by Sarah B.

The crisp autumn leaves crunched under the hooves of Josiah’s horse as he carefully navigated the hilly woods that lay half a mile outside the western town of Four Corners. The preacher astride the horse reined in, looked around with a sad frown on his long, expressive face. This was going to be a tough afternoon, no doubt about it.

He heard the slow movement of another horseman behind him, turned to see JD Dunne approaching slowly, his youthful face alive with fear as he gazed around at the skeletal trees and dark shadows that seemed to permeate the place.

“Somethin’ wrong, JD?” Josiah asked with a gentle smile. “You look like you expect to see the devil any minute.”

JD gulped, swiveled his head fast enough to make his longish black hair fall into his hazel eyes. Brushing the bangs away the boy said, “Well, it wouldn’t surprise me. Two murders out here in a week, and nobody’s seen a thing. The guys at the saloon said we were nuts to come out here. They said this place was haunted.”

Josiah chuckled, then urged his horse forward. “Well, haunted or not, Chris wants us to see if we can find any answers, so we best start looking. I’d rather face a devil than disappoint Chris.”

JD quickly trotted his horse up next to Josiah’s, his face pale as he asked breathlessly, “Well, don’t you think maybe those guys are right? I mean, what I heard about how those women were killed - “

“Don’t believe everything you hear, son,” Josiah warned in his usual soft voice, “Especially in a saloon.”

JD didn’t look convinced, scanned the leaf-covered terrain like he expected a ghoul to jump out at them any second. “Well, I’m still glad you came with me. Thanks, Josiah.”

The preacher shrugged. “Well, two sets of eyes are better than one. But Vin might have been more help to you.”

JD shook his head emphatically. “No, not out here. I figured if something attacked us, you could just call on God or whatever and get us out. I mean, God’s got to listen to you, right?”

Josiah looked down, fingered the beaded cross he always wore around his neck. He’d been raised to be minister, been force-fed the Gospel all his life until he finally rebelled. Then he’d studied, travelled, and came to a thousand different conclusions, none of which was that God would necessarily listen to him. Or that there was even anyone up there to talk to.

When he didn’t get an answer to his nervous inquiry, JD began fiddling with his reins and once more looking around the gloomy woods. Looking to distract him, Josiah peered at the boy’s face and said, “JD?”

“Huh!” JD jumped a little in his saddle, then strove mightily to act like he’d meant to do it. “What?”

“Is that a shadow, or are you tryin’ to grow a moustache?”

“Oh - “ JD dabbed at the pathetic patch of fuzz on his upper lip, and scowled. “Yeah. It’s not working, though. But I thought I’d give it a shot.”

“Hm.” Josiah said, and tried not to smile too much. It really wasn’t much of a moustache.

JD felt the tiny black hairs again, sighed. “I just get tired of everybody treating me like a kid. Hell, half the town don’t even believe I’m the sheriff. Figured maybe a moustache would help, but...” he paused, looked at Josiah pleadingly. “What do you think?”

Josiah stopped his horse, turned to look at JD. JD looked back, hopefully, but all Josiah saw was the soft, youthful lines of his face, the large hazel eyes rimmed with long black eyelashes, and a turned up nose that looked completely incongruous over the uneven dusting of facial hair that JD was hoping would make him a man. There was a patch of blue over JD’s left eye - the fading results of too much whiskey, a hard fall and the unforgiving edge of a poker table. But on JD’s face the bruise looked like the aftereffects of a taunting bully, not the hard-edged scar of the terminally dangerous.

“Be honest.” JD added, a little forlornly.

Josiah tilted his head. “Sorry, JD. You’re just not the tough hombre type.”

“Ooooo - “ JD grunted in frustration as they continued riding. “Dang it. Just once I’d like somebody to look at me and get scared.”

Josiah shrugged, and was about to reply when something ahead and off the trail caught his eye. He reined in, and swiftly dismounted.

