When the Rangers Came to Town
Previously published in Let's Ride! 6 (2004)
Crossover with "Bordertown"
If there was one thing they never put into JD's dime novels, Chris mused, it was how boring the West could be.
Oh, sure it had its moments more than Chris Larabee liked of excitement in the form of bank robbers, stage hold-up men, Indian troubles, wanted gunslingers, not to mention your plain old murderers, thieves and drunkards. He preferred boredom any day of the week.
But not by much.
Vin Tanner, however, sat next to him in perfect contentment, chewing on a piece of straw and watching the daily traffic go by on Four Corners' one street. That seemed to be entertainment enough for him, that and the occasional brief exchange with Chris. Well, it wouldn't be the first or the last thing they were different in. How on earth the two of them had become such good friends was still a mystery to Chris. But the thought made him smile.
"Somethin' funny?" Vin drawled next to him. The sleepy-eyed peace didn't mean he wasn't paying attention, a mistake more than one foolish desperado had made.
"Nope," Chris said, leaning back in his chair.
"Thought maybe you were thinkin' 'bout Buck."
Chris' smile returned. It seemed to do that more easily these days, but the reminder of Buck's antics the day before would have made a dead man laugh. When the ladies' man would get it through his head that Inez wasn't interested in him, Chris wouldn't have wagered on, but it was fun watching him try.
Fun. Now that wasn't something he'd thought of in a long time. And even as he did, the chaser of guilt and anger followed, as it always did to punish any pleasant thought he had. He had no business having fun when his wife and child were buried not a mile away.
The darkness, temporarily lifted, settled over him again and Chris accepted its weight without protest. But the smile was just a memory now.
Vin gave him a long, languid look as if he'd known what had just happened, and who knew, maybe he did. But he didn't say a word, just went back to watching the street.
Boredom, and now depression, returned.
And then the sound of riders came from the east end of town.
That was nothing unusual in itself; farmers and ranchers in the area came into town on a regular basis for supplies and trading. The traffic had gotten heavier since the Seven had restored order to the small town a year before and then stayed to enforce it, and while it still wasn't near torrential, it was regular enough.
These didn't look like area folk, however. Chris straightened up a little so he could keep an eye on the three riders as they ambled into town. At least they didn't look either in a hurry or furtive in their approach, both of which would have been bad signs. Maybe just drifters passing through, then, or cowhands looking for work.
Then the sun glinted off something metal on the chest of one of the riders, and suddenly Chris was sitting bolt upright. Lawmen. "Vin," he murmured out of the side of his mouth, but as usual he was a step behind the tracker. Vin had already melted back into the shadows of the saloon, invisible now to the passersby on the street, but still watching, keeping an eye on Chriss back. Larabee winced. It would get that idiot killed one day, that stubborn loyalty he had to Chris. Vin was still a wanted man, and every bounty hunter and lawman was a threat until his name was cleared, but he wouldn't be leaving town while Chris was around.
Then again, maybe the new arrivals were just another attempt to replace the Seven. Only months before, a well-meaning but completely unprepared Federal Marshal had been sent to take over the law in Four Corners. He had lasted all of three days before the two big local ranchers' henchmen had shot him up and the Seven had needed to return to restore order.
Neither possibility had Chris smiling any welcomes as he stood to greet the newcomers.
The lead rider of the three, a man younger than Chris but with an old face half-hidden under a thick mustache, noticed him first, and turned his horse slightly to intercept Larabee, the other two following his lead. It was one of those, a solidly built blond with the chiseled face all the heroes of the dime novels seemed to have, whose chest sported the badge Chris could now see clearly. There was no universal badge for the Texas Rangers, just the ones individual rangers had made up for themselves if they wanted, but Chris knew one when he saw it. Which put to rest one worry: no one would be sending three Texas Rangers to take over the law in a small town in the territories. But they could be looking for a fugitive wanted for murder.
The three riders finally reached the porch of the saloon, and instead of talking down to Chris, the lead ranger immediately dismounted. Chris's respect rose a grudging inch for the man as he waited for him to speak first.
"Name's Jack Craddock, Texas Rangers. I'm lookin for Chris Larabee."
Chris narrowed his eyes. "You found him."
Again unexpectedly, Craddock reached a hand to him and smiled, if wanly. "We were told you were the law in these parts, and we might need your help. This 's Charlie Hilton," he nodded back at the blond with the badge, "an' Ray McKenna." The third man was smaller and wirier than his companions, dark like Craddock, with fidgety eyes but a genuine smile. Craddock barely gave his two men time to nod their greetings before going on. "We're on the trail of a man named John Wesley Hardin heard he might be in the territory. He's wanted for murder."
Another small relief, although just because they weren't after Vin didn't mean they wouldn't recognize him if they saw him. Chris looked the three men over warily. "Whose orders you riding under?"
Hilton answered that, his chest puffing in obvious pride. "Major John B. Jones of the new Frontier Battalion."
Interesting. Chris had heard of Jones before, and he sounded like a good man. Nor were any of the three riders raising any internal flags of warning. Chris decided, nodded. "How can we help?"
"Not sure yet." Craddock wound his reins around the hitching post in front of the saloon, and the other two seemed to take that as their cue to dismount. "I'd like to send a telegram first to the major, see if there's any new sightings of Hardin. If we heard right and he's somewheres 'round here, we sure would appreciate someone who knows the land givin' us a hand."
"All right. Telegraph office's there," Chris pointed, "and you can usually find most of us in here." He indicated the saloon behind him with a hitched thumb.
"Much obliged." Then Craddock paused, eyebrows rising. "'Us'?" he added.
Chris smiled, not without cold humor. "I'm not the only law in Four Corners."
If Craddock had questions, he didn't ask them, just nodded once more and headed toward the telegraph office. His lack of inquisitiveness also had Chris thinking a little more highly of the man. Besides, he wasn't ready to tell the rangers about the Seven. Vin might still disappear for the duration if he were smart, and Josiah was out of town visiting someone in a nearby monastery, probably a fellow man of the cloth, so they might be down to five, anyway. And the rangers seemed to be what they claimed, but until Chris was sure, best to keep his cards close to his chest.
Apparently on their own now, the two other rangers headed for the saloon, McKenna barely giving Chris a glance, Hilton offering a broad and friendly smile that Chris didn't return. He did, however, turn to follow them inside, pausing briefly at the door to whisper to the bare outline in the shadows.
Vin nodded and disappeared around the corner of the building. Chris watched him go, and then walked into the saloon.
Well, if nothing else, he wasn't bored anymore.
+ + + + + + +
"So, you admit you think I'm good-lookin'!" Buck Wilmington said with delight as he leaned over the bar of Four Corners busiest saloon.
The object of his leering smile stood on the other side of the bar, her hands on her hips and her eyes narrowed. "I said, SeÒor Buck, I do not think you are less handsome than some. Some what, I did not say."
Buck's smile never faltered. "Aw, now, Inez, you know you're sweet on me. All it'll take is" The saloon door swung open and he automatically glanced over to see who the newcomers were. Strangers, unexpectedly. And the one swaggering in the lead had a badge pinned to his nice jacket.
Inez momentarily forgotten, Buck cast a quick glance around the saloon. No Vin. Good. He relaxed. He could afford to be friendly then.
The two men were making their way toward the bar, in fact, and Buck leaned back against the wooden counter, offering the strangers a lazy smile as they reached him. "Howdy. You fellas are new in town."
The man with the badge, taller than his companion by nearly a head and broadly built, smiled back. "Just got in," he answered, his deep voice reminiscent of Josiah's. He stuck out a hand. "Name's Charlie Hilton. This is Ray McKenna. Texas Rangers."
"No kiddin'?" Buck looked them over again with interest. The Rangers were nearly legendary, but despite being a lawman himself once, he'd met one only two or three times over the years. Hilton seemed to be a model version, all muscle and strong features, but his tone was unusually cultured for the West. His companion, while smaller and less chiseled, still held himself like a man who was ready and capable of anything. Buck grinned at them both. "Buck Wilmington's the name, and let me buy you two boys a drink then, lawman to lawman."
It was Hilton's turn to look interested. "You're part of the law in this town?"
"Yup," Buck said proudly. "Seven of us all together, and let me tell you, sometimes we've needed every man." Then, realizing maybe he shouldn't have said that, he added, "'Course, we've always got a man or two out on patrol or checkin' up on something." Better not to have them counting and missing Vin.
Inez had poured both rangers a drink and Hilton gave her a smile and drained his glass before answering. "Seven! That's impressive. Only three of us riding through we're on the trail of a murderer, John Wesley Hardin. Heard of him?"
Buck frowned, scratching his mustache. "Hardin . . . yeah, think I did hear somethin' about that. You boys have been lookin' for him a while, haven't you?"
Hilton nodded. "Yes, sir, and believe me, we'll get him. We're just checking a report he was seen in this area." He gave Inez a toothy smile again. "Could I please have another, Miss?"
"Certainly, SeÒor." She poured a second drink into his glass, this time nearly to the rim.
