Nathan hated the long hushed hours of early morning. It was a time when the body and mind slowed for want of sleep, and individual moments dragged by with the weight of hours. He rubbed a hand over his eyes and stretched carefully, wincing at the protest of misused muscles. The cot which served as his sick bed was his only bed, so when a patient was using it, he ended up sleeping in a chair, or stretching out on the floor.
In the cot beside him, J.D. shifted uneasily, drifting somewhere in the limbo between unconsciousness and exhausted slumber. He muttered something, his light voice querulous and confused, then his hazel eyes flickered open.
Nathan leaned forward in his chair, his hand coming to rest on the young man's shoulder. One of J.D.'s arms had escaped the bedclothes. Through their intervening bulk, he searched for the bandage circling his middle and whimpered when he touched the wound. Nathan quickly caught his hand and pulled it away, holding it in his own.
"It's all right, son. You're all right." He didn't think the kid could really hear him, but the soothing tone of a human voice had power all its own. "You're going to be fine."
"Waa... er," J.D. managed to choke out.
Loss of blood dried a man out, and if the kid wanted water, he could have all he wanted. It was a good sign, Nathan told himself, and he'd take whatever signs he could find. He didn't want to think about this cheerful, stubborn youngster dying under his care. He found a cup and filled it with water, but by the time he got back to the bed, J.D. had slipped under again.
Nathan sensed more than heard another presence enter the room and turned his head to find Josiah Sanchez standing just inside the door, his long, mournful face thrown into sharp relief by the single lamp that flickered at J.D.'s bedside.
"C'mon in," Nathan whispered.
"No need to whisper," the big man replied in a normal tone. "That boy's not going to waken 'til the trumpets of Gabriel call all of us home."
Moving over to the opposite side of the bed, Josiah looked down on its unconscious occupant. A half-empty bottle of whiskey dangled from one of his hands, and the way he walked gave away that he had already had far too much to drink.
"He ain't dying," Nathan retorted, with more conviction than he felt.
Josiah looked at him with one quirked brow. "Time will tell," he replied, but Nathan heard the unspoken "don't fool yourself," that was tacked onto the statement.
Josiah hooked a chair up to the bedside and hunkered down on it. Nathan's overtired mind waited for the small wooden chair to give up the ghost and collapse, but it took the big preacher's weight with no more than an ominous creak. Josiah brushed J.D.'s hair lightly, then stroked his pallid cheek. His large, callused hands made the young man seem even smaller by comparison.
"Well, son, this time you've really done it. I had hoped you'd take longer than this to prove Chris right." Josiah patted J.D.'s shoulder in sympathy. "Now you've got to get to work and prove him wrong. The crow says he'll wait, and Heaven's sure not ready for you yet. You've got to give them a few more decades to get prepared and figure out what they're going to do with you." He smiled softly at his own joke.
Josiah kept on talking, and after a few moments, Nathan's tired mind began to drift, lulled into a doze by the preacher's rich, melodious voice. From time to time, the stream of quiet nonsense was broken by a long silence that made him wonder if Josiah was praying. Nathan wasn't even sure that Josiah still believed in God, far less talked to him, but at least he talked to J.D., giving him an anchor that Nathan hoped the younger man could hear in whatever dark, pain-filled place he'd retreated to.
Eventually, he must have slept for a while, because when he heard Josiah's voice again, the big preacher was standing over by the door, and no longer talking to J.D.
"Come in, friend."
"If he's asleep I can come back another time." The Southern drawl easily identified the new caller, and Nathan saw the glimmer of Ezra's bright eyes as he peered into the room around Josiah's bulk. The gambler's voice was pitched in a strident stage whisper which was obviously meant to carry.
Nathan gritted his teeth, calling out, "All right, I'm awake. What do you want, Ezra?"
He genuinely tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice, but where the small Southerner was concerned, he just couldn't seem to help it. The rest of Chris's little private army, he had already learned to like and trust--in some cases even admire--but not Ezra Standish.
"What's wrong?" he asked with a sigh.
The worst thing was, he could tell that Ezra found his dislike vaguely amusing. A slight smile formed at the corner of the gambler's mouth when he heard the sullen impatience that had crept into the question.
"I seem to be experiencing some sort of difficulty with my shoulder. My bad shoulder," Ezra clarified, rotating his left arm and pointedly wincing. "It has been afflicting my rest with its aching, and I was hoping you could find some manner of easing my distress."
Nathan scowled as his tired brain floundered through the rush of words.
"Hell, Ezra, if your damned shoulder hurts, why don't you just come out and say it without using all them fancy five-dollar words? Save us all some time."
Turning away, he dug through the rows of vials and bottles lining his shelves, finally choosing a large brown bottle.
"This should do the trick," he said, with a sly grin which he kept hidden from his patient.
Ezra took the bottle gingerly and looked at the label.
"Horse liniment!" he sputtered.
"Just the thing to take care of that ache," Nathan assured him with a serious expression. Ezra uncorked the bottle and took a cautious sniff. Not cautious enough--he jerked his head back and fought down a sneeze.
