helpless bewilderment, as JD spun and stalked away. Then she caught herself and dashed after him.
"Now, you wait just a minute, JD Dunne! You ain't makin' a lick of sense, and I think it's time you talked straight with me! Buck is my friend, too, you know."
JD stopped, at that, and briefly squeezed his eyes tight shut. Then he looked at her, and all the hurt in the world seemed written in his young face.
"Oh, Casey," he whispered, and somehow she was in his arms. Her sweet strength wrapped around his middle, and suddenly that the only thing he had to hold on to.
Casey felt surprise at the intensity of his embrace, the cable-taut tension her arms encircled. Likely people would talk, what with her huggin' on a man in broad daylight. But the plain fact was, JD needed a hug, and so did she. What's more, she felt pretty sure he was trying real hard not to start crying, and she would not let go for all the tea in China. Not ever. Not ever.
When at last she felt the awkwardness returning, his grasp loosening, Casey acted as Aunt Nettie would do. Stepping back, she took hold of his sleeve and gave a firm pull.
"C'mon. We're gonna go sit down, and then we're gonna talk about things."
+ + + + + + +
"He has not stopped moving all day," said Ezra, bracing himself with one arm on the saloon's doorframe. "Just like yesterday."
Eyes on JD's sturdily marching form, Chris nodded over Ezra's shoulder. "Guess I know how he feels. If it makes him feel better, I'm not going to get in his way."
Noting the slim, tomboyish little form striding at the kid's side, Chris added, "At least he's got company."
No one had seen anything, nobody knew anything. It was as if the wet earth had swallowed Calvin Bell up. By late afternoon, Chris and Ezra had finally returned to town, partly to spare their horses, who wore down fast in the clinging adobe mud. Yet it was also, at least in Chris' case, partly because of a simmering dread of what would go wrong or be missed, in his absence. However, Vin returned only long enough to change horses, and was once more out there somewhere, scanning the muddy hills for sign he would probably never find. Josiah rode back out with him, hoping against hope for some word of the fugitive to surface. Meanwhile, JD wore the soles off his shoes, sniffing around town for clues about a man long gone. Nathan had finally pried himself out of the clinic to sleep a few hours, only because Mary Travis refused to hear otherwise. And what about himself? Chris realized he was getting a headache from clenching his teeth, and made an effort to relax his jaw.
"I'm not very adept at sickbed vigils," Ezra said suddenly. "I detest them, as a matter of fact."
Chris frowned lightly, as the gambler turned to face him. The green eyes held the look of frozen jade as they stared back.
"I detest them because one is thus reminded how utterly helpless and maladroit we really are, and because my dearest desire is to inflict thorough mayhem on parties not within my reach." The gentle Southern drawl dipped to a lower tone. "It would be well, Mr. Larabee, if you find Calvin Bell before I do."
Ezra brushed lightly past him, strolling towards his table, his cards, his own peculiar turn of thought. Damn. Chris turned back towards the bright, muddy street. None of them was any good at this. Every damned one of them waited, stewed, and quietly went crazy. Even Josiah would likely hammer his way through half a keg of nails, as soon as he returned to the dusty confides of his church.
Buck . . . Damn you, don't do this to me.
Chris turned at the cool, soft voice, felt something in him sag painfully, upon seeing the concern furrowing those fine brows, shadowing those pale green eyes. Yes, she, too. Buck made her laugh, made her shake her head, and played the jolly fool just for the reward of an indulgent smile. She had to feel the awful absence of him, too.
"Hello, Mary. That was a mighty fine article you wrote."
"Thank you. It wasn't much, but . . ." Mary Travis attempted a weak smile, held up a yellow scrap of paper. "Anyhow, the telegraph seems to be back, finally. This just came for the newspaper, but I know you'll want to see it."
She read his tension, as he took the paper, and she added gently, "It's good news."
Eagle Bend August 20
M. Travis -
Suspect in stabbing of 18th instant caught in this place [stop] Arrested yesterday Sandpiper Saloon [stop] Officers took custody no fight [stop] Calvin Bell held jail here per instructions from your end [stop] Please inform when Judge Travis announces venue [stop]
Chris drew a long, deep breath, and let it out slowly. Calvin Bell was in jail. Vin could rest now. JD could sit down and whip that cold. And as soon as the roads were passable, they would get that son of a bitch back here and make sure he paid the fiddler. This time, Bell was not in Texas, and there would be no helpful witnesses to get him off the hook.