"Thank you kindly, Miss"
"Rosillos. Inez Rosillos."
Hilton lifted his hat in respectful greeting. "Well, Miss Rosillos, I must say, you are the loveliest bartender I've seen in all my travels."
"Thank you, SeÒor." She did a tiny curtsey. "But please, call me Inez."
Buck smile faded as he watched the exchange, especially Inez's blush and sudden fluster. He glanced back at Hilton, taking in anew the man's wavy blond hair and too-bright blue eyes. Surely Inez wasn't attracted to a bleached fake like that?
"Miss Inez, it would be a privilege."
There went the hat again. Man was starting to look like a jack-in-the-box, with all the hat wagging.
Inez dimpled in that way Buck admired so much and longed to see aimed at him. "Have you eaten, SeÒor? Either of you," she belatedly added, including the silent McKenna in her question.
"Why, no, ma'am," Hilton said pleasantly. "But don't tell me a lady as busy as yourself also cooks?"
"And very well, SeÒor," she said with a tartness that was all show. Buck winced. "I will bring you something." And she flounced away, throwing a glance over her shoulder that would have had Buck climbing over the bar after her if it had been thrown his way. But she hadn't even noticed him, her eyes only for Hilton.
Buck glanced darkly over at the blond ranger, who gave him a distracted smile. "Nice town you have here, Mr. Wellington."
"Wilmington," he corrected coldly.
"Yes, of course, forgive me." Hilton turned away to exchange a few words with his companion McKenna? just as the saloon doors opened again, and Buck's spirits temporarily lifted as he saw the new arrival. JD Dunne could cheer him like no other sometimes, and he needed it now. And someone who wouldn't be swooning all over some pretty-faced cowboy with a tin badge.
JD's face also lit up, but it wasn't at the sight of Buck. He rushed into the room with eager steps, heading straight for Hilton and McKenna, stopping nervously beside Buck. Hilton's glance up at him was the only encouragement he needed to begin talking. "Are you two the Texas Rangers just rode into town? The whole town's talking about it I ain't ever met one before but I've sure admired you uh, the rangers ever since I was a kid. . ." He would have kept going if not for the need to draw breath, and Hilton chuckled, holding up a hand to interrupt.
"Nice to meet you, son, and yep, we're rangers, under the command of Major Jones. We're here looking for a murderer who might be in the area."
"Wow." JD's eyes shone as if he hadn't helped catch any murderers himself. "I'd sure love to hear about it. I mean, I've always wanted to be a ranger, but I never expected to meet any right here in Four Corners."
Buck glowered from five feet away, invisible now. Right here in Four Corners? What were they, the end of the world?
"It'd be my pleasure, son. But I didn't catch your name. . .?"
Son, Buck thought with disgust. That fancy talker was rapidly getting old.
JD flushed. "John Dunne, sir. I'm one of the Seven that guards this town."
John Dunne, not JD. Buck's anger contorted into something more painful.
"You, too?" Hilton's voice seemed to hold only respect. "Well, this seems to be a fortunate town. Sit down, Mr. Dunne, and I'll tell you anything you'd like to know."
JD, veritably aglow, nearly fumbled the chair in his haste to pull it out and join Hilton at a table. He sat down just as clumsily, unaware of Buck or the saloon around him, his full attention fastened on the blond ranger. Inez soon joined the group at the table, putting steaming plates in front of the new arrivals and then bending low to ask something else of Hilton. His answer made her eyes shine with pleasure.
And Buck stood and watched in bewildered silence until he couldn't take it any more. He turned sharply and walked out of the saloon, not looking back.
Of course, probably no had one even noticed he'd left.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish rearranged the cards idly in his hand, his gaze passing over their top edge and resting on the player sitting across from him, whose attention seemed even more diverted than Ezra's.
"Mr. Jackson, if you would care to continue this game another time. . ." he finally offered.
Nathan Jackson, his one playing partner that morning, started, giving him a guilty look. "Sorry, Ezra, didn't mean to be ignoring you, but. . ."
"But you've been unusually interested in our new arrivals."
Nathan looked at him again. "You noticed them, too?"
"Little escapes my attention," Ezra drawled. It was true, too, especially when they were potential new donors to his coffers. "I fail to see the cause of your fascination, however." He rearranged his cards once more, then, with a quiet sigh, conceded the game wasn't going to go anywhere and folded them together.
Nathan had already set down his, staring once more at the newcomers. "It's just, I got this feeling I know one of 'em from someplace. Can't quite put my finger on it. . ." He finally stood. "'Scuse me, Ezra, I'm gonna go take a closer look, maybe then I can figure it out."
Ezra nodded his head, not that Nathan seemed to notice in his distraction. The gambler turned partway in his chair so he could watch Jackson as he approached the two men sitting now at a table with JD. The bigger of the strangers was striking in appearance, handsome and well-built, and with the glint of a lawman's badge on his chest. It was the other one, however, that Nathan was heading for, and Ezra tilted his head contemplatively as he watched the healer bend down to get a better look at the man's face . . . and then break into a grin. Ezra lowered his arm with the concealed derringer back under the table again.
"Ray? Ray McKenna? I don't believe it!"
At Nathan's exclamation, the darker stranger raised his face, and Ezra saw an equally delighted smile spread across his face. The man immediately rose to his feet and circled the saloon table to shake Nathan's hand while the other stranger and JD watched with curiosity.
"Nate, you old quack! How the heck are you doing? And what're you doing here?"
Interesting: the man's accent was a mix of Scottish no more than second generation, by Ezra's reckoning and the South, perhaps Georgia. And yet there was no hesitation in his greeting of the black man, nothing but obvious pleasure at their meeting. Ezra slowly shuffled his deck, watching the two men with interest.
"Who's your friend, Ray?" the other stranger asked cheerfully.
"This's Nate Jackson we were stretcher-bearers in the war. Last time I saw him was . . . Petersburg, wasn't it?"
Nathan's face briefly darkened. "Yeah . . . thought you ended up on one of the stretchers we were carryin'. What happened to you?"
"Ray" shrugged. "Got word Ma died down in Georgia and the cap let me go down to see about the girls. Next thing I know, war's over. Stayed there a few years 'til the girls both married and had homes o' their own, then headed west. Ended up joining the Texas Rangers."
Rangers. Ezra silently filed that piece of information away. And the nervous tension that seemed to run through McKenna even though he was clearly happy to see his old friend. The man had a secret, and secrets intrigued Ezra Standish.
"Well, we got a lot to catch up on. Y'all stayin' the night?" Nathan asked.
The two rangers traded glances while JD looked hopeful. Apparently Nathan wasn't the only one elated with the new arrivals, and wasn't it interesting that Buck was nowhere in sight? The blond ranger shrugged, and his companion turned back to Nathan. "Don't know yet, but don't think we're goin' anywhere for a few hours while the sarge waits for a wire."
So there was a third one somewhere. Nowhere around Vin Tanner, Ezra presumed, knowing the tracker's absolute gift for making himself scarce when prudent.
"We better talk fast, then." Nathan waited for his friend to collect his plate of food and the mug of beer Inez had just brought, and he led the way toward the rear, presumably to the back entrance of the clinic.
But on the way, he unexpectedly stopped at Ezra's table, giving the gambler a smile. "Ezra, I'd like you to meet an old friend of mine from the war. Ray McKenna. Ray, Ezra Standish."
Ezra tipped his hat. "Charmed."
McKenna smiled back. "Mr. Standish."
But there was something about his eyes. . . .
Nathan bobbed his head to Ezra and then the two men disappeared into the back.
Ezra was pleasantly surprised Nathan had bothered to introduce his friend; Jackson usually put up with him more than anything. But it had been almost as if the healer had wanted to share his pleasure with a . . . friend.
Ezra smiled slightly at his cards. No, he wasn't that deluded, but it had still felt . . . nice. He just hoped the unease in the pit of his stomach about Nathan's friend turned out to be nothing.
But deep down, Ezra knew better. Something was wrong with young Ranger McKenna.
So much for staying in Nathan's good graces.
Fighting off unusual melancholia, Ezra dealt himself a hand of solitaire.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner stood by the corner of the telegraph office, one with the shadows, and listened.
Chris knew he was there, of course, although Larabee didn't even glance his way, and maybe the ranger had sensed something, too, because he'd peered once in Vin's direction with a slight frown. But now they were occupied with serious discussion, which Vin was listening to every word of.
"Still no news?" Chris asked in his quiet, deceptively off-handed way.
"Nope. Guess we'll be spendin' the night here. We should have some more to go on in the morning." Craddock's voice was also low-pitched, but while Chris's was smooth, Craddock's was rough, trail-weary. Responsibility and maybe more hung on his shoulders and aged his face even though he was closer in years to Vin than to Chris. But there was no arrogance of experience in his bearing, no hard glint of a worn conscience, just a restlessness that seemed to be the only thing between him and resignation. Vin found himself liking the man.
"Hotel's across the street from the saloon," Chris nodded. "Food's not bad either place."