"Your compassion overwhelms me, Mr. Jackson," he responded faintly. As he slipped the bottle into his coat pocket with a grimace, he finally glanced over at the cot, and its sprawled occupant. "How fares our ebullient young friend this morning?"
Josiah had returned to his place at J.D.'s side. Glancing up, he answered the question with a shrug before Nathan responded. Ezra sighed and, for a moment, a glimmer of concern was visible in his eyes. It was quickly shuttered away again as the gambler leaned over the cot and studied J.D.'s pale face.
"Can't you do anything for him?" he inquired, when J.D. jerked in his sleep, a spasm of pain twitching across his unnaturally still features. "He appears to be in some distress."
Nathan bristled under the implied criticism. "I'm doing everything that can be done."
Ezra glanced at Josiah, seeing the slight headshake that warned him not to push Nathan tonight. Straightening up, he made a business of putting his waistcoat and coat into order before taking one final glance at the unconscious J.D. Nodding farewell to Josiah and Nathan, he murmured, "Gentleman," and was gone.
Nathan settled back into his chair with a few muttered expletives and found Josiah's stern gaze fixed on him.
"He cares, too, you know," he stated.
"Ezra don't care about nobody or nothing but himself." Even to Nathan's own ears, the words sounded petulant. Ezra had a way of drawing the worst out of him, stirring up old memories and resentments he had thought were long-ago buried.
"That is no longer true, my friend. Not for any of us." Josiah laid his hand on J.D.'s shoulder again, patting it gently. "I would say that--except for this innocent--each of us expected to meet the crows in solitude when his time came." He gave Nathan a grin that was there and gone in an eyeblink, leaving his angular face somber again.
"For some of us, stumbling into the state of friendship comes as a blessing. Others--" he gestured vaguely towards the door which Ezra had closed behind himself "--find the notion less comfortable. We aren't accustomed to depending on others. We aren't accustomed to caring if others live--" he tipped up the whiskey bottle and took a long, slow drink "--or die. A solitary man has no one to depend on, but he also has no one to mourn."
Nathan had already worked his way around the edges of a similar thought. To help the Seminoles, Chris Larabee had collected together a small gang of loners and misfits, and--intentionally or not--forged them into... something. The groundwork had been laid while they fought together, learning each other's strengths and weaknesses, learning to function as a team. Since their return to Four Corners, the group had gone through a short period of danger, and a longer period of boredom, which was beginning to temper that teamwork into the bonds of real friendship.
Some of them, such as the laconic Vin Tanner, probably had more friends now than they had had in years. Maybe more than they had known in their whole lives. It could have been any one of them lying here, near death, and he would have seen a similar parade of visitors, most of them dropping by on some lame excuse or other in an attempt to hide the extent of their concern.
<Even Ezra, I guess,> he thought, frowning slightly at the idea.
"I suppose you got a point," Nathan finally answered Josiah's comment, after a long, introspective silence. "But I hope I ain't never gonna find myself in a position where I gotta trust Ezra to guard my back."
"He might surprise you." Josiah chuckled. "Though probably not half as much as he would surprise himself."
"Maybe. Let's hope it never comes down to that, 'cause I don't think either of us wants to know, one way or the other." He frowned again, thoughtfully. "This job ain't turning out to be what any of us expected. Kinda weird, ain't it?"
"Not the word I would have chosen, my friend."
Nathan snorted. "Yeah, well, that's 'cause you're near as bad as Ezra. Half the words you pick, a man's gotta look up in the damned dictionary."
Josiah laughed quietly at the jibe and raised his bottle again in an ironic toast.
"And you should go easy on that stuff, 'cause it'll kill you as sure as a bullet."
"But far more pleasantly," Josiah retorted.
J.D. twitched and moaned, and the mockery faded immediately from Josiah's face. Laying his hand on the boy's hair, he stroked it and murmured soothing nonsense until J.D. was easy again.
There was a quiet knock, and when Nathan called, "Come in," the door opened to reveal Vin Tanner, backlit by the first glow of dawn light.
"Come on in and close the door," Josiah demanded, when the lanky bounty hunter hovered uncertainly in the opening. "It's still damned cold out there."
"I'm just on my way out to have a look 'round." Vin took a step inside, closed the door, and leaned back against it. "Chris thinks we're gonna be hearing from James's boys before too long, so we're taking it in shifts to watch the trails into town. Thought I'd check and see how the kid's doing 'fore I left."
"Ain't been much change," Nathan admitted. "No signs of fever. That's usually a good sign."
"Did you keep the slug you dug out of him?" the bounty hunter inquired, with one of his small, quirky smiles.
"Why the hell would I do that? I threw it in the trash."
"You'd better find it."
When Nathan threw him an uncomprehending glance, Vin's smile widened to a grin. "Oh, come on, Nathan, this is J.D. we're talking about. If he makes it through this, he's going to want the damn thing as a souvenir. Probably have it made into a watch fob or something."
"He don't even own a watch," Nathan pointed out.
