A huge thank you to Chris for helping with this story. Correcting my lazy grammar and spelling is a tedious job. I haven't seen a lot of episodes, so she also helped me keep this story as close to canon as possible. And she pointed out that this story has to be set between the episodes, "Nemesis" and "Obsession"; closer to "Obsession".
Thank you, too, to the blackraptor site and the transcripts there. I used some of the transcript for “Nemesis” and it was really helpful.
"You never really know a man until you understand things from his
point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it"
- Nelle Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird, based on the Cherokee adage,
“Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins."
Vin Tanner took off his hat to wipe his brow as he closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun. He could have told, based on the sun directly overhead, within ten minutes of the time on Buck’s pocket watch. There was a subtle feel in the air, like the wind wafting across a sunburned skin. That meant that the seasons were about to turn, even though there was little chance he could convince anyone of that since it was still unmercifully hot. He could tell that both of his partners, Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington were glad to be out of the cloyingly oppressive town, even if they grumbled about riding in the heat. What he couldn’t tell was why he had the uncomfortable feeling that kept him scanning the horizon, the weather-worn cliffs, scrub brush and rock formations. He’d had the feeling almost since they left town but hadn’t seen anyone following them or anything suspicious.
“This is the place?” Buck Wilmington asked from his horse.
“Permian Outcrop,” Larabee agreed as he took in the desolate landscape. “Samuel Parkinson said he found a heifer and her calf’s carcasses here.”
“It’s not like ranchers out here can’t take care of varmints killin’ their stock – two legged or four,” Buck observed.
“Said he saw the puma. Way it acted he thought it might be rabid,” Vin was willing to supply.
“Which you’d know if we could ever find you before just when we’re ready to leave,” Chris mused, but there wasn’t any heat to it.
“Nag. Nag. Nag.” Buck offered good-naturedly.
“Vin?” Larabee asked, ignoring the other man.
“I don’t see any sign.”
“Let’s spread out and see what’s what. Gotta be able to find the carcasses,” Larabee directed.
The men dismounted. Buck took long enough to pull his canteen off the pommel. “Seems we’ve been doin’ a lot of the outlyin’ work lately.”
“You gonna begrudge JD his trips to the Wells ranch now that Casey’s back from her San Francisco visit?” Chris asked amused.
“I will ‘til he figures out why he wants to go out there so often.”
“You could tend to Ms. Adams birthin’ for Nathan or trade places with Josiah trying to convince Naomi Griffin’s daddy a shotgun wedding for his little girl or killin’ Johnny Mason ain’t the only two options.” Vin offered up.
Buck gave an exaggerated shiver that entertained both of his friends. “Why can’t I trade out with Ezra sleepin’ in with his feather bed?”
“That little derringer is a good reason,” Larabee replied as he moved off studying the ground for tracks.
Vin smirked at the easy back and forth between the two men’s well-worn friendship as he examined the route he’d chosen for signs of cattle or cat. He had just started to relax into the banter when the first shot rang out.
The bullet hit the canteen Wilmington had to his lips.
“Buck!” Larabee called as a second shot knocked Tanner to the ground.
The next report took Larabee’s hat off his head as he scrambled to his wounded friend’s side.
The bullets hit in close succession, one report barely separated from the other. The fourth bullet was spewing dust at the horses’ hooves as the canteen fell from Wilmington’s hands that were still stinging from the vibration of the round passing through the metal.
The two skittish blacks were gone before the next shot rang out and landed at the hooves of Buck’s gray. Even the docile animal was frantic to get away and pulled the reins from Buck’s hands.
“Cover! Get to cover!” Larabee demanded as he grabbed the former bounty hunter and half-dragged, half-carried him toward the small, eroded Permian Outcrop.
Wilimgton supplied cover fire as he followed them But is was a random shower of bullets. No target presented itself.
The three men scrambled, tripped and fell along the slick, unforgiving shale, until they finally landed in a pile behind a pillar of stone.
“He’s using a rifle. Out of range for our pistols.” Buck panted as he scanned the horizon. All he saw was the bright red blood left by Tanner’s wound. A shot rang out and peppered his face with shards of the rock.
“Keep down, damn it. If you can’t do any good, don’t give him more target!” Chris ordered.
Buck looked over and saw that Larabee was checking the hole in Tanner’s shoulder. “How bad?”
“Could be worse,” Larabee observed.
“Bad as he wanted it to be.” Tanner gasped. Catching his breath from the pain, he continued. “He shot ever’thing he aimed at. He was waiting for us. He’s playin’ us,” Tanner thought to himself that this is why he never matched any activity to his bad feeling. He looked to Larabee for some idea as to why this was happening.
”What do you want?” Larabee yelled out, going straight to the threat.
“Nothing you can give me, Larabee.” Was the quick response.
‘Not good’, Chris observed. The attacker knew who they were. His thoughts were similar to Tanner’s. It told them it was a planned attack, not a target of opportunity. The man was deadly accurate with that rifle and after them specifically. The danger ratcheted up a notch.
“The name’s Robert Niven,” The voice continued. “Do you remember the names of the souls you kill even if you leave the body to suffer this world?”
The three men frowned and exchanged glances trying to place the name.
“If you’re after me, let Buck get Vin back to town.”
“That’s not the way it works with men like us, Larabee. That’s not the way you do it. It’s not the way I’m doing it.”
Wilmington gave a questioning shrug asking, ‘Do you know him?’
Larabee had an intense look as he tried to pull up a memory. Then his eyes went slightly vacant as if they were seeing the past:FLASHBACKThe seven peacekeepers of Four Corners all had their own style of watching over the town just as they had their own style of riding patrol in the outlying territories.Nathan Jackson learned a lot watching the streets from the balcony of his clinic. Josiah Sanchez often used the roof of the church at the end of town to observe goings-on. Considering they were often on these roosts, no one paid them much mind. If anyone was worrisome or furtive or a fight was brewing, no one gave much thought that these two were watching for it.That Vin Tanner often prowled the rooftops might be more ominous or threatening to anyone up to no good – if they ever saw him. Somehow he was mostly invisible except to the other protectors.Ezra Standish was confident that, unless the threat level had already been raised, the body language of men who walked in through the batwing doors or past the windows, told him all he needed to know about the pulse of the town.Chris Larabee, the unspoken but undeniable leader of the group, as often as not sat on the boardwalk as if defying anyone to start trouble. No matter how low his hat was pulled over his eyes, he didn’t miss a thing.And what made their observations easier were the last two peacekeepers. Buck Wilmington swaggered through the streets with an in-your-face greeting for any potential trouble. And all the while Wilmington knew he was the distraction that gave the others the chance to assess any danger.JD Dunne, the youngest of the peacekeepers, the one who wore the badge, was even more of a distraction than Wilmington but he had yet to recognize the part he played. He had the energy and friendliness of a puppy. He was just as eager to help a rancher toss supplies into a buckboard as he was to scan every face he saw and compare it to the wanted posters he delighted in memorizing. He was the sheriff. He rode with Chris Larabee. He was living his dream, imagining how maybe, someday, he’d be a dime novel hero.Today was different.There was something in the air none of the townspeople could put a finger on, but something was wrong. Something was ... off. It could be that there were more strangers in town than usual. Confident, strong looking men, mostly well dressed. There was a rumor that the town’s resident gambler, Ezra Standish, was about to initiate a high stakes poker game and these men were players.Conklin, one of the small town’s more prominent shopkeepers and self-appointed civic leader, had been feeling his oats lately trying to unseat the regulators and replace them with more conventional law. And, since that sort of conflict sold newspapers... well, Mary Travis was doing her part to report, promote and drag out the drama.The air was heavy and humid like a storm was brewing.But what was off were the seven peacekeepers. Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez had quietly but resolutely left for the Seminole village. Overtly they said it was part of making sure all was well in the territories. Covertly there was a feeling they didn’t want to be in town.Vin Tanner was on edge and chose to study body language in the cool of the saloon where he and Standish could watch each other’s backs. On more than one occasion they would share the instincts of a gambler and a former bounty hunter in the glances they exchanged to compare their evaluation of a man with each other.What maturity young Dunne had developed over the months had evaporated and he couldn’t sit still. It was like he had a secret, but it wasn’t his secret to share.Chris Larabee had disappeared into his rented room three days ago. He had only been seen once since then when he demanded two bottles of Red Eye from Inez Recillos and returned to his quarters. No one intruded on his self-imposed isolation, but it was disrupting. The room was like a pressure cooker. Those in the know were waiting for it to explode.It was Buck Wilmington who sat on the boardwalk and watched the world go by from beneath the brim of his hat. He waited.And then, there it was. Chris Larabee, dressed all in black, the occasional glint of conchos beneath the long duster, strode with determination down the middle of the street. The ever so slight stagger told Buck that his friend was so drunk that an average man would have been unconscious on the floor. No one dared approach him.Suddenly Buck was tired. He wanted to close his eyes and ignore how out of kilter this town could get when the seven were out of whack. And how off kilter they were when Larabee was on a binge.
“Chris?” Buck’s voice was a question as he crabbed over to hand Chris his bandana to help bandage Tanner’s wound. It seemed to bring their friend back to the moment.
“Robert Niven...” Chris repeated.
“You know him?”
“The son of a bitch that robbed Ezra’s poker game.” The realization dawned on the other gunfighter.
Buck’s eyes widened, “But he’s ... shit...” What had it been? A year? More? Wilmington didn’t remember this one’s name but he remembered all the rest ...
Chris took the bandana and focused on tying off the wound to avoid any discussion of the man or the events.
Buck shared a glance with Tanner. Through his obvious pain, it was clear he shared part of a memory with the older man ...FLASHBACKLarabee melted into the shadows of the livery. It didn’t take long before he led his horse back out, mounted and headed out of town. Pony stutter-stepped with the tension of his rider. He sensed he was barely held back and was ready to run.That’s when JD came out of the General Store. He couldn’t read Larabee or seemed to interpret something else from the man’s recent absence.Wilmington cringed as the Kid hurried onto the street all friendly-like and patted Pony as he asked his hero an excited question. Wilmington watched as the boy paled and staggered back from the bitter response he got. Larabee actually bumped the kid with his horse as he kicked it into a gallop to get out of town.JD looked lost and embarrassed as he watched his hero disappear.Larabee’s tongue could be just as vicious and deadly as his gun when demons haunted him. It was bad this time; JD just found that out.Buck would work the Kid through it, but later when the sharpness had time to wear off some. JD was enough like Larabee that when he was embarrassed, hurt or confused, he would take it out on anyone. They both reminded Buck of a rattlesnake during the season they were shedding and the dead skin over their eyes blinded them. They would strike out at anything that came in range.Larabee was headed out to his place. He could work it out there on his own. Buck had learned that was the best ... aw, hell.Vin Tanner walked out of the saloon and didn’t give much away, but he headed for the livery. There was no doubt he had seen the interaction on the street and was going to follow their friend.With a resigned sigh, Buck levered out of the chair and followed.Tanner was just reaching for his tack when Wilmington entered. “You thinkin’ to ride out to Chris’ place?”The ex-bounty hunter knew there wasn’t really an answer expected. He turned and waited to see what else this was about.“Don’t reckon I could talk you out of it?” Buck asked.“That the way you handle it when a friend’s troubled?” That came out harsher than he meant, but he wasn’t good at these talks and didn’t like them. One thing he had learned by observing Larabee was that if he was curt or brutally honest it would turn most people away.“Didn’t used to be,” Wilmington replied as if it were a completely reasonable question. Of course, it never worked when Larabee tried it on Wilmington either.There was an uncomfortable silence as they waited to see who would speak next.Wilmington broke, “He won’t thank you for it.”“I’ve seen his temper these last days. I saw the look on JD’s face just now. I’ve heard him light into you.” Tanner seemed to hesitate, then added, “I don’t reckon I’ll put up with what you put up with, but do you think I can’t get past whatever he dishes out?” And there was that sound of accusation he didn’t mean to be there, but he didn’t know how else to say it but to speak his mind and it couldn’t be taken back now. The thought flitted across his mind that it was Wilmington’s own fault for forcing him into this conversation.The silence was different this time. Wilmington was trying to decide how to explain it. “It ain’t you won’t get past it.”“Look, Buck...”“Just listen. Please.”Tanner waited.“Chris can’t control what he says when he’s like this. Sometimes he’s so drunk, he don’t remember what he said. But he knows he said it. And he takes a step back,” Buck raised his hands defensively and moved back like it was a dance step. “Out of regret, a little shame I like to believe, too. And so the next time it won’t mean so much. And it’ll happen again and he’ll take another step back. But Vin, he don’t know how to take that step forward again. And he never does. He just keeps stepping back.”“You and him got history that the rest of us ... ““And you think it won’t happen the same with you?” No bitterness there, but Tanner felt guilty that he might even have hinted his friendship with Larabee was something more. Not that he would apologize. For one, he didn’t know if he’d been taken wrong or not; and two, well, hell it wasn’t something in a man’s nature to understand or examine that he’d had the thought. It’d been more of a concept, a feeling, that left regret and uneasiness.“You might be right.” Wilmington offered back. “I’d rather not take the chance of him backin’ away from you. He needs someone he can trust.”Chris Larabee had said Buck could talk about feelings because of his raising, but damn he could get to the point, too. It made Tanner uncomfortable.“So we wait? Hope he works it out himself? Does he?”Buck met Tanner’s eyes in the following silence. Then he looked away and looked around to try to hide the regret before he finally offered, “I’ll ride out there,” He gave a compromising shrug. “Chris can’t back up much further from me.” He even seemed to find some sad humor in it.“You sure?”“Yep,” Buck said as he started saddling Paladin. “We may even be buildin’ a bridge over the gap of the last three years.” He tightened the cinch. “You might go check on JD in a while. He could use a friend about now.”Vin nodded.“Might see what he said to Chris, what Chris said back. It might help us figure out what’s crawled up his butt this time,” Wilmington smiled.Tanner smirked. The man couldn’t stay serious any more than he could stay mad. “Buck,”He was walking the dapple out when Vin called to him. He turned,“I don’t think that gap is near as wide as you might be thinkin’.”Buck winked his appreciation and started out of town.Tanner headed out to find JD.Standish observed from his post and decided things were handled for now.The tall, well-dressed man leaning on the boardwalk post didn’t seem as satisfied with the outcome. He checked his pocket watch and slid into the now empty livery.
+ + + + + + +
Remembering that day, Tanner wondered how Larabee and Wilmington could have fallen as far apart. He watched the two men work in quiet, comfortable unison, predicting each other’s moves as they checked the perimeter, evaluated any assets they might identify, and cleaned his own wound. Damn the man who had the high ground if he brought back those dark days. Vin grimaced suddenly and pain chased away all other thoughts. He concentrated on not crying out as Larabee pressed on the wound to staunch the blood flow.
Buck watched Chris take Vin’s right hand and press it against the wound in the younger man’s left shoulder. Tanner grimaced but stayed silent. Larabee didn’t say a word either, but got the message across that Vin was to keep pressure there to slow the bleeding.
Not a word. He didn’t say a word, Buck observed gravely. Larabee was shutting down. The thoughts and emotions roiling around in his head were his alone to suffer, contain and deal with. Guilt, hate, worry, fear were all going to have to be resurrected as anger before Larabee would be able to function.
Wilmington damned the man hidden beyond the outcrop for allowing Larabee time to dwell on what was and what might have been. When he didn’t have time to think, only reacted with gun or fist or words, that was the Larabee everyone knew. This was Chris - his Chris - that worried about the other men here with him, what caused it, and blamed himself. In this moment of life and death, it was Buck’s job to keep them all alive until the anger coalesced and Larabee did what had to be done, what very often no one else could do.