A soft grunt. "After a week of hard tack an' jerky, saddle soap sounds good."
The corner of Chris's mouth turned up. He liked the man, too.
The two nodded in parting and turned their separate ways, Craddock heading toward the saloon, Chris toward the telegraph office. He turned away at the door, however, coming up next to Vin instead.
He didn't even have to ask.
"I think he's bein' straight," Vin said.
"Me, too." He met Vin's eyes with a significant look. "'Course, real lawman could be even worse trouble. Now might be a good time to pay that visit to Chanu you've been planning."
Vin shook his head fractionally. "They're not here after me."
"That won't stop 'em from bringing you in if someone recognizes you."
"Rangers spend most of their time on the trail, right? What're the chances one of 'em even saw my poster, let alone remembered it?"
Chris's eyes were even darker than the shadows. "Those are some long odds, Tanner."
"Can't leave town every time someone with a badge rides in," Vin countered.
Chris considered that, nodded reluctantly. "Just don't go attracting attention to yourself," he said with a bare smile.
Vin flashed him one in return. "You know me, Cowboy." And he headed softly after Craddock, toward the saloon.
Chris's mutter was barely audible on the wind, but it made him grin. "That's what worries me."
Vin crossed the twilight-dim street with silent steps, pausing briefly to glance in the saloon window. One of the rangers, the one with the badge, sat near the door, an admiring crowd gathered around him. Vin saw JD and Inez in the group, but of Buck, Nathan, and the other ranger there was no sign. Ezra sat closer to the back, playing cards with some farmers with obvious half-heartedness. And near the rear, at the table Chris often favored, Craddock sat alone with a bottle and a glass.
Vin went around to the back of the saloon and entered that way, coming up behind Craddock. And when he saw the man stiffen, aware of Vin's presence, quickly stepped to one side and came up to the table next to the ranger.
Craddock took him in with a long glance, before his expression softened unexpectedly into one of amusement. "You spend some time with the Indians, Mister?"
That in itself was often the invitation to a fight, but Vin sensed no such prejudice here. "Kiowa," he said shortly.
"Figured as much. Almost didn't catch you watchin' out there." Vin hid his surprise as Craddock waved to the chair in front of him. "I ain't much for company, but yer welcome to share the bottle."
Vin sat, a little more careful and respectful as he stared at the man. "Don't want t' interrupt somethin'."
Craddock poured himself another glassful before shoving the bottle toward Vin. "You're not."
Vin took a swig. The bottle was half-empty already, but Craddock didn't seem drunk. The alcohol had, however, sharpened the look in the man's eyes that Vin hadn't been able to recognize before. He should have, certainly having seen it enough times in Chris. Grief.
Vin leaned back in his chair to get Inez's attention, not an easy thing as the other ranger seemed to have her enraptured. But she finally looked up and he motioned for a glass, and soon they were drinking together in silence.
"So, what're you wanted for?" Craddock unexpectedly spoke up, but his tone was casual, his hand nowhere near his gun.
Vin mulled that one over a moment, studying the man before he decided. "Killin' a man I didn't kill."
Craddock nodded as if he'd expected as much, then gave Vin a faint smile. "Don't worry, it ain't no concern of mine. We got enough to do chasin' down the hombres the major sends us after without worryin' about locking up every wanted man we ride across. 'Sides, you don't look like no killer to me."
Vin nodded thoughtfully, unsurprised but glad he'd been right.
The ranger poured himself another drink, and as Vin held out his glass, one for Tanner, too. Vin gave him a bare smile and lifted his glass.
"What're we drinking to?"
Craddock hesitated. And then said roughly, simply, "Memories."
Vin accepted that, not pushing for more. It was probably why he got along so well with Chris.
There was a long silence, then the ranger gave a long sigh. "I was married," he said, his gaze on the table. "Had a little girl, nice little farm over in Texas. An' I lost it all to a man who wanted my land and didn't mind killin' for it."
Honesty exchanged for honesty, but what an admission that was. His voice was flat, but Vin knew emotion took many different forms, and the man's pain was visible in every other way. His just seemed to be sorrow instead of Chris's anger. "They ever pay for it?" he asked with respectful interest.
Craddock snorted. "Man responsible's still alive, 'f that's what you mean. I killed his son by accident while tryin' to get to the old man and, well, guess that kinda took the fight out of me, too. Nothing I did was gonna bring back my family, anyhow."
"'M sorry," Vin said quietly.
There was a long pause, then Craddock's whispered, "Me, too."
They finished the bottle without another word, and Craddock gave him a grim nod when he finally stood and left the saloon for the hotel. His gait was rock solid, unaffected by the amount he'd just drunk. Vin doubted his memories were, either.
He sat thinking a few minutes longer, disturbed by the familiarity of Craddock's story. What were the odds? And how many other similar stories were out there?
At any rate, Chris should know. It was a slim one, but there was still a chance the same man who'd killed Craddock's wife and daughter was responsible for the death of Larabee's family. Chris would want to know. Might even do him good to know he wasn't the only one it'd happened to.
Or it might tear open wounds that were just starting to mend.
Vin sighed quietly, tilting back one last drink.
A minute later, the table in the back was empty, the rear door of the saloon quietly clicking shut.
+ + + + + + +
In all, it had not been one of his most profitable evenings. As the crowd in the saloon dwindled to a handful of drinkers and JD Dunne and his new ranger friend still talking animatedly in one corner Ezra gave in graciously to the inevitable and put his cards away. It was only just after midnight, but perhaps an early night wouldn't hurt. A smart player slept when he could because the next big game could be just around the corner.
Probably not one in Four Corners, though, Ezra conceded glumly as he stepped outside the saloon and looked up and down the empty main road. When had he last had a profitable bonanza here? The undertaker did better business than he did. It was foolish to stay in a dried-up backwoods like that, and Ezra wondered wearily again why he bothered to stay. No answer he came up with made sense to his way of thinking.
His room was on the top floor of the saloon, but Ezra headed toward the privy at the back of the building to take care of other business first. Come to think of it, the warm feather-bed upstairs was sounding more and more inviting. In sleep, at least, he could live his inchoate dreams to their fullest. Strangely, they were less and less about money those days, and more about that elusive sense of belonging, of having home and family. That dreadful little town was even starting to take over his dreams.
Rounding the saloon's corner, Ezra glanced up automatically at the one doorway on that side of the building, the one leading to Nathan Jackson's small clinic, and stopped suddenly at the sight of stealthy movement on the landing. It was only for a moment, then the clinic door opened partway to allow a figure to slip inside, and closed again.
Ezra frowned. Was it Nathan? It wasn't unheard of for the town's healer to be needed in the middle of the night, but Nathan had no reason to sneak around like that. And anyway, the brief glimpse Ezra had gotten seemed to be of a white man. Someone Nathan had sent for supplies? But again, then, why the clandestine behavior?
Warily, Ezra drew his gun and did some sneaking of his own, climbing the stairs to Nathan's clinic in silence, flattened against the wall of the hotel. At the top, he pressed his ear to the door and listened.
The sound of steps, and some sort of clinking was barely audible, then a fretful mutter. That was followed by a yelp as something crashed to the floor and broke, the sound of shattered glass unmistakable. Ezra lifted the latch quietly, took a breath, and then yanked the door open, aiming his gun immediately at the intruder inside.
And stared in confusion at the sight of Nathan's ranger friend from that afternoon, McKenna, standing frozen by Jackson's medicine cupboard, both hands holding several bottles each. Those strange eyes of his darted between Ezra and the medicine bottles with obvious fright.
Ezra's hand steadied. Clearly the man wasn't here on an errand from Nathan, and so the gambler inquired coolly, "Looking for something?"
"Uh, aye." McKenna drew back from the cupboard with jerky motions, dropping a bottle in the process. They both winced even as it landed unbroken next to another that obviously hadn't fared so well, fragments of curved glass littering the floor. "I was just, uh, Nathan asked me. . ."
Ezra's lips pressed together. "To make a shambles of his clinic? Really, Mr. McKenna, I don't believe even you would expect me to believe that."
McKenna licked his lips and drew his empty hands guiltily away from the cupboard. There was nothing of an experienced thief about him, no suave cover story, no ability to meet Ezra's eyes and lie to his face. Even now he looked more ashamed and frightened than ill-intentioned, and Ezra finally lowered his gun a fraction.
"I suggest you tell me the truth, Mr. McKenna. I assure you, I shall know the difference, and one false word will earn you a speedy trip to Mr. Jackson. Now, what is it you were so intent on stealing from your 'old friend'?"
"Look, please, Mr., uh. . ."
"Mr. Standish. I wasn't stealing from Nate, honest, I just wanted to borrow something. I-I got this old war injury and sometimes it acts up, that's all. Didn't wanna bother him about it. Thought I'd just borrow something. You know, t-t' help me sleep."
And then it fell into place: the dilated, restless eyes, the erratic movements. And the war. Ezra's gun sagged. He hadn't put it together because he tended to avoid that element of society, or perhaps they avoided him, living in the back alleys and slums. But the war had created enough addicts that Ezra knew one when he saw him.
