Forced to restrain his high-bred stallion to the same plodding pace as Judge Cahill's buggy through the long ride from Ridge City to Stuart James's ranch, Ethan Mandrell found himself as impatient and restive as the animal beneath him. Each passing mile increased his eagerness to be free of the old man's presence and throw himself into the job ahead. He had never cared for doing nothing. He needed a challenge, a goal of some sort to keep his restive mind focused. The job Cahill had dangled before him was routine--albeit bloody--but it held within it one element of interest, and that had been enough to bring him here.
He was looking forward to killing Chris Larabee.
Stuart James's ranch was substantial, but Mandrell was not a man who was easily impressed. Only when he had made suitable arrangements for the care of his horse and the six men accompanying him, did the newly appointed territorial marshal allow Cahill to draw him toward the house and the rigid old man who waited for them on its stone steps.
James had been standing there a while. When Cahill introduced them, he looked Mandrell over with undisguised curiosity, but his first comment was, "Fine looking horse you've got there."
"Yes, he is," Mandrell agreed, amused by that blase response to the Andalusian stallion which was a trophy of the last contract he had fulfilled. "Don Alejandro de los Reyos imported him from Castille. The Don no longer has need of him."
"He wouldn't, since he's dead."
"I heard he got himself shot down in some kind of range war."
"Something like that," Mandrell admitted, uninterested in discussing the past.
"You willing to start another?"
Cahill made a sputtering little noise of pure discomfort. He was a crooked politician, a man devoted to his own self-interest whose stock in trade was half-truths and hedged words. Even in private, such plain speaking made him nervous.
Mandrell's reaction to the challenge was nothing more than a muted shrug. "A range war isn't in the terms of the initial contract. Why don't I handle the town and the hired regulators first, and we'll see what more is needed after that?"
James threw his head back and gave a booming laugh, then nodded his approval of the tall, sparely built blond man who stood in front of him.
"You and I are going to get along, Marshal Mandrell, I can tell. Come inside."
The ranch house held a stark, spare luxury that suited the land and the man who owned it. Stuart James had no time to spare on copying Eastern ways, but he took from them the few things he fancied. He was not an ill-educated man. There were books scattered around his home, and several Landseer sporting lithographs shared the walls with mounted trophies from a lifetime of hunting.
"As you can see, I collect trophies of my hunts, too," the rancher commented when he noticed Mandrell eyeing a pair of cougar heads that were displayed above the fireplace in his study. "Though my game of choice is a bit more conventional than yours."
"There's nothing unconventional about what I hunt, Mr. James," Mandrell told him with amusement. "Read your newspapers."
Judge Cahill had already taken a seat beside the fireplace. James waved Mandrell to another, then went to his liquor cabinet and brought out a bottle of fine brandy.
"From what I've heard of your past, you're already acquainted with the troubles men like me are facing out here nowadays," James began as he filled three glasses with the warmly golden liquor. "Things are even worse in Texas than they are out here, but the trouble is spreading. Men are buying up the government range, fencing it off into useless little plots for their dirt farming. Then there's the damned sheep. Cattlemen have always depended on the open range. We need room for our cattle. We need free access to the water. If they aren't stopped, they'll destroy everything we've taken years to build."
Mandrell made no response to the unnecessary rhetoric. Before coming, he had provided himself with background on Stuart James, the town of Four Corners and the status quo he had been brought in to re-establish. Sipping fine Napoleon brandy in comfort, he was content to wait until the rancher came to the heart of the matter in his own way. Mandrell was an intelligent man who found it in his own best interests to watch the changes in the world he lived in. Whatever he did here could do no more than delay the inevitable for a few more months or years. No doubt Stuart James knew that as well as he did, but the old man was vain and arrogant, used to ruling the world around him with his wealth and his sheer force of will.
"The farmers depend on the towns," James continued. "In the past couple of years, I've been having more and more trouble from a place called Four Corners. There used to be a newspaper fella there, name of Travis, who was too damned good at firing people up, bringing more and more of them into the area. He got himself killed last year, and after that things started to turn around in my favor. I started buying up some of the stores, then closing them down. Encouraging people to move on. Right now, Four Corners is half a ghost town. If the rest of it goes, the farmers will have to bring in their supplies from Bitter Creek. That's a long haul."