“Chris, you want t’ let me in a little?” Buck used the soothing voice he would use on a skittish colt. A voice no one else would dare use or expect Larabee to react to. A voice Larabee would punch him out for if they were around other people.
Larabee jerked his head around with a quick and intense glare when he heard the tone. It was like the Pied Piper’s flute and he hated it. It gave him what he needed, the reminder there was one man in the world that knew him well enough to use that tone. The tone allowed him to focus on the anger. “I should have killed him,” he snarled, referring to Niven.
“You can’t take this on yourself. He was a thief, a highjacker. Who could know he’d hold a grudge for all this time?”
Refusing to give up the guilt, Larabee grabbed Buck’s left hand and turned it over. There was an angry slice across the palm.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Buck offered meekly, knowing he should have mentioned the injury earlier. “It happened when I tried to hold Pal’s reins.”
Larabee squinted and rubbed his eyes hard at the stubbornness of the men around him. Before he could respond, Vin interrupted them. “How ... how’d he get here? Didn’t he get sentenced to 10 years?”
“What does it matter? He’s here. We’re here. He set us up.” Larabee shouted the last part loud enough for Niven could here.
“The only chance I see is to head straight ahead then cut to the left or right out of range and try to circle around him.” Buck’s words drew him back to the moment. “He’d see the move. There’s no cover between here and there.” Chris admitted as he scanned the barren wasteland.
“Well hell, Larabee! You come up with something.”
Their voices rose and carried into the desert. The conflict made Niven smile as he took a drink from his canteen.
“Why are we here?” Vin forced out.
“Easy Vin,” Chris began.
“He could’ve killed us. He chose this place,” Tanner forced the words out. “Why?”
Chris and Buck exchanged looks.
+ + + + + + +Buck found the man he was looking for before he reached the homestead. Chris Larabee had exchanged his saddle horse for a buckboard. He had pulled off the road and was chopping firewood like it would keep the devil at bay.Larabee stopped when his friend approached. He was shirtless and soaked in sweat. His hair was plastered to his face. He walked over to where his gun belt rested beside the canteen. He chose the canteen.“Damn, Larabee, you’re gonna kill yourself workin’ that hard in this heat.”“Kid needs to grow up,” Chris stated flatly.“Haven’t spoke a word to the boy. But I figure you’re right. The fastest way for him to outgrow childish dreams and hero worship is to deal with you when you’re in a snit.”“A snit!”“Like a holier than thou temperance spinster.”The unreadable look on Larabee’s face told his friend he was trying not to be amused. Seemed taking it out on the defenseless logs had taken the edge off. “You ride all the way out here to spout off or are you staying?”“Depends on if you’re gonna put that ax down.”Larabee slammed it into a log. “Make yourself useful.”With a laugh Buck tied Pal to the buckboard, took off his shirt and gun belt and hefted the ax. Larabee set about gathering what he’d already cut and loading it on the wagon.They spent some time in amicable silence.“Look, Chris, maybe if you talk it out ...” Buck had just decided to try to bring up what was bothering his friend when they both noticed two riders headed their way.The horses’ gait was casual. Both Chris and Buck were in the vicinity of their guns but still hadn’t decided to go for them.When the riders were closer, Wilmington gave a sarcastic guffaw and Larabee clinched his fist angrily to keep from grabbing his gun.“Lookee here, Chris, ain’t that the little writer fella, Mr. Nobody?”“Jock Steele,” The small man corrected haughtily as he arrived.“Jock Steel,” Larabee repeated through clenched teeth. He knew Buck referred to the way he had introduced Jock Steele when he’d been in the territory a few months back. Larabee gauged the writer and the man with him with a critical eye.“Mr. Larabee, I know you must be pleasantly surprised to see your biographer ...” the stranger replied cordially.“Get out.”Everyone seemed a little surprised.“Mr. Larabee, let me start again. It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Robert Niven,” the man continued.Larabee had seen Niven in town. He was a fancy dressing, smooth talker in a brocade vest. He wore his gun strapped low.Niven continued. “When Mr. Steele introduced himself and said he was coming to town to meet with you, Mr. Larabee, I’m afraid I had to impose myself on the occasion.”“You think it’s the clothes makes ‘em talk that way?” Buck asked, referring to the fact that Niven overworked his vocabulary like the other well-dressed gambler they knew, Ezra Standish.Larabee was too focused on their guests to hear him.“Did you read the copy I sent you?” Steele asked enthusiastically.“It’s the devil’s own pleasure I ain’t shot you yet.” Again everyone was surprised by the venom in the gunfighter’s voice.“You in town for the card game?” Buck asked of Niven, trying to deflect the conversation from whatever it was about Steele that had Larabee seeing red.“I was on my way for the poker game.” Niven directed his reply to Larabee, ignoring Buck. “Then Mr. Steele let me read his most recent offering while we shared the stagecoach. Now, that manuscript... that had the ideas spinning and quickly became the reason I had to meet you. It was also the reason I was so disappointed to see that it was Mr. Wilmington who followed you out here instead of Vin.”Something suddenly had the gunslinger’s hackles up. He shifted his weight from left to right to get him closer to his gun. “That game started a couple of hours ago.”Buck chuckled apparently at Larabee’s reaction to Steele and sauntered over to sit on the back of the buckboard which put him, too, closer to his gun belt.Niven drew and fired a shot into the ground at Buck’s feet. “Please move back away from your guns, gentlemen.”Both men obeyed the command to stop.The gunshot seemed to be a signal as two more men rode up from where they’d been concealed in the tree line. “I’d like to introduce my associate, James Boardman, and my brother, Dooley.” Boardman was as big as Niven, but dressed like any other drifter. He had his gun out, too. There was no doubt that either man would not hesitate to shoot. As big as these men were, Dooley dwarfed them. He was barrel-chested and bigger than Josiah. He had a young, guileless face and a perpetual smile.‘Damn and damnation’ Larabee thought. He’d been so focused on the ramifications of people starting to read the writer’s work he’d let his guard down to any other threat.“What... what are you ...” Steele blustered, ”... who ...”“Not now, little man,” Niven dismissed him. “Dooley, get their guns,” He directed.“Sure, Robbie,” the large man chirped. He scrambled off his horse in childlike fashion and gathered the weapons, including the rifle in Wilmington’s scabbard. He took the axe and tossed it behind the buckboard. The innocent smile never left his face, as if he was proud to have this responsibility.Chris and Buck both noticed this man did not wear a gun.Robert Niven reached over and pulled a compilation of pages from Steele’s saddle bag. Chris recognized it. It was a copy of the manuscript he had received recently. “Larabee’s Bloody Revenge” blazed across the front cover.Niven flipped to a page and began to read. “’Chris Larabee chose carefully who would accompany him on his quest to discover if Blackfox could, in fact, finally lead him to the one thing that kept him alive – the opportunity to slowly kill anyone and everyone responsible for the brutal, slow death of his wife and son. He brought with him Nathan Jackson, the healer who could never be a doctor. The ex-slave was willing to do whatever the gunfighter asked, even keep men alive while Larabee ‘questioned’ them. He brought the defrocked priest who had betrayed his God for the gun, knowing he would relish the opportunity to kill his fellow man. They rode in silence, each lost in their own thoughts of how this day might end.’Robert Niven looked up to be sure everyone was listening to the words he was reading before he continued. “‘Only Nathan Jackson turned when they heard a horse approaching. “Rider coming up fast. It's Buck’.”‘One of the men who shared the peacekeeping duties with Larabee was Buck Wilmington. He had hoped to get out of town before this man discovered their mission. “You out for a ride?”’‘“Heard you were going back,” The taller man offered as if hoping he would be allowed to stay.’‘”No need for you to come along.”’‘”Yes, sir, there is. I'm the man that talked you into staying down in Mexico that night... and I keep thinking if we'd have just rode back... ” he responded slowly.’‘”I could have come back alone. You didn't keep me there. Let it go,” the dark clad gunfighter muttered as if he was thinking, ‘as if you could get me to do anything.’‘”Sarah was my friend, too, Chris. And I think you know how I felt about that boy of yours. So if it's all the same, I think I'll ride this one out with you.”’‘”Suit yourself.” The fast gun dismissed the other man as he pondered, as he often did, how he got stuck with this loud, obnoxious, bastard son of a two bit whore...”’It was only then that Wilmington flinched and started forward. Larabee put a hand on his arm to hold him back.Boardman was unloading the guns Dooley had handed him, but even as he read, Niven had a bead on Wilmington. He seemed to get a demented sense of satisfaction when Wilmington reacted to the words. “’The darkly clad gunfighter didn’t remember what he’d done to let Wilmington think they were friends.’” He continued to read. “The man was like a cur dog – any attention was good attention. Larabee couldn’t shake him. Adequate gun that he was, he needed to live in Larabee’s shadow for any sense of self worth. After the loss of his family and on his road to suicide, Larabee thought the one good think he could do was take Wilmington with him.’”Buck, for his part, did have his head tilted like a puppy trying to comprehend what he’d just heard.Larabee was fairly shaking that a part of the ugly description in that damnable book, that had sent him on a three day drunk, had seen the light of day. The man had picked the worst possible passage for Buck to hear.Niven smiled congenially. He knew how cruel it was to read the passage and enjoyed it. “Well, I guess that’s enough.” He saw the reaction Larabee had to the words. They had had their effect. The turbulent emotions of his adversary would be a distraction and put advantage on Niven’s side.Boardman whirly-gigged the rifle as far as he could throw it. Buck’s empty gun followed. He held Larabee’s empty gun, in the gun belt, out to him. “Put it on.”“No one would believe you’d walk the street unarmed,” Niven crowed self-confidently, sure he had thought of everything.“Just spit it out,” Larabee growled. What did the man want?“I’m going to rob the poker game. Entry into the room will be easier with someone like yourself to vouch for me.” As if scrutinizing his plan in his head, he let out a weary sigh. “I would have so much more faith in what Larabee will do if you’d just let Vin come out here like he planned,” he said to Wilmington. “I guess all we can hope is Larabee has some value for human life in general and doesn’t get you both killed in a manner the passage implies.”Wilmington didn’t speak. He was trying to keep up with what was happening. The basics were painfully obvious. But the element of the manuscript, which he hadn’t read, didn’t even know existed, took time to sort out.“You want me to tell you what happens to Wilmington if we’re not back in three hours?” Boardman purred.“That’s enough,” Niven ordered. “He put that crudely. My brother, Dooley, will keep Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Steele company while we’re in town.”“We ...?” Steele squeaked.“Mr. Steele, if you’ll get off of your horse and join my brother and Mr. Wilmington?”There was no doubt that the way Boardman waggled his gun insisted the writer dismount.“I don’t understand.”“Don’t you?”Once Steele was on the ground, Niven handed him the manuscript mockingly. It had served its purpose as far as he was concerned. Then he aimed his gun at Wilmington. “He can take a bullet or two without me killing him, Mr. Larabee.”It was the dangerous gunfighter who stared defiantly at the men from one breath to another and again. But finally, seeing no way out, the gunfighter gave way to the friend and it was the friend that took a step slowly, defiantly toward Wilmington’s gray.Another shot rang out at Larabee’s feet.“Looks like you left your saddle horse for the wagon horse. I bet Mr. Steele will let you ride his, Mr. Larabee.” Niven smiled and continued. “It wouldn’t do for you to ride into town on Wilmington’s horse. People would recognize it.” He had seen through Larabee’s ploy to raise suspicion by riding into town on the other man’s horse. So, Larabee was a thinker, not just a fast draw. It would be a chess match then and not checkers to best this man. He reveled in explaining that he had seen through the ploy and was prepared to counter every contingency. “At the best they’d be curious – at the worst they’d think you finally killed him. That horse stands out like its owner.” He laughed boisterously as he amused himself.Resigned, but head still held in defiance, Larabee moved toward the horse between Niven and Boardman.“You get in town, you get them in jail ...” Buck hissed as Larabee moved past him.“Don’t do anything stupid,” Chris shot back.“... I can take care of myself ...”“... Bucklin Zachariah Wilmington, just this once ...” Larabee, exasperated, worried, stopped to argue.“... Conklin and his bunch are lookin’ for something like this...”“ ...Nothing stupid. Wait for me to get back ...”“ ...to hold against you ...”Robert Niven fired into the air.”If you’ll mount up?”It was a sign of Larabee’s anger and frustration that as he passed the writer, he jerked the manuscript from Steele’s hands and ripped it in half,an adrenalin-backed feat as it must have been at least 50 pages. He threw the torn pages toward the little man’s chest. Steele scrambled to capture what pages he could as several fluttered away on the breeze.Steele sidled away from Niven and Larabee but no closer to Buck or Dooley. “Mr. Larabee, I ...” he began as he tried to train the wild, torn and disarrayed pages in his grasp.The glare the gunfighter gave him shut him up.“Three hours, Dooley,” Niven stated, “You know what to do.”“Sure, Robbie,” was the chipper reply.“We’ll take all the horses and tie them between here and town,” Niven explained slowly and gently to his brother. “I don’t want Wilmington trying to take you. Less likely if he’d still have to walk to town.”Dooley’s body started to sway forward and back in a rhythmic motion. His eyes darted side to side. “Ain’t nobody gonna take me, Robbie. You know that.”Robert Niven recognized the distress in his brother and added, “We’ll bring old Red back to you when we’re ready to leave.” It was like he was explaining to a child.“I’ll be good, Robbie. I’ll be good.”“Dooley ...” Niven tried to interrupt.“Nobody’ll take me, Robbie. Old Red’s my friend, I ...”“Dooley!” Niven shouted loudly, but not angrily.The mountain of a man stopped swaying, stopped talking and stared wide-eyed at his brother.Neither Larabee nor Wilmington missed the interaction or how it might be used to their advantage. Jock Steele stared at the young man like he was a freak show in a circus.Niven closed his eyes, took a deep breath and then spoke slowly. “What if we leave the horse that’s hitched to the buckboard?” He compromised.The younger brother immediately went to stroke the soft muzzle of the team horse and visibly calmed down. “I’ll be good, Robbie.”The younger man was not in control of his emotions - he was a loose cannon. Larabee’s worry, fury and frustration in the situation, ratcheted up a notch. Chris mounted up. “I’ll be back,” he said to his friend.Boardman had gathered up the reins of Wilmington’s and Dooley’s horses and ponied them along. As he handed Steele’s horses reins to Larabee, it was he who leaned in slightly and whispered as if it were a secret. “Dooley don’t carry a gun, Larabee. Prefers usin’ his hands. Takes longer.”“He don’t like to disappoint his brother. Wants someone to pay if he does.” Niven laughed.“I will hunt you down,” Larabee hissed through gritted teeth.“Did you say something mean, Robbie?” Dooley called from where he stood. “You laugh like that when you’re bein’ mean.”Niven looked back at his brother as if he only recognized guilt through Dooley’s eyes.Larabee picked up on it, “I’ll find him, too, Niven...” he said through clinched teeth, “I can take my time, too.”For a moment, it seemed as if the highjacker might be questioning his idea. Niven laughed again, but not with the same confidence as before. He led them back toward town. “We’ll be back, Dooley. You be careful.”“Mr. Larabee, I ...” Steele began as he juggled the pages to keep hold of as many as possible.The three riders turned away, ignoring Steele as no longer a factor, a pawn that had been played.As they rode away, Larabee’s last impression was one of Dooley towering threateningly over Wilmington. It took a big man to dwarf Buck’s lanky frame.Buck was looking over his shoulder to Dooley. He’d be looking to reverse the situation. All Larabee could do was get back in case it went bad.