“What is it?” JD asked from his saddle. “Chris said the girl was murdered over - “ Then he saw it too, and stopped.

It was a pile of leaves, pushed up and piled around something black that obviously didn’t belong there. Josiah approached it carefully, began gently brushing the leaves away. He did this for a few moments, then JD heard him breathe, “My God.”

JD swung himself off his saddle, his apprehension growing when he saw Josiah begin to pull the leaves away more hurriedly. “Is it - “

Josiah was hunched over, shaking his head sadly. “It’s another victim.”

JD started. “Do we know her?”

Josiah shook his head again. “You don’t. She’s a sister from one of the missions around here.”

The boy’s mouth dropped. “You mean a nun?”

Josiah continued to sweep the leaves away, and although his large frame hid most of the woman JD saw a black dress, one arm, and what looked like a lot of blood on both.

He shivered, stepped forward. “Should I - “

“Don’t come any closer, JD,” Josiah said in a tight, soft voice. “You shouldn’t see this.”

JD’s hackles rose, and he defiantly stepped forward. “Come on, Josiah, didn’t I just tell you I - “

He stopped at Josiah’s shoulder, looked at what the preacher had uncovered

. And swiftly turned around and grabbed at the nearest tree, his legs suddenly weak with shock.

Josiah hung his head, felt helpless. That makes three murders, he thought grimly, all women, all here. The woman’s face was untouched, and she looked peaceful, as if she were merely asleep. Josiah touched it briefly, felt an unreasoning twinge of envy. Your trials on this earth are over at least, he thought.

He stood up, patted JD on the back as the youth leaned over, hugging the tree for support. His face was pale, and he was breathing in huge, terrified gasps. Josiah stripped off the coat he was wearing and carefully covered the young nun’s body with it, then looked around and sighed, deeply depressed.

JD was still looking away, and he shook his head in disbelief. “Geez, Josiah,” He whispered shakily, “Geez, who would - what kind of - “ Josiah patted his back again, turned to walk back to his horse. “Some things you’re not ready to just look at yet, JD. Please God, maybe you never will be.”

JD took out his handkerchief, mopped his pale face and wiped his lips. “How come you can look at it?”

Josiah stopped, turned around, gazed sadly at the dead young woman. “I seen too much of what the devil can do to be shocked anymore. Reckon I just...gave up.”

JD nodded, but Josiah didn’t think he really understood. Not really. Suddenly both men heard footsteps, someone walking noisily through the rustling dead leaves, and automatically they drew their guns. JD hid behind a larger tree, and Josiah looked around, his eyes alert and searching.

And finding -

A man was walking toward them, an older man dressed in shabby, ragged gray clothes. He seemed a little bent over, as if he was infirm or deformed. He didn’t seem to see Josiah or JD, just kept walking toward them in a preoccupied manner. Finally he got close enough, and Josiah put out a hand to stop him. “Sir?”

The man stopped, looked up, scowled when he saw Josiah. “What do you want?” He asked in distinctly unfriendly tones.

Josiah lowered his gun, didn’t holster it. “You been out here today?”

The man frowned deeper. “Why?”

Josiah gestured toward the pile of leaves, the coat. As the man glared at it he said, “We just found this young woman murdered here. Not too long ago. Was kind of hopin’ you mighta seen who done it.”

The man looked at Josiah distrustfully, walked up to the pile of leaves. JD peeked around the side of the tree, curious.

The man reached down and whipped off the coat.

JD gasped and ducked back, swallowing hard.

The man looked at the mutilated body dispassionately as Josiah said, “Well?”

A pause. Then the man dropped the coat and shrugged. “So she liked her sex rough. So what?”

JD’s mouth dropped open. I can’t have heard that right, he thought, and peeked around the tree again. Josiah’s face told him in an instant: he had heard right.

Josiah took a step closer, his expression dark. “This young woman was a servant of the Lord. You’ll show some respect in the hour of her death.”