"Morphine or laudanum?" he asked wearily.
McKenna managed to look even more humiliated. "Morphine, but Nathan ain't got any. I thought I'd just borrow a couple bottles of other stuff, t-trade 'em for"
"For your poison." Ezra shook his head, disgusted and strangely sad. Did Nathan know? Could he, with his training and experience, have missed the signs? Perhaps he just didn't want to see them in an old friend. "I don't suppose you took into consideration that Mr. Jackson might need those medications for treating the truly ill? Or that he has little enough money for replacements?"
McKenna took a frantic step closer to him, prompting Ezra to raise the gun once more. "I don't wanna hurt Nate, honest. I just figured, for an old friend. . ."
An old friend. Ezra flinched inside. "You're probably correct, Mr. McKenna. Had you asked Mr. Jackson, I'm certain he would have given you the shirt off his back. However, since you have turned instead to thievery, you have exactly five seconds to leave this room. Any further, and I shall certainly shoot you where you stand for trespassing."
McKenna flushed, staring uncertainly at him for a moment, then as Ezra raised a single finger, then another, broke for the door. The gambler stepped aside to let him pass. He watched as McKenna stumbled down the stairs, gave him a final hopeless glance, and disappeared around the hotel corner.
Ezra deflated, holstering his gun, and turned again to survey Nathan's clinic.
The bottles in the cupboard were in disarray, and glass gleamed everywhere on the floor. Friend. What kind of a man would steal and vandalize his friend's property, particularly something like medicines that might be urgently needed? This was the kind of man Nathan called friend, whom his face lit up to see, while. . .
Ezra let the thought go and reached for the straw broom sitting in the corner.
It was a half-hour more before the room was restored to its previous order and Mrs. Potter had been roused to request a placement for the broken bottle. She'd complained about it heavily, but the price Ezra paid for the small bottle reduced her to a mere grumble. Finally, satisfied even the clinic's owner would never know the difference, Ezra blew out the small lamp in the clinic and finally retired to his bed.
He hadn't done it for McKenna; the addict could rot, for all Ezra cared. But he'd seen the way Nathan had looked at his old friend, and, well, there was no need for them both to be disillusioned about friendship, was there?
Although he was more tired than he could have explained, it was a long time before Ezra drifted off to sleep.
+ + + + + + +
The little pocket of civilization that was Four Corners gave way to untamed nature right outside the boundaries of the small town. It was there that the road became just another strip of dirt, the trees closed in, and the mountains seemed to loom in the distance. The creek that probably fed the wells of Four Corners veered closest to town there, and it was in that spot, under the spreading branches of the various firs and pines, Vin Tanner often went to find his peace.
Once upon a time, he would have ridden out, following his heart to wherever it led, sometimes riding through the day and night before he was ready to stop. Now, he had roots in the town behind him and couldn't just strike out whenever he wished, as far as he wished. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing; it was his choice to stay, and there was something mighty comforting about roots that he'd never have expected. But here, in this place, Vin felt he had the best of both worlds.
He sat on the bank of the creek, watching the moonlight sparkle and scatter on the surface of the water, and thought about grief and friendship and what made a man act like he did. They were heavier thoughts than he was used to entertaining, but that seemed to come along with human company. One of the many lessons he'd been learning that last year.
There was a stir of fallen leaves behind him, and Vin's eyebrow rose. Without taking the blade of grass he'd been chewing from his mouth, he said quietly, "Buck."
Buck Wilmington stepped out from behind the trees and Vin didn't have to see his face to know he was chagrined. "Dang, Vin, how do you do that?" He flopped onto the bank next to the tracker.
Vin grinned into the darkness. "What brings you out here this time o' night, Bucklin? Saloon close early?"
"Naw, the girls are all hangin' off the new ranger like fruit on a pear tree. Man can't find any decent companionship since he's been in town."
It wasn't the first time Vin had heard Buck complain of women's fickle tastes, but there was something else under the usual whine. Vin thought back to the scene in the saloon earlier that night, the blond ranger surrounded by an attentive audience of girls, a few of the town's young men and . . . Ah. He glanced at Buck, quirking his mouth in sympathy. "JD bein' one of those pears?"
"I don't wanna talk about it."
Vin nodded, turning back to watch the water.
"He stares at that tinhorn like he walked on water!" Buck burst out. "You'd think that brush popper with his white teeth had won the war, built the town, and caught every outlaw between here an' Sacramento."
Vin hid his smile this time. "Seemed like a nice enough fella."
"He fooled you, too, huh?" Buck stormed. "I'm tellin' you, Vin, there's somethin' fishy about that Hilton. Nobody smiles that much if he ain't got nothin' t' hide."
That was rich, coming from one of the most unfailingly cheerful people Vin had ever met. But he kept his peace. People tended to find their own answers best when you just shut up and let them.
"JD always wanted to be a ranger." Buck sounded mournful now. "Fool kid's in such a hurry to get himself killed, I should just do him the favor an' take care of it for him now."
Vin chewed on his grass blade. He'd seen Buck fussing over JD after he'd been stabbed by a gang who'd planned to rob the bank. The older man would have given his life for the young sheriff if it came to it, Vin had no doubts about that. And JD felt the same way, even if he'd gotten a little side-tracked that day. There was no way to tell Buck that so he'd believe it right then, but he'd remember it soon enough.
Buck heaved a large sigh, then seemed to shake himself out of his thoughts. "So, you out here avoiding our 'guests'?"
"Actually, talked to one of 'em Craddock already. Good man."
"Haven't had the pleasure," Buck said in a voice that indicated he didn't intend to, either. One ranger seemed enough for him, apparently. Vin's mouth twitched, then he grew serious again. And cast a sideways glance at Buck, who just might have been the only other person who would understand his dilemma.
"Craddock's got a past, too."
Buck snorted. "Shoot, Vin, 'round here, who doesn't?"
"His wife an' little girl were murdered last year."
There was a long silence in which he could feel the jolt of Buck's shock. The man turned to stare at him, and Vin steadily returned the gaze. "You mean . . . like. . .?"
"Didn't get all the details, but seems some fella thought Craddock an' his family were on land that shoulda been his. Killed the family, I'm guessin' while Craddock was away. He knows who it was, too."
Buck uttered a long, low whistle that carried in the quiet night around them. "You tell Chris?"
Vin gave him another look, this time more curious. "Would you, Buck?"
Buck considered that, face drawn in serious thought. "He'll probably shoot ya 'fore you can finish."
"Prob'ly," Vin allowed.
"Doesn't sound likely it was the same fella who had Sarah and Adam killed, so it ain't gonna help Chris find that piece o' dirt."
Vin had thought the same thing but sat quietly, listening.
"There's more 'n one way to help a man, though. Maybe it'd do him good t' meet someone who lost his family, too. An' I didn't see Craddock burnin' holes through anybody with his glare."
Vin smiled softly. "You think I should tell 'im."
Buck rubbed his mustache, scratched under his hat. But when he looked at Vin and spoke, it was with quiet sobriety. "Yeah, I do."
Vin nodded. He'd thought that, too, but it helped to be hearing it from Chris' oldest friend.
Buck suddenly grinned, even though his eyes were still serious. "I'm just glad it's you tellin' him, not me."
Vin grimaced. "Thanks, Bucklin."
"Hey, what're friends for?"
It was a question Vin had often asked himself. He was starting to think he knew the answer, too.
They sat in easy silence for a long time after, watching the rippling water and listening to the frog song.
+ + + + + + +
It was a beautiful morning. Nathan stepped out of the saloon front door and stretched with satisfaction as he watched the last colorful beams of dawn smooth out into early morning gray. No bad guys on the way to town, no attacks of croup to get him out of bed in the middle of the night, just a long, pleasant evening spent with an old friend and then a good night's sleep. That alone would have made for a good morning, but the clean smell of the air and the hint of fall breeze put an extra spring in the healer's step.
Ray's sergeant, a man Nathan had only met in passing the night before when he'd come to tell his men they'd be spending the night, was coming in the other direction, from the telegraph office, and he slowed to give Nathan a nod as he climbed the saloon steps. "Mr. Jackson."
"Ranger Craddock," Nathan nodded back. "Any word yet about that Hardin fella you're after?"
"Just got it," Craddock held up a slip of paper. "Hardin's been spotted near the border. We're ridin' out this morning."
"Sorry to hear that," Nathan said earnestly. He'd been hoping for the chance to show Ray around a bit, but maybe another day.
Craddock seemed to hesitate at the door of the saloon, giving Nathan a glance that seemed hesitant. "Mr. Jackson, you've known Ray a lot longer than I have. He seem any different to you these days?"
Nathan's brow drew together. "It's been 'bout seven years . . . we all different now."
Craddock nodded, distracted, and after another pause, continued on into the saloon.
Nathan watched him go. Different? Something had actually been poking at him ever since he'd first seen Ray, but, well, the war changed everybody, right? They were all different now.