Larabee, Tanner and Wilmington sat with their backs to the outcrop, no longer even trying to see Niven. It was his game for now.
The unforgiving sun leached the life and moisture from their bodies. Their hair was plastered to their brows and necks, but there was no more sweat.
Chris kept his hand unobtrusively on the pulse point at Vin’s wrist. If there was a change he’d try to do something. But for now it was steady, if slow, and there was no reason to rouse his friend from the unconscious state he’d drifted into. At least he didn’t feel the life being seared out of them.
“Any ideas?” Buck asked in a raspy voice.
“Make your play!” Larabee shouted to the man who had them pinned down.
Buck smirked. The direct approach it was, then.
“Patience, Chris Larabee. This is out of your playbook,” Niven crowed back. “You don’t know how long I’ve waited, planned, to finally get you three to be the ones to ride out together?”
“That fella didn’t seem more than a robber to me,” Buck observed again. “Never saw this in him.”
“He thought he had all the answers. He cracked when his plans fell apart,” Chris mused, almost to himself.
“I remember the brother. And how this fella took the saddle horses but left the buckboard horse to keep his brother calm. I never saw where the kid needed to be controlled.”
“It wasn’t the boy that needed to be controlled.” Larabee spat out bitterly.
“Figured that. I was a lot more worried about you being with that guy who’s out there now.”
“That kid was taller than you were, bigger, and didn’t have the mind to control his size.” Even after all this time Buck was still defending the giant, slow-witted man. Larabee couldn’t get himself to accept it. That was Buck being Buck, seeing the good in practically anyone, so long as they weren’t shooting at him or his. Chris couldn’t force himself to be that generous. He’d had to spend hours raging over what might be only to arrive and find his worse fears proved true.
“That weren’t his fault.” Wilmington had always made the argument that Dooley Niven was shorted by God and wasn’t able to do anything about his looks and it wasn’t fair to judge him before you talked to him to see the real man.
“Yeah, that didn’t make much difference did it ...” Chris started, then dropped it as a losing battle and turned to his other friend. “Vin, you still with us?” Chris asked when he felt the wounded man stir.
“Here,” His voice was low and pain-laced.
“What do you want?!” Larabee called again to the man who had them down.
There was no answer. The silence did its job and preyed on their minds.
“The others won’t have reason to look for us in time.” Buck continued.
Larabee slid his head slightly to meet the blue eyes watching him.
He didn’t respond, didn’t have to. But it reminded him how Jock Steele had interpreted the silence. Had others seen it the same way? To hell with them. And Larabee closed his eyes again. But then, a thought came to him. Niven knew the Peacekeepers from what he read in Steele’s “Larabee’s Bloody Revenge” pages. He said he worked it so Tanner and Wilmington would be here with him. A waft of a memory from that day tried to come to his mind and he fought to catch and hold it.FLASHBACKBuck watched the riders leave before he turned again to study Dooley. He apparently had discounted the writer as well.Being ignored confused Steele. His opinion of his self-worth overrode what observation would tell him these men thought of him. He immediately scrambled to gather the torn pages of his writing even as a slight breeze separated them and blew them along the prairie.“He looks funny, don’t he, Mr. Buck?” Dooley observed, “It’s like the wind’s playin’ with him. It only moves the page he’s chasin’.”Buck focused. The full moon had the prairie lit up as clearly as an overcast day. The still aura of it all was eerie, but easy to see about in. Sure enough, Steele’s squatty little legs would carry him to a scrap of paper only to find a gust toss it further out. “It does at that.”Steele finally started stepping on the things to stop them.“The wind’s fun to play with. It may tease, but even when it’s scary, it ain’t mean,” Dooley observedBuck turned back and really studied the gentle giant for the first time. He could tell there was only a simple minded boy in that man’s body. “People mean to you, Dooley?” he asked.“Not if Robbie hears ‘em.” he boasted proudly. Then as if only now processing everything that had happened he added, “I ain’t gonna hurt you. People get scared of me sometime. Are you scared of me, Mr. Buck?”“I try not to be scared of anybody.”“Gosh, that’s the way to grow up, not bein’ scared of anybody.”“I didn’t say that,” Buck replied and couldn’t tell what sort of effect this had on Dooley, so he added, “You saw me ridin’ with Chris Larabee? I’ve had him ready to shoot me more than once. You think you can scare me if he can’t?”“You’re scared of your friend?” Dooley asked, startled, almost horrified.Buck realized that the child-like man would understand only the most literal conversation. “No, Dooley, I ain’t scared of him. I was funnin’ ya.”Dooley looked relieved then concerned again. “You’re supposed to be scared of me so you’ll do what Robbie says. All folks is scared of me.” It wasn’t threatening, it was sad. “I’m scared most of the time.”“That’s because you’re riding with an outlaw and always being chased.”“He’s my brother.”“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Buck responded.“I ain’t gonna hurt y’all, Mr. Buck.” He repeated. “Robbie says that so things’ll ‘go smooth’. And Robbie, he’s real smart. He’ll get the money. I wish I was smart,” He repeated himself, but added a little something new to the conversation.Where God had slighted this boy on brains, he had made up for in size and strength. And he seemed to have the gentlest of souls. Buck believed him when he said he wouldn’t hurt anyone – unless his brother told him to.Wilmington silently glanced at the moon on the horizon, estimating how much time had passed. He was beginning to hate what he was going to have to do. “You think it’s right, what your brother is doing?” He asked.Before Dooley could answer, the wind blew a scrap of paper against Buck’s leg and distracted him. He picked it up and read it easily in the light cast by the bright, full moon, “‘Fowler said, then turned calmly back into the flames taking his secret with him. The End.’”He looked up as Steele jerked the torn page from him.“That ain’t what happened. Fowler died screaming that he’d tell Chris everything if we’d pull him out of the flames. We couldn’t reach him.”“Creative license, Mr. Wilmington. A hero is only as good as the villain he defeats.”“Ain’t no facts that say Fowler wasn’t a marauder that picked Chris’ homestead ‘cause of place and time.”“I’m working toward a series of books,” the writer explained condescendingly, “I needed a shadowy villain for Larabee, a Moriarty to his Sherlock Holmes. You wouldn’t understand a writer’s process.” Jock Steele added with a derogatory tone.Truth was, Wilmington’s less than complimentary portrayal in the book was because Steele still begrudged how inconsequentially the man treated him when they had just met. And here he was again, barely paying attention to the intricacies that went into the plot of the story. “I even thought about hinting it was a woman who hired Fowler.” The writer whispered it like it was more scandalous than even he would put on paper. “But even in this day and age, even in the civilized northeast, who would believe a woman capable of so heinous an act? What could I come up with as motive?”“If you’re gonna make everything up, why use real folks names?”“I ... I didn’t make it up. I was there. I embellished ...”“Looks like you opened a bunch of old wounds for my friend. And bad-mouthed everyone else.”“I’m a writer, not a reporter. My job is to entertain my readers. I create legends. I create heroes.”“No matter what it does to the people you write about?”“Look, I make heroes.” Steele fumbled through the pages he held haphazardly to his chest. “’The man known only as Vin took careful aim and from a distance unbelievable to the common man, put a bullet in the escaping villain that would eventually cost the miscreant his life.’”Dooley sat mesmerized at the storytelling. Buck looked confused. “Now see, Vin never killed that fella.”“I made him sound like an excellent shot. I made him larger than life.”“You made him a back-shooter.”“He shot a killer.”“He nicked him so as we’d be able to identify him later.”“That’s too much trouble to explain,” Steele dismissed with a wave of his hand, “I’m only allowed a certain number of words for each story. And I was as anxious as anyone to get to the end.”“But it takes a better shot to wound at that distance ‘stead of goin’ for center mass,” Buck said, “Might teach the folks readin’ something.”“They don’t want to ‘learn’. They want to know the West is lawless, wild.”“That man’s friends killed him so he couldn’t talk to us.” Buck was at a loss to understand how the man justified the lies in the manuscript. “There’s lawless. Then there’s the law.”Jock Steele studied the man he’d written as a lap dog, a buffoon, comic relief, then down at his cluster of torn pages held to his chest.Buck looked around to discover that Dooley was standing in front of the horse hitched to the buckboard. The young man was clearly distressed and swaying forward and back and stroking the velvety nose.“You okay, Dooley?” Buck asked gently.“Are you fightin’?” Dooley asked referring to Buck and Steele’s conversation.“No, we ain’t fightin’. He ain’t nothing to fight with. You want to calm down a little for me? I have a question to ask you.”The large man stopped stroking the horse, but didn’t remove his hand from the soft muzzle.When Buck thought he was as calm as he was going to get any time soon, he asked the question. “Your brother wouldn’t be mad at you if things went cross-wise, would he? He takes care of you good?”“Real good. He knows I ain’t so smart, but he don’t care. That’s what brothers are.”“Feeble-minded,” Steele muttered.There was a sudden, surprising, uncharacteristic flash of anger as Dooley immediately stalked toward Steele. “That ain’t nice. Robbie said I don’t gotta let you say that.”“Dooley,” Buck got between them. “Let me handle him.”Dooley looked back and forth between the two men then nodded.Buck turned and made it a point to tower over Steele intentionally as Dooley would do simply because of his size. “Ain’t nothing he can do about it,” Wilmington pointed out directly.There was no heat, but somehow this was a different man than Steele had observed before. And yet, the writer didn’t perceive what the difference was and continued, “A man that size without the mental capability to control it, shouldn’t be free on people.”“I’d rather ride the river with him than someone like you. He would never hurt recklessly. But you don’t even care what your words do to people.” Where usually Buck commented with a live-and-let-live observation, when an innocent person was attacked, he would call out the guilty person directly.Steele postured and searched for words. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I make people bigger than life - heroes.”“No you don’t.” With no other explanation, Buck disregarded Jock Steele again and walked over to Dooley who was stroking the soft nose of the horse again. The animal was almost asleep from the soothing touch.“He make you feel better?” Buck asked referring to the horse.“Nobody but Robbie ever stood up for me before.”“Well, they should. People got no right to judge what they don’t understand.”Dooley frowned hard in concentration; trying to figure out how this man seemed to understand so well how he felt, “Nobody’s got to understand me, Mr. Buck.”“Remember we talked about people who are always scared?”Dooley nodded enthusiastically.“They said things about me when I was little.”Dooley’s eyes widened in awe that someone treated Mr. Buck the way they treated him.“My Ma said the scared ones are the ones who say those things. Tryin’ to make themselves feel better, bigger. You ought to feel sorry for them, Ma said.” Buck stopped to think about the conversation so many years ago. “But I ain’t as good as my Ma. I learned that if I laughed at ‘em and walked away ... well, I never figured out what it made ‘em think, but I know they don’t like it.”Dooley shot Buck a brilliant smile. “It’s like the words don’t touch you. And they can’t make ‘em.”“By golly, I think that might be right,” Buck laughed back. “You just remember they ain’t your fault.”Steele, sitting on the back of the buckboard, opened his mouth to protest, thinking for sure Wilmington was speaking for his benefit. But then he realized the lanky gunfighter never looked his way to judge the reaction he got. Still, Steele had no doubt the words were directed at him. But if that was true, how could he appreciate the writer’s reaction to the allegations if he didn’t look for a reaction? Could that man really care more what an imbecile thought than an intellectual? A published writer? ‘One fool talking to another’ Steele scoffed to himself. But immediately, and unbidden, the next thought was ‘Really? Are those the words of fools?’ And he scrambled for a stubby pencil in his vest pocket. He began to scribble on the clean side of one of the torn pages he held onto like a security blanket. He kept an ear open for when the conversation would start again.“Is Mr. Chris really your friend, Mr. Buck?” Dooley had been deep in thought, then asked thoughtfully.“Why yes, yes, he is.”“I could tell. He acts like my brother to me. Don’t talk too nice to you, but won’t let nobody else talk to you that way, no sir. But I don’t mean you’re stupid like I am! I think you’re really, really, really smart. Most smart people ain’t nice.”Buck looked at the gentle giant. Held hostage to get his friend to rob a poker game, all the risk, stuck with an obnoxious writer, and he was learning more about people from Dooley than most anyone else he’d ever met. When he notice Dooley was petting the horse again with a little desperation, Buck realized he’d been quiet a while, lost in thought, and Dooley thought he was mad. He gave Dooley a genuine grin to reassure him. “Maybe that’s what I see in your brother, Dooley. And you bring out the best in him.”Steele unobtrusively wrote the conversation down. He was pressing down harder than he intended and didn’t even notice. As he wrote, he watched the tall man interact with Dooley and surprised himself by saying, “Mr. Wilmington, I feel perhaps I should apologize for the excerpt from my manuscript Mr. Niven read. It was rather out of context. It sounded worse than maybe ...”“What are you goin’ on about?” Buck was irritated the little troublemaker was interrupting him and Dooley.“I think perhaps I minimized the rest of Larabee’s posse in the attempt to present the gunfighter as a solitary hero. If you are crosswise with the words I put in his mouth ...”“Hey, pard, I knew Chris didn’t say those things.”“I’ve seen the two of you argue” Steele countered. “I’ve seen him indifferent to your opinion. My writing, the capture of phraseology was impeccable. How could you say ...”“Because Chris knows I’d kill the man who talked about my Ma that way.”For a moment Jock Steele saw the comic relief of his story transform into a deadly gunfighter on a par with Chris Larabee himself. Steele looked away first.Buck waited and finally sauntered back to Dooley and he was the lanky good-natured man again.Steele got the message. Wilmington did prefer the company of a simpleton to his own. He scribbled again.
Ezra Standish had forsaken the oppressive heat of the saloon for the slight breeze the boardwalk offered. He would shuffle the cards, fan them, lift the ace of spades from the top of the deck, return it to the center of the deck, shuffle, fan, cut, shuffle and again turn the ace of spades from the top of the deck. He saw Josiah Sanchez walking toward him and flagrantly stacked the deck three more times before the ex-preacher sat down beside him.
Sanchez raised an eyebrow and looked from Standish to the cards and back again.
With a wide smile that showed his gold tooth, the gambler answered. “The less I actually use the art, the more I must practice to have it when I need it.”
Sanchez laughed and leaned back as he wiped the sweat from his brow.
“So, did you save the young Mason boy from the jaws of matrimony?”
“I did not,” Sanchez admitted, “Turns out he wants to marry little Naomi. Even had a ring.”
“God works in mysterious ways.” Standish mused.
“Amen,” Josiah smiled. “Still, I can’t figure out where the confusion came from. No one seemed to have asked to have me intercede and yet ...”
“Mr. ‘Siah! Mr. ‘Siah!” young Billy Travis called as he ran their way. He came to a halt and handed over a sheet of paper. “Telegram came for Mr. Chris.”
“Thank you, son,” Sanchez smiled as he exchanged the paper for a penny. And then the boy was gone, no doubt to spend his new treasure on candy.
“Amusing how the boy seems to find the seven of us interchangeable,” Ezra opined.
“Gets it from his mother,” Josiah replied with surety. “She scolds me for your gambling.”
“And me for Mr. Wilmington’s tom catting, and Mr. Larabee’s disregard for her opinions ...” Ezra feigned a put-upon air. “I see your point. Are you going to read the telegram?”
Josiah gave him an ‘Of course’ look and offered, “Better to ask forgiveness than permission”. He smiled as he opened the flimsy, “Nothing particularly new,” The preacher said as he read. “Judge wants Chris to know some fellow by the name of Robert Niven escaped from prison in Texas.”