"Thanks, Mary. I'll wire the judge, and ask him to -."
"I already have." Mary smiled, pleased at his brief surprise. "I'm waiting for his reply. I'm sure he will allow Bell to be brought back here."
Nodding, Chris felt himself reminded yet again that this lovely woman possessed a mind to match her looks. Then he remembered the paper in his hand, offered it back to her.
"Thank you. This is good news."
He stepped across the boardwalk, but Mary's voice halted him. "Mr. Larabee?"
She folded the telegram carefully, and then looked up, her fine features etched with sorrow. "Chris, we're all praying for him. He . . . Buck has won a lot of kind feeling in this town. I just thought you might like to know that."
Chris nodded, wished he could touch the flaxen strands of her hair, offer some favor to ease the sadness from her face. Buck was, to many, just a tall clown of a cowboy with an incorrigible penchant for flirtation and outrageous stories. Yet she recognized his good heart, and ached for him in her own. Mary Travis could allow herself to feel all the things that Chris himself dared not.
"Thank you, Mary."
+ + + + + + +
JD welcomed the shadows of nightfall. All this day, the blue sky beamed, the puddles steamed, and folks started smiling again. Yet life held no firmer claim to Buck Wilmington's inanimate form. Rather, the fragile thread frayed even further, as wound-fever smoldered like buried coals. Normal, everyone said. Happens every time. He just needs to get his strength up a little, and he'll whip this thing. Yet the time came when Nathan shouldered the ghastly burden of looking at his friends' anxious faces, and clubbing their hopes to the floor.
"His fever's goin' up. I'm doin' all I can, but I just don't know . . ."
Infection. Fever. Just words, which slapped between them like wet shoes, but the facts were harshly evident in the unnatural flush of dry skin. Here by the dim light of a single lamp, JD could feel the poisonous heat right through the damp cotton sheet covering Buck's form. Flat, firm muscles lay under his hand like the top of a baker's oven. The interminable pressure in his sinuses, the dry rasp still grating his throat, was nothing compared to the sickness in his heart. Far more appropriate it had been, when the heavens scowled and poured.
Calvin Bell was in jail. That knowledge was both relief and letdown, for JD Dunne. Relief, to know that the man who left his knife in Buck Wilmington's guts would soon be on his way to hell or Yuma. Letdown, in the sense that now JD had no part to play. Whether Buck lived or died, whether Calvin Bell went to prison or swung, JD could only wait.
Wait? For what? A miracle? JD had made this vigil before . . . when Mama died. He felt the past crowding into this stuffy, too-silent room, and it nearly smothered him. Several times today, Buck's eyelids had fluttered partly open, and each time Nathan bent quickly to him. But there was no awareness in that slitted glance, and the healer could only coax fluids or broth into him, before even that small glimmer of life banked low again. Nathan had gently warned them that this was not necessarily an indication of true consciousness returning.
"I can't promise anything," Nathan had said, and his dark eyes had told them how desperately he wished for more. "I'm doing what I can for the infection, and to lower the fever, but it's in God's hands. If the fever breaks soon, he stands a chance. If not . . ."
If not, Buck would never wake up again. One last, thin breath would sigh from him, and that would be that. The swell of bandages concealed a gash so small a man could cover it with just one finger. Yet hidden below that meager wound lay what JD now imagined as a green stew of corruption, which spread its insidious tendrils like ink spilt on cloth, curling the fragile fibers of life dead and black at its touch.
Perhaps the worst part was how completely helpless JD felt. In Mama's last days, there had been little enough he could do, but it had felt somehow right, that the son should care for the mother, who had for so long cared for him. However, JD found himself unable to think up the slightest act, the least gesture, that would matter worth a hoot for Buck Wilmington. Gestures were Buck's department. No matter how blue JD got, he could count on his lanky friend to come sidling up with a big grin and some darned fool comment calculated to snap him out of it. The odds were even whether Buck brought sympathy, or just plain aggravation, but when all was said and done, "the kid" had pretty well forgotten whatever was troubling him. When JD had lain in this bed, with the black pain of Maddie Stokes' bullet twisting his innards, Buck made the most indelicate, oafish nurse on earth - and JD loved him for it. However, now, when Buck needed him most, JD could offer nothing. To dab a wet rag on a forehead that couldn't feel it, to dribble a few drops of water past unknowing lips . . . felt worse than useless. All JD could do was watch and wish for a blink or a moan, from a man who usually could not be made to shut up.