"Across unsafe roads?" Mandrell guessed, amused.
"Damned unsafe. Anyway, I had things pretty much back under control, then the Governor had to go and appoint a damned circuit judge to come in and cause trouble. Judge Orrin W. Travis." James's voice tightened with all the fury and helplessness he'd felt when he discovered Travis had pronounced sentence on Lucas. "You ever heard of him?"
"Of course. He has a reputation as an inflexible man who believes in judicial law above all else."
James grunted in disgust. "He's a pompous, arrogant fool. He hired himself a band of bully boys to enforce his definition of the law. They're headed up by a gunslinger, name of--"
"Chris Larabee," Mandrell finished for him. "I know."
"You know Larabee?"
"By reputation only. It was his presence that made your proposition interesting to me." Smiling in self-mockery, he pulled a brightly polished marshal's star from his pocket and held it up, turning it so that it caught dancing glitters of firelight. "That and this, of course. This truly appealed to my sense of the absurd. You must have a great deal of influence at the territorial capital, Mr. James, to have arranged my appointment."
"Some," the old man admitted. "You picturing Larabee's head as another trophy for your collection?"
"Something like that."
"Larabee has a bad reputation," Cahill put in. "I wonder how Travis's high moral standards allowed him to deal with someone like that."
"Perhaps he didn't investigate Larabee's background before he hired him," Mandrell suggested. He turned the marshal's badge over in his fingers a final time, then returned the small, bright sliver of metal to his pocket. "Or perhaps he sought to harness the wind to his own purposes. Half the lawmen in the western territories wouldn't stand up to much 'investigation.' Scratch the dirt off a sheriff, and you'll often find an outlaw who decided it was more profitable to uphold the law than to break it."
"Larabee isn't wanted," Cahill told him. "We looked into that possibility. It would have made things easy."
"Perhaps you didn't look far enough. For instance, did you know that one of the men working for him is wanted--for murder, up in the Panhandle?"
"So?" Cahill waved his hand in dismissal. "Even if that's true, a warrant issued in Texas can't be served down here."
Mandrell shrugged. "Not without a Federal requisition, no."
"You got one?" James inquired.
"Not one I would care to have investigated too closely. I doubt Larabee or his men understand enough about the fine points of law to question it. Once the man's dead, the point becomes moot."
James snorted laughter. "You know something, Mandrell? You're even more of a bastard than I heard. You may be worth the price after all. So that gives you one. What about the others?"
"Larabee is a killer. The difference between a fair fight and a murder is largely a matter of who witnesses it, and what persuasions are brought to bear on them before they testify. I turned up something that gives me an excuse to hold him for a few days, pending 'investigation.' A few days will be all I need to set things up."
James was still studying Mandrell with interest, re-evaluating him as he talked. He couldn't help but think about what Mandrell had said regarding Travis and Larabee. The thoughts brought a slightly different proverb to mind: Who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.
"Travis thinks he can dictate terms to me," the rancher said after a moment. "Fine, then I'll fight him--and beat him--on his own terms. When he comes back, I want him to find his plans in ruins and his hired guns dead. I want my nephew's death avenged. And I don't want there to be a damned thing Travis can do about it. He barely got the town behind him last time. If they see the risk has gained them nothing, he'll never manage it again. The town will die. The sodbusters will move on."
Looking into the old man's eyes, it was obvious he didn't believe his own words, but would live by them and fight for them until the end.
"Do you need any of my men?" he asked, turning back to Mandrell.
"Not immediately. I will require some of them later, but for the moment, we're better off on our own. My employees know their jobs, and we work better alone."
"Fine. When do you start?"
"In a few days. I need time to get the lay of the land before I decide how to proceed."
"Don't take too long. This has to all be over and done with before Travis gets back around his circuit."
"I never dawdle, Mr. James. It isn't part of my nature."
During the exchange, James had been re-filling their brandy glasses.
"Gentleman--" he raised his own glass in toast "--I give you the demise of Four Corners."