Ezra frowned as he tried to place the name. “Niven, Robert Niven ... aww, yes. You know, we learned surprisingly little about how Mr. Larabee apprehended those men.”
“You recall the name? What do you remember?”FLASHBACKChris Larabee rode into town with the other two men. He had to admit this was going as Niven planned. It was very late. Few besides the players at Ezra’s game would still be up. The street fires were burning low. There were no lights on at the jail. He hadn’t expected differently. When he left there had been no prisoners, so there was no reason to man the office. It was with some regret he remembered it would be Tanner who was on night patrol. He would have been the person most likely to hear and suspect riders at this late hour.Boardman pulled off as they arrived in town. “He’ll be in a position to cover me – or ride out if I can’t,” Niven explained, leaving the threat of what that would mean for Wilmington hanging unspoken in the air.They pulled up in front of the saloon, dismounted and walked toward the batwing doors.Niven stopped Chris on the way to the door. “Point being, Larabee, the easier you make it for me to get into that game, the less likely anyone gets hurt.” The cold look he got from Larabee told him the dangerous game he was playing. The gunfighter hadn’t said a word since they rode out. The silence was unnerving.Standish had two locals stationed as security outside of the door to the backroom where the game was going on. He didn’t really expect trouble, the men were for show. And, as such, they worked much cheaper than his fellow peacekeepers would. Besides, if there was trouble, his comrades would intercede for the dollar a day the judge paid them.With Larabee’s approach, the security didn’t hesitate to allow him to enter – with whomever he chose to allow in. They let Larabee in because, well, because he was Chris Larabee.Above and beyond the fact that his life and livelihood, until recently, depended on reading men and women, these days knowing his associates was a part of who Ezra Standish was. So when Chris Larabee made his first appearance in three days at the poker game, Ezra started evaluating the situation. Larabee was sober, finally, but tense, angry. Nothing new there. But last he knew, their leader had ridden out of town fleeing personal, unidentified demons.The gunfighter didn’t make friends lightly, so Standish focused on the man in the brocade vest. He could be a gambler, was a gambler. Whether he gambled with money or men’s lives was harder to deduce. “Mr. Larabee, what brings you out at this hour?”The other players, including Conklin, looked on curiously but also impatiently as they were in the middle of a hand.Larabee and the stranger scanned the room with a look all too familiar for Standish. They were casing the room. “Mr. Larabee, are you interested in playing in?” he asked trying to get a clue from the other man.Before Chris could respond, Niven walked over, hand offered in greeting. “Mr. Standish, I have a different proposition.” Instead of shaking hands, he pulled his gun, “I don’t like to gamble. I think I will just take all of the money.”To everyone’s surprise, Larabee drew and backed up the play.“What the hell...?” One of the gamblers began.“To hell with this ...” Conklin demanded.The men begin to shuffle around, most clearly judging their chances against two guns already drawn. One of the two security guards feeling obligated to act, started to draw, Niven backhanded him with the gun butt as hard as he could. “I want to keep this as quiet and peaceful as possible. But I am willing to shoot my way out if you determine it is worth it.”“Mr. Larabee,” Conklin demanded.Ezra said nothing and gave nothing away. He waited for an explanation.“He’s got a man holding Buck outside of town. He’ll kill him if we don’t get back in time,” Chris explained for Ezra’s benefit. “Give him the money. We’ll sort it out later.”The way Larabee held his gun told Standish that it was empty. Larabee was risking his life to bluff, to buy time, to save Wilmington.Niven, equally adept at reading men, waggled his gun at Conklin, the weakest link, as he tossed the saddlebags on the table. “Load ‘em up. Only coins, paper money and gold. I’m not interested in jewelry that can be traced back here. And gentlemen, this Mr...”“Conklin,” he supplied.“Conklin,” Niven continued politely. “Gentlemen, this man is encouraging action from you but will not do anything on his own. Are you willing to die for money – or for a coward’s money?”“This is outrageous,” Conklin blustered, “Any risk Mr. Wilmington is facing now is what he signed up for. It’s his job. It’s your job to keep our money safe.”“Do what he says, Conklin. I’ve been tempted to shoot you for some time. Don’t push it.” Larabee added.“I’ll have you arrested along with this man for robbery!” Conklin shouted.Ezra ignored him, focused on Larabee, Niven and the men in the room who might be a threat.One gambler watching closely, determined Chris and Niven were focused on Conklin and pulled his gun. Standish ejected his sleeve derringer and shot the gun from his hand.The sound of the gunshot changed everything. Niven grabbed the saddlebags and hissed close enough to Larabee that he could feel the hot breath. “Boardman stays outside this door for one hour. Any of you step foot out of here before then, all deals are off. Boardman doesn’t show up one hour behind me, all deals are off.” He then gloatingly turned his attention to the rest of the room. “Gentlemen, you’ve been most cooperative.” And he was out the door.The men rose and started to follow. Larabee raised his empty gun, doubling down on the bluff. Standish moved to stand in front of the door beside Larabee. “One hour, gentlemen, you heard the man. Frank, please see to Norris’s wound. And if someone will see to Mr. Talley’s hand? Thank you.”“It’s your job to protect this town.” Conklin cried.“What about my money!” A heavy set gambler demanded. The others murmured and began to stir restlessly, standing now, and milling about as if building up the nerve to storm the door. None of them were meek men, they had to know how to protect their winnings, be willing to protect their winnings and be willing to deal with losers. They wanted their money.“Go ahead,” Conklin demanded, something like a coyote that knew he was backed up by the pack. “They can’t shoot all of us.”Ezra pulled his holster gun to reinforce the derringer. ”Gentlemen, bein’ from out of town, you may not be aware, but it would be the height of whimsy to side with Mr. Conklin at this moment.”“You’re the only son of a bitch I know that really tries those trick shots,” Larabee growled.Standish knew it wasn’t true. Larabee was one of the few men who could shoot to wound instead of kill. That didn’t mean it was smart or that Larabee condoned his men taking the risk. This was as close as Larabee would get to saying ‘thank you’.“Abysmal I know. I was aiming for his chest,” he said it loud enough that the others in the room would think twice before trying to get through the door. ‘You’re more than welcome.’Larabee didn’t respond, but the look of appreciation was rare and Standish relished it more than he would have believed.“What is this, Larabee?” Conklin demanded. “Where are the other so-called peacekeepers? Why are they conveniently out of town? Are you all in on this? Will you even kill Wilmington to make it look good? I’ll have you all in jail for this.”“C’mon, Larabee,” a gambler grumbled. “You let them stop you with this threat? They’ll kill him no matter what, to slow you down while you have to deal with the body.”There wasn’t a response to that. Larabee had the same thought himself. The glance he got from Standish showed he was also concerned. “If they do...” there were really no words.Standish was surprised to hear fear beneath the venom, and the body language was difficult to watch. Larabee wanted to leave as much as he was determined they would all stay.
Larabee checked and found what he knew he’d find. Tanner’s wound was still seeping blood. The sun and heat were sapping their strength. He glanced over at Wilmington.
The man had his eyes closed and was slack-jawed. The heat was taking its toll. He had come to the same realization as Larabee. No one could sneak up on them on the slick shale. Not even Tanner could walk silently on that ground.
“What do you want!?” Larabee shouted. He was helpless to do anything but shout at an invisible enemy.
There was no answer. No bird noises, no rustling wind.
He looked over to see that Buck was staring at him now with dull eyes.
“You got any plans, Chris?” he asked.
“God, Buck, how’d he get the drop on all three of us?”
“There’s a chance the horses will head back to town.” Buck offered with a shrug, “That might get them looking for us sooner.”
“If there was some way to buy some time.”
Buck craned his head slightly over a shorter ledge in the outcrop’s design. There was no shot in response. He searched the ground for what he was looking for. He stood up and shook his legs to get the circulation going.
“What are you doing?” Larabee asked quietly, as if he wanted to be sure his voice didn’t carry.
Wilmington waggled his eyebrows and quickly dove over the low part of the outcrop and ran for the canteen he’d dropped earlier.
“Buck!” Larabee called.
Immediately gunshots sent plumes of sand up at Buck’s feet.
Larabee finally identified the location of the shooter from the muzzle blasts and puffs of smoke from the rifle barrel. He returned fire, but knew it was useless.
Grabbing the canteen, Buck sprinted back to cover, dove over the low part of the outcrop and slid on the sharp stones and did a face plant on the ground.
Larabee crawled over to his friend. “You are a fool.” He grabbed the arm where the shirt was torn on the stones. Buck’s forearm was bleeding in several places and the shale had scraped his face.
“Yeah, yeah, but I couldn’t break my fall without spilling the water.” He said, ignoring the fact that he knew Chris was referring to his breaking cover in the first place. He held up the canteen with a bullet hole in one side and a large dent where the bullet almost went through on the other. It was wet, clearly much of the water had seeped out of the hole. He scrambled over to Vin. With some maneuvering they were able to get a few swallows in their friend without losing it all through the bullet hole. “Bought us a little time.”
“Prolonging the inevitable?” the ethereal voice called as a counter point to Buck’s statement. “I should have shot you, but that’s not the game. Is it Larabee?”
Chris and Buck exchanged glances. Chris shook his head. He didn’t know what the man meant.
“And then there’s the bonus. Steele’s book said your Vin was a heathen and only had the one name. Come to find out his last name was never mentioned because he’s wanted for murder in Texas. Five hundred dollars. Dead or alive. A bonus.”
“You need to think of something, Pard,” Buck said to Chris. “This ain’t normal for a man, playing like we’re rats and he’s the cat. He ain’t right.”FLASHBACK“Where the hell is everyone?” Larabee hissed as he and Standish stood by the door waiting for the hour to be up.“Messrs Sanchez and Jackson didn’t like the atmosphere in town and left three days ago. They should be back this morning,” Standish stated matter-of-factly. “Mr. Tanner took our young sheriff with him on patrol. I think he expected to make a visit to the Wells’ spread. Apparently the boy needed a distraction from some earlier confrontation.” How could the man sound so subtle and at the same time cut to the quick with the unspoken allegation that Larabee’s actions had led to this moment when all of the others wanted to be out of town and away from him?Larabee stared at the gambler. In a perverted way, this was the reason Larabee trusted Standish so implicitly. The man would never hesitate to state the facts as he saw them unless you were one of his marks. Surprisingly, Larabee knew if you were Ezra’s friend, you would never be a mark.Standish checked his pocket watch. “It’s been an hour, Chris,” he said in a way he hoped softened the earlier accusation.Larabee practically jerked the door off the hinges and headed out.Inez was serving breakfast to a few early-risers and was startled to see the distress in the man as he strode toward the front of the saloon. Standish motioned to the barkeep it was not the time to ask questions.When Larabee pushed through the batwing doors of the saloon, he noticed Niven had left with both horses. Niven was certainly detail oriented. But more, he prided himself that he thought of everything; that he was smarter than anyone else. People like that were cocky. Larabee made a mental note that he could use that self-confidence later. It was immediately replaced by his need to get back to his homestead.Larabee grabbed the first horse he came to and threw himself into the saddle. “Try to find the others and bring them with you. We’ll posse up after we know Buck’s safe.”“Of course,” Standish acknowledged.The other gamblers had followed them onto the boardwalk. As Chris turned the unfamiliar horse and raced out of town, Conklin called after him. “Horse thief! We’ll add that to the charges I file!” He blustered, secure in his estimation that Larabee would not take the time to deal with him. Conklin turned then to head toward the jail and almost bumped into Standish. “I’ll include you in the charges I bring,” he said defiantly.Standish stared at him as if he had two heads, “Are you suicidal?”“You’re the law, too. Arrest him,” Conklin demanded. “You got something to say?” he tried forfalse bravado; it came out like a squeak.“I believe that when Mr. Larabee gets back, he’ll be looking for a way to release the tension. I think I will wait and get my delight in the show when he returns and has time to deal with you,” Standish purred as he walked away.Conklin choked and turned red at the thought.