"Perhaps we'll have to buy him one for the occasion," Josiah suggested when he'd finished laughing. "Well, don't just sit there, Nathan. Go find him his bullet."
Grumbling to himself, Nathan got up and rummaged through the bucket of waste he had collected last night, which he hadn't yet gotten around to dragging out to the refuse heap to burn. He located the bloodied, deformed ball of lead rolling around in the bottom of it. Still muttering about the stupidity of the whole idea, he washed it a couple of times in water, then in rubbing alcohol. The liquid immediately took on a pinkish tinge.
<Hell, J.D.'d probably love that, too,> he thought with irony. <Make him feel like a real veteran.>
He set the bullet on the corner of the cabinet closest to the bed, where J.D. would be able to see it if he woke up. A moment's further thought made him decide that was a poor idea, so he tucked it out of sight in a drawer. Vin was right. The fool kid would want it as a souvenir--but he probably wouldn't be ready to face it while the memory, and the pain, were still eating at him. He'd bring it out when, and if, J.D. asked after it.
Another knock on the door was followed by its immediate opening, almost before Vin could dodge out of the way. Buck erupted through it, and Chris followed a moment later, stopping beside Vin. He wore gloves and his woolen poncho, and he looked tired.
"I think we're going to need a bigger bottle," Josiah observed, mournfully studying his already depleted supply of whiskey.
"I was just heading out to find you," Vin told Chris. "See anything?"
"Nah, nothin' bigger'n a coyote moved all night. We didn't really expect any trouble before today though, did we? I came back a little early. Thought I might find you here when you weren't in your room."
"Just stopped by on my way out. I was thinking--"
Nathan lost track of their quiet conversation when Buck loomed over him to demand, "So, how's he doing?"
"I thought I told you to go get some sleep," Nathan countered. Every time he shooed the big drifter away, he turned up again. He knew Buck was genuinely concerned for J.D., but the tense belligerence which was his way of showing it was beginning to wear on Nathan's already well-worn patience. Somewhere around midnight, he had finally shut the door on Buck's behind, with an admonition not to bother him again until morning. Even for Vin, who never seemed to sleep past the crack of dawn, it barely counted as "morning" yet.
"I slept," Buck informed him, "and now I'm awake again, so answer the question."
"I'm going to get a sign made up for the door that says 'no change.' Maybe then J.D. and me can get a bit of peace and quiet."
The emphasis he had placed on the young man's name had the desired effect. Buck whirled around and stomped--very softly--over to his two companions, making shooing motions with his hands as he went.
"What the hell are you all doing in here? Can't you see this here's a sick room? Come on, boys, take it outside. You're makin' enough noise to wake the--" His words cut off abruptly, an expression of quickly repressed dismay passing over his features. Silent now, Buck hustled Chris and Vin through the door, then turned back to the two remaining men.
"You ain't going with them?" Nathan asked with resignation.
Serious for once, Buck shook his head. "You been up all night. Why don't you go get some breakfast and some real sleep. You can use my room. I'll stay with him."
"Buck's right, Nathan," Josiah interrupted the protest. "And I bet he knows what signs to watch for in case he needs to call you."
Buck nodded, so Josiah lumbered to his feet and gestured for Nathan to follow him.
"You come back around noon." Buck settled down in the chair Josiah had just abandoned, eliciting another ominous creak of protest. "That's when I'm supposed to take over from Vin, riding perimeter."
"How long are we going to keep it up?" Josiah wondered. "James didn't make a move after Lucas's hanging. Why now?"
Buck raised his shoulders in a heavy shrug. "Ask Chris. He's got a gut feeling we're in for trouble."
Josiah pursed his lips and nodded acceptance. "I've had a few of those in my time."
"Only when you had too damned much to drink," Nathan inserted. He left his chair and started for the door, then turned back and went to the table beneath the window. Picking up the laudanum bottle and spoon that lay there, he turned back to Buck. "If he wakes up, and he's having a hard time, you can give him a spoonful of this. One spoonful, no more, and you only give it to him once, even if it don't seem to be helping. Understand?"
"You give him more, you ain't doin' him no favors."
"Look, I know what it is!" Buck snarled, then took a deep breath and ran his hand over his face.
"Let's go, Nathan." Josiah laid a companionable hand on the medic's shoulder and headed him for the door.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Buck let out the breath he was holding in a long sigh and looked down at J.D. The random twitching of his fingers against the brightly colored patchwork quilt was the only obvious sign that he was still alive. His breathing was so shallow that Buck could barely see the rise and fall of his chest.
"Really done yourself in good, haven't you, son?" He sat there for a while with his long legs stretched out in the front of him. The chair was uncomfortable so eventually he got up and began to pace, seeking an outlet for the restless energy that always plagued him when he felt utterly helpless. A couple of the floorboards creaked, causing him to wince guiltily and sit back down, but pretty soon, he couldn't stand it anymore so he got up again and figured out a route around the room that could be navigated in silence.