+ + + + + + +
Last night around sunset, the skies had opened up, drenching the town in one of the brief, seasonal torrents that left unaccustomed humidity in the air and turned the street into a river of mud. The mud was nearly dry now, but a night's and morning's worth of horses, wagons and boots had left the street with a mess of new potholes and stubborn puddles that hadn't yet given way to the midday heat.
Buck gave his gray gelding its head, leaving it free to pick its own way across the uneven surface. What with one thing and another, he'd been up all night, and he was half asleep in the saddle. He trusted the rangy horse to find its way to the livery stable--and the promise of hay--with no effort on his part. As soon as the big animal turned without hesitation into the alley across from the jail house, and caught sight of home, its ears perked up, and it picked up its pace so abruptly that it startled its rider out of his comfortable half-doze. He tugged on the reins to discourage the horse from any thoughts of a wild run to the barn door--it had gotten a lot more rest than he had--then straightened his spine with a grumbled complaint and yawned so widely that he felt his jaw protest with a muffled crack.
When he was done stabling the horse, Buck strolled back out onto Main Street, then stopped for a moment, trying to decide what to do next. Bed was calling him--and for once it was telling him not to bring along any company--but so was the need to drop around to Nathan's to see how the kid was doing. Hell, just to be sure the kid was still alive. The way he'd looked yesterday, so weak and still that he barely seemed to be breathing, his eyes all lost and scared, it hadn't seemed like much of a bet. Buck just couldn't get it out of his mind how J.D. had tried to apologize for the dumb mistake he'd made. Apologized, for Chrissakes, like he needed to get it off his conscience before he slipped away. Even back when he thought J.D. was completely hopeless, so dumb and green that he shouldn't have been let off his Mama's leading strings, one of the things Buck had liked about him was how the kid barrelled ahead, made his mistakes, took his lumps and kept going, undaunted and free of regrets.
Buck looked both ways along the street, still undecided. He was spending so much time at Nathan's that the healer was getting damned tired of seeing him. Nobody was more surprised about that than Buck himself, because he had always hated sick rooms. He hated seeing a man--any man--reduced to bedridden helplessness. It was even harder to see J.D. that way, because the kid was so full of energy that Buck occasionally experienced a serious temptation to shoot him himself, just so he could get a little peace and tranquility.
Sighing deeply, Buck accepted the fact that he wasn't going to get a wink of sleep until he made sure J.D. was doing all right. He'd just drop around Nathan's for a few minutes, then he could head off to bed with a clear mind. With the decision settled, he turned and started down the street.
There was a stranger parked in one of the chairs on the boardwalk, a young fellow dressed like a cowboy, but with his hair as long and fancied-up as any Comanche warrior's. Buck couldn't remember seeing him around town before, but even in a little backwater like this, people came and went. He probably wouldn't have even noticed him if not for his hair and the fact that, when Buck walked by him, the kid got up and started following him. He let it go until he was halfway to Nathan's, then turned abruptly on his heel and strode back the way he'd come. The young stranger kept walking, not looking at him and never missing a step until Buck stalked right up to him and blocked his path.
"Now, the way I see it, son, there's one of two things going on here. First possibility is that you're one hell of a disappointment to your ancestors in the tracking department. Second possibility is that you think I'm so damned stupid that I ain't going to notice anything short of a brass band on my tail. So which one is it?"
"I don't have a clue what yer talking about," the youngster retorted, his voice flavored by a completely unanticipated Irish lilt. He was so short that Buck loomed over him, a head again his height and half again his width, but the size disadvantage didn't seem to make him ill at ease.
"Sure you do. There something I can do for you?"
"Nary a bleedin' thing except to be getting out of me way."
Mary Travis came out of the front door of the Clarion News just then, saw Buck standing on the boardwalk, and called his name. He looked towards the sound automatically, considered the situation, then stepped back, giving the young Indian enough space to get by him.
"Then you'll be heading on your way, won't you?"
The implicit threat in his words seemed to fall on deaf ears, and after giving him an impudent grin, the youngster sauntered off down the street. Buck watched him go with a frown of puzzlement. He wasn't the sort of man who liked to intimidate people just for the hell of it, but he was big and he moved fast, so he was used to being able to do it when he tried. Then again, he never had the slightest bit of luck intimidating J.D. either, so maybe he was just losing his touch.