+ + + + + + +At the same time, Jock Steele had deposited himself on the back of the buckboard to watch and listen to the two men with him. He had again removed the pencil from his vest pocket and was surprised how often he scribbled his new thoughts on the back of the old pages.“You.” Steele jolted when Wilmington directed his attention towards him. He had been all but ignored for the better part of three hours and had kept to himself rather than risk revisiting the gunfighter he’d glimpsed briefly.“Mr. Wilmington,” he answered in a small, apprehensive voice.“When I give you the say so, I need you to take off toward town.”“Wha ... why ...?”“The boy’s brother and Chris should be back soon. I need to narrow the odds before they get here. I don’t want to have to watch out for you.”“But the boy said no one’d get hurt.”“I trust him. I don’t trust his brother.” Buck explained quietly, his eyes cutting over to the gentle giant. “He might kill everyone to slow down being followed.”“Oh, oh, I see. He could even gun Mr. Larabee down on the road, unarmed as he is ...” he trailed off with the look he received.“Stay off the road enough that if you pass ‘em they don’t see you and suspect.” Buck was loading wood into the buckboard as he spoke.Steele barely heard his words. The downfall of the writer’s rampant imagination was that he envisioned a brutal death and was beginning to terrify himself. “Oh, oh, my,” he stuttered. “What do we do? What do we do?”“Shut up!” Buck hissed as he climbed into the bed to stack the wood. He was trying to keep busy so that Dooley didn’t get suspicious. He looked to make sure Steele’s panic hadn’t been picked up on by the young man. He was again petting the horse. “Simmer down until I give the word.” Buck ordered.“Oh dear, oh dear,” Steele fought to hold his panic in check. He would have denied it to the world if Buck had pointed out the egotistical little man was swaying much the way Dooley did when anxiety set in.Buck had the front half of the buckboard stacked three deep and three tall with firewood and he was tying it to secure it down for the trip back as he tried to figure out his next move. The sun was hinting at its arrival in the east. He looked up and saw the dust cloud on the road from town. “Damm.” Buck knew they were coming back and he was running out of time. He turned back to Steele, “You better ...”The situation, Buck’s concerns and his own rabid, overactive imagination had Jock Steele in fear of his life. That’s all Buck got out before the little man had his short legs pumping as fast as they could. He had to save himself.Steele’s abrupt and fear-induced burst startled the horse hitched to the buckboard. It shied and jolted forward. Dooley was forced to the side of the buckboard by the escaping horse. He whirly-gigged his arms and that only served to terrify the poor animal more.One moment Buck was standing solidly in the bed of the wagon, the next the wagon jolted and he fell forward and cracked his knee on the logs. In the next split second he was trying to catch his balance. Then the wagon was out from under him and he was suspended mid-air behind the wagon.The firewood logs were rolling off the back of the wagon and the rope was tangled in his wrist and somehow around one ankle. The horse was making a mad dash to get away from all the things that terrified it and Buck was being dragged along. The firewood was pummeling him as it rolled off the back. He tried to grab at anything to give him some control of the moment; he tried to use his free hand to protect his head at the same time. As the horse was racing across the prairie, Buck was in the path of the dense, heavy oak wood and felt every one as it rolled off the bed of the wagon and beat him down. He felt the long thorns of prickly pears drill into his back and free leg as he was dragged through a patch of the cactus. He felt the fine, tiny nettles of the prickly pear apples come dangerously close to his eyes. Somewhere the thought vaulted into his mind that the fine stickers would be harder to remove, become infected easier and just damn hurt more than the longer ones. One log struck him on the forehead and he saw stars. He was just about to register the pain when his head came down viciously on a large field stone partially buried in the ground and that’s the last he knew.Dooley scrambled to his feet. It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing as the bolting horse and buckboard dragged his new friend across the landscape. He saw Buck and the firewood fall backwards. He heard the awful thud when his new friend’s head hit the ground over and over and finally the flatter sound when it hit the rock. “Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no, Mr. Buck.” He spun around twice, trying to decide what to do. He grasped his temples and held tight. Finally he ran to see if he could help.Jock Steele never knew what happened. He pumped his legs toward a nearby tree line that took him away from the road but still on a parallel path and toward town.The horse had started to slow down and Dooley hurried to catch up. He knew about horses. He could tell how frightened the animal was, so he slowed down and cooed to the poor thing hoping it was enough that he wouldn’t take off again.Dooley was confused and almost frozen with fear. He didn’t know what to do or how to do it. But he knew that Mr. Buck didn’t look good and if the horse started up again, it would be worse. Talking gently and stroking the horse gently, he finally felt he could move away and the horse would stay.As soon as he was away from the horse, Dooley sped up and ran to the man. “Mr. Buck, there was no cause for you to do that.”Buck’s head lolled to one side senseless and there was a lot of blood. “Ya needn’t a done that.” He fumbled with the rope until he finally got it untangled. “Mr. Buck ... please, Mr. Buck, don’t be dead.” He moved the few logs that still leaned against Buck’s body. The shirt was torn and bruises were already forming around the cuts and cactus needles.Niven and Boardman arrived where they had left Dooley. They were happy with the way things had gone. And, though they rushed, they felt confident in the time they had to escape. Niven wasn’t a stupid man. What he had seen told him that Larabee wouldn’t risk Wilmington’s life, no matter what the popinjay writer had put to paper. They had even taken the time to gather up all of the horses, not just Dooley’s Old Red.The buckboard wasn’t where they left it. It was several yards away. There were no signs of life except for the horse that was blowing and lathered. “Hey, Dooley!” Robert Niven called, concerned when his brother was not immediately visible.Dooley’s head immediately popped up from the far side of the buckboard, “He falled, Robbie. The horse spooked and he falled bad. It was an accident.”By now they had ridden to Dooley. “What are you talking about?” Niven asked as he dismounted and headed toward his brother.Boardman had his gun out and was looking for trouble. “You tryin’ to say Wilmington’s dead!?” he roared. He wasn’t stupid, either. Larabee wanted to kill them already. All he needed was an excuse.Dooley cringed back in fear.“He’s breathing.” Niven said when he knelt beside the still body, “Just breathing. He’s in a bad way.”“Where’s the writer?” Boardman asks.Dooley, wide-eyed and shaking, spun his whole body around twice, not just his head to see if he could see the other man. The look of wide-eyed terror and confusion he turned to his brother told them all they needed to know.“We’re gonna have Larabee chasing us to the end of the world,” Boardman spat, “You fool.” Boardman and Niven were good partners. They worked together well and could anticipate each other’s moves from the time they’d spent together. But he barely tolerated Dooley. This was too much for the patience and tolerance he pretended. He leapt off his horse and stormed toward Dooley. The younger man, despite his size, cringed back when confronted with such anger, especially from someone he knew.Niven interceded and shoved him back, “He said it was an accident.”Dooley nodded his head violently in agreement. “That’s the truth, honest.”“Maybe he won’t care. You read what the writer said,” Niven tossed out lamely.“We both know that’s shit! I’ve told you he can’t control himself! I told you it was no good him ridin’ with us!”Dooley began to sway back and forth. “I’ll go get a doctor. I can tell him what happened,” he offered as much sincere concern as a desire to stop the loud voices.Niven, anxious now and in a hurry, nevertheless took the time to move beside Dooley and take his face in his hands to focus him on the words. “I know you didn’t do anything, but Larabee won’t give you the chance to tell him that. And what if he dies and can’t say what happened? Who’ll believe you? C’mon, we gotta get out of here.”Dooley had tears welling in his eyes as he looked down at his still friend.“Dooley, you know I always look out for you. You know I’m always right.”“Damn it, Niven. Let’s get. With or without him!” Boardman demanded.“Any time you want we can ride in different directions!” Niven shot back.“No, no, no, no, no,” Dooley chanted. “He’s your friend, Robbie.”“Then let’s go.”While Dooley struggled into the saddle of old Red, Niven remounted and quickly followed Boardman who had started out as soon as he saw how the wind would blow.FLASHBACKChris Larabee almost allowed himself to relax when he came upon the site where he had left Buck. There was a quiet serenity to the rolling landscape. The buckboard wasn’t where he’d left it, but it was there and the horse was grazing gently. Buck’s Pal was there as well, as was the writer’s horse. But there were no people.Buck didn’t go after them on his own, the horse would be gone. He wouldn’t have wandered away. There would be no reason to try to get back to town on foot. And where was that damnable writer?The horse Larabee had taken from town, couldn’t decipher the strange signals he was getting from the man. The reins said go forward, but the posture and feel he got from the human said stop, don’t go there. The horse pranced and side stepped its way toward the clearing.“Buck!” Larabee shouted. ‘Show yourself, damn it. Don’t let this be happening.’ “Buck!”Two men battled inside of Larabee in the space and time it took the horse to cross the clearing. One, a husband and father and friend wanted to never get there; wanted to wake up and this be over. The gunfighter, the loner, the man Jock Steele wrote about, wanted to accept the inevitable, shut down a little more and damn this man who dared him to live again and then died on him. “Buck!!” He demanded an answer.When he finally saw the crumpled form behind the buckboard and wrapped his mind around what he was seeing, he threw himself out of the saddle. And froze. This moment. This moment in time. He could never get it back. He could never change what would happen next. Bile rose in the back of his throat and it was force of will alone that put one foot in front of the other.He could see the blood covering the left side of Buck’s face and scalp. It soaked into the cracks in the arid ground and faded against the man’s tan. There were painful cuts and bruises visible beneath the tears in his shirt. His leg hung at an awkward angle. The black-clad gunfighter had no doubt that the slow-witted crazy man must have started beating on his friend as soon as they were out of sight to cause so much damage.The air was thick and Chris felt like he had to swim through it to fall beside Buck’s still form, and had to will himself to do anything else. He finally reached out a shaky hand to feel for a pulse point at his neck.He didn’t believe it when he felt the first faint thump. He pressed harder. There it was. Again. Again. The bile came up in his throat, relief he thought he’d never feel again. A chance. Another chance. The only way he fought down the bile was it would take time away from helping Buck. He took his bandana and pressed it to staunch the bleeding from his head. He took the over-sized kerchief Buck preferred, a holdover from their trail drive days, and tied it to hold the bandage in place.Larabee’s hands were shaking as he held them over his friend and then ...He sat back on his haunches and realized there was nothing more he could do that would really make a difference. Relief had been short lived. “Buck, wake up now,” he demanded. There was no response.A shiver ran through him. “What did they do to you?”Loss, sadness, helplessness, fear. Emotions Chris Larabee felt more strongly than most other men, because he had lived with them, felt them and let each of them sap away a part of his soul. He usually needed a drink to chase them off, or someone to focus them to anger and a catalyst to action. But in this moment, with no one to protect, no one to kill, a wrong so wrong, it couldn’t be made right, he was stuck with himself. This Chris Larabee he hid so well, even from himself.“Buck, please ...” It was just more than a whisper, just less than a prayer.”Time lost meaning.At first he searched for movement. Subtly his peripheral vision closed in and his focus tunneled down to watching his friend take one breath and then another, and wait for another.“Chris?”Was that thunder calling to him? It didn’t matter. He didn’t have time for it.“Chris!” The thunder demanded. And it shook him.‘What the hell?’ Larabee demanded to himself. But then the shadows peeled back. The sky and ground were there again, and Josiah Sanchez was shaking him none too gently.“I think it’s shock, Josiah. Let him come around on his own time,” a voice offered gently.Nathan. Nathan Jackson. Larabee’s eyes finally focused. Nathan was working over Buck and he looked like he thought he could do some good. Chris looked around to get his bearings. Ezra was standing a distance away as if he were as reticent to approach as Larabee had been earlier.“Chris, you know head wounds bleed,” The healer supplied gently. He was rebinding Buck’s scalp with a comforting touch, but his ministrations reached out to Larabee as well.Standish had ridden out to meet them and told them of the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ position their leader had been put in.“Looks like he has a broken wrist and his right knee’s swollen. There’s no reason for now to think he won’t wake up. We’ll get the cuts cleaned up. The cactus is going to be a chore.” He was speaking for all of their benefit, to let them know their friend still had a chance. Nathan glanced up with the intention of looking Larabee in the eye so he would know this was the truth.Chris wasn’t there. He was across the way where Boardman had hurled the rifle. Now that there were others around he had something to focus on. No one would see weakness in him. It could only be used against him sometime in the future. It’s why he couldn’t side with Buck before the sword fight with Don Paulo. It’s why he had been indifferent to JD’s pain when he shot Annie. Vin and Charlotte. Josiah when he was accused of murder; Nathan and his father.He retrieved the long gun and walked back, checking its condition. He took a box of cartridges out of Buck’s saddlebags, loaded it and put it back in the scabbard.The emotions that had almost paralyzed him were still roiling in his head. The spell was broken, but the well spring of desolation that was feeding the emotions had to have a release. At that instant a blood lust came over Chris. It started in his eyes and turned his spine to ice water as it washed its way down his body. He walked around until he found the outlaws’ trail.Josiah didn’t know if it was some sort of symbolism to their leader when he threw himself on the back of Buck’s big grey. The tension in his body defied anyone to get in his path, and yet, Sanchez put himself in front of the horse.“It would be good if Buck knew you were here,” He stated matter-of-factly, not sure what would get through to the man or what would set him off.“Get him to my cabin,” Larabee answered coldly.“I could accompany you,” It was the first words Standish had spoken.“They’re mine,” Chris growled, like a dog protecting a soup bone.“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” Josiah quoted.“You go set up an appointment, Preacher. I’ll send them along when I catch up to ‘em.” And he spurred Pal forward.
Nathan saw his friends sitting on the boardwalk as he and JD rode into town so, instead of stopping at his clinic he kept going to join them.
“Hey, look who I found,” he nodded toward JD as he arrived and they both got off their horses.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Ezra greeted them.
“Did you enjoy your patrol, John Daniel?” Josiah had a heavy dose of insinuation in his voice.
“It was a patrol, Josiah.” he fumbled back.
“That either means he got up to something he doesn’t want us to know about, or Mrs. Wells wouldn’t let them out of her sight.” Ezra offered over the lip of his coffee cup.
“Well, I suspect the answer is in there somewhere,” Josiah laughed as the young sheriff turned an interesting color of red.
“I was on patrol.”
“Do you think you’re the only one that knows Miss Casey came back on yesterday’s stage?” The healer joined in the teasing.
“Nathan,” The young man’s voice pleaded to be cut some slack and not embarrass him.
Josiah, feeling generous in the afternoon, changed the subject, “And you, Nathan. Since you’re in a good mood, I take it there was no problem helping a new baby Adams into the world?”
“Strangest thing” Nathan replied, scratching his chin, “She weren’t anywhere near ready to deliver. Seems the due date three weeks from now still stands. She said she didn’t send for me.”
The lightness of the good companionship and good conversation got a bit heavier as Ezra and Josiah shared concerned looks.
Nathan caught the change. “Is there a problem?”
Ezra handed him the telegraph flimsy. JD read over his shoulder.
“I got called out to stop a ‘domestic disturbance’ at the Griffins’.” Josiah replied, “There was nothing to it either, but it got me out of town.”
Catching the insinuation that they had both been lured out of town for some reason, Nathan responded to the wire. “When did this come in, this morning? Must be coincidence. There’s no way this Niven got here before the wire.”
“Wait.” JD took the telegraph to study it, “Judge Travis sent this.”
The others knew that meant something, but waited for JD to explain what he caught that they didn’t.
“That would almost have to mean that the prison sent it to the marshals in some daily report, they forwarded it to the Judge and he’s the only one that thought it was important enough to warn Chris.” He looked at the older men hoping to see teasing in their eyes that would tell him he was over-thinking the facts. He didn’t see it. In fact, just the opposite.
“He could have escaped days or weeks ago,” Nathan put into words what the others were thinking. None of them really believed in coincidence anyway.
“Should I wire the judge and see when the escape was? Or I could send it to the prison.” JD didn’t like the feelings that were suddenly coming from his older friends.
“The son of a bitch was a planner,” Standish recalled. Next to Chris or Buck, he had the most interaction with the man. “He’s the kind that would think he could arrange to get the drop on Chris and Buck to get pay back,” he said curtly and honestly.
JD’s eyes grew wide with worry. “They don’t know to watch out for him!”
“Nathan, do you need to add a few things to your medical supplies? You could restock. The rest of us will spread out and see if anyone knows where Chris and the others went. I’ll get Tiny to loan you and JD fresh horses.” Josiah looked over at Ezra and realized he too, felt guilty that they had whiled away several hours because they missed the clue their youngest picked up on immediately.
“We’ll meet at the livery,” Jackson agreed.
The men turned on their heels, hoping to find someone that knew what had drawn their three friends out of town and where they might have gone.