JD thought of Casey, likely asleep by now, over at Gloria Potter's place. An image of her sweet, delicate face all angelic in slumber clenched gently at his mind, and his thoughts skittered nervously around what it might be like to kiss her goodnight. While he was glad she had come, it nearly ripped his heart out, when he finally brought her up to see Buck. Casey had sat right in this chair, with big ol' tears running down her little face and one hand on Buck's cheek, staring at him as if, any minute, the big buffoon would sit up and holler how it was all a joke. Yet of course, no such marvel happened. Casey's tears only added to his burden of guilt.
Carefully, JD again laid his hand on Buck's chest, just to reassure himself that cloth and muscle and bone still moved with each shallow breath. As if, through this touch, he could reach into that dark place Buck had gone, where Buck had helped pull JD from, once, and let him know all the terrible tangle of wishes and wants that added up to one thing. He desperately, absolutely, forever and always wanted this man to come back to the living. Yet all JD felt was the unhealthy warmth radiating through the thin sheet, and the swelling constriction in his own chest and throat. Please, God, not like this. Please not now. Please . . . His thoughts twisted in dismal knots until they found but one faint, thin, straight path, an ancient prayer to a gentle Presence, upon whom the hope of miracles might be entrusted: Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death . . .
Chris Larabee climbed those two flights of stairs for yet another futile visit. He came there because he could not bear not to, but each time he left with black frustration howling silently within, and the others left him more alone than was probably well. No word arrived from Judge Travis regarding a warrant for Bell, but it had been only two days, and only in the last twelve hours had the telegraph functioned reliably. The desert's fickle moods prevailed, swinging from monsoon to stifling heat in the space of a single day. Only now did cooler breezes fitfully whisper, as blue twilight overtook the white glare of day.
He expected to find the clinic door open to the mild night air, spilling a golden rectangle of light. Nor did he feel surprise at the shadowy figure beside the bed. Buck lay as before, while JD occupied the chair. More or less. His butt was still in the chair, but his dark head lay in the cradle of his folded arms, on the bed next to Buck's shoulder. Chris took a soft step from darkness to dim-lit room, then another - and JD came up like a bobcat, Chris suddenly staring into the black muzzle of a Colt's Lighting.
"Easy," Chris said quietly, as JD slumped around a huge gust of breath.
"You know better, Chris! I nearly shot you."
Letting the moment pass, Chris stepped to JD's side, looked at Buck's lifeless face. Someone had shaved him, and he wondered if that was Mary's touch.
"How's he doing?"
Shaking his head, JD touched the back of his knuckles to Buck's forehead. An almost subconscious gesture, no doubt repeated a hundred times this evening.
"Fever's still way up. Nathan bathed him down again, just a bit ago." A soft sigh. "Didn't change nothin'."
Standing there, it seemed to Chris as if the dim, sultry air in that room had weight, as if the very atmosphere pressed upon the motionless figure sunk in the sheets, held him there in some macabre spell. Him? Were it not for the shallow rise and fall of the body's chest, it would seem more mannequin than man. Buck Wilmington was laughter and life and a presence that filled a room. He was alive from his heels to the crown of his hat. When he spoke, it was the whole man, arms and hands and that absurd face, every thought written there in letters three inches tall. When he fought, he was a long, tall panther of a man who held nothing back, with thunder in his eyes and a six-foot swing. When he laughed, it filled his voice, his eyes, his belly, and overflowed to those around him. This . . . God, this was not Buck. You'd better get your sorry ass back here, Buck Wilmington.
The kid meanwhile looked beat, long black hair all a-straggle and eyes like two piss-holes in the snow. Other than with Casey, he had quit speaking to anyone beyond the barest courtesies, sought neither company nor counsel. No one could read the kid's thoughts or intentions, and Chris' mind shied away from the possibilities. He had worries enough already.