"What was that about?" Mary inquired when she reached him, having witnessed the exchange in pantomime as she was crossing the street.
"No idea," Buck admitted. "Probably don't matter. Is there something I can do for you, Miz Travis?"
"I just wanted to ask after Sheriff Dunne. I haven't seen Nathan today."
"Neither have I. I was out on the trail last night. I'm just on my way over there now."
"Mr. Larabee is still expecting trouble?"
"I hope he's wrong."
"We all do, ma'am," he agreed simply. The thought passed through Buck's mind that he was wasting a golden opportunity here, because she was standing there looking all concerned and vulnerable and in need of some kind words. Trouble was, his ever-glib tongue just wasn't interested in supplying them right now. It was a shame, too, because he really thought she was starting to like him.
She smiled at him. "Give my best to Sheriff Dunne. Tell him I'm praying for him."
"He'll be pleased to know that, ma'am," Buck assured her, thinking that what would really please J.D. would be knowing there was someone around who took him seriously enough to call him "Sheriff Dunne," like the title really meant something. "Soon as he's awake, I'll pass it along."
She headed back to the Clarion, and Buck continued on toward Nathan's. He kept an eye open as he walked, but the Indian had vanished, and it didn't take him long to decide the incident hadn't been important. As he reached Nathan's door, he heard J.D.'s voice babbling away inside and grinned to himself, deciding the kid must be feeling a lot better than he had been if he had breath to spare on bending Nathan's ears.
The optimistic thought died as soon as he knocked, heard Nathan's call, and went inside. J.D. was talking all right, but he wasn't talking to Nathan, just to whatever images floated in front of his fever-glazed eyes. He was flushed and uneasy, his head twisting restlessly on the pillow, his body shifting beneath the quilts in a weak attempt to cast them off.
"Your damned sugar didn't work," Buck accused the medic as he came up beside the bed. Nathan had one of the windows open a crack, but even so, Buck could smell the sweat that was pouring off J.D. and the indefinable odor of misery that clung to any sick room.
Seated on the edge of the mattress, Nathan dipped a rag into the basin of water beside him, wrung it out, and replaced the cloth that lay across J.D.'s forehead.
"There ain't no pus coming out of the wound, and it don't smell like it's abscessing," Nathan said without looking up. "Be another day, at least, 'fore I can be sure it ain't gonna turn bad, but so far it looks like the sugar's working just fine."
"Then why's he like this?"
"Just happens sometimes. He oughta be able to throw it off."
"Well, will he or won't he?"
"What do you want, Buck? There just ain't no guarantees." Nathan stood up and moved aside. "Here, sit and talk with him for awhile. He's more likely to hear you than me."
Reluctantly, Buck took over the seat Nathan had abandoned and gazed down at J.D. Now that he was listening, he realized the kid was mostly muttering sounds and random words. Even when he put a sentence or two in a row, they didn't make much sense.
<Come on now, son, you out-stubborned Chris Larabee, and there ain't a lot of men as can say that. This is no time to give up and let the bastard win.>
"What's he been talking about?" he asked Nathan, just because he needed something to occupy his mind.
"Oh, all sorts of things. He had a good long talk with his Mama a while back. I get the feeling she wouldn't think much of him being out here, if she was still alive."
"Probably not. She never thought much of his reading material. Thought it was a lot of foolish nonsense." J.D. had told him that in a roundabout way one night when he'd had a bit too much liquor. He had sounded both melancholy and defiant about it, as though he regretted making a choice that would have hurt her, but had no second thoughts whatsoever about the choice itself.
Buck glanced at Nathan. "You want to take off and get something to eat?"
"Not for a while. I need to keep an eye on him until I see which way this is going." Nathan withdrew to the small alcove that extended off one side of the room, and began to tidy up a bit. He hadn't gotten around to it for the past few days, and he'd had other patients in and out, so his meager collection of supplies were becoming a mess.
"Anything happening out there?" he asked when he noticed Buck wasn't talking, just sitting there with a frown on his face as he tried to make sense of the babblings of J.D.'s delirium.