While the older men rushed but were able to give the impression that they weren’t doing so, JD sped off thinking to check the
saloon, look for a note in the jail, and check the boarding house and the Potter store as quickly as possible. The edges of his world would be crumbling until they found their friends.FLASHBACKJosiah Sanchez entered the cabin carrying three field dressed rabbits. The windows were open and allowed a mercifully cool breeze to blow through.Nathan was using the tip of one of his knives to slightly scrape Buck’s skin to feel for the small, fine cactus needles. Their friend was mercifully unconscious and unaware of the ministrations.Ezra was sitting at the table with Steele’s torn manuscript before him. He seemed to be reading as he haphazardly shuffled through the pages with no concern for plot or timeline.Steele sat with his hands in his lap, for all the world giving the impression of a school boy in the corner on the dunce stool. His stubby pencil sat on the table in front of him. He would glance at the alluring writing instrument but, apparently, didn’t dare reach for it.It occurred to Josiah that this man had probably never had to confront those he wrote about after the book was published. He looked uncomfortable. Of course, the discomfort could be from earlier in the day.Ezra had found Nathan and himself on the way into town and quickly explained what had happened. They headed for Chris’s land as quickly as they could.It was on the road where they had come across the writer. He had been bustling forward in what only he would call a run. Most men could have gone faster at a walk. His face was red, he was sweating and couldn’t breathe with his mouth shut. He was carrying the torn pages of his manuscript. He choked out the words, “Wilmington ...fight...Larabee ...dead? The man... mountain...witless ...dummy.”Ezra had started on around the man, but Nathan, ever cautious, was willing to take a moment to see what they were riding into.When Nathan demanded full sentences, Steele, still babbling, got enough across for them to step up their pace.When Josiah would have sent the little man on his way back to town, Ezra spoke up. He suggested Steele come with them. Whatever he had heard or seen, it had his conman senses on high alert. Steele had hedged, saying he would go on to town. The way Ezra insisted was surprisingly forceful to the point that Jock Steele sidled up behind Sanchez instead of riding with the gambler. He kept muttering things like it wasn’t his job to have conversations with heathens and hoodlums of the West, he only wanted to interview them. It wasn’t his job to get involved with the danger, just write it down.Thinking about it, Josiah was pleased that the writer still looked miserable. He felt a giant smile cross his face. “How’s our patient?” Josiah asked.“We’ll be pulling those fine prickly pear thorns out of his hide for weeks. I can’t see them. Buck will have to feel for them to get them out.”“I dulled my knife cleaning the rabbits. I could use a sharp one to get supper on,” Sanchez said as he moved to the sink.No sooner was it spoken than silver glinted past his ear and one of Nathan’s throwing knives embedded in the wall in front of him.“Much obliged,” He responded without a flinch or a second look.Nathan was already back to his patient.Almost of its own accord, Steele’s right hand started for the pencil Ezra had positioned enticingly out of his reach on the kitchen table. Ezra silently raised an eyebrow in his direction and the hand retreated to his lap and his eyes went to the floor.Finally, almost as if Steele was ashamed that he was being intimidated by the fancy dressed man, he tried a cocky, defiant question. “If you’re going to critique my work, answer this for me, did Mr. Larabee stay on this side of the law to chase the killers of his family without watching for the law? Does he have any sense of justice?”“He knows right from wrong.” The gambler replied. “He balances his own personal scales of justice.”“Okay... let’s try it this way,” Steele continued. “Is he going after those men to retrieve the money or for their assault of Mr. Wilmington?”“I believe when he left his intention was to kill them for the assault.” Josiah answered matter-of-factly. Whatever he might really feel about the situation, he enjoyed the man’s discomfort as much as Ezra. The little cockroach deserved every bit of it.“Even estranged as they are? Even after the way Mr. Wilmington forces himself into Mr. Larabee’s shadow because of his need to be somebody?” As he spoke he shuffled through the torn pages, pulled a few out and held them out to Ezra and Josiah.Standish looked up from the pages that had caught his interest. He appeared to completely ignore the question and asked lowly, “Has anyone else read this?”“I sent a final draft to Mr. Larabee,” Jock crowed proudly.“Three days ago?”“That’s about when it would have arrived.” Steele hesitated. He heard something in the gambler’s voice.Josiah heard it too, and knew that Ezra wouldn’t let anyone hear anything he didn’t want to give up.“And you’re still alive?”Steele’s eyes widened.“Well then, you’ve come full circle and answered your own question. Mr. Larabee does have a sense of justice and believes in freedom of speech.”“Not really, Ezra. I don’t think Chris has had time to ‘citique’ this work,” Josiah offered. “Is it that bad?” He added.Instead of answering, Ezra read an excerpt. “‘Nathan Jackson passed himself off as a doctor for the town. No one questioned him because he rode with the man in black,’” Standish started reading from a torn page. “’He was little more than a snake oil salesman who was more likely to pull a weed from the ground, make a tea concoction and tell the unsuspecting it would cure a fever than to dispense real medicine. He would lay a burn open to the elements instead of bandage it and used hard liquor to allegedly clean wounds and as a pain killer as if it were an elixir attained from the altar of the gods.’”Steele dared a side glance to see the other two, very large men in the room had stopped what they were doing and turned to listen. They didn’t look happy.“I never credited myself with being a doctor,” Nathan said slowly.“For which we have all been grateful on numerous occasions,” Standish praised.“A healer, then.” Steele admitted he knew the real term. “What’s the difference?”“A self-professed author should never accept any two words as exact synonyms,” Standish tsk tsked. “Until you learn the different value of every word you use, Mr. Steele, you will listen and not write.”Josiah got the impression this was a reminder and that Standish and Steele had already had a heart to heart on this matter.“However, an exploitive yellow journalist wouldn’t care.” Sanchez’s calm comment belied the anger of the statement.Steele swallowed hard. He was saved from making a response when Standish continued. “I would take the services of an accomplished healer over a medical doctor any day.”Nathan flashed him a smile of appreciation.“A doctor learns what the school has to offer. They have no time for the benefits of nature.” Josiah defended Nathan when his friend wouldn’t defend himself.“Where did you get your training, Mr. Jackson?” Steele asked, thinking he could prove his point when there was no medical background.“A litter bearer in the War. Then working in a field hospital. I had learned natural medicine from my Ma and the other slaves.” He went back to checking Buck’s unconscious form as he continued to speak. “I learned the beneficial ways of plants, waters, even stones from Mescalero Apache, Seminoles and a troop of gypsies I traveled with for a time.” To himself he hoped his training would be enough for Buck. He decided not to burden the others with his concern.“But, really – look. You’ve packed Mr. Wilmington’s knee with mud. You slathered spider webs on his skin as if that would help,” Jock Steele defended his position.“Find the black, slimy mud from a creek bed and it will draw poisons out as it dries and decrease the swelling,” Jackson patiently, and with a hint of self-doubt that sometimes reared up in times like this, felt the need to justify his methods. He stood and paced around the room, gradually working closer toward the writer as he spoke.Steele recoiled involuntarily even though there was no hostility in the other man’s posture.“How do you think men survived before modern medicine?” Jackson found a spider web in the window, pulled it down and appeared to ponder it as he spoke. As quick as he was with a knife, he turned and rubbed the silk onto the back of Steele’s hand.Steele bolted out of the chair and clawed at the web. “Get it off!” he demanded as he rubbed the sticky substance and only with effort extricated himself from it.“If a cut’s too small for stitches but needs closin’... could leave a scar otherwise? Spider webs are sticky enough to hold it together to heal.”The writer opened and closed his mouth like a big mouth bass out of water.“A healer, a wise man, uses all that nature has to offer as well as science. Doctors too often only use science.” Josiah put a bow on it.Jock Steele looked at each man in turn as if seeing them for the first time and then desperately at his pencil. With another look at Standish, he received a slight nod to which he responded by grabbing the writing tool and attacking the back of the pages with note after note.Standish gave Jackson a tip of the hat and a wink. Sanchez slapped the healer on the back in comaraderie. Nathan Jackson was a modest, humble man who rarely received the accolades he deserved. He didn’t do what he did for the praise and it embarrassed him.As a friend, Josiah changed the subject. “How is Buck?”“Well, I’m beginning to be a bit concerned he hasn’t woke up yet,” he hedged but still told the truth. “But head wounds, you can’t predict them. Other than that, the knee’s twisted pretty bad. And the wrist is broken.”“Left or right?” Standish asked.“Right.”“Temporary inconvenience or serious?” Josiah asked.“A clean break and will heal completely.” Nathan couldn’t keep the amusement out of his voice. He knew what Ezra was insinuating.A chuffed laugh escaped Ezra. It brought a toothy grin to the Preacher.“You find that amusing?” For the first time the question wasn’t offered with a haughty air, but as if Steele was in fact curious.“Oh, Brother Buck is about to get a taste of his own medicine.”“What does that ...” Steele started to demand. He glanced at Standish who pretended to pay him no mind, but the writer started over. “Do you mind explaining what you mean?”Josiah, more to entertain himself at Nathan’s expense, answered the question. “Next to Nathan, Buck’s the mother hen of this group.”“Anyone’s hurt, he hovers to make sure they take care of themselves.” Standish shuddered, speaking from past experience.But he added, “I suspect our young sheriff will have to give up his spot as Buck’s shadow for a while.” The three men laughed.“Does Mr. Wilmington have a bad disposition when he’s unwell?” Steele tried to interpret the conversation.“Just exactly how do you study the people you write about?” Josiah asked.“I...I have a story to tell about the main character. I allow the other characters ...”Standish cleared his throat. Steele immediately restated, “...the other people... to help me tell my story.”“Your story?” Josiah picked up on the word.Sanchez looked over to Standish who, in turn, gave him an exasperated roll of the eyes in reaction to Steele’s explanation. Josiah was sure that Standish had had a ...“Dialogue, Mr. Sanchez,” Standish stated with amusement.“Beg pardon?” Josiah responded.“You were wondering why Mr. Steele has a sudden tendency to correct his sentences. He and I had a dialogue regarding the pages I’ve been reading. As a reward for his at least trying to actually interview people instead of writing them to tell the story he wants to tell, I suppose we can explain our amusement.”In response, Josiah explained, “You won’t be able to pry Chris away from Buck’s side until the wrist is healed enough that he can defend himself in a gunfight or a fist fight.”“I’m sorry, I just don’t see it.” A protective streak? In Chris Larabee? Steele repeated.“Chris tries to hide it. And is pretty good at it, even if you’re looking for it. If all you want to see is a blood-thirsty gunfighter, you’ll miss it for sure.”“But directed toward Mr. Wilmington?” Steele thought back to the words he had written and the way he remembered the adventure he traveled with Larabee. “The day we rode out with Blackfox, he left Wilmington behind. The man intruded when he showed up. There was a coolness between them, an aloofness; they barely spoke,” Steele asserted.“Some tragedies defy words even if they were shared. Especially if they were shared,” Nathan offered. “The term ‘still waters run deep’ was written for Chris Larabee.” He added as an afterthought.“Some men enjoy the spoken word,” Josiah pondered, as if thinking it through for the first time himself. “For some men, actions speak louder than words. For a few, actions defy words.”“Mr. Wilmington himself said it was his fault they stayed that extra night in Mexico.” At this remark, Ezra, who had appeared to be reading the torn pages and leaving the explanation to the others, looked up quickly, with an unreadable expression on his face.Josiah didn’t know what Ezra’s reaction meant but felt sure they shouldn’t go any further down the path they had headed, so he clarified some facts as he knew them on the subject. “The day we left with Blackfox, did you know Mr. Wilmington was out on patrol?”“I hadn’t met him.” The diminutive Eastener had lost almost all of the haughtiness his voice usually held as he was made a part of the conversation instead of simply asking questions and making notes for a novel.“Did you know Chris left word at the jail and saloon to tell Buck where he was going?”“No, with his terse reaction when Mr. Wilmington arrived, I assumed ...”“If you haven’t heard it before, to ‘assume’ makes an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘me’. It is a fatal flaw for a writer.” There was suddenly a coldness in Standish’s voice. Jock Steele blanched. Josiah was surprised the writer picked up on it. Even Nathan looked up from what he was doing.“What you heard and what Chris and Buck heard in that conversation were, well, you heard mere words. They heard the past, their lost loved ones and their friendship speaking to them. I suspect the words meant very little,” Josiah filled the silence.In a defensive relapse, Steele stood up and demanded, “Do you really think I have time for all of that? In a dime novel? What difference does it make?”“Well, let’s see if words might hurt you,” Ezra said and started to read another passage. Before he could start, he heard Buck moan. It turned into a groan when the man tried to sit up.“Hey, look who’s back with us.” The relief in Nathan’s voice told Josiah and Ezra both that it had been more serious than had been let on. “Wanna tell me if you remember what day it is?”Buck’s mouth was filled with metallic flavored saliva. He heard voices, but couldn’t make them out. There was bile pushing at the back of his throat. He kept his eyes closed against the room that was spinning dizzily, which only served to churn his stomach more. All he wanted to do was not move and try to get the sick feeling to pass. He swallowed hard to fight the inevitable. Maybe he could will himself to not throw up. Buck held his hand up, hoping the voice would understand he was begging to be left alone until the sick feeling passed.Nathan looked on sympathetically. He knew exactly what his friend was asking. He also knew that with that head wound, emptying his stomach was inevitable. Men hated to throw up. Buck was on the end of that spectrum where he would do anything to hold it back. And, from experience, Nathan knew the only thing worse than throwing up, was to do it with witnesses.“You fellas want to get some air?” he suggested to the others in the room. “Let me get Buck checked out and settled and I’ll come get you,” he said as he reached for the slop bucket.“I prefer to stay out of the sun...” Steele stated even as he was shoved outside by Sanchez.“Thank you, Lord, for bringing our brother back to us,” Sanchez said as he looked skyward and made the sign of the cross.“Really,” Steele snorted, indignant from being manhandled.“I beg your pardon” Josiah asked softly but ominously down his nose at the writer.“Mr. Sanchez,” Steele backtracked and tried to rationalize his question. “I’m just surprised to see you in prayer, being a defrocked priest and all.“Self-defrocked,” Sanchez purred. He wasn’t going to waste time explaining himself to this man.“But you still believe in God?”Sanchez took a deep breath and decided he would waste his time a little, “More than ever. I look for and find affirmation everyday. In fact I believe him to be too loving, too sacrificing. I can’t wrap my mind around such love and found myself undeserving.”“What the hell does that mean?” Steele squeaked.Ezra kept a straight face as he leaned against the cabin. To himself he pleaded with his friend, ‘Please, oh, please be obtuse. Drive him nuts. Give him a headache’. And he waited to be entertained.“Free will,” Josiah’s voice boomed like a fire and brimstone evangelist. “I believe all human evil stems from free will. And God allows it. God tells us what he expects of us and leaves us to decide yes or no. To take the right path or the wrong path. To work for war or peace. To steal or work for your daily bread. Possibly to decide to document the West or sensationalize men’s good names for fame or fortune.” He stared at Steele to make sure he knew he was referring to the dime novel he had written about Chris Larabee and at the expense of the others.Ezra maintained his poker face but just barely. The direct approach. Who would have thought Josiah Sanchez had it in him? And to such good effect. But, there was more. He was continuing.“I believe if God was more demanding in this life, there would be less evil and less people would be punished in the hereafter. I wouldn’t find the necessity to show people the error of their ways while in this mortal coil.”“I think the quote in your book is Mr. Sanchez has a tendency to go ‘Old Testimony’ on people he found to deserve it,” Ezra prompted. What better way to pass the time than let the little man see the damage words could do.Steele looked from one to the other, swallowed hard and backed away from the other two men.“Luckily for some of us, free will also allows for all of the good in life if your theory is true. And for people to change,” Ezra noted. It was a statement to Josiah, not for Steele’s benefit.“Amen, Mr. Standish, amen and lucky for us all.”“You can’t judge me.” Steele demanded, “I’m a slave to the Muse.”Josiah barked out a laugh. “Really? Which one? Clio? Thalia? Calliope? I see neither history, comedy nor epic talent in your dime novels.”Steele took a step back. He never expected this level of education in the Wild West. He found himself searching for a response that would match the intelligence.“I believe our writer has discovered an estranged step sister to the Muses, Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra smiled. “One responsible for sensationalized and violent fiction.” Ezra Standish’s anger had been building since he read the hateful and simplistic descriptions of his friends in Steele’s book. The smile dropped and he allowed his distaste to show on his face. “Some advice, Mr. Steele, stick with fiction. You have neither the reporter’s ability nor the observational skills to capture real people.”They were interrupted as JD and Vin rode up. With an ever so polite tip of his hat, Ezra walked away to greet the other men.“Was he angry?” Steele watched him go and stopped Sanchez with a question.“Ezra is faceted like a diamond. But you’re only going to see the sides he wants you to see. I suggest you ponder what he says. He won’t give you a second chance.”Steele reached wildly for the pencil in his vest pocket only to realize he had left it inside. Then he turned and studied these men as they were, not as he needed them to be for his plot.“Josiah. Ezra. What happened? Is everyone okay? Where’s Buck? Where’s Chris?” JD demanded worriedly as he jumped off of his horse.“Whoa, boy, we’ll get there. How are things in town?” Josiah asked as he shook hands with Tanner. JD had gone past him, headed for the cabin door.“Conklin sent us out here to arrest you mangy outlaws.” Vin answered with a wide grin.“Mr. Dunne, JD,” Standish got between him and the door. “Mr. Jackson is tending to Mr. Wilmington. He’ll let us in when he’s done.”JD paled. “What’s wrong? Is he okay?”On cue, Nathan opened the door. “I thought I heard new voices.”“Nathan?” JD whispered.“Buck’s asleep. He’s going to be fine. But let’s let him rest.” Nathan moved to let JD enter.Steele started forward.Ezra blocked his path. “You take Mr. Sanchez’s certainty that God exists and his confusion as to why he lets things happen. You take Nathan’s need to help people, Chris’s fast gun for justice, Vin’s pride in who he is, Buck’s protective streak and my, well, my creativity, add it to enough courage to be stupid and you have our young sheriff. That cake is still baking. Who he turns out to be depends on how the layers separate or blend together. I believe we would all take it as a personal affront if he were to read something in your writing that damaged his self-confidence.” Standish moved aside and let the others enter.Steele didn’t creep inside until the others had passed. He stayed by the door, feeling he was intruding.JD was standing near Buck, but looked around. “Where’s Chris?”