Buck had been told on occasion that he was overly fond of the sound of his own voice, but he figured that, in his present state, J.D. wouldn't care if he ran on at the mouth. So he started talking because he couldn't stand a silence that held nothing but the occasional, soft noises J.D. made in his sleep. He kept his voice pitched low, and didn't really talk about anything in particular--besides women--but it made him feel better to be doing something other than sitting around, waiting for the time to go by.
+ + + + + + +
J.D. was trapped in a formless river of confusion and hurting, tumbling through dreams that became pain that became dreams again in a dark, endless cycle. Sometimes he heard voices from his past talking to him, but they blended together with the voices of his present, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't make sense of what any of them were saying. Mostly, he was cold, so freezing cold that he shivered helplessly and would have curled himself into a ball if he'd had the strength to move. Occasionally, he fell dizzily through sheets of fire, carried along helplessly on the currents of pain. They left him panting for air, soaked with sweat that turned clammy as the cold reclaimed him.
He wasn't even sure if he was alive or dead--<Please, not dead. Dead shouldn't hurt this much!>--and he couldn't quite remember what had happened to him. But as he slowly floated up through the layers of darkness, he became increasingly convinced of exactly one thing: Whoever the hell was rhythmically driving the blade of a pick-ax through his guts, they were dead meat as soon as he got his hands on them.
"...so you see, I told her them ropes was strong enough to hold a body, but them little metal hooks they was hanging from plumb wouldn't take the strain when things got excitin'."
Blinking open gritty eyes, J.D. stared up at the slat ceiling above his head. It wouldn't quite come into focus, but he could make out a big, irregular water stain on the boards, evidence of some long-repaired leak in the roof. The stain told him he was at Nathan's. He'd noticed it a couple of weeks ago when he was up here and had asked Nathan why he had never bothered to paint over it.
"So then she said..."
Buck rattled on, oblivious to the fact that he now had an audience. J.D. thought he might like to hear the end of that story sometime, just to see if it made any more sense when he was thinking straight, but right now he couldn't manage to care about anything but his parched throat and the throbbing agony in his middle.
"Buck...?" he rasped, in a voice so small and rusty that he barely even heard it himself. He couldn't actually see Buck--turning his head was a feat beyond his strength--but J.D. knew he wasn't imagining the big man's presence or his improbable narrative. He didn't have that much imagination, at least not where women were concerned.
Amazingly, the hoarse whisper penetrated Buck's on-going monologue. He cut off in mid-word, and a moment later his face appeared in J.D.'s narrow, foggy range of vision.
"J.D.? Did you say something?"
J.D. nodded ever so slightly, and mouthed the word, "Water?" No sound emerged from his throat, but Buck must have read his lips because he said, "Sure thing, son!" and disappeared again. What seemed like a long time later, he was back, carrying a tin cup. Setting it aside, he pushed back the quilts and slowly slid his arm behind J.D.'s back.
The slight movement blew away the last of the fog, bringing the pain explosively into focus. A ragged cry tore from J.D.'s throat, and fireworks of darkness danced in his vision. Buck froze at the sound, his eyes fixed on J.D. with an expression of raw concern while the younger man panted, struggling to stay conscious.
"Easy, son, easy. I know it's bad, but you gotta sit up a bit to drink."
In desperation, J.D. waited until the agony had become almost bearable again, then gave a sharp little nod to tell Buck he was all right. Sitting up still sounded like the second worst idea in the world, but existing in this parched misery was the worst, so he tensed his muscles, gritted his teeth and managed not to disgrace himself by passing out while Buck eased him upright. Balancing J.D. against his shoulder, Buck raised the glass to his lips. Tiny, infrequent sips were all he could manage, but Buck supported him patiently.
"You want more?" the drifter asked, when the cup was empty.
Buck settled him back down, and once again J.D.'s world narrowed to the struggle to regain his breath, and ride out the anguish until it gave him room to think about something else. When he finally blinked his eyes open, Buck was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring down at him anxiously.
"How... long?" By spacing his words around the pulse of the pain, he discovered he could speak fairly clearly.
"You got shot yesterday afternoon."
Much as he tried, he couldn't actually remember being shot. He could remember pointing the rifle at some drunken cowpoke, shouting at him to calm down, then suddenly he was on the ground and all covered with blood. He had no memories at all of the bit in between. He couldn't even remember if there had been any pain in that little span of time before the world went black around him.
"Seems... longer..." he admitted.
"I bet it does, son," Buck said softly.
Normally, the big man's face was alive with teasing good humor, as though he found the world a wonderful, funny place and couldn't get enough of it. On occasion, J.D. had seen Buck's features turn dark and angry, revealing a dangerous, unpredictable side that needed to be treated with respect. But he had never before seen his friend's face so utterly serious, and it scared the hell out of him.
"'M... sorry," he whispered.
"Didn't... handle it... right. Chris told me..."
"You just don't be worrying about any of that right now, son."
<Would you just please tell me I was stupid?> J.D. thought with sick, growing fear. <Tell me I'm an idiot, and I don't have the good sense God gives a sparrow... Tell me...>
He cleared his throat, and swallowed with difficulty. "Buck?"
"Am I... dying?"