"Not a damned thing," the big man told him. "I wish there was. I never been much good at waiting around for a fight to come to me. When things start heading that way, I'd rather just go get it over with."
J.D.'s six-guns and his beloved gray derby hat--even its color was a copy of Bat Masterson's headgear--were hanging on the knob which decorated one corner of the wrought-iron bedstead. Picking up the hat, Buck gently brushed it clean of the dust it had picked up from lying in the street, then hung it back in place.
"I kinda figured that out," Nathan told him as he watched that small, unthinking action reflected in the mirror on the wall.
The room lapsed back into silence broken only by J.D.'s fever-ridden nonsense. Buck was exhausted, and for once he had run completely out of words. Eventually, even J.D. fell silent as he drifted into a deeper sleep. At first, his restlessness gave way to stillness, but then small shivers began to run through him as he slipped from fever to chills. One of his hands came up blindly to brush aside the cool cloth that covered his forehead, so Buck pulled it away and threw it back in the basin.
J.D.'s thick, longish hair was matted with sweat and plastered stickily to his face. His eyes were so dark-rimmed and sunken that he looked as though someone had punched him. His always-pale skin was flushed with fever heat, and a line of sweat beaded on his upper lip amidst the thin scattering of beard stubble that was giving thought to growing there.
"Know something, son?" Buck muttered to himself. "You purely do look like hell."
"And that's damned near impossible," J.D. whispered, startling Buck and bringing Nathan back to the side of the bed on the double. He scrubbed the hair out of his eyes with a wobbly hand, then tried to huddle deeper into the covers. Each small movement was slow and excessively cautious as he tried not to disturb the knife-edged hurting at his middle. Like everything else right now, it was kind of foggy and far-away, and he desperately hoped it would stay that way.
"I'll get you another blanket," Nathan offered, knowing it wouldn't help. J.D.'s chill came from within. Before long it would give way to heat again, and he'd be fighting to keep the boy covered at all. He opened the linen box in the corner and hauled out the heaviest blanket he owned, spreading it over the top of the patchwork quilt. J.D. whispered his thanks, but he didn't stop shivering.
"You figured out anything nice yet?" J.D. asked. His eyes glittered unnaturally as they tried to focus on Buck's face, but couldn't quite manage it.
"When I talked... Judge Travis into hirin' me... on as sheriff..." He had to pause for a bit to catch his breath, then he went on, "You said... you were going to think of something... nice to say... at my funeral."
"You listen to me good, kid," Buck snapped, sounding angry and way too loud for the small room. "You are not gonna die. Hear me?"
"Sure don't want to..." J.D. gave him a pathetic ghost of his familiar bright smile. "Too many things... I ain't done yet... Never seen the Pacific Ocean... Always thought that'd be nice... You ever seen the ocean, Buck?"
Buck threw Nathan an uneasy glance. It was becoming obvious to both of them that J.D.'s apparent clearheadedness was a delusion. His light-colored eyes were pain-filled and vacant, as though he had one foot in the misery of the real world, but the other lost somewhere in his fever dreaming.
"Yeah, I seen the ocean. Both of 'em, in fact. Ain't nothing but a damned lot of water."
"Still want to know... what you come up with..." J.D. murmured.
It took Buck a moment to figure out that the kid had switched topics again and gone back to talking about his funeral eulogy. "Well, how about I tell you later, when you're a bit more awake?"
"...Knew you weren't capable..."
"I am, too, capable," Buck countered. "I just don't feel like puttin' myself to the trouble when you ain't gonna need one."
"Know what else... I'd've liked?" J.D. drifted on as though he hadn't heard.
"What's that, son?"
"...Would really like to've been with a woman..." Catching his breath suddenly, he held it while a shudder flowed through him that had nothing to do with his chills.
"I promise you, J.D., soon as you get back on yer feet, we'll take care of that little matter. Why I know a great place, not more than a couple hours ride from here..." Buck let the sentence trail off unfinished, because J.D. was talking again, drifting from topic to topic at random, obviously not listening to him. "How long is he liable to be like this, Nathan?"