+ + + + + + +Chris Larabee wasn’t concerned about losing the men’s trail. They were going for speed, not stealth. The pace they were setting also told Larabee they weren’t of a mind to circle around and ambush him. They had headed toward the badlands, rugged terrain and water only if you knew where to look for it. A fool’s route. Larabee got perverse pleasure realizing that Niven wasn’t the planner he thought himself to be. He hadn’t thought he would need an exit strategy.Larabee followed at a comfortable, methodical pace. He could tell that they were either going to ride their mounts to death or they would have to stop and rest. The sun was unrelenting. Beads of sweat balanced on the tips of his hair to eventually fall into his eyes and burn. He took it as a distraction, but it wasn’t enough.Words filtered unbidden into his mind.Chris Larabee hated these times when he had just enough focus on a job so that another part of his mind bedeviled him with thoughts he tried to shut down. He fought them most often with alcohol or anger. It rarely helped. So he drank harder and the anger festered.‘His only name was Vin. Raised by heathens, if he’d ever known his last name it was long forgotten. The enigmatic loner had little to say and little to do with anyone. He prowled the rooftops of the town always ending up at the furthest eaves and held there like a ghostly wraith shackled to the buildings by some ethereal web, unable to escape back to the world he loved.’‘The greenhorn, the boy with a badge, the laughing stock of the town that tolerated him because Larabee tolerated him.’Larabee shook his head to try to dislodge the words. He was unsuccessful.‘A black healer who could never be more ...’‘A defrocked priest, as violent as a fallen angel’‘A clown, a pathetic. lost son of a two bit whore ...’“Shut up!” Larabee screamed inside his head.When he’d read the manuscript Jock Steele sent him he didn’t recognize the men he rode with, his friends, but the writer had put their names to caricatures. The book said this was the way Larabee saw his friends and the towns and territories took their lead from the notorious gunfighter.Quotes from the book and images of acts that gave them credence eddied through his mind. He would force his thoughts back to Niven, the words he said, the sequence of events, focus on them, remember them, see if he was missing something. Center them only on what it took to track the men he was after. Then, without realizing it, of its own volition, his mind drifted back to the book, the words, the friendships Steele had warped. And he would be deep in the words before he realized it. His loathing concentrated on the passages Niven read to Buck, but they dispersed to all the others that would read and hear the book; to all the other people who would look at them and only know their names from “Larabee’s Bloody Revenge”.What if the last thing Buck heard were the ugly words Steele had written as if they were Larabee’s thoughts? He tried to refocus his thoughts to the enemy. He wasn’t successful, but he could refocus the rage. The thoughts came unbidden and there was no way to stop them just as there was no way to stop the publishing. He was helpless to save the others from the words.How close was he to the Chris Larabee Steele had seen? He could clearly see it wasn’t true about the others, but allowed himself no such personal perspective. He shouted out loud this time against the words in his head, “Shut up!”He urged Pal into a gallop, to force his brain to concentrate on the unforgiving terrain and chase the words, ghosts and helplessness back to a sick feeling in his stomach.Then he heard it. A horse whinnied. He was close. The hunt would distract him. He grabbed the rifle from its scabbard, left Buck’s horse, and headed for the high ground.He stopped cautiously every few steps to see what he could hear. No birds. No insects. They were silent because of the humans in the area. Voices. Distant, but close enough to carry over the flatlands. He moved higher as he continued to stalk his prey.When the voices were almost decipherable below him, Larabee tossed his hat off his head to his back and peeked over a craggy boulder formation. Below him was the Permian Outcrop, boulders stacked on boulders surrounded by a long dry creek bed of shale and sand, ravaged by the centuries. No vegetation was able to grow in the bedrock and blistering sun. In front of the rock formation were the men he was looking for.“We can’t wait here!” Boardman demanded.“I’m tired, Robbie” Dooley whined childishly.They sounded like two sides of Niven’s conscience.“Then give me my due. Count it out, divide the money and I’ll be on my way,” Boardman demanded.“The horses can’t go yet, Robbie,” The big one said, trying to give the sweaty, lathered animals water from his hat.“I’d feel a lot better if I knew Wilmington was alive or dead,” Niven muttered, almost to himself, trying to determine the logical way to proceed.“What’s the difference? Larabee’ll be gunnin’ for us no matter,” Boardman stormed over and got in Niven’s face.Dooley cried, “You don’t want him to die do you?”“I don’t care! I want to feel safe! That ain’t here! It ain’t with you!” he threw at Dooley.“You’ll get your split. And you’ll move out,” Niven told Boardman. He could tell the man was beginning to focus his blame toward Dooley.“You won’t be nuthin without my brother. We’re gonna make it, right Robbie?”“You know it. We’ll make it. We got a good start.” He offered reassurance that didn’t ring true.In disgust, Boardman walked over and grabbed his canteen. He heard the false bravado all too clearly.“We rode fast, Robbie. Nobody could catch us. We rode like the wind.”As if in response, a shot rang out and a bullet jerked the canteen from Boardman’s lips and hands. More shots landed at the horses hooves.Boardman frantically sacrificed the canteen to grab the saddlebag with the money from Niven’s horse. The animals panicked and fled.The men scrambled and slipped on the shale to dive behind the outcrop where larger boulders were miraculously balanced on smaller ones. They scanned their surroundings for the sniper.“See anything?” Boardman panted.“Nothing,” Niven replied.The men sat with their backs to the rocks and listened. The only sound was their heavy breathing.“What now, Larabee?” Niven called. He had no doubt who was out there. There was no reply.Chris Larabee idly swiped a strand of sweat dampened hair behind his ear and laid the rifle down. He didn’t need to look down the sights for now. He took a drink from his canteen and poured some tepid water over his head and neck.He couldn’t force the men below to do battle with words swirled around like a tempest in their heads the way he fought them. But they could damn well ponder how they got here and think about what was to come until it ate a hole in them. They would suffer as much as he could make them suffer.He rubbed his sleeve against his bangs and forehead to get the sweat out of his eyes for a time. For the first time he let himself wonder if Buck was still alive. The thought had peeked in the edges of his mind, but he had pushed it back even when it meant facing the other thoughts he hated to confront. Because the next thought was what would he do if the damn fool died on him?It seemed to open a door for another part of his mind to let thoughts in or worse, memories. The thoughts were bad enough, but the regret came with the memories.The days after the death of his wife and son ran together and blurred. He wanted to join his family. He wanted to die. He fought, he drank. He walked into the street to draw on anyone who called him out. Damn them all for not beating him.If he was gonna die, he’d have to do it himself. It wasn’t the first time he’d had the thought. But he was ready. That night. That Night. He had his gun to his head and was more than ready to join them.Buck came in. He didn’t want his sensitive friend to see the end. Bad enough he hadn’t been able to chase him off so as not to see the aftermath.Buck spoke about losing a sister and a nephew and not wanting to lose his best friend. He said suicide was a coward’s way out. He said Sarah wouldn’t want it. He said get revenge on the ones who did it. You need to find answers. Larabee brushed off and rationalized all of those.Buck had actually laughed a sad laugh when he came in and realized what he walked in on. “Best friend,” he said. And Larabee flinched, although he refused to be drawn into a conversation. “Best friend sounds like school girls in pigtails. You’re my brother, Chris, the brother I choose. Forged in battle and riotous youth and the quiet times no one wants to study too close.”Chris shook his head. The quiet times. When you couldn’t hide from yourself the way you hide your true self from the rest of the world, the quiet times are the worst.Chris tried to shut down the memory. It bloomed fully developed in his mind’s eye.In that soft, wounded tone of voice that could cut to anyone’s heart, Wilmington said, “Chris, my Ma, they wouldn’t let her in a church. They turned her away and said bad things. Some days, she suffered her life. She said she’d never end it once I was around. Chris, what she said was even before I was there, she’d never take her own life. The church she went to when she was a little girl said suicide was a sin and you’d go to hell. I know, Chris. I know you think you’re in hell now, and I know you don’t think it could be worse. But if she’s right and you go to hell, you’ll never see Sarah and that fine little boy again. I don’t know what chance we have, you and me, to miss hell, all we’ve done. But this thing, this one thing. Are you going to take that chance?”For so long Larabee had hated the man for those words, those words that held him to this plane of existence like some black wraith who could almost see the edge and couldn’t grant himself release. But you know, the shadows did finally recede and he could see the sun. Not every day, but more days now.Chris leaned over to check the outcrop. The men were still there. There was no place to go.Chris knew after years of trying he could never stop the flashes of thoughts and memories. The embarrassing moment in childhood that could be laughed about as an adult. The unfettered joy of holding Adam for the first time. The regrets of paths taken and choices made. Did those men below him fight the mind chatter?Chris remembered, during the war, and after, how men would waste away because they got lost in their minds. They lost what they loved, or what they believed in or the desire to live and too many dried up and finally died. Did the helplessness turn to hopelessness and sap their will to live?Helplessness. It was helplessness that could paralyze a man or leach the strength to keep fighting. It was a struggle he woke up with every day. He’d gotten good at fighting it. Some days he barely felt it. His new friends, old friends, a town and territory that had so much to live for and that made them worth fighting for.And then the helplessness of reading that damn writer’s pages as he turned his friends into people he didn’t recognize. He recognized himself, the him that boiled up when Blackfox said he could find Sarah and Adam’s killers. Did Steele see his friends through a gunfighter’s eyes? Did others see them that way? He accused himself again.Was he causing more hurt than good? He was helpless to stop the others from reading it when it was published.JD had already seen the package on the stagecoach and the return address. He already couldn’t wait to get his hands on it. So guileless. So excited, he’d asked Larabee if it was any good. And Larabee had snapped at the boy, no better than the Chris Larabee in “Larabee’s Bloody Revenge”.Helpless to stop the men below him from robbing the poker game. Helpless in knowing whether to stop the man in town or take the chance and let him leave. Helplessness in finding Buck’s broken form in the pasture.The icy anger took over to shut down those debilitating thoughts. The anger brought him back to the men below and gave him direction and something to think about so the memories and worries couldn’t bore into his mind like grubs.Those men were going to know how helplessness feels.
+ + + + + + +Vin was sitting at the table with Josiah, Nathan and Ezra. He was ignoring the coffee in front of him. “It ain’t right, Larabee goin’ after those men alone.” He couldn’t keep the accusation out of his voice. He knew these men, trusted them, but that they hadn’t ridden with their leader was something he couldn’t wrap his mind around. He was willing to listen before he rode out, but not for long.“Mr. Tanner,” Standish began. He looked over to where JD was entertaining Steele with their exploits as seen through the eyes of an idealist who loved the West. He and Steele were sitting next to Wilmington, who seemed to be sleeping peacefully. He wanted to make sure these men couldn’t hear them, but for two different reasons.The one useful thing in that damnable reading material Steele passed off as a novel was that it seemed to identify Vin completely apart from the bounty on his head. Taking Vin’s pride in his last name from him in the book was probably the most damaging thing he could do. It had the benefit that it explained the absence of a last name as well. There was no reason to let the faux novelist hear the name now. He glanced at Josiah who was also checking that corner of the room. They were fairly certain that Steele got the message that the boy was off limits.“Mr. Tanner,” Ezra repeated. “You will not be doing Mr. Larabee any favors to go after him. There are demons chasing him, he’s not the man we are used to seeing. Not even the gunfighter who has saved our lives so many times.”“You said JD told you he saw the package when it came in. He figured it was the book. He said Chris jumped him good for askin’ about it,” Josiah presented the evidence again.“Can’t see words workin’ on a man like that. Not a man like Chris.”“I don’t think it’s the words, Vin,” Josiah said gently. “I think it’s the way the words twist into Chris when he reads them. He’s seeing something we don’t.”Each man was silent. They all had enough of a past to understand there were things that would get under their skin that they couldn’t or wouldn’t explain to anyone. It was a hurt that men didn’t admit to so it ate them up from the inside out when they were alone with it.“On that note, Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra began and slid over the torn page where Buck met them on the road with Blackfox. “Does this sound familiar?”Josiah read it out loud in a low voice, remembering that Vin was still learning to read, “One of the men who shared the peacekeeping duties with Larabee was Buck Wilmington. He had hoped to get out of town before this man discovered their mission. “’You out for a ride?”’“’Heard you were going back.’ The taller man offered as if hoping he would be allowed to stay.’”“’No need for you to come along.’”“’Yes, sir, there is. I'm the man that talked you into staying down in Mexico that night... and I keep thinking if we'd have just rode back... ” he responded slowly.’“’I could have come back alone. You didn't keep me there. Let it go,” The dark clad gunfighter muttered as if he was thinking, ‘as if you could get me to do anything.’” Neither man showed any emotion as Josiah read, but the air seemed to spark.“Did you hear that conversation?” Ezra asked quietly of Josiah.Josiah thought about the question before answering. “Not really, we had been expecting Buck to catch up. I heard the tone. There was deep hurt and loss in both of their voices. Why?”“One night Mr. Larabee’s symbiotic relationship with the bottle was ... anyway, it was bad enough it had Mr. Wilmington drinking, too. Not together of course. Mr. Wilmington told me the ashes at the homestead were not only cold, they had been rained on. The only rain was the night they left. I also got the impression that Mr. Larabee was in such a state of mourning that he didn’t notice this fact.”“Then ‘one more night’ meant nothing,” Nathan stated the obvious.“Or what if that was never said at all? Gentlemen, have either of them ever mentioned that extra night in Mexico?”“It never came up,” Vin stated flatly.“I realize that my predisposition to reading people and playing them may be just as guilty as Mr. Steele’s overactive imagination, but I submit that conversation never went like that. Mr. Steele created it to isolate Mr. Larabee as his lone avenger. It is not an unheard of literary ploy.”“And the part about Fowler saying he was hired to kill Chris?” Nathan asked.“We were there. We know that wasn’t said. It is only in the book and, I submit, is really not true. For the ashes to have been rained on, the attack occurred soon after Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington left for Mexico.”“It could have been marauders.” Nathan observed. “Could have seen a woman and child as easy targets.”“To kill them and burn the homestead? Few men that ruthless hit one ranch and are never heard from again,” Vin stated flatly.“That would mean someone killed them to send Chris into an emotional downward spiral. Why?” Nathan asked.“That, I don’t know. As I said, I may be just as guilty as that writer at creating situations,” Ezra admitted.“But if you saw that, Chris would have, too. Two and two that never equaled four through all of his grief before,” Josiah observed. “The book was inflammatory in and of itself, but to bring back all of those memories ...”“Mr. Larabee isn’t the kind of man to deal with the nuances of his emotions. That, gentlemen, is why we are sitting here having this discussion. We are his friends. We will help him through it when the time comes, but it might not be wise for there to be witnesses.”Vin got up and headed toward the door.“Vin?” Nathan asked.“You ain’t like Chris like I am. It’s no good lettin’ him chase down those men in the mood you’re talkin’ about. And do what you think he’s up to. That’s not the real Chris.”The others exchanged looks.Vin rising drew JD’s attention. “We goin’ after Chris now?” and he began to rise, too.“JD, make sure you can wake Buck up. That head wound still has me worried,” Nathan directed as a distraction.“Buck,” JD immediately shook his friend. “Hey, Buck! Wake up!”Buck mumbled something and tried to turn away from the disturbance.“Don’t be worried if his mind’s a little cloudy. It’ll wear off,” Nathan said as he came over to check on his patient for himself.“Buck! Nathan says to wake you up ‘cause of your head,” JD called loudly.Buck squinted into the room before he rolled over to face the wall and look for privacy. “JD, boy,” he said irritably, “Did Nathan ever tell any of us what to do if a man don’t wake up?” It was said with a ‘leave me alone’ snarl.Every man in the cabin sat up a little straighter at that and exchanged glances. The answer to that question was a surprising ‘No’.“Shut up and go back to sleep,” Nathan grumbled good naturedly. And made a mental note to answer that question for them.“You sure he’ll be alright, Doc?” Vin asked.“With proper rest and care. I’m sure.”Jock Steele felt like a fly on the wall. He was all but ignored. He got the feeling he was seeing how brothers acted. The insight in hearing how JD saw these men not only had him enlightened, it did what all of Standish and Sanchez’s subtlety did not do. It made him feel guilty for the characters he portrayed in “Larabee’s Bloody Revenge”.Suddenly, Buck sat straight up, too fast and had to grab his head from the pain. Each man took an involuntary step in his direction seeing sure signs of distress.“Buck, lay back. It’s okay. Buck...” Nathan began.“Where’s Chris?” Buck asked, still holding his head and his eyes closed. He had seen everyone else in the room. There was desperation in his voice. “Did Niven ...”“Mr. Larabee is in good health. He has gone after the men who attacked you so viciously.”At first Buck seemed to relax. But as the words seeped in, he because anxious again. “What... what? No. It was an accident. Steele spooked the horse. I got tangled in the rope and dragged. Dooley, he’s a good kid.”JD, Vin and Ezra’s eyes flew to Steele with sudden blame behind them. But easing Buck’s distress took priority. That didn’t mean the reaction didn’t suggest retribution against the writer before they turned back to their friend.Ezra, Nathan and Josiah, thinking back, could immediately see the evidence of what Buck was saying made much more sense than the conclusion they had jumped to that Buck had been beaten. Chris had seen only one possibility and they had all seen through his eyes.Buck finally looked up. His eyes were bloodshot and there was pain behind them. He automatically sought out Vin. “Can you find him? Tell him it was an accident. Don’t let him do anything he’ll regret.”“On it. You take care of yourself.” With a nod, Tanner was out the door, hoping he wasn’t too late.