The man stepped back, a nasty leer on his face. “Huh! I like that. Especially coming from you.”

Josiah blinked. “What?”

“You’re Josiah Sanchez, aren’t you?” The man asked in snide tones as he took another step back and stopped. “the so-called ‘preacher’ in Four Corners?”

JD saw Josiah tense.

The man let out a small, barking laugh. “I thought so. I heard about you, the Bible-thumping gunslinger who preaches love and peace with one hand and kills people with the other. Bet you didn’t show no respect in the hours of their deaths.”

Josiah’s face was growing dark, but he maintained his control. “What do you know about this girl’s murder?” He asked through white lips that quivered with anger.

The man looked down again, looked up blandly. “Nothin’. But at least it looks like she got laid.”

Josiah reached forward, grabbed the man by the front of his collar. JD ducked back behind the tree; his gun was still out, but he was too shocked to use it.

Josiah was shaking with rage as he whispered, his blue eyes crackling with fury, “Did you do this thing?” He asked in razor-sharp tones.

The man smirked at him, clearly unafraid. “Shit, ‘Father’, I ain’t confessed it, have I? Or, I guess if I did, you’d just shoot me, wouldn’t you? ‘Man of God’.”

Josiah hurled the man to the forest floor, and finally JD scrambled out from behind the tree, his gun pointed at the stranger who was now half-hidden in the pile of leaves. The youth locked eyes with the man, just for a moment, and JD saw something in those eyes that made him shiver, and look away.

Josiah was trembling with rage, looked at JD and said in a voice thick with anger, “JD, I think we have someone to take in for questioning.” “Oh, right!” The man sneered, getting up onto his knees. “You don’t scare me. You’re not real lawmen, only the sheriff can arrest me.”

JD’s heart jumped into his throat as he pointed his gun - not too shakily, he hoped - and said in the steadiest voice he could manage, “I am the sheriff, mister. And you’re under arrest.”

The man looked him up and down, settling back on his knees and staring at the youth.

Then he burst out laughing.

“You?” He gasped, pointing at JD derisively. “You’re the sheriff?

Shit, kid, you ain’t old enough to give up blocks yet.”

JD felt himself getting really mad, fought it. “Just get up nice and slow - “

“Oh, stop it,” the man said tiredly, getting to his feet and batting JD’s gun aside. “Go back to your mama, boy, I don’t think you’re ready to leave her teat yet.”

JD flared again, this time didn’t fight it, stepped in front of the man as he tried to walk away. “Hey - “

“What?” the man stopped, gave JD a salacious grin. “Oh, are your mama’s teats occupied? Sorry, kid, didn’t know.”

JD felt a hot fury sweep over him, took a swing at the man. The man ducked, laughing, gave JD a hard shove that sent the youth tumbling back into the dead leaves.

The man shook his head in disgust as he looked at JD and Josiah. “What a couple of frauds. A baby pretending to be a sheriff, and a killer pretending to be a holy man.”

JD thrashed himself out of the leaves, scrambled to his feet red-faced and shouted, “You take back what you said about my mother!”

The man leaned forward and glared at JD and Josiah, eyes glittering with maliciousness as he pointed to where the nun lay. “Your mother and that bitch have two things in common. They’re both *dead* - “ He sneered the word, enjoying it - “And in your almighty God’s opinion, they’re both worthless c - “

JD gasped as Josiah flew past him, tackling the man to the ground. His fists were flying, slamming into the man from every direction, and JD stared at the spectacle, fascinated. He’d never seen Josiah fight before, and the sight was amazing.