"Even if the fever don't get any worse, it could hang around for a day, maybe even two, before he licks it."
"If he licks it..." Buck said distantly, then shook himself free of the despondency and gave Nathan a hard glare. "I think J.D. would appreciate it if we didn't exactly listen to everything he's telling us right now."
Nathan laughed quietly. "That's one of the first things you learn, Buck, when you're working with sick people. Never hear nothing that ain't meant for your ears."
"You think he'll remember, if--"
"--When he comes back into his head," Nathan finished for him, "he probably won't remember a damned thing he said. Except for the bit about you talking nice about him at his funeral. He's right set on that."
"Never should've opened my big mouth in the first place," Buck grumbled.
"Why don't you go get some sleep?" Nathan suggested. "You hang around here much longer, an' I'm gonna start makin' you pay half the rent."
Buck stuffed a hand into his pocket, came up with a coin and ceremoniously set it down on the bedside table. "Reckon I'll hang around for a spell."
He collected a chair, arranged it close to the bed, then settled into it and put his feet up on a corner of the mattress. Nathan glared at his dusty boots as they landed on the clean wool blanket, but Buck didn't notice the disapproval or chose not to pay any attention to it. Nathan didn't make an issue of it.
Nearly an hour dragged by before either of them spoke again. Nathan had hauled out one of his medical books and started reading to pass the time, but he wasn't getting far. It wasn't J.D.'s restlessness which kept him from concentrating. He was worried about the boy, but he'd been dealing with the sick and dying for years, and he knew how to put useless fretting aside so it didn't drain his energy. It was Buck's silence that kept getting to him. He hadn't known Buck Wilmington all that long, but he recognized that there was something profoundly unnatural about him sitting in one spot, staring at his boots in dead silence.
"You got any family, Nathan?" Buck said finally, just as Nathan raised his head for about the hundredth time to check whether he'd fallen asleep.
"Not since I was ten. Man who owned my parents an' me died, and we got sold off separately."
"Sorry. Stupid question, wasn't it?"
He looked like he was planning to sink back into broody silence, so Nathan asked, "How about you?"
"Oh, I had me a whole mess of family when I was a kid. Most of them weren't blood related, you understand--" Buck grinned at him "--but I never came up short on friendly company. Funny, ain't it, how you take to some folks real quick, and before you even know it, they're like your own kin? Don't happen to me as much now as it used to. Over the years, you learn the hard way that it ain't smart to let yerself get too close. Sure as hell, you get to liking someone, depending on them, and then one day you turn around, and there they are lying beside you with half their damned head shot off. Or you watch 'em goin' off down a different road, and you wonder if some day you'll find yourself facin' them in a gunfight. Somewhere along the line, you finally figure out that it's easier just to keep your distance."
"Josiah was talking about the same thing last night."
"Josiah?" Buck snorted. "Josiah's crazy. Don't get me wrong--I do genuinely like him, but he is crazy."
"Maybe," Nathan agreed. "Sometimes I think he's just crazy like a fox. He was talking last night about how some folks see having friends as a blessing, and other folks would rather just be on their own 'cause it's easier. I always figured you for one of the first kind."
"Yeah, well, I ain't. Leastwise, I try not to be. Been taught too many lessons over the years about letting folks get under your skin, then losing 'em. Never gets any damned easier, no matter how often you go through it. So if this stupid little runt gets back on his feet, he can find someone else to drive crazy."
"You know something, Buck? I don't believe you."
"I don't believe me, either," Buck grumbled, staring morosely at the small figure in the bed. "That's the damned trouble."
The rest of the day dragged by slowly while Nathan read and Buck alternately stared at his boots and catnapped in his chair, but refused to leave. Chris drifted in a couple of hours later to ask after the report Buck hadn't thought to deliver when he got back to town. Chris rode out the explosion over the stupidity of his "expecting a damned report when there ain't damn-all happening" with unbothered serenity, letting himself be a target for frustration that had nowhere else to go.
Darkness fell, and as Nathan lit the lamps, he saw his companion had finally fallen into a real sleep. J.D.'s fever continued to burn, but if he was no better, he wasn't any worse, either. Nathan got him to drink some water, then settled back in his chair and tried to get some sleep himself.