+ + + + + + +Robert Niven, his brother, Dooley and Boardman sat with their backs to the Permian Outcrop. Niven was dozing in a heat induced stupor.Dooley was idly picking up pebbles and examining them with an indifference as if his mind had taken him someplace else.Boardman studied Niven long enough to be sure he wasn’t really aware of what was happening, then he slid over to Dooley, “Hey, Dooley,” he whispered.Dooley looked up with his wide-eyed innocence.“Dooley,” Boardman continued. “Your brother doesn’t look too good.”Dooley looked over at his brother and frowned.“He needs some water. That canteen I dropped? If you go get it, it’ll make Robert – Robbie – feel better.” Boardman peeked over the lower crag at the canteen.Dooley followed his glance. “I can get it,” He stated confidently.“Be fast. Fast as you can,” Boardman encouraged.Dooley stood up and did exactly what he was told. He dashed out toward the canteen.Bullets immediately spit plumes of sand at his feet. Dooley looked up suddenly and froze in the spot.“Hurry!” Boardman yelled. “Grab the canteen!”The gunshots roused Robert Niven who immediately took in the situation and began to run to help his brother. Boardman tackled the older brother and held him in the safety of the rock formation.At the same time Dooley did what he was told, grabbed the canteen and raced back to the safety of his brother.Bullets again followed him as he dodged behind the rocks.No sooner had Dooley made it back, Boardman released Niven and grabbed the canteen. He lifted it to his lips.And then it was gone as Niven ripped the canteen from the other man and handed it to Dooley. “He took the risk. He gets the water.”“Ain’t none, Robbie,” Dooley said as he held the canteen high over his head and held his tongue out for even a drop. The bullet hole had gone clear through the metal and the water seeped out long ago.“Larabee didn’t try to hit him. He wants us to suffer.”Niven shoved Boardman hard enough that he landed on the shale. “What do you want!?” Niven yelled to the man out there somewhere.“We’ll split the money with you.” Boardman called out.There was only silence.“You can have all the money!” Boardman screamed, bordering on hysteria. He grabbed the saddlebags and hurled them over their cover.Two bullets slammed into the saddlebags before they hit the ground, but there was no spoken response.“He almost shot me, Robbie,” Dooley whimpered. His mind was just catching up to the moment.“Larabee didn’t try to hit him. You saw.” He referred to the saddlebags, “He hits what he aims at.”“Larabee!” Niven yelled.“If he’d wanted you dead, you’d be dead,” Boardman growled as he dwelled on the fact and then turned to Niven. “What’s our next move? You’re the planner. What now!?” Then in a voice that broke, he turned to the one in control. “What now, Larabee? What do you want?”“Mr. Buck must’a died, Robbie,” Dooley said and bowed his head sadly.“Shut up!” Niven demanded of Dooley. “If Wilmington had died, he’d kill us outright. Now he needs an excuse to make it legal. That’s why he let us keep our guns. He wants us to shoot first,” Niven said it out loud to see how it sounded.“You’re a fool.” Boardman raged. “Larabee don’t care about legal or who shoots first. He wants us to suffer.”Chris took a drink from his canteen and soaked his hat with water. He pushed his bangs behind his ears again and listened to the men below fall apart. The voices carried easily down the dead creek gully. ‘Welcome to my world, you sons of bitches,’ he thought to himself.Boardman was wide-eyed and desperate. “Robert,” he began.The look he got in return told him what risking Dooley’s life and stopping his partner from going to his aid had done to their friendship. Then he drew his gun and pointed it at the other two men.“Larabee! Whatever happened, it was Robert’s slow witted brother. Wilmington was beat down before we got back.”“It was an accident,” Dooley whispered.“I’ll send the boy out to you. Let us go.”There was only silence. It was like he was talking to a ghost.Niven’s face turned stone cold. Dooley looked from one to the other, not sure what was happening.“You’ve got the money! That was me and Niven’s part!” The silence ate at him. He pointed the gun at Niven, the threat, and spoke to Dooley, “Get out there, boy,” he demanded.“He shooted at me, Mr. Jim,” He shook his head rapidly, not wanting to face the danger.“I’ll kill him if I have to, Robert. Or he takes his chances with Larabee.” Chris heard Boardman shout from their cover. If anything else was said, he couldn’t hear it.“It’s for the best!” Boardman demanded and then, with anxiety, desperation and fear in his voice, he screamed, “It’s like putting down a mad dog!”Chris, listening from his outpost, imagined Boardman raising his gun toward the boy. When the two shots rang out, he took a deep breath. When he saw two handguns being thrown onto the dry creek bed from Permian Outcrop, hestart ed to work his way down the slope from his vantage point. He materialized just as Niven helped his brother into the open, vulnerable to whatever Larabee had in mind. He didn’t seem surprised to see the gunfighter in front of them with the rifle.“My brother’s hurt,” He said, and it was asking for help. He was holding his hand to Dooley’s side to staunch the bleeding where Boardman’s bullet had found its target. “I killed my friend! We all turned on each other! What else do you want?”Larabee stared at them with cold indifference.“You want us dead? DO IT! I ain’t leavin’ my brother.” Niven went to his knees when Dooley’s strength gave out and he collapsed. “DO IT!” Niven screamed. “Don’t make him suffer.”“I hate Mr. Buck’s hurt,” Dooley said, despite his wound, and his head being down and the confusion in his voice, there was sincerity. “He was my friend. He was nice. It was a’ acc’dent.”Chris Larabee looked around, but not at the men. He saw the dust covered creek bed and sterile, dead surroundings. And he saw himself in the unforgiving landscape.He looked at Niven, sweat stains, but sweat long dried, standing by someone he loved more than himself. And at that moment, Larabee wanted to see himself in that part of Niven.“Mr. Buck said he was my friend,” Dooley mourned his lost friend.“He’s my friend, too. When I’m not wantin’ to shoot him,” Chris finally spoke. Maybe he could see things a little more innocently. He tossed his canteen in front of the two men.Niven looked up in stark surprise, looking for a trick or more torture.“Take care of him. And yourself. We’ll let a judge do the rest,” Larabee said, indicating there was no trick. It was over.There was a sound behind Chris and he spun quickly, rifle at ready.Vin Tanner sat his horse and took in the tableau in front of him before he offered casually. “Buck was worried about you. Wanted me to make sure you knew he got tangled in the line and dragged behind the buckboard. Thought it was important you knew it was an accident.”Chris looked at his friend. He pulled his hat onto his head, put his head down to hide the emotion from the others, then nodded. He took a deep breath, nodded again, picked up the outlaws’ discarded guns and handed them and the rifle to Vin. “Keep an eye on ‘em while I patch ‘em up.”
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee jolted out of his heat induced stupor. He looked around. They were at the Permian Outcrop. No dream. He looked over and felt Vin’s forehead. Clammy. And their tracker didn’t respond to the touch.
His head lolled the other direction and he saw that Buck was watching him with dull eyes. They would break. Like Niven and Boardman did. Because of the man he was back then.
“Buck,” he started. “We might have a chance after dark.”
“We won’t make it that long!” Buck barked, not interested in false hope. It wasn’t what he expected from the man.
Above the outcrop, Niven smiled for the first time.
“Niven! What do you want? What will this get you?” Wilmington yelled.
Niven heard some indecipherable words from the men, but what he heard most was the desperation and panic in the voices.
“Look, look, me and Chris, we probably won’t make it back to town, but give us the chance. We’ll leave Tanner ...” Wilmington’s voice finally pleaded.
“What the hell!?” Larabee bellowed with surprising conviction considering his dehydrated state.
“He’s dyin’, Chris. He ain’t gonna make it. He’d want to give you this chance.”
“You are a cowardly son of a bitch.”
“Chris,” he pleaded and then turned his words to Niven. “There’s the bounty. Five hundred dollars. That’s worth letting us walk into the desert.”
“I’ll kill you first, Wilmington.” Larabee yelled.
“Chris, it’s the only way. Look at him,” Wilmington’s voice pleaded.
There was a pause, then Wilmington’s sad voice, “Is it that important?”
Niven frowned. This wasn’t right. Wilmington wasn’t supposed to buckle. “Drag him out, Wilmington. And you got yourself a deal.”
He waited. There were no bird or animal sounds. The humans and their ways left them silent.
Two gunshots in such quick succession they almost sounded as one. A slow smile grew on Niven’s lips. He had almost given up. No he waited.
“Niven!” It was Larabee. The script Niven had written over and over in his head was back on track.
“Wilmington’s dead.” Four guns were thrown over the outcrop one after the other. “Tanner and I are comin’ out.”
Larabee half-dragged, half-carried Vin over the craggy rocks and onto the dry creek bed where the positions were reversed from where Larabee had confronted Niven and his brother.
“How does it feel, Larabee? To choose?” Niven was there. He had forsaken the rifle for his side arm. “To be responsible for how things turn out?”
“How does this end?” Larabee shot back. “I killed my friend. I’ll have to live with this moment and what I did that caused it. Is that what you wanted?” Larabee asked as he moved back to a sparse mesquite shrub and what shade it offered Tanner.
Niven watched as Larabee gently lowered his friend, his brother, if the book was true, to the ground.
“I spared your brother,” Chris pushed.
“My brother’s dead, Larabee! Dooley’s dead! They sent him to Yuma. They sent me back to Texas for other crimes.” Chris felt a chill come over him. He hadn’t expected that. What would it do to the end game? “They picked on him.” Niven ranted, “They bullied him. Do you know how scared he would have been? He wouldn’t have understood. They’d hurt him for fun. Until one day, they got tired of it, and they beat him to death.” Niven had tears running down his cheeks. “It wouldn’t have been fast. He would have been so scared,” he repeated. “So scared. So ...so...” He looked up and fought for composure. “It’d’ve been kinder if you killed him.”
“You put him there,” Chris stated bluntly, drawing the man’s full attention back to him.
“You gotta pay,” Niven snarled, ignoring the allegation of blame. “You gotta know how it feels.” He pointed the gun at Tanner.
“Chris?” Vin asked in a weak voice. He was coming around. Chris held tighter, and moved in front of the younger man.
There was a scrape of shale behind him and Niven jerked around. Buck Wilmington had made it half way to the man before the unforgiving rock betrayed him. He desperately leapt for the other man who turned the gun and fired. Buck landed on him and struggled for the gun. The sun and dehydration had sapped his strength. Larabee charged the struggle and tackled Niven off of his friend. Larabee landed on top and pummeled the man again and again and again, all of his frustration and fear and helplessness released in the blows.
Buck grabbed the gun Niven dropped and then grabbed Chris’s flailing fists from behind and pulled him off the outlaw.
Larabee was breathing hard and stayed on his knees, too spent to move.
“You’re supposed to be dead!” Niven demanded of Wilmington as he pulled himself to a sitting position. “You’re supposed to be dead!” He’d planned so long for Larabee to suffer the loss he’d suffered.
“I am right sorry for your brother,” Buck said in that soft, sad voice of his. “That wasn’t Chris’s fault.”
“You were supposed to pull the trigger!” Niven was ranting at Larabee now. “Kill me! Kill me!” As his plan fell apart, he begged the gunfighter to end it for him.
The moment was so intense, none of the heard other horses arrive. But they were suddenly swarmed by warmth and concern that was so strong they could feel it without words.
“Buck!” JD called as he leapt off his horse. His mentor’s face was covered with dried blood and so was one arm.
“Chris? Buck?” Nathan called out. From quick observation, he headed toward Vin who seemed to be in the worst shape.
JD handed his canteen to Buck. He looked up. Nathan was getting a few drops down Vin’s throat and Ezra handed his canteen to Chris, followed immediately by a silver flask that was accepted gratefully.
Josiah was securing a babbling Niven. “No, no, no, no. Chris Larabee would kill ...” he looked up for an explanation. “The book, the book said ...”
Chris Larabee stared at the man with a vacant look. He looked at the men who surrounded him. Josiah steady and gentle as he wiped the blood from Buck’s arms and hands. And his side ... Niven’s bullet had found a target. Chris started forward as the breath caught in his throat. But Buck rolled his eyes at the concern and poured the canteen over his head. It really was a scratch.
Josiah couldn’t help the snort of amusement that escaped. Buck did have a guardian angel. It might be near-sighted for all of the close calls, but more than likely, it took all it had for the poor thing to keep him alive; occasional injuries be damned.
Nathan was tending to Vin. JD buzzed from person to person trying to help everyone at once. What the hell, Josiah thought, we all have guardian angels. Six of them.
The widow, the gunfighter, the peace keeper may have been thinking something similar as he study Niven. Finally, shrugging off hands that would hold him down or help him walk, he shuffled to JD’s horse, reached in the saddle bag for what he knew he would find there. He tossed something on the ground in front of Niven. On the red cover, Larabee led six men on horse back. The title blazed, “The Magnificent Seven” instead of “Larabee’s Bloody Revenge”.
Looking around, trying to make sense of what he was seeing, Niven opened the front page to find it signed. ‘To John Daniel Dunne, sheriff of the Magnificent Seven. May legends be your destiny, Jock Steele. Seven Men, One Destiny.’
“The man you read about died a few years back,” Larabee stated simply and easily. Then he turned back to help tend to his friends.
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