Buck's face filled instantly with familiar good humor, but there was no honesty behind it. "'Course not, J.D. Oh, hell, you'll be off chasin' the ladies again before you know it. Why I was just thinkin', as soon as you're fit, we ought to take ourselves a little ride over to--"
"Buck? You wanna tell me the truth, for once."
There was a long silence, or it seemed long to J.D., as he struggled to stay afloat on the sea of pain-wracked consciousness until he heard the answer. One of Buck's callused hands circled his wrist, the touch warm and reassuringly solid. Maybe it meant he was a coward, but J.D. hoped it would stay there a while, anchoring him to the world.
"Truth is, son, that you're hurt bad," Buck said softly. "But Nathan ain't given up on you, so you just hang in there."
"Sure..." J.D. agreed gamely. "Y'know something...?"
"What?" Buck asked, from a long distance away.
"I didn't figure getting shot would hurt this bad."
"Yeah, well, maybe it'll teach you to duck next time, huh?"
"Reckon so," J.D. agreed, vaguely. He couldn't see the stain on the ceiling anymore, but then he couldn't exactly see the ceiling. A black whirlpool was spreading in from the edges of his vision, and he watched in fascination while it swallowed up the room, one little bit at a time.
"Look, Nathan's got some stuff over here that'll make you feel a bit better. You want me to get you some?"
The promise of any kind of relief was an irresistible temptation, but before J.D. could find his voice again to answer, the whirlpool had filled his whole world and sucked him back down into darkness.
+ + + + + + +
Buck burst in through the swinging doorways of the saloon, broke stride while his vision adjusted to its dingy interior, then headed towards the corner table where Chris, Vin and Josiah were gathered around a table. Chris's eyes made a brief, questioning survey of the big man's face, then he slipped to his feet.
"Five riders heading this way, coming from the direction of the James spread," Buck announced as he halted beside the table.
"Riding fast?" Vin inquired.
"Nah, riding slow. They've got a wagon with them. Come to pick up the bodies, I guess."
"It don't take that many men to load three coffins on a wagon," the bounty hunter observed, stating the obvious. He pushed his chair back from the table and rose to his feet, one hand automatically checking the sawed-off Winchester, which rode in a leather harness strapped to his right thigh.
"Guess they brought enough for all of us," Buck returned, flashing a grin of such sheer maliciousness that it looked out of place on his perpetually cheerful features. At noon, he had taken over the perimeter patrol, watching the roads into town for whatever move James might choose to make. Before that, he had spent the whole morning with J.D., watching helplessly while the boy drifted between uneasy sleep and white-lipped, grimly silent suffering. When he asked Nathan about J.D.'s chances, he still got nothing but vague platitudes that told him nothing. He didn't hold that against Nathan--he'd been around long enough to know the truth--but it left him in a real mood for trouble. If he had to start it himself, so much the better.
"We aren't starting anything," Chris told him harshly, reading that thought off Buck's set features and restless movements. "You understand me, Buck?"
The gunslinger waited silently until the bigger man met his gaze, then he reluctantly nodded.
"Could be nothing more than what it seems," Chris went on. "We keep an eye on them, but if they want to ride in, pick up their dead, and ride out again peacefully, we don't interfere."
"So when, exactly, do we start to 'interfere,' Chris?"
"You'll know." Chris pushed his way out of the corner past Josiah's chair, and signalled to Ezra to join them. The gambler was at his customary table in front of the door, fleecing a handful of the local farmers at five-card stud. As far as any of the others could tell, Ezra lived up to his promise not to cheat unless he caught one of the other players cheating him, but he didn't need underhanded tricks in order to win. There was almost never a time when there wasn't a healthy pile of coins and bank notes stacked up in front of him.
Today was no exception, and Ezra sighed with great reluctance before announcing to his fellow players, "You'll have to deal me out, gentlemen. Duty calls." Wary of Chris's impatience, he gathered up his winnings quickly, then followed the other four men into the street.
Ten minutes later, the party of riders from the James ranch rode into Four Corners, two men in front, the others spread in a ragged circle around the open-backed ranch wagon that set their pace. They were jumpy and on guard, their hands never far from their holsters, a couple of them carrying long guns balanced across the pommels of their saddles. When they were fifty yards past the church, they straggled to a halt, unnerved by the emptiness of the street ahead of them. Nothing had been said directly to the townspeople, but they had picked the brewing tension out of the air. A handful of brave or indifferent souls were going about their business as usual. The rest had found work to keep them indoors until the trouble burned itself out or blew over.
One of the riders wheeled his horse in a dancing circle to scan the road along which they had come, and shouted, "Toby!" when he discovered that Chris was a dozen paces behind them, strolling along the boardwalk down one side of the street. The man's hand reached automatically towards his gun, but froze just before touching it when Buck commented with baleful amiability, "I'd be very careful about doing that, was I you," from behind him.
Toby Hanshaw, the cowboy leading the group, snapped out a curt order to the others to watch themselves, then raised his hands in a placating gesture.
"Take it easy. We don't want no trouble."
