"He checked into the hotel, all by himself," Vin said. "I don't think he ever left, neither. Last I saw him, he was readin' a newspaper over lunch, in the hotel dining room. Just relaxin'."
Larabee slowly shook his head, staring blankly across the street. "See any weapons on him?"
"Nope. And all's he carried was one grip. Clothes are home made, not store-bought. Just looks like a farmer, is all."
"You sure that's who the kid was watching?"
"No mistakin' it. Chris, he looked about to drop right there on the sidewalk. I never saw anybody turn so pale."
Frowning thoughtfully, Larabee said, "Maybe the kid came here runnin' from somethin'. Hell, maybe that's his pa, come to fetch him back home. The man look old enough for that?"
"I reckon. Could have been in his late thirties."
"You happen to hear him talk? Any accent?"
With a deep sigh, Vin nodded. "Talks like he's got a mouth full of taffy, just like Sam."
Chris nodded. Both men idly watched a passing buggy, then two riders jogging slowly the other way. Then Vin cocked his head thoughtfully.
"Chris . . . what if that is Sam's pa?"
Larabee aimed a questioning frown at the tracker. "What if it is?"
"What kinda man scares a kid bone-white, just at the sight of him?"
+ + + + + + +
With evening falling, Sam wanted to be alone, yet was terrified of it. The silent hollowness of the church felt like a mausoleum, and Josiah's gentle inquiries could not be answered. JD seemed nowhere to be found. Vin had become invisible, and Buck was reported as out on patrol with Ezra Standish. Even lamp light in the window of Nathan's clinic whispered welcome, but what, then, would Sam and the black healer have to say?
And so Sam walked. Out to the swimming hole, where dead cattails rattled like hollow bones. Out into the nearby hills, where Vin had shared the gift of silence, and yet the cold hush of the breeze brought no peace, and the growing shadows spoke only of winter. Back to the darkened stable, where warm bodies emanated the clean, spicy scent of horse. Out in the corral, Sam sat on the edge of the water trough, listening to the gentle, rhythmic crunch of teeth munching sweet hay. Then restlessness gnawed again, until Sam saw the lights of the saloon spilling amber across the boardwalk. In shadows beyond, a figure moved, a long, slouching stride whose familiarity let the youngster breathe again.
The man raised his chin in curious recognition, peering towards the slight figure in the shadows. Lamplight touched the smile in his eyes, as he walked past the saloon door to meet the youth.
"What you doing, out here in the dark?
Tanner stopped, just at arm's reach, now a silhouette with his slouch hat cocked slightly in question. "Y' all right?"
Nosy sort of question, but then, hell, Sam had damned near kerflummoxed right in front of him. Likely he thought the kid was taking sick.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just fixin' to get tired and sleep."
"All right. Good night, then."
Tanner nodded, turned back towards the saloon, and the thought was suddenly there, God, to holler after him, to spill all the hurt and fear and awfulness, just so that someone else heard, someone else knew.
The man paused. And Sam felt like a damned fool.
"Say, uh . . . is it busy in there tonight?"
"No, looks pretty quiet. Reckon folks are startin' to stay closer to home, as it gets colder."
"Would . . . you think it would be all right if I come in, just a bit? I won't be no trouble."
"Come, if you like."
Thus were woven the threads of Fate, on impulse and kindness, fear and compassion.
Larabee sat at the corner table, hat on the table beside a mostly-full bottle of whiskey and a half-empty shot glass, while a book rested open on his knee. Quiet was not the word, for the saloon positively echoed. One man hunched over a beer at the far end of the bar, two more talked in low voices at its middle. The bartender almost resembled part of the furniture, only his hands moving, as he polished glasses with a white towel.
Chris looked up with a small but warm smile, as Vin came in. To Sam's surprise, the smile did not waver as it took in the boy at Vin's heels.
"Welcome to the party."
With a wry grin, Vin replied, "I'll see if I can find a seat."
The bartender gave a whistle, and Vin turned to catch the shot glass arcing across the room.
Looking up at Sam, Chris said, "Son, you want a glass of lemonade, I think they got some back there."
"Oh, no thanks."
Then turning his attention back to Vin, Chris asked, "So, what's going on out there?"
Dropping into his seat, Vin replied, "Quiet as church on Monday mornin'. I was thinkin' of maybe takin' a turn around the hills, tomorrow. Take a couple days."
Sam sat cautiously, as Chris chuckled at the tracker. "The quiet is killin' ya, huh? Just like a mule, you can't stand prosperity."
Vin ducked his head over a smile. "Reckon not."
"Sure, go ahead. Buck and Ezra will be back tomorrow, anyhow."
"JD back from the Wells place yet?"
"You kiddin'? Between Nettie's good cookin' and Casey smilin' at him, why, that boy won't leave until Nettie throws him out with the cat."
They both laughed, the amiable indulgence of elders for the young, and settled into comfortable quiet. The swinging doors creaked open to admit two more men, but cheerful greetings from the bar quickly identified them as local regulars. Their voices settled into a friendly rumble of casual talk. Chris returned to his book, occasionally sipping his drink. Vin propped long legs on another chair, and appeared to fall into a wakeful doze. Breathing deep and slow, Sam tried to draw from their stillness, to settle into their shared repose as if it were a pool of warm water. Don't think about that man at the hotel. Don't think about what must be done, now. About leaving.