Still, the nagging thought lingered as he climbed the steps to the clinic and went inside.
The new undertaker the old one had been killed not too far back had two children who were just getting over the mumps. Nathan had intended to go see them the day before, until Ray's arrival had made him forget about everything else, but his conscience had tweaked him even as he slept. He would go now before breakfast and still have time to say good-bye to Ray before the rangers rode out. Smiling to himself at the thought, Nathan took out his small doctoring satchel and set to filling it with what he might need for the call.
As he moved toward the cupboard from the bed, a sparkle from his right caught his eye. Nathan turned his head, frowning as he searched for its source, but nothing was apparent. He took a step closer to the little table by the bed, peering first around, then under it. No wait. Something shone dully just behind one of the table legs. Nathan crouched down to take a closer look, then fished it out.
It was a chunk of dark glass, its edges sharp. A piece of a broken bottle. But he hadn't broken anything for some time. . . .
Still frowning, Nathan pushed himself back to his feet and turned the glass this way and that, finally giving it a tentative sniff. Ipecac he would have recognized the smell anywhere. Nathan walked over to the medicine cupboard, searching its shelves until he found what he was looking for. There sat the bottle of Ipecac, looking as new as. . . .
Nathan picked out the bottle with his other hand, examining it up close. It was new, the label unstained and not peeling like he'd remembered it. And while it wasn't sealed, it looked full, fuller than his bottle surely was at that point.
What was going on here?
Nathan put the shard of glass on the bedside table and strode out the door with the new bottle in hand.
Mrs. Potter's store was already open, and Nathan had his answer within minutes. Yes, she'd sold a bottle of Ipecac just the night before. As a matter of fact, Mr. Standish had woken her to buy it, saying it was an emergency. At least he'd paid twice the price for it to make up for some of the inconvenience. Nathan thanked her and strode out of the store, expression darkening.
Ezra. While Nathan and Ray had been trading war stories, Ezra had gone into his clinic without permission or explanation and gone through his supplies, breaking a bottle in the process. Nathan ground his teeth in rising fury. If the Southerner had injured himself and needed help, clearly he hadn't wanted to ask, probably still not trusting an ex-slave to tend to him. And if he hadn't been hurt, well, that was just worse, wasn't it? Had he been looking for something valuable, maybe to pay off a gambling debt? Or maybe looking for something he could use against Nathan Standish had never been comfortable with a stretcher-bearer acting as doctor for the town. Maybe he intended to bring up again the charge of practicing without a license. Nathan didn't know and couldn't figure, but no explanation he was coming up with was a good one. Yeah, it was a little strange that Ezra would then buy for twice its value a replacement for a bottle he broke, but maybe he'd had an attack of conscience mid-theft. If there was any conscience in the man; more likely he'd just been covering his tracks. Every time Nathan let his guard down a little, Ezra would sweep in with something like this and make him sorry.
Nathan stomped back to the saloon, ignoring glances and hellos on the way, and up the stairs, then down the hall to Ezra's room at the end. Right by the rear entrance, of course, in case of the need for a quick getaway. His fury nearly swept him into the room without knocking, but knowing Ezra the door was probably locked, so Nathan pounded on it instead with his fist, pausing only seconds between assaults.
He was on the third round before he heard any movement, then the click of the lock being opened, and finally a night-shirted but alert Ezra staring at him from behind the cracked door.
"Mr. Jackson. I trust this is an emergency?"
"You bet it is, Ezra." And he pushed his way inside.
Standish gave way before him with clear surprise, but Nathan didn't miss the subtle motion of his little derringer disappearing. Because Nathan was a friend , the healer thought with distaste. That notion would end right there.
"Why were you in my clinic yesterday?" he demanded without preamble.
Ezra blinked, and Nathan caught the flash of dismay before Standish's poker face appeared, along with a lazy smile. "Why, Mr. Jackson, why would I have been in your clinic?"
"That's what I wanna know. Whatever it was, you shoulda been more careful. I found a piece of that bottle of Ipecac you broke, under the table."
The smile vanished. "Mrs. Potter," Ezra said wanly.
Nathan shook his head. "Doesn't matter how I found out. What matters is, you were someplace you had no right t' be. I wanna know why 'fore I go tell Chris we got a thief in our midst."
Ezra was grave now, still no shame in his expression, but at least some pain. "I assure you, Mr. Jackson, I took nothing I did not pay for. I was merely . . . in need of something to settle an upset stomach, and was careless in my search. I made full restitution, however, and considered the matter not worth troubling you about."
Nathan glowered at him. "Yeah, you bought a new bottle, but you can't buy new trust, Ezra. I see you anywhere near my clinic again an' I'm gonna make sure the others know all about this."
Ezra's lips twisted. "I'm sure you will. Now, if that is all. . .?" He opened the door and looked expectantly at Nathan.
That was it? After all his suspicions, some hope had nonetheless lingered that Ezra would have a good explanation. When it came down to it, Nathan didn't want to believe a man he'd fought alongside and in some measure trusted would let him down like that. He knew he should have been even angrier at the gambler's stoic disinterest, but instead he felt . . . disappointment. He'd thought. . . .
Well, never mind what he thought. Shaking his head, Nathan walked out the door and heard it shut firmly behind him.
Sometimes you thought you knew somebody, and then it turned out you didn't really, after all.
Nathan had just rarely regretted it quite so much before.
+ + + + + + +
Ranger Hilton was waiting right at the table as he'd promised, and JD's heart skipped an excited beat as he strode up to the man. Well, tried to stride. He had a feeling it was more of a nervous stumble the man was a Texas Ranger , after all but JD had tried to lift his chin and act like the town's sheriff that he was. Confident, the way Buck had taught him to be.
Speaking of which, JD's one disappointment during the fascinating day of Ranger Hilton's stories and descriptions, had been Buck's conspicuous absence. The older man had always professed an interest in the Rangers, too, and JD would have thought he'd have been interested in Hilton, but he'd barely put in an appearance all day. Probably off with one of the saloon girls. JD tried to squelch his discontent. He was trying to remember everything to tell Buck later, but he'd never be able to tell it with the style the ranger did and, well, it was more fun to share, anyway. He missed Buck being there to take part in his happiness.
But Hilton's ready smile and waved invitation to take a seat next to him brushed those thoughts quickly. The ranger actually seemed to enjoy JD's company, as patient with his questions as Buck usually was, and JD didn't want to miss a minute of it, especially if the rangers had to ride out that day as he suspected he would. They were busy lawmen, on the trail of a big murderer. Four Corners was no doubt just a brief stop on the trail.
"Sheriff Dunne! Good morning!"
"Mornin' to you, too, Ranger Hilton." His voice squeaked a little, but JD quickly reined it in and hoped the man hadn't noticed.
The ranger's grin widened. "Now what did I tell you about that? It's Charlie to my friends."
JD felt himself blush with pleasure, then embarrassment, clear to his roots. "Charlie."
"That's better. Now, have a seat. If Miss Inez's breakfast is as good as her dinner, I'm ready for a feast."
"Oh, she's pretty good."
Hilton gave him a more confidential smile. "You get used to eating out on the trail, but you never get to like it. Believe me, Johnny, your Miss Inez is a treasure."
Inez was just coming up behind them with coffee, and she clearly had heard that last comment, bestowing on Hilton a smile the likes of which Buck would have sold his soul for. She leaned close to him. "SeÒor, I have made something special for you this morning. It will give you much strength for your trip today."
JD shook himself out his admiration for Inez's . . . finer points. "Trip?" he asked, trying not to sound disappointed.
"Yes, sir," Hilton nodded at him, almost looking mournful. "As much as I've enjoyed your hospitality, we have to ride out later this morning. Reports say Hardin's gone south, so that's where we're headed."
"Oh, I'm, uh, sorry you have to go so soon. I was hoping. . ." What, that the rangers would stay? Good grief, he sounded like a little kid.
Hilton tucked his napkin into his lap and gave JD his full attention, leaning closer. "Actually, I was hoping something myself, John. Seems pretty clear to me you're interested in joining the Rangers, and, frankly, I think we'd be lucky to have a man with your experience and skills. I asked the sergeant about it and he agreed with me if you're interested, you can ride down with us, talk to the major about joining up. You could be one of us in no time."
JD blinked, his mouth gaping for a long moment before he thought to shut it. Join the Texas Rangers, him? Well, sure, he'd thought about it dreamed about it, actually but someday, not this soon, not when he was still as wet-behind-the-ears as Buck was always telling him he was. But Hilton seemed to think he was ready, was even inviting him to join them now. In a few hours, JD could be riding toward his dream.
And away from Four Corners, probably for good.
JD's rising joy broke like a wave and scattered. "I'm-I'm sorry, but"
"You wanted to see the country, right? Catch outlaws, do good, be a part of something important?"
Hilton looked grieved. "I thought you'd jump at this, Johnny."