"Neither do we." Chris stopped walking, remaining slightly behind the group. He hadn't consciously mapped out his surroundings, but instinct told him there was a doorway two steps to his right, and a break between the buildings only a half-dozen running paces beyond it, if he found himself in urgent need of cover. "And if you boys just ride on in, pick up your dead, then ride out again, we won't have any, either."
"That's all we're here for," Hanshaw agreed, though thinly veiled anger gleamed in his eyes. "We got orders."
"Well, let's get on with it then." With the barrel of his Winchester, Buck gestured down the street toward the undertaker's parlor. "I got me a sick friend to visit, and I don't want to be wasting all day on you yahoos."
With a curt nod, Hanshaw started his horse in motion again, the others following him. Chris and Buck fell into step behind them, paralleling their course from opposite sides of the street.
As they rode, the cowboys' eyes were in constant motion, scanning the town. They found the rest of Chris's companions one by one, and each time the cowboys responded with increased tension. When Hanshaw spotted Vin, he smiled and waved amiably from his perch atop a wooden storefront. He was balanced on a ledge the width of a single board, but he looked perfectly at ease, one ankle resting on the opposite knee to support his buffalo gun. Ezra and Josiah lounged in front of stores near the undertaker's parlor, spaced apart so they covered it from opposite directions, each of them seemingly relaxed and disinterested. Josiah was drinking coffee. Ezra's eyes were half-closed, his hands busily shuffling and reshuffling his ever-present deck of cards. As the group rode past him, he tipped his hat sociably and murmured, "Spectacular weather we're having, don't you think, gentlemen?" with polite amusement.
Mr. Richards, the undertaker, emerged onto the stoop of his establishment to watch the jittery parade as it approached. He was a tall man, clad in black from head to toe and so cadaverously thin that he could have served as a walking advertisement for his own business. His face betrayed neither concern for the powder-keg tension hanging in the air nor amusement at the cowboy's discomfort, merely a supercilious disinterest in the workings of the world around him. Trouble was good for his business, but he felt no need to seek it out. Whatever came to pass, a continual need existed for his services.
As the cowboys reached his parlor, he nodded a curt greeting and said, "Gentlemen, I've been expecting you," in a surprisingly mellow voice.
Taking up a position across the street, with his back against one of the poles that supported the overhead canopy, Buck guffawed loudly, as though the undertaker's remark was the most hilarious thing he'd heard in a while.
"Now that's damned funny, y'know, 'cause I was just thinking--"
"Buck!" Chris shot him a warning glare, and the drifter reluctantly fell silent. Turning to Hanshaw, Chris snapped, "Get on with it before somebody makes a mistake."
It took James's men only a few minutes to load three plain coffins into the back of the wagon and remount their horses. Then they rode back through town the way they had come, this time with Josiah and Ezra also casually pacing them. As the group passed the church, Hanshaw swerved his horse aside and stopped, facing the men behind him. He crossed his arms over the pommel of his saddle and made a show of counting the four men ranged across the street, then Vin on his distant perch.
"Y'know, I heard tell there was seven of you."
"There are," Chris returned.
"The way I count it, yer down a couple."
"We got all we need."
"One of them's that darkie what pretends like he's a doctor," Hanshaw went on, as though he hadn't heard Buck's interjection. "I reckon the other one must be that puny little excuse for a sheriff the Judge hired hisself. Surprised I didn't see him over at the undertaker's. I heard ol' Tom, there--" He made a vague gesture behind himself, which might equally have indicated one of the other riders or one of the occupants of the stacked coffins "--did him up good 'fore he was took down."
"You want to join ol' Tom, mister, you just keep flappin' yer jaws." Shaking off the restraining hand Chris dropped on his wrist, Buck took a single step forward. "Otherwise, get the hell out of here."
"I tol' you." Hanshaw straightened up in his saddle. "This time, we got orders to keep everything peaceable... Be seein' you boys later." Wheeling his horse around, he caught up with the lumbering wagon.
When the conveyance and its outriders were gone from sight, Josiah commented, "Well, that went better than expected," in an amused voice.
"Yeah," Chris agreed with equal irony, "but it convinced me of one thing."
Splitting his deck of cards one-handed, Ezra restacked them neatly, and slipped them into the pocket of his coat. "And that would be?"
"This thing isn't going to blow over."
"Talking to the spirits again, are you, friend?" Josiah inquired, with genuine interest.
"Maybe." Chris gave him a tight-lipped smile. "And I figure I'll go back to the saloon and talk to them some more. Buck, go tell Vin to get his horse and head out after them. I want to make sure they go straight back to the James ranch."
"I'll do it myself. It's still my watch."
"No, you won't. I don't need you finding an excuse to start the war before we have to."
"Now, you know me, Chris." Buck hooked his thumbs into his gunbelt, and flashed his old friend a wide, amiable grin. "I'm just about the most peaceable cuss this side of Heaven."
"Not when it gets personal, you aren't. I know that, too."