Josiah was a large man, but before this had been gentle, quiet, needing only his voice to subdue wickedness. Now, however, his physical strength was obvious as he pummelled the man, his huge fists almost causing echoes as they bounced off the other man’s body. The stranger had his arms up to fend off the blows, and amazingly enough was still cursing at Josiah, saying a lot of stuff JD couldn’t make out, but he caught enough of it to be surprised Josiah wasn’t killing the guy. Finally Josiah heaved himself off the man, wiping the sweat off his brow as he stood up, panting heavily. The man was unconcious, crumpled in the withered leaves, and JD regarded him with stunned silence. Josiah finally looked at the youth, cleared his throat. “Sorry, son. Shouldn’t have lost my temper, but...”

JD’s mouth was hanging open. “Josiah, why was he saying those things? Is he crazy or something?”

“Maybe,” Josiah muttered, his voice full of shame, “But I reckon we’ll find out more once we get him back to Four Corners.”

“You think he killed those women?” JD asked as he holstered his guns and turned toward his horse to get some rope.

“Very likely, yes.” Josiah answered as he joined the youth. They walked in silence for a moment, no noise except for the crunching of dead leaves, then Josiah said, “Now son, I want you to know that I tried to keep myself back from that fight. Ain’t no call for usin’ your fists, especially if someone is goading you. I probably shouldn’t have done it.”

“Shoot, Josiah,” JD responded as he reached his horse and unlooped the coil of rope from the pommel. “I would have if you hadn’t. He can’t go saying things like that about my ma.”

Josiah nodded, looked down. “Well, all the same. Don’t want nobody sayin’ I’m a bad influence on anybody.”

“Aw, Josiah,” JD turned the rope in his hands. “Don’t take what that man said seriously, everybody likes you. Nobody thinks you’re a fraud.”

“Cept God, maybe.” Josiah muttered, to himself but he realized JD heard it when the younger man’s eyebrows twitched.

“Well, how do you think I feel?” JD said in despair as they walked back to where the man was. “I swear, Josiah, it’s like this guy knew exactly what to say to get to you. Me, too, it’s almost like he was - “

JD stopped. Josiah stopped.

The man was gone.

JD looked around, surprise battling with disbelief. “Where’d he go? He couldn’t have just vanished.”

Josiah cast his eyes everywhere, felt a cold chill creeping up his spine. “I don’t know.”

“Aw - “ JD shook his head, then scratched it, “Now this don’t make sense! If he’d tried to move, we’d have heard it, he was only a few yards away!”

Josiah moved to where the man had been, kicked the leaves away.


And it was growing darker.

Josiah swallowed, said, “We’d better get this young woman back to town, JD. We can come back tomorrow.”

JD sighed, looped the rope on one of his holstered guns and shook his head again. “I told you, Josiah. These woods are haunted. You know what I think? I think we been arguing with a ghost.”

Josiah felt cold, and added softly as he stared at the gloomy woods, the withered leaves, and the still body of the dead woman, and as he walked toward her to prepare her for the journey to Four Corners he said, “And the worst part was, the ghost was winning.”

The following day dawned cool and bright, the brisk wind sending the brittle autumn leaves hurrying up the main street of Four Corners, U.S.A. It was a chilly day, but beautiful; the bright blue sky and brilliant fall colors on the Aspen trees that studded the town like fountains of stained glass seemed to ask passersby to appreciate them, now before the skies turned from blue to grey and the weather from chilly to cold. It was a gorgeous, brisk, perfect Fall day, but JD didn’t see any of it because he was too busy staring into the bath house mirror and feeling sorry for himself.

The bath house’s only other occupant, Buck Wilmington, shook his head at his young friend as he busied himself toweling the last of the hot water off, before putting on his clothes.

“You ain’t gonna get no prettier, JD,” the gunslinger teased as he threw the towel on the floor and grabbed his long johns. “Get yourself dressed before you catch a cold.”

JD continued to stare glumly in the mirror. He was dressed, sort of; he had his pants on, and his white shirt, but it wasn’t buttoned. He gave an impatient sigh and dragged a comb through his hair, first one way, then another, parting it every different way he could think of. And still he glared at his reflection in sullen frustration.