"I would, but"
Inez appeared with two plates piled high with steaming seasoned eggs, toast, and tortillas rolled with meat that spilled out at both ends. It was a masterpiece of cooking, and JD barely noticed as she set the plate down before him. He'd just had the offer of a lifetime, so why wasn't he taking it?
Where was Buck when he was making one of the most important decisions of his life? Or Casey, even. JD suddenly felt very alone, missing his two best friends fiercely.
Hed miss them even more out on the trail for months at a time.
Something that had been pushed aside in him that last day seemed then to find its place again, and he looked up at Hilton with new certainty. "I really appreciate the offer, Charlie, and someday I plan to take you up on it, but . . . not now."
Hilton seemed to respect an honest answer, and he nodded slowly. "All right, I won't push you. But you mind if I ask why?"
JD glanced up at Inez as she brought another plate to the table, this time crisp corn cakes, and she gave him a friendly smile he returned. Then he looked again at Hilton. "This town, it's more than just the place I work. It's . . . home. A lot of these people are the only family I got since my ma died, and Buck. . ."
"Ah." There was a wryness in Hilton's tone, as if he got something JD didn't. "Say no more."
JD resisted the urge to squirm, uncomfortable meeting the ranger's eyes now. "You're not disappointed?"
"That you won't be coming? Sure. But if I had a place to call home, well, I don't think I'd let it go so easy, either. That's rare enough, John Dunne, and most men aren't smart enough to know when they have it. You're doing plenty good here. You just stick with your friend Buck and appreciate what you've got."
It wasn't what he'd expected at all. "Well . . . thanks."
"Sure thing, Johnny." Hilton dug into his food without further hesitation, and after a moment of marveling that that was it, JD followed suit, barely tasting what he ate. He'd just turned down an offer to become a Texas Ranger, and the ranger respected him for it. Buck would never believe it, but JD couldn't wait to tell him.
And, funny, that thrilling wave had passed and was gone, but a down-to-his-boots contentment had taken its place that felt a whole lot better.
"Hey, I tell you about the last guy we rode after?" Hilton began after a few bites.
JD shook his head, eyes widening in anticipation. And he started eating with real pleasure, smiling all through the meal.
+ + + + + + +
Chris brushed his horse with firm strokes, knowing the animal enjoyed the attention, and relieved at having something he could do that didn't require thinking. He did that all too much already, and the last twenty-four hours hadn't exactly helped. Why Vin had thought to come and tell him about the ranger, Craddock's, past. . . .
Well, Chris knew why. How he felt about it was a whole other matter entirely. Mixed into the usual dark mire of his grief and guilt there was something now he'd never felt before, and Chris wasn't sure he liked it. And so he kept brushing.
A shadow moved in front of the stable door, and Chris reflexively tensed, squinting against the morning light to make out who the silhouette was. Speak of the devil: Jack Craddock paused just as warily in the doorway, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom of the stable and reflexively checking this way and that to see who else was there. Chris frowned at the sight of the man, about the last person alive he wanted to see just then, but he stepped out from behind the horse to make his presence known as a courtesy, lawman to lawman. Plus, maybe it meant Craddock would leave sooner.
The ranger saw him at once and nodded, walking over with that easy, loose gait of his that reminded Chris a little of Vin. He stopped a respectful distance away from horse teeth. "Got a wire this mornin'. Hardin's been sighted near the border. The men an' I'll be riding out before lunch."
Chris nodded in silence, returning to his brushing with slower strokes now.
Craddock didn't seem to mind. "'Ppreciate your hospitality," he said, and with a bob of the head as good-bye, turned back toward the stable door.
Chris was torn further in two with every step the ranger took. Sarah and Adam were nobody's business but his own, and he respected Craddock's right to the same. But if there was any chance their pasts were linked, that the ranger knew something that might be of help. . . . "Craddock," he said quickly, before he could change his mind.
The ranger turned, one eyebrow raised in question.
Now Chris hesitated, looking intently into the other man's face for the first time. And he could see the heaviness in it he himself felt, the lines of loss . . . and yet little of the bitterness. Could he really have lost his family like Vin had said? Tanner wasn't easily fooled, but there was a sad calm to Craddock's gaze Chris couldn't recognize, and that made him uncertain.
But he wouldn't forgive himself if he didn't ask, and one more unforgiven sin would be more than he could bear.
"I heard. About your wife and daughter. I'm sorry."
Craddock's face darkened, the storm clouds Chris had expected all along finally rolling in. "That's nobody's business but my own, Larabee. Just 'cause I talked too much last night"
Chris moved out of the paddock, exposing himself completely. "He told me because . . . my wife and son were murdered four years ago."
Craddock hesitated, frowning, some of the anger fading from his expression.
"Do you know who did it?"
The ranger stared at him several moments longer, then let out a long breath, seeming to shrink before Chris's eyes. "Yeah. Man by the name of Don Carlos who wanted my land. Figured shooting a defenseless woman and child in their beds and burning the house down around them might get it for him."
Burning . . . Chris winced deep inside at the raw reminder. How could someone bear such a loss? He wasn't even sure he himself could yet. "He still walking free?" Chris asked roughly.
Craddock pulled his hat off, crushing the brim in his hands. It was just as careworn as the man was, and Chris wondered briefly if he'd gone right into the Rangers after burying his family, and never stopped. "Don Carlos?" the man responded, voice also gruff. "The old man is. His son wasn't so lucky." He looked up, his eyes too expressive. "I thought I was lookin' for justice, but in the end, it was only revenge. Killin' his son didn't bring back my Juanita or Sarah Anne."
Sarah. Chris clenched his jaw. "Sometimes revenge is the only justice you can get."
Craddock's head bowed, shook once, and when he looked up again, there was a different grief in his face. "I used t' think so. But Juanita wouldn't've, an' I finally figured out getting' my revenge meant losin' what I had left of them. Wasn't worth it."
Chris's fingers felt like they'd crack as they clenched the brush. Losing what was left of them . . . the thought terrified him as few things did anymore, but was that what would happen? Sarah had been about the most gentle person Chris had ever known; even the idea of killing made her ill. Would Chris's single-minded quest to punish her murderers do the same to the vision of her he still kept in his heart? If it meant he could no longer see her face in all its innocent joy, the ranger was right, it wasn't worth it.
Craddock had been staring at his hat, giving Chris a moment's privacy, but he glanced up now. "Larabee, I don't know your story. Maybe it's different for you. But for me, I didn't wanna punish those hombres for Juanita and Sarah Anne. I wanted to do it for me. An' that ain't the right reason."
He had thought that before, that he didn't deserve that closure, but it wasn't what Chris sensed Craddock was saying. The ranger was telling him to let it go for his own good. And while Chris wasn't quite ready to take that step yet . . . "Thanks. I'll think about it."
Craddock nodded, then squashed his hat back on his head. "I'd best go find my men."
"Craddock. Good luck," Chris said quietly.
The ranger locked eyes with him, a rare moment of perfect understanding. "You, too," he said in his gravelly voice. And then he turned and walked out of the stable.
Chris remained where he was a long minute, thinking. Craddock's situation wasn't quite his own. The ranger knew who had killed his family, and had at least confronted the man. Chris didn't even have that, darkly watching every new face that came into town and wondering if he was the one. He wouldn't, couldn't, rest until he knew at least that much and could stare the murderer in the eyes.
But then. . . then . . . maybe he could be the man again whom Sarah had loved. If that was possible.
Because under the lines of grief and loss in Craddock's face, there had also been the beginnings of peace. And no guilt. And if it was possible . . . Chris wanted that. Desperately.
It wasn't exactly the answer he'd been looking for from Craddock. But, Chris dropped the brush and went distractedly to fetch the barrel of oats, it was. . .
+ + + + + + +
Nathan's scowl as he came down the saloon stairs lightened at the sight of JD in animated conversation with one of the rangers, then lifted altogether at the sight of Ray sitting at the end of the bar, nursing a drink. That was just what he needed, someone to get his mind off Ezra and the ugly scene upstairs. Smiling, he crossed the mostly empty saloon it was still early morning to the end of the bar near the door.
"Ray! Where've you been hidin' yourself?"
Oddly, his friend seemed to cringe at the sound of his voice, and barely glanced up at him. "Nate, sorry, just had a bad night or something."
That was it? Nathan's forehead creased with worry. "You okay? You want me to take a look at you?"
"I'm fine. I just . . . need a little time, okay?"
Uneasy now, Nathan nodded. "Uh, okay. Just didn't want you ridin' out without sayin' good-bye. I'll just be 'round back if"
"Wait." There was a few seconds' pause, then Ray turned toward him with not wholly steady movements. "Nate, I . . . I gotta tell you something." And he looked up to meet Nathan's eyes.
Nathan stared back, horrified. His friend had changed overnight, eyes becoming sunken and red, his gaze restlessly moving over Nathan's face, his own face shining with sweat, and his hands were clenched to prevent them from trembling, a not entirely successful effort. But his expression was more of shame than of suffering.
"Ray. . ." Nathan reached out to grab his arm, then rethought it and sank onto the bar stool next to him. "What's going on? You sick?"