Buck's grin turned into a dark glare, aimed at the empty street from which Hanshaw and his companions had vanished. "I tell you something, Chris. The way I figure it, James's boys owe J.D. for a whole pile of misery. I just aim to collect on his behalf."
"J.D. owes himself for a whole pile of misery," Chris snapped back with dwindling patience. "He made a dumb-ass mistake, and he's paying for it. If he pulls through, maybe he'll know better next time."
"Come on, Chris, he's just a kid. He--"
"He's a kid with a badge and a pair of six-guns. He'll learn quick or he'll die, and there's nothing you can do about it except maybe get yourself killed, too. You've come damned close to that once already." Ignoring the breath Buck drew in to retort, Chris went on, "Find Vin--"
"I'm here," the bounty hunter interrupted. When the others turned at the sound of his voice, they discovered him strolling down the street a dozen feet away, his footsteps so silent that none of them had heard his approach.
"Go get your horse and get after them. When they cross onto James's land, come back and watch the road."
Nodding, Vin headed for the livery stable. The townsfolk were already beginning to emerge and return to their normal daily business. As Mary Travis's erect, pale-haired figure swept past him, heading straight for Chris, Vin touched his hat brim politely and smiled to himself, mildly regretful that he would be out of earshot of the ensuing encounter.
Mary's father-in-law, Judge Orrin Travis, had hired them, and in his absence she considered herself their de facto employer. Vin didn't mind that a bit, but then all he had to do was sit back and appreciate the fact that she was a gloriously beautiful woman and a smart one so long as you didn't set her off on one of her self-righteous crusades. Chris was the one who got stuck dealing with her when she was in a mood where she didn't think he and his men were any improvement over the threats they had been hired to protect her town against. From the expression on her face, this was definitely one of those times, and she was dead-set on telling Chris so at the earliest opportunity.
These frequent and inevitable confrontations would have been easier on both participants if Mother Nature didn't have such a weird sense of humor. As far as Vin could tell, Chris and Mary genuinely didn't like each other very much, but he had never seen two people who got so hot and bothered just because they walked into the same room. Watching them try to negotiate anything was one of the best forms of entertainment Four Corners had to offer.
Too bad he couldn't stick around to watch, he thought as Mary's sharp, "Mr. Larabee! May I speak with you for a moment?" followed him down the alley that led to the livery stable.
With Vin dispatched, Chris had already started back towards the saloon. He experienced a passing regret that he hadn't thought to send Josiah on patrol instead. He could have used the bounty hunter's company while he tried to figure out what he should or shouldn't do to prepare for the trouble that every instinct told him was coming. Vin didn't talk much, but when he offered advice, it was worth listening to. An unexpectedly sharp mind hid behind the blond man's lazy, easy-going exterior, and Chris was starting to get the hang of tapping into it.
When Mary Travis caught up with him, his remaining companions vanished with almost supernatural haste, leaving him alone in the middle of the street, facing a problem that put him far more on edge than James's well-armed cowboys. Mary was a tall woman, so he didn't need to look down very far to meet her eyes. They were the palest, most crystalline blue he had ever seen, like a glorious summer sky.
"May I inquire what all of this was about?" she demanded, in an angry tone that slapped the world right back into perspective for him.
"All of what, Mrs. Travis?"
"This... completely unnecessary display of force. Don't you think it will only make the situation worse? It's been almost a month since Lucas James was legally hanged. Legally, Mr. Larabee. Since then--"
"You think Stuart James cares a damn that it was legal? He and men like him have been the law in these parts for a generation. He won't be in much of a hurry to accept that the situation has changed. What we've had since the hanging is nothing more than a stand-off. I think the incident yesterday upset the balance."
"Why would it?" There was a trace of familiar bitterness in her voice. "'Incidents' like that are all too common out here, and even my father-in-law knows there's no way to turn the power of the law against them. If no innocent bystanders are killed, it's a 'harmless prank.' If someone dies, those involved claim 'accident' or 'self-defense,' and that's the end of it. If it happened in New York, or even San Francisco--"
"This isn't New York, Mrs. Travis," Chris reminded her with sardonic patience.
"I'm perfectly aware of that, Mr. Larabee," Mary retorted, matching the sarcasm in his voice. "I would simply appreciate it if you would minimize the amount of disruption and not try to goad Stuart James into... reacting."
"A few weeks ago, you were all in favor of using my reputation to scare off the 'bad elements.'"
"That was different."
"No, ma'am, it wasn't. James has got maybe forty, fifty men working for him. Most of them are just cowboys, but I bet every one of them can use a gun if he's told to. I don't want a war any more than you do, Mrs. Travis, and the best way to prevent one is to keep them reminded there's a force of law in this town now, and if James wants to cause trouble, he'll get more of it than he needs."
They had reached the entrance to the saloon. Chris stopped walking, giving her time to decide if she was going to pursue him inside. For a moment, he thought she would throw in his face the fact that his team was not exactly "a force of law," but she swallowed that comment as it boiled visibly to her lips. She was a stubborn, idealistic woman, but she was also a fair one. She might hate the current situation, but she wouldn't lie to herself by denying that her father-in-law's decision had been a pragmatic necessity.