“It ain’t fair, Buck.” JD huffed as his friend walked over to the mirror, shaving mug in hand.

“What ain’t?” Buck wanted to know as he pulled out the lathering brush and poured some water from a pewter pitcher into the mug.

“Well - “ JD gestured at his image helplessly, “I mean, I tried everything I can think of. And I always look the same.”

Buck whipped the water and soap in the mug into a lather, gave JD a quizzical glance in the mirror.

JD was ignoring him, still trying to comb his glossy black hair into a different look. It rebelled, flopping into his eyes and parting any way it wanted to, and finally the youth slammed the comb onto the sink in frustration.

Buck eyed JD knowingly. “This is because of the other day, ain’t it?”

JD looked into the sink, then glanced at Buck before once again staring at his face in adolescent fury. “I look like I’m twelve. That’s why nobody takes me seriously. That man wouldn’t have gotten Josiah so mad if I didn’t look so stupid whenever I tell people I’m the sheriff. He would have let me arrest him and that would have been the end of it.”

Buck shrugged, pulled the lathered brush out of the mug and started spreading the snowy foam over his stubbled face. “Well, shoot, son, Josiah’s got a temper anyway, that ain’t your fault. ‘Sides, from what I hear tell he asked for what he got.”

JD was blushing now, blushing in embarrassment Buck knew, because he’d been in the saloon the night before, when Josiah had come in looking like a week’s worth of thunderstorms and grabbing a bottle of whiskey from the counter before even asking for it. Buck knew then that something bad had happened; it was only after a few swallows of whiskey had loosened the preacher’s tongue that Buck found out how bad.

“I can’t even grow a decent moustache.” JD moped, giving Buck an envious glare as the gunslinger began to shave. “I’m gonna look like a kid forever, Buck, I know it.

” “Aw, no you won’t,” Buck said magnanimously as he dragged the razor over his skin. “Wait’ll you’re old and grey like the judge. Bet you won’t look like a kid then.”

JD began to button his shirt, cocked his head. “Maybe it’s the suit. What do you think, Buck, a new suit maybe, huh? A black one, like Chris’. Or maybe one of those outfits we saw in El Paso, remember?” Buck paused, looked at JD in puzzlement. “You mean the red ones with the curlicues on them?”

JD nodded. “Think that would make me look tough?”

“JD, those men were in a mariachi band.”

“Oh.” JD paused. “No, huh?”

Buck tried not to laugh as he shook his head, he understood the kid’s frustration. JD really did look young, and soft too, like he wouldn’t know an evil thought if it bit him on the badge. Those were two strikes against him as a lawman - JD was in no way intimidating or fierce-looking - but Buck couldn’t think of a thing that would help. Except a scar, and Buck wasn’t about to suggest that.

“Oh, don’t worry, JD,” Buck said encouragingly as he finished shaving and threw some water on his face. JD was putting on his vest, and still looked glum. “I’m sure you’ll get that rock-hard gunfighter look before you know it.”

“Like you?” JD asked sarcastically as he slid his jacket on.

“Well, yeah, as a matter of fact,” Buck said proudly, tugging on his lapel. “Back in my lawman days I was considered quite - OW!”

JD whipped the wet towel he’d snatched from the floor again, and Buck was ducking it and looking for one of his own when the door to the bathhouse opened and Chris came in.

“Oh - howdy, Chris.” Buck said, immediately stopping his shenanigans and forcing himself to calm down. Chris Larabee was Buck’s oldest friend, but Buck had learned the hard way that these days Chris had no sense of humor.

JD skidded to a halt as well, tossing away the towel as if it were a rattlesnake. He looked at Chris sheepishly, but didn’t say a word. Chris gave both men serious looks, and said in his flat monotone, “You two had better come to the jail. We got trouble.”

JD and Buck traded looks. JD said, “Another murder?”

Chris nodded gravely. “Mirror image of the last one. Come on.”