"Sorta." Ray laughed weakly, and the sound curdled Nathan's stomach. "I'm sick without morphine. I just need a little, and then Im. . ." He couldnt quite say the word.
Nathan's heart sank, even as the denial came to his lips. "You're smarter than that, Ray. You an' me both saw what that did to the wounded. It's like bein' a prisoner."
Ray nodded tiredly. "Aye, and I've been one for the last five years. Nate, when I went home after Ma died . . . I had a bullet in my arm. Didn't think much 'bout it. Figured the doctor back home could take care of it, an' I made sure I kept the wound clean. The . . . the regiment doctor gave me the bottle of morphine for the trip, but by the time they dug the bullet out. . ."
He could put the rest together. Nathan grimaced. "An' you been feedin' it ever since?" Not that he really wanted to hear this.
"Best I can. We move around a lot, so nobody figures it out. Well, the sarge probably knows, but I don't let it stop me from doing what I have to so he doesn't squawk. Nate, I . . . I can't stop."
"You could stop if you wanted to bad enough," Nathan said grimly. "Wouldn't be easy, but you could do it, Ray."
"No, I Nate, you're a good friend. I'm sorry. I should never have. . ."
"Never what, Ray?" he asked gently despite his revulsion. Morphine was a powerful hard enemy to fight once it got a good hold on you, and he felt sorry for Ray more than anything. Sorry and sad.
"He . . . he didn't tell you?" Ray looked surprised, and briefly hopeful before that faded to resignation.
"He who?" Nathan asked, baffled now.
"Your friend, Standish. He, uh . . . he caught me sneaking into your clinic last night, Nate. I'm sorry. I never woulda done it, but I was just needing something so bad, and I thought maybe I could just take a bottle of something and sell it. That you'd never miss it."
Somewhere in the stream of words, Nathan's mind snagged. Ray had tried to steal from him, and while it stung, it wasn't much of a surprise. But Ezra had caught him at it?
". . . an' I'll pay for the bottle I broke, I promise, Nate, just as soon as I get my next pay. I'm sorry. I really am."
Nathan stared at him. " You broke that bottle?"
"Yeah, didn't you see it? I'd'a cleaned it up but Standish made me leave. He was, uh, pretty mad. I just figured he'd told you."
Nathan took a deep breath. "Don't worry 'bout the bottle, Ray, it's taken care of. Question is, what about you? You keep livin' this way and either you're gonna kill yourself or one of your friends."
His friend smiled, bittersweet. "Don't have many friends left."
"Yeah, well, you got me." Nathan dug into his pocket, counting the few bills he had with his fingertips and pulling out two. "Listen to me," he said seriously, "you go buy some more of your poison, but have a little less each time. It ain't gonna feel like enough and you're gonna have to fight wantin' more, but it'll keep it from bein' worse and let you keep riding, and if you don't let it beat you, you can beat it."
Ray's eyes were on the bills in his hand. "Even after. . .?"
"After nothin'. I'm still your friend, Ray. I just don't wanna see you again until you licked this thing, understand?"
A slow nod. "Aye, I do." His fingers closed around the bills with fierce determination. "I'm gonna do it, Nate."
Nathan nodded, finally letting himself smile a little. "I believe you, Ray." Sometimes that was all it took for a man to succeed, someone to believe in him.
Like he hadn't believed in Ezra. Nathan flinched, thinking back to what he'd said upstairs, and what Standish hadn't. And for no profit that Nathan could see except to protect him from a friend's betrayal. Didn't he know Nathan had felt the betrayal almost as keenly, just from a different friend?
Then again, had Ezra had any reason to know?
Nathan sank onto the bar seat next to Ray. He'd known the gambler for a whole year now, through good times and bad would he ever learn ?
+ + + + + + +
It was amazing what a good woman could do for you. Buck stepped out onto Molly's porch and stretched with a satisfied smile.
That disappeared fast enough when he caught sight of the rangers milling in front of the saloon. The blond hair of one shone in the early morning sunlight, making Buck wince.
Pride chose that moment to suddenly kick him the rear, and Buck squared his shoulders and set his jaw. Why should he keep wilting at the sight of the ranger? Enough was enough. It was time he had it out with that badge-toting peacock who thought he could sweep into town and have everyone fall at his feet. Well, not Buck Wilmington, no sir. Buck stepped off the porch and headed for the lawmen with a determined stride.
It was only when he got closer that he saw the three rangers were packing their saddlebags and preparing to ride. Buck's steps continued on unchecked, but his resolve faltered. They were leaving, true, but what if they were taking JD with them? What if it was too late?
And speak of the devil, there stood the kid on the saloon porch, eyes alive with excitement and a saddlebag over his own shoulder. Buck's heart sank into his dusty boots. The saloon girls hanging on the dandy's every word were a cut into his pride, but Buck had held his own with competition for the ladies before. But JD, if the kid rode out with the rangers. . .
Buck lifted his chin and walked up to the blond ranger, grabbing his arm and pulling him to one side, away from his friends' and JD's hearing. The man gave him a surprised look but went along, pointedly straightening his shirt when Buck let him go.
"You wanted to talk to me, Mr. Wellington?"
Buck let the name slide, eyes narrowing as he cut right to the point. "Is JD going with you?"
Hilton stared back at him just as narrowly. "Why don't you ask Johnny yourself?"
"'Cause I'm asking you ," Buck poked the man's chest, just under his badge.
The ranger gave him a long look that Buck couldn't decipher, then said simply, "No."
Buck blinked. "No?"
"No. Not because I didn't ask him, mind you, but . . . the boy said no."
Buck backed off his aggressive stance, slouching in confusion. "But, I thought. . ."
Hilton shifted, leaning in toward Buck now. "He's just going out on one of your patrols. He told me this was his home and you were his friend, and he didn't want to leave that. But you, of course, knew that already."
"'Course," Buck muttered. And he had, until jealous doubt had made him question.
"I think he's making a mistake, but," Hilton shrugged, "it's his life."
Buck looked up at him, almost having forgotten the man's presence for a moment until his last comment stirred Wilmington's passion again. But it wasn't smugness he saw now in the ranger's eyes, or condescension. It was . . . envy. Bucks aggressive stance relaxed. "Yeah," he said with quiet intensity. "It is." And JD was choosing to share it with him and the five other peacekeepers of Four Corners.
And instead of the churning jealousy of before, all Buck felt now toward the handsome ranger was pity.
Hilton seemed to sense that, too, and didn't like it. He straightened, giving Buck a hard look.
"You don't mind if I leave now. . .?"
Buck swept out an arm. "Be my guest."
"Thanks," Hilton said dryly, and walked with long, powerful strides back to his horse to continue packing. From the door of the saloon behind him, Buck heard a wistful feminine sigh, and wrinkled his nose but didn't turn to see if it was Inez. No need to ruin the newfound sympathy he had for Hilton.
Besides, everyone knew Inez was sweet on him. What lady could resist his animal magnetism?
Grinning for the first time in too long, Buck went to go join JD on the porch to watch the rangers ride out and things get blessedly back to normal. He couldn't wait.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra sat in the rocking chair in the corner of his room and stared dully at his valise, sitting on top of the bed. Empty, just as it had been the last hour, and he seemed powerless to do anything about it.
It wasn't the first time he'd pulled his bag out from underneath the bed with every intention of packing it and taking the next stage out of town. The cruel barbs he could usually shake off, as well as Chris Larabee's frequent but ultimately unmeant hints. But a few times there had been a display of mistrust so profound or a lack of caring so obvious that every moment after that Ezra stayed in that town was painful. And out would come the valise with his firm intention to finally shake the dust of that place from his feet and go on with his life and pursuit of fortune.
And yet, somehow, he'd never made it.
The others would make a penitent gesture and he would forgive them. Or a new crisis would arise in which he was needed, and his better nature would not let him run out on the others, not again. Once, just once, he'd been asked earnestly to stay because he was wanted there, and Ezra had again naively believed because, well, he really wanted to.
But how many displays to the contrary would it take for him to see it was all just talk, that it was his gun they wanted, not him? His pragmatism should have kicked in a long time ago, yet here he still was. . .
. . . staring at his empty valise.
Ezra slowly stood. It was time to make a decision, to stay simply because he wanted to, regardless how the others treated him, or to go and let nothing change his mind. He excelled in difficult, urgent decisions, even ones like this that had no painless answer. Ezra reached for the bag on the bed.
And someone knocked at the door.
Ezra wavered there a brief moment beside the bed, contemplating pretending he was out, before he spoke up with resignation. "Who is it?"
All Ezra's energy seemed to puddle at his feet. Nathan. He could think of only one person he wanted to see less than the healer. Truly some days were not worth waking to. Ezra trudged to the door and, pasting a false smile on his face, opened it . "Mr. Jackson. Here for Round two, I presume?"
The healer stood in the hallway, unusually restless as he twisted his hat in his hands. "No, I I got an apology to make to you, Ezra."