When he woke up again, he blinked blearily in the lamplight, wondering what had disturbed him. Buck was dead to the world, his head fallen forward onto his chest. He was snoring like nobody's business, but Nathan had been vaguely aware of the noise for hours without it disturbing his rest. He had slept through worse.
Finally, he heard a rusty whisper of his name, and looked over at the bed in surprise to find J.D. watching him with eyes that had regained their clarity of reason. He leaned over quickly, laid his hand on the young man's forehead, and suppressed a whoop of relief when he found it cool and damp.
"How do you expect a man to sleep through all that racket?" J.D. complained in a voice that had almost no volume, but sounded clearheaded and even a little amused.
Buck let out another long, irregular gargle.
"How come he doesn't do that when he's sleeping on the ground? I slept next to him out at the Indian village, and he didn't make that much fuss."
"Probably he did, and you were just too tired to hear him." Nathan sat down on the edge of the bed, careful not to jar the mattress. "Glad to see you back with us, son. How you feeling?"
"I feel like shit," J.D. informed him, then managed a tired smile. "Mama would wash out my mouth if she heard me say so." He looked up at Nathan suspiciously. "Aren't you gonna tell me it serves me right, and if I had any damned brains, I wouldn't have gotten myself into this mess?"
"Reckon you've heard all that forty times by now and memorized as much as you want to listen to."
"Reckon I have," J.D. agreed with a small, grateful smile. He winced as Buck sawed wood again, even louder and at more length. "You want to kick him for me? I tried, but it hurts too much to move."
Nathan knew better than to tap a man on the shoulder when he was armed and off-guard, so he just called Buck's name a few times, until Buck eventually snorted, grumbled, sat up and swung his feet down off the bed.
"What the hell's yer problem?" he demanded grumpily, scrubbing his fingers through his curly hair, which was already standing up around his head in wild disarray.
"You're making too damned much noise," J.D. informed him in a breathless whisper.
"J.D.?" Buck bolted out of the chair with such haste that it overturned. The loud noise startled him more than it did J.D. or Nathan. In the time it took him to cuss a bit and pick it up again, he'd recovered from his surprise and managed to wipe the wide, dumb-ass grin from his face.
"How am I supposed to sleep when you're snoring?"
In spite of the terrible weakness in the tone, the kid actually sounded like himself again. Buck looked over at Nathan, his eyes questioning the turnaround. When he received a shrug and a grin in return, he stifled a sigh of relief before it became audible. No use letting the kid known he'd gone completely soft and sentimental. He'd never hear the end of it.
"I don't snore," Buck informed J.D. with considerable belligerence.
"You damned well do, too."
"I do not. Never done it once in my life."
"And you got a whole regiment of women willin' to testify." J.D.'s voice was fading again, the words spaced out by tired breaths. Rolling onto his side, he slowly drew his legs up, wrapping himself around the hurt in an attempt to soothe it. It didn't work, and he felt horrible, but in a different, honest-to-God alive sort of way. "You know something, Buck? All them ladies would be lying."
"Man tries to provide a little companionship to a friend in his hour of need, and look what it gets him." The big man retrieved his hat from where it had fallen onto the floor and slammed it back on his head. "Fine. I'll just come around again when you're feelin' a mite more sociable. Meantime, I need me a drink."
Without another word, he stomped over to the door and disappeared, slamming it behind him.
"What Buck means to say--" Nathan began.
"--Is that he's glad I'm gonna be all right," J.D. finished. He made the mistake of laughing and curled into a tighter ball when it proved to be the stupidest thing he'd done in at least a couple of days. "Oh, Lord."
Nathan laid a supportive hand on his shoulder and kept it there until J.D. stopped shuddering. "Hang on a minute, son, 'n I'll give you something that should help a bit."
When he came back carrying a bottle of laudanum, J.D. unwillingly remembered Colonel Anderson and forced himself to shake his head.
"...Just need to get some more sleep..." he whispered.
"This'll help you along a mite." Nathan poured a measure of the liquid into the spoon. "It's safe as long as you're careful with it, and you ain't gonna rest too comfortable without it."