"You need some sleep."
"No. I'm all right, here."
Chris nodded, looking at Buck's slack features. Like a candle with the flame burnt out, wax cooling to dead . . . He jerked his mind from those thoughts with almost physical force. Cloth whispered as JD shifted in his chair, and Chris did not want to imagine what misery the kid must being going through. It was a hell of a world, when a young man's closest friend was some big-mouthed, womanizing, beer-guzzling gunslinger - with heart big as two or three territories.
Vague instinct moved his hand, dropped it on JD's shoulder, and he felt the kid tense under the touch. However, JD merely looked up at him, a soft-eyed gaze that Chris couldn't identify, and which discomfited him to see. Chris stepped back, hooked an extra chair away from the wall, and spun it to sit by JD. Made a loud clatter of wood on wood in doing so, but if that woke Buck up, all the better. Yet of course, it did not. Any luck, they'd both fall asleep sitting here, and wake up with terminal neck aches.
The light scuff of approaching footsteps grated on the stairs outside, and thumped gently on the balcony. Ezra appeared, solemn with a rectangle of yellow telegraph paper in his hand, as he stopped in the doorway.
"Mr. Larabee . . ." The gambler paused, lightly licking his lips, and Chris clamped down on the urge to shout, WHAT! "I'm afraid, gentlemen, that I bear bad news. Calvin Bell has escaped from Eagle Bend."
JD's chair flipped back with a crash, and the kid was up and snatching the telegram from Ezra in an instant. Dark eyes danced sharply across the page, then turned to Chris, his mouth turned down in anger.
"He hit a deputy over the head and stole a horse. What kind of idiot lets a prisoner even have the chance? Oh, and they got a posse after him. Hurrah."
Chris got up and took the telegram, and JD snatched up his hat, then stalked out onto the dark balcony to rake angry fingers through his hair. Escape at dawn, deputy in hospital, posse of twenty citizens sent, and recapture imminent.
"Well?" JD pivoted to stare back in the door, jaw set. "Do we ride or not?"
"JD, it's dark! Eagle Bend is a full day's ride away, and they got a helluva head start on us."
"So what? If we ride now, we'll be there by morning -."
"With spent horses and no sleep. JD, with the head start they have, by the time we get there, they'll probably have him back in irons."
The look JD gave him would linger a long time in memory. Shock, disbelief, and then disgust, all etched in a wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression that defied efforts at articulation. When JD finally could speak, it would have been better had no words been spoken at all.
"Probably?" The kid took two fast steps towards him, jerked to a vibrating halt. "Probably? Damn you, Chris Larabee! Maybe he's not enough of a friend to suit you, but Buck is a better man than either of us will ever be. Stay here and do nothing while he dies, if you want, but I'm gonna see Calvin Bell in hell!"
Fury flared white, as Chris grabbed at JD's passing sleeve, and missed. "JD, that's not -!"
"Let him go." Ezra lightly touched Chris' arm, as JD thundered down the porch and down the stairs.
Chris spun on the gambler with mayhem dancing in his eyes, but something in Ezra's quiet gaze halted him. Dropping his hand, Ezra sighed deeply, looked away.
"This says Bell escaped late this morning." Chris turned his pique on the telegram. "Right after they told us they got him. Why are we just now hearin' about it?"
"I have no idea, I assure you. Perhaps they wished to wait until they had more positive news."
Chris grunted sourly. "More likely wanted to cover their asses."
"Would you like one of us to . . ." Ezra waved one hand in JD's direction of departure. "Keep an eye on our impetuous young comrade?"
"No. Yeah, if you want. Hell, I don't know."
Chris crammed the telegram into his pocket and strode for the dark stairs, albeit less hastily than JD had done. He was right, dammit. Good sense told him that, with twenty men already hot on the tail of Calvin Bell, there was no reason for them to ride all that way, to join a manhunt that may be over before they got there. An all-night ride would put men and horses in Eagle Bend in a state of exhaustion, and they'd still be almost twenty-four hours behind the posse. They would simply be playing catch-up in a situation that others were in a far better position to handle. Hell, they may have the son of a bitch caught already.