Her belligerence faded to an expression of tired concern. "Do you really think he's going to start something?"
"I hope not," Chris returned, then nodded and pushed through the swinging doors of the saloon. He waited tensely for Mary to follow him, but to his surprise, she didn't. As the doors swung back to rest behind him, he heard her familiar steps head off down the boardwalk.
With a long, silent sigh, Chris sank down into his favorite seat, well back in the darkest corner of the room. Prior to his arrival, Buck had had the table to himself. Ezra had returned to his card game, and Josiah had disappeared, probably back to his self-appointed task of restoring the long-empty church at the end of the street. If Chris didn't need him, the project seemed to occupy most of his waking time, though none of them had gotten a straight answer on what he planned to do with it when he was finished. Josiah could spout fire-breathing scripture as well as any preacher Chris had ever encountered, but it was damned hard to picture him shouting it from a pulpit, at least when he was something other than stinking drunk.
A half-empty bottle of whiskey sat in the middle of the table. Dragging it closer to him, Chris filled his shot glass to the brim with amber liquid, then left it sitting in front of him, untouched, while he stared at it.
"So, what's next?" Buck demanded, shattering the stretching silence.
"Now we wait."
"How long do we wait?"
"As long as it takes." Sardonic amusement crept into Chris's voice. "Why? You got urgent business somewhere?"
"You know it ain't that."
"Then go find yourself some." Chris waved his hand vaguely towards a trashily dressed blonde woman who was leaning against the bar, looking bored. "It'll pass the time."
"I ain't in the mood right now."
"Then maybe I better go order another coffin."
Buck threw back his head and laughed. Watching him through half-closed eyes, Chris was relieved to see some of the big drifter's foul mood finally drain away.
"Yeah, maybe you better," Buck admitted. "Don't happen too often."
Chris's hand reached automatically for the glass of whiskey, but he pulled back, leaving the drink where it was.
"Buck... Look, I'm sorry for what I said about J.D.... I'm sorry about it, but it's the truth."
"I know. The thing is, I really like the kid. He reminds me of me when I was that age. Well, except, you know--" One of his big hands came up, stretched up as high as he could reach from his seated position, then dropped a foot or so lower "--shorter. And, well, maybe a bit more serious... And nowheres near as accomplished with the ladies. Hell, by the time I was his age, I'd been..." He trailed off and thought about it for a minute. "Y'know, Chris, come to think of it, he ain't the slightest bit like I was at that age, but I still like him."
The gunslinger's thin lips twitched, not quite becoming a smile. "For about as long as I've known you, you've had a bad habit of picking up strays and hard cases."
"I do not."
"What about that time in Abilene when you decided to take on four drunk drovers, just because you didn't like the way they were talking to a whore?"
"Just 'cause a lady chooses to sell her kindness, don't mean she ain't got the right to say no when she ain't in the mood. An' I seem to recall you made yourself useful when things got a mite out of hand."
"You mean when the drovers started beating the crap out of you?"
"I do seem to vaguely recollect having had a mite of difficulty," Buck owned. "Besides, you ain't one to talk. It wasn't me who decided to ride out into the middle of nowhere to nearly get my ass shot off by a damned cannon for a whole five dollars--and then didn't even take the money."
"You came along, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but all that proves is that I'm stupid, too. Which probably explains why we're sitting here right now, huh?"
"Probably does." Chris dipped his finger into the whiskey, then ran it in circles around the rim of the small glass until the liquid within it shivered.
"Think I'll go sit with J.D. for a spell. He woke up a couple of times this morning for a little bit. He'll be glad of more interestin' company than Nathan. Besides, this seems like a fine time to drill some sensible advice into his head."
"When he can't run away?" Chris asked, with another slight smile.
"When it's real vivid in his mind--and his guts--that this ain't some dime novel where the bad guys always lose and the good guys don't never get hurt." Buck swallowed the remains of his drink and noisily shoved his chair away from the table. "You know where to find me if you need me."
He headed out the door, and Chris went back to staring at the untouched whiskey in front of him. For the past three years, he had spent more time than not in a bottle. Blurring out the past. Treasuring the sideways hope that one day he would blur his reflexes enough for the pain to end on the wrong end of a bullet. So far, it hadn't happened. He sometimes thought he was faster and better with a gun when he was drunk.
The past few weeks, he had started to wonder if that was what he still wanted, any more than Josiah really wanted the death he talked about with such zealous enthusiasm. Maybe all either of them truly wanted was something to look forward to, so they didn't spend so damned much time looking back.
He sure as hell hadn't expected to find that purpose in a godforsaken one-horse town in the middle of nowhere. Probably none of the others had either, yet here they all were, ready to stand up to a small army if they had to, just because it was the right thing to do.
Grimacing at the thought, he finally picked up the shot glass, sipped from it and felt the liquor burn its way through the dust in his throat. The glass was still half full, the temptation to refill it as strong as the temptation to finish it. He did neither, at least not for the moment. In an hour or two, he might have to re-evaluate the situation.