"Might need it if Buck comes back, I guess," J.D. admitted softly.
Nathan helped him sit up to swallow the drug. It didn't taste like any medicine he'd had when he was a child. It was sickly sweet, like whiskey laced with a heaping spoonful of sugar.
"Ain't too bad," he murmured when he was settled again.
"Suppose not. Now, you get yourself some more sleep." Nathan patted his shoulder again. "Don't worry. I don't snore."
"'M glad to hear it." Darkness was seeping up again, clouding the pain before the laudanum could reach it. This time, J.D. wasn't scared to relax and let it take him. He knew it wasn't claiming him forever.
+ + + + + + +
Stuart James had given Mandrell and his men an old cabin out near the edge of his spread to use as a camp. The rancher had been surprised when he accepted the comfort of the ranch compound for only one night before moving out his men, but Mandrell didn't want extraneous trouble. Even in that single night, he had seen it building between his specialists and the ranch's cowpunchers.
The cabin had been built by homesteaders who had been successfully run off by James's strong-arm tactics. It had no barn, but there was a lean-to where he could shelter his own horse, and a corral for the others. The old homestead was closer to town than the James ranch, which made it convenient for his purposes.
As far as comfort went, though, it was severely lacking. The interior was stale and cramped and still stank of the half-tanned hides that had once been stored in it. Someone had left behind a chair that was in fairly good repair, so Mandrell moved that out under the overhang of the roof and spent the day outside, smoking thin cheroots and reading while he waited for his men to return, one by one, from the tasks he had given them.
Patrick Dull Knife, the young half-Irish, half-Cheyenne drifter who served as his second-in-command, was the first to get back, riding into the yard around sundown. Ignoring the corral, Patrick hobbled his horse and turned it loose to graze on the scrub, then approached the cabin. He squatted down comfortably on his heels beside Mandrell, with his back supported by the cabin wall, then pulled out a strip of licorice candy and began to chew on one end of it.
"Well?" Mandrell inquired.
"Larabee is down to six men. The seventh is some Eastern kid, gets to call himself sheriff 'cause no one else wants the job. One of James's men put a bullet in 'im a couple days back. Seems like a toss up which'll kill him first, that or us."
"And the others?"
"Larabee's keeping a man out on the perimeter of town, watching for trouble from James. Seems he's got this real strong feeling there's a storm coming. It's making the townspeople jumpy as cats. They're expecting some kind of all-out war. They figure they'll get caught in the middle."
"Good. People being what they are, I presume not everyone in town was behind Judge Travis's decision in the first place. This will alienate even more of them."
"Not even half of them're behind it from the talk goin' around. They seem to be all right with the other enforcers, but Larabee scares 'em."
"Did you check out the man who's riding the perimeter today?"
"Aye, that I did." He grinned, and bit off another length of licorice. "Southerner. Dresses like a dude and plays cards with himself. Hates the range. All the time I was watching him, he was sitting there bitching to his horse about how stupid it all was. He's a city boy. Don't notice what's happening ten feet under his nose. Could've ridden by him with a whole damned army."
"So, that would be Ezra Standish--or Simpson or half-a-dozen other possibilities, depending on who you believe. He's a professional gambler and a con man. He's wanted in half the towns he's set foot in, but nothing big enough for a reward or an extradition writ. Larabee wouldn't use the man if he were a fool, so I assume you're exaggerating his incompetence, but he isn't one of the ones we need to be concerned about. It's highly unlikely his loyalty to Larabee will carry beyond the limit of his own self-interest. When we begin to put the pressure on, either he'll try to run or he'll keep out of our way. The three who are potentially dangerous are Larabee, Tanner and Wilmington. I couldn't find anything to use against Wilmington before we came down here, so we'll have to improvise."
"'E seems ta be damned good friends with Dunne. He's wandering around town these days, temperamental as a bear woke up in midwinter."
"That could be useful as a starting place."
"So, when do we move into town?"
"Not for a few more days. We still have things to do. Besides, if Larabee's instincts are telling him that trouble is coming, let him stew in the knowledge for a while. It could work to our advantage later."