But good sense had long since ceased to hold any appeal and Chris burned with a low, seething flame, under JD's thoughtless accusations. By the time he reached street level, Chris had decided that this was not the responsibility of the town's seven peacekeepers. This was a simple case of his pursuing justice for a friend. Come first light, he would be on the road for Eagle Bend. Just Chris Larabee and God help Calvin Bell, if no one else got to him, first.
Behind him, Ezra sighed, and then took his place in the bedside chair. With careful hands, he dipped the abandoned cloth in the washbasin, wrung it out then laid it gently across the too-smooth forehead.
"Wake up, my friend," he said, and listened to the silent mockery of the pressing shadows.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah had seen many things of this world, some a man could best do without. Yet always he sought to learn, either from the fickle turns of fate, or from his own oft-blundered efforts to contend with them. He knew that evil existed and that injustice had its way all too often. Long ago, he accepted that death followed him as a man's shadow clings to his heels, and it now followed the fierce company in which he found himself. Each time Providence called the Seven to arms, the Reaper stood watching. No matter how righteous the fight, a battle always collected the cost of its waging, and any of them were no more than mortal. Perhaps this was the balance required of the eternal battle between decency and iniquity, that sometimes the good must also fall.
However, that didn't mean Josiah had to like it.
Yet how could a man pray, when red anger filled his heart? How could he ask mercy for the life of a friend, when his next thought was to wish destruction upon the man who had done this grievous harm? How could he come before God in any semblance of humility, when his hands trembled with an almost physical desire wreak retribution?
A soft answer turneth away wrath, so the saying went, yet no soft answers came from Nathan's room, and so Josiah sought to channel his own impotent rancor elsewhere. He had been meaning to replace the cracked framing around that window for weeks, and although the hour grew late, now temper bound him to the task. The long, clean strokes of the drawknife peeled pale slivers of wood from the raw board, to fall in a fragrant drift at his feet. The slick rasp of it slowly mesmerized, even as did the repetitive movement of his hands, and the motion of each swipe pulled comfortably at muscle and sinew. The hardware store carried finished molding, but he preferred to craft the piece, himself. Building something was all that kept him from destroying something else, in a futile rage to extract answers that an unheeding Heaven would not give.
This was no easy thing, given the silent presence sitting hunched in a front pew. JD had come in over thirty minutes ago. He had permitted Josiah's embrace, acknowledged it with a sweet smile. But Josiah could not mistake the manner in which the young man then stepped away, turning his back like closing a door between them. That smarted oddly, left Josiah feeling as though he had just fumbled and dropped something precious.
"I said some things to Chris, preacher," was all JD would say. "I just need to think."
Since then, JD sat holding his hat between his knees, making not one sound, but his proximity had begun to press upon the ex-preacher as if it had weight. The kid's silent anguish radiated like electricity, while Josiah's own inadequacy filled him threefold.
Buck Wilmington was not a Good Man. Not in the sense that most meant, when they used the term. He was not and never would be a pillar of the community, an example to the young folks, a name anyone would speak of in the same breath as a new schoolhouse, a fire brigade, a seat on the city council. Heaven knew that Josiah himself had found his patience sorely tested by that reprobate, more than once. Yet if there was a God who truly knew His children's hearts, He had to know the inward parts of that man. Greater love hath no man, the Good Book said, and Buck had lived up to that, time and again. Buck would scoff and make ridicule at the very notion, yet Josiah had never hesitated to place his own life in the scales, when his tall friend weighed in against the forces of darkness. How many times? Hard to count. Perhaps the line was drawn exceeding thin, between themselves and the wolves they often faced, but those for whom they fought were the lambs. That was Buck's saving grace, to forever throw himself between evil and the innocent, and Josiah could not go wrong, to stand by him against any enemy.
However . . . now there was no enemy but Death. Josiah could rail against brute luck, could hurl stones at the uncaring sky, could call down the very heavens in fury, and this would not, could not, turn Death aside. If it wanted to take Buck, with a blade in his middle in a puddle of shitty, muddy water, there was not one damned thing Josiah Sanchez could do about it. The man who sank the lethal blade ran free, an outrage if ever there was one, but whether Calvin Bell walked or hanged, Death would do its work in its own time. The drawknife bit deep, too deep, into clean, soft wood, and Josiah swore softly.