The jolt of realization must have been visible, as Sam felt Vin's eyes briefly watching. But the youngster refused to look back, struggling to keep all thought off a too-stiff face. Leaving was the only choice. To run once more. Yet the stage would not come through again for three more days, and Sam did not have that long. Tomorrow. Someone surely would be going out of town, a farmer or rancher returning home, a traveler bound to the next town. It didn't even matter which direction, only that there was a means to go, and that Sam make use of it. Why, God? This was not a bad place. There were good people here. There was even the chance of making friends, but now . . . How had he gotten here? How had he known where to look? Regardless, the man was nothing if not canny, and somewhere Sam had slipped, had left a sign. Had bought a ticket under a name the man would know . . . Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Sam stood suddenly, and the eyes of both companions flicked up in surprise. Fumbling, the youngster said, "I'm uh . . . gonna get a glass of lemonade."
Chris's lips tightened, as he watched the boy walk away. Damned skinny pup in JD's old, oversized coat. A yeller-eyed coyote pup who, for a while there, was looking pretty good, but one day the stage comes in, and now he acts like he's waiting for a shotgun blast. Good thing Inez wasn't in, tonight, or she'd likely be shoving food at the kid, and right now he didn't look like he'd care to eat. The bartender nodded quickly to the boy's request, and fetched a tall glass from the back bar. Vin's glance caught Chris's, across the table, and it didn't take a mind-reader to see puzzlement and concern mingled there. Lord. When the hell had stray kids become part of their job? Likely tomorrow they'd have an irate father on their hands, storming around town and demanding in a jaw-cracking, hillbilly accent to know where his no-good, runaway son had gotten off to. Shaking his head, Chris flipped a page and returned to his book.
The saloon door opened again, one man stepping inside. Chris glanced up, saw a stranger. No sign of weapons, a plain, weathered face, and workingman clothes. The man walked at an easy pace to the bar and leaned on it quietly. Good, just someone wanting to ward off the chill. Chris fingered another page, then saw Vin's reaction, easing upright in his chair with a hunter's cold focus on his face.
"Chris? That's him."
Larabee turned towards the bar but Sam now had his back to them, facing the stranger. The rigid set of the kid's shoulders damned sure backed up Vin's assertion that he and the stranger knew each other. He did not move, as the stranger hooked an elbow on the polished mahogany and smiled. A wolf's smile. Then Chris did not know where that thought came from, saw only an ordinary, sun-bronzed face that seemed to show amiable greeting. He could not hear what the man said, only that the manner was calm and good-natured. Sam replied in low, clipped tones. The stranger chuckled, took a step closer and the kid's whole, slender form went stiff. Yet the man spoke quietly, the words indistinct, again casually leaning on the bar. If this were the boy's father, he appeared to be making every effort to avoid a confrontation. The boy shook his head now, a quick, vehement gesture, and repeated it when the man spoke once more.
Then the man reached out, a slow, soft gesture, and touched the boy's cheek. The boy jerked back, no matter that the man spoke with a smile. What -? Yet even as alarms sounded in Chris's head, those instincts he never ignored, Sam McLachlan reacted with explosive finality.
The instant would replay itself in his mind time and again, in the days to come. The friendly murmur of men's voices, random laughter from the regulars down the bar, even the clink of the bartender washing glasses - shattered by a whacking explosion that slammed all into a forever of stunned silence. The stranger fell heavily against the bar. Sagging with eyes and mouth agape, and white smoke curling from - what? Facing the man, a Remington pistol wavered in the wide-eyed grip of the coyote boy. That Chris Larabee suddenly viewed it all over the sights of his own pistol struck him as not so remarkable, as the way the man seemed to go so utterly boneless, a complete stranger sliding, dying, down the mahogany face of the bar. And then the stricken man began a great, gargling scream.
Gut-shot, a cold voice whispered in Larabee's inner ear. Grating howls squeezed out of more hurt than a mortal body could bear, as if screaming could somehow fend off the agony tearing within. Carefully Chris stepped towards the youngster, his aim unwavering even as he glanced down at the writhing knot of anguish that once was a man. Sweet Jesus, where had the kid gotten a pistol?
"Sam, put it down." He fought for a level tone of command, even as the man's torment bawled itself into random words;
"Awww, God, God, please, ohhh, God, Jesus, awww -."
The kid's eyes were positively wild, pupils huge and unseeing, the black, deadly finger of that Remington still pointed on target. Fear could kill as quickly as anger, and Chris did not want to shoot this kid. But he did not want to be shot, either.
"C'mon, Sam, lay it down." Larabee raised his voice over the wounded man's squalls. "It's over. Just set it on the bar."
"Sam . . . " That was Vin's voice, now, a rasping tone that edged under new cries of tearing agony. "Easy, pard, lemme have it now, all right?"
Chris smothered an oath, as the tracker stepped right to the boy - too close, damn you, Vin! Yet Tanner continued to speak softly, lightly touched the boy's sleeve - and Sam responded. Shoulders slumped, the pistol sagged - and dropped into Vin's waiting hand. No sooner did Vin take it, than the youngster collapsed against him, and slid through his startled grasp into a heap against the bar's foot-rail. Then howling misery pressed around them in an awful fog, clawing at the walls of their own mortality, until all present wished oblivion would still the man's cries.
The boy still huddled there, when the dying man's gut-ripping yells brought Nathan plunging through the door. Chris was not ready to move anything, yet, and the kid seemed willing to stay there, curled tight as a terrapin in its shell. Vin crouched beside him, not touching him, but not more than a hand's width away. Whatever worked.
And still the