Ezra flinched as if struck. Not again. How many times did they think they could do this to him, trample him into the ground and then try to smooth it over with regret? "Unnecessary, I assure you," he said blandly.
"No, it ain't." Nathan stilled and looked directly into Ezra's eyes as an equal, something the ex-slave had rarely done with the Southerner, not for feeling inferior but for his contempt toward Ezra. There was none of that in his dark eyes now, though, only remorse. "I was . . . uh, can I come in?"
That was a first. Usually the apology was unspoken, or dashed off in the hallway like a bone thrown to a dog. Ezra wasn't sure what to make of this new trend, but silently, warily, he opened the door wider and stepped aside.
Nathan came in, eyes roaming around the small room, resting briefly on the valise on the bed before flicking back to Ezra, who had closed the door and stood waiting, ignoring the obvious question.
"My time is valuable, Mr. Jackson," he finally said when no immediate continuation was forthcoming.
Nathan straightened. "Ezra, I was wrong."
"Yes, you were," Ezra said coolly.
"Ray an' me, we served together almost three years. He was my first real friend, Ezra. A man don't forget that. I was so glad t' see him again, I didn't even notice what he'd become."
Ezra listened impassively, automatically turning the statement over in his mind, looking for Nathan's angle. But there wasn't one that he could find.
"I, uh . . . I guess it ain't true what they say, though, 'bout old friends bein' best. I didn't want to believe bad about him, so. . ."
"You believed it about me. Understandable, Mr. Jackson."
"No. No, it ain't, Ezra, that's my point. Ray . . . he ain't the man I knew. But I've been fightin' alongside you for 'bout a year now and I know you now. I should never've believed you'd try to steal from me. I know you better."
"Worst part was, you did it to protect me, 'cause I know you weren't doin' it to protect Ray. An' Ezra . . . I 'ppreciate that. Takes a real friend to do something like that for you."
"Are you calling me your friend, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra asked slowly.
"All you Southerners got such thick skulls? Yes, I'm callin' you my friend. If . . . if you don't mind."
Perhaps it was just another excuse in the long string of them. The next time there was cause for suspicion, Ezra knew too well he'd be the first to be doubted. Nathan's apology shouldn't have made a bit of difference.
But the look in his eyes did. God help him, it did.
"I don't mind . . . Nathan."
Jackson stared at him a long moment, then his eyes unexpectedly danced. "Wasn't easy, was it?"
"You have no idea," Ezra answered dryly.
"I'm gonna do my best you don't regret it, Ez," Nathan said, suddenly serious again. "But in case I forget . . . you remember for me."
"I will," Ezra said, quiet. And in spite of himself, but it was the truth.
Nathan nodded solemnly, then opened the door and left the room.
Ezra stood for a long minute, not quite sure what had just happened but warmed nonetheless. For now, that would be enough. It was still more than San Francisco had to offer.
And, although he sometimes hated himself for it, it felt achingly good.
Sighing softly, Ezra took his valise and slid it back under his bed.
+ + + + + + +
Vin watched from the corner of the saloon porch as the three rangers mounted up. Buck and Hilton had just finished some little talk that left Buck looking proud as a new father, so apparently JD's leaving with the visitors was no longer an issue. Nathan came out of the saloon just in time to say goodbye to his friend, who looked a little unsteady on his horse; they'd probably been up half the night reminiscing. He firmed his seat after a hard glare from Craddock, who then turned to nod almost imperceptibly to Vin.
Vin nodded back.
He hadn't been sure Chris would show for the farewells, but Larabee surprised him yet again by crossing the saloon porch from the other end and stopping near the doorway to watch the departing visitors. He caught Craddock's eye, and the ranger tipped his hat in some silent message. After a long moment, Chris saluted back.
Vin swallowed a smile.
The three rangers conferred a moment, then without wasting any more time, turned and rode out the way they came.
The knot of them stood and watched the figures shrink and the dust fade. Only Ezra and Josiah were missing, Ezra probably sleeping in as usual and Josiah due back soon from his visiting. Things getting back to normal, Vin thought contentedly, except, maybe. . .
He stepped out from the shadows to stand over next to Chris.
Chris didn't even look at him, just growled softly, "Anyone ever tell you you're a meddling old woman?"
Vin's mouth twitched. "Nope."
"Consider it done." They watched as the specks on the horizon faded into nothing, and then Chris said more quietly, reluctantly, "Thanks."
Vin nodded, knowing Chris would sense it, and liking the newly thoughtful look in his friend's eyes that had replaced at least some part of the bitterness. It was a start.
Chris turned back to the saloon, and Vin followed, just as he always would.
JD watched until his eyes had to strain to see the disappearing riders, and then even the moving dots were gone. He sighed, sorry to see the most excitement the town had had in some time ride away.
"You sorry you ain't with 'em?" Buck's unexpectedly serious voice came from beside him.
He looked at his friend in surprise. "You expect me to be?"
Buck shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "I know how you're always talkin' about joining the Rangers."
"Yeah, someday, when we're not keepin' the peace here in Four Corners any more. You really think I'd ride out of here and leave you guys?" Hed used just the right amount of indignation, JD decided, seeing Buck fluster. JD was not so naÔve as to not have finally figured out why Buck had made himself scarce the last two days, especially after seeing the older man's little chat with Hilton. And like most things about Wilmington, it touched and annoyed him at the same time.
"I didn't say that, JD." Buck was busy placating him. "Just that I knew how tempting it'd"
"So that's all you think of me?" JD crossed his arms. "That I'm some kid who's going to run out the minute he gets a better offer?"
"Better?" Buck spluttered. "That sissified, tin"
"Inez seemed to like him," JD said innocently. And then could no longer help himself when he saw Buck turn an apoplectic shade of red, and burst into laughter.
It took only a fraction of a second before the older man realized he'd been had. Buck's eyes went wider than JD had ever seen them go, and his mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. And then he let out a roar and leaped for JD. But the young sheriff was already moving, dropping his saddlebag and running for dear life.
That would cure Buck if anything would, and JD's disappointment was gone as if it had never been there. Maybe things were back to normal, but that wasn't such a bad thing.
Assuming, he thought as Buck's fingers grazed his hat, he survived it.
Josiah Sanchez let his mare choose her pace, not in a hurry to return to town. The visit with his sister had given him a lot to think about, and there would be plenty to keep him from that as soon as he reached town. Already a part of his mind was chewing away at the three men he'd passed ten minutes or so before, riding from the direction of the town. They'd appeared to be lawmen, or at least one was wearing a badge, and they'd been riding at nearly a leisurely a pace as he and had given him friendly enough smiles. Just passing through Four Corners, maybe? He'd have to remember to ask when he got there.
Already the town was growing on the horizon, and Josiah was surprised by the still-new sense of home that washed over him as he drew closer. What was the last place he'd called home? He couldn't even remember. Probably nowhere, because home wasn't a location, it was people, and he'd never had people to call home before. Four Corners, however, had both. The church was calling to him already, its steeple one of the first things his eyes sought, but so was the thought of sharing a drink with Buck and Vin, hearing JD's excited account of all that had happened while he'd been gone, playing a game with Ezra, conferring with Chris and just sitting in silent company with Nathan. It was a strange thing and Josiah himself didn't know how it'd happened, but they'd become his home.
The main street of town soon stretched before him, and Josiah took it in with a calm gaze. Buck was chasing JD toward the stables, hands outstretched as if he wanted to strangle the kid. Chris and Vin were watching from the porch, a bottle of tequila between them. Even Ezra came to the saloon doors to observe, where Nathan joined him, clapping him gently on the shoulder even as his eyes followed Buck and JD, and not noticing as Ezra turned to stare at him in confusion. Yep, home was just how he'd left it.
Josiah rode up to the saloon, drawing his friends' gazes, and he gave them a grin as he dismounted.
"Looks like it was quiet while I was gone."
And stared at them in bafflement as every one of them, even JD and Buck, who'd paused to say hello, groaned.
+ + + + + + +
Seven lawmen guarding a town. And meanwhile they had trouble finding good recruits. Jack Craddock shook his head. He almost thought Charlie would have the young sheriff signed on by the time they'd left, but seemed the kid was tied to the town more than he appeared. True, he'd been the least experienced of the men Jack had met, but he'd still seemed like a good fella and Jack was sorry they hadn't managed to tempt him away. They could have traded him for Ray, who had a problem Jack suspected he recognized, but he also saw the new resolve in the man's eyes. Maybe visiting with his old friend had done him good. Jack hoped so. He didn't want to lose any of his men, even to a bottle.
But seven lawmen? And they all seemed devoted to that town, speck that it was on the map. Or maybe it was just devotion to a job; Jack could understand that. It was all he had now. Maybe one day he'd settle in a town somewhere, too, start over, become the town law himself. Right now it didn't seem possible, but he had his quiet hopes. Maybe share the job with a deputy, another lawman, so it wouldn't be so lonely. That almost sounded good. Those seven peacekeepers probably kept at it partly to back each other up, too.
Sounded real good, actually.
But for now, Jack Craddock folded that hope away and silently kept riding.