Light footsteps ground mud onto the steps outside, and he straightened. Of habit, he took a step back, near the pew where lay his coiled gun belt. Behind him, he heard a soft sound as JD turned in his seat, knew the youth would have a hand already on a pistol. The front door rattled, and then opened with a thin metallic squeal. Hinge needed oiling.
"I - I know I shouldn't be here . . ." Soft, hesitant voice, and tousled auburn curls beneath a feathered hat. The soft swell of white bosom vanished beneath a shift of a wool cloak in nervous hands.
"All are welcome here, miss," Josiah said gently, and lay the drawknife aside.
She stepped within, pushed the door shut behind her, and then stood there as if ready to bolt back outside. One of the working girls, Josiah realized. He could not recall her name, but had seen her face.
"I - it's awful I'm here, but . . ." The woman's wide brown eyes glanced apprehensively around the room, at flickering candles and the cross hanging at the dark window behind the pulpit.
"Not at all," Josiah replied. What would bring this woman here, now? He stepped forward, gestured to a nearby pew. "Want to sit down?"
"I don't know." Head ducked and eyes still peering about, the woman swayed softly forward, stopped several feet away. "I just - Buck's a friend of mine."
"Ah." He nodded slowly, understanding, somewhat. "Come, sit here. What can I do for you?"
"I -." She bowed her head, hiding behind her hat, allowing herself to be seated gingerly on the aged wood. "Nothin' for me, preacher. But I just wondered . . . could you pray for Buck?"
"But could you do it . . . for me?"
He stood over her, now, looking into her face. Not the prettiest face, rather weak in the chin, the thin nose uneven, but her eyes were limpid and lovely. The sort of eyes Buck would stare into with that roguish smile, and coo some patently ridiculous bit of quasi-poetry. And yet . . . that foolishness had brought her here with perhaps a truer heart than any who yet passed these doors.
Josiah felt a vast gentleness towards this woman, whose fearful gaze now stared up at him. Smiling, he said, "Why don't you say one, yourself?"
"I - I can't." Long eyelashes fluttered, as she looked down and pulled her cloak tighter. "I'm not . . ."
"Not good enough?" Josiah chuckled. "Who is? It's not the saintly that God wants to hear from, sister. He does His best work with us sinners."
"But I don't know what to say . . ." Her voice drifted softly into a sigh, and she twisted her fingers together.
A whispering rasp of cloth on wood turned both their heads, followed by a scuffed footstep. JD stood, now, facing them for an instant. Then with his hat in hand, he walked the few steps between them, and looked at the woman. Josiah waited, studying the kid's expression. Dark brows lifted slightly above eyes that became so gentle, so much like something one would expect from Buck, that Josiah's breath caught in his throat.
"Miss?" said JD quietly. "I'll help you." He paused and held out his hand. "I guess I could use some help prayin' for Buck, too."
Josiah stood without breathing, watching as the woman lifted a tentative hand, and let JD raise her to her feet. JD bore himself as carefully as if escorting a fine lady, walking her to the front pew, where he politely seated her. JD then sat beside her, and Josiah briefly heard their soft voices, hesitant, bashful, followed by a bit of nervous laughter from JD. Then JD cleared his throat, before guiding his young man's voice into a startlingly child-like cadence.
"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..."
As he listened, from the desert of his soul Josiah felt a rising wind, felt its force sweep through him to batter against the shutters of his own doubts and cynicisms, and wash him in shame. Here sat a woman who bore all the sins of her sex, and with her a very young man who knew too much of violence and bloodshed. Yet they joined their quiet voices, her lighter tone underscoring JD's youthful timbre, in a sort of trust that Josiah could not touch. Here in God's own house, he could not so much as ask for the mercy of Buck Wilmington's life, choked as he was on his own selfish bitterness. Yet a boy gunfighter and a timid whore could. Ask, and it shall be given. Seek, and ye shall find.
Buck, do you know what you have wrought, here? Do you know how you touch people? Josiah could only wish that he might pray as honestly as they did. And then he wished that someone might pray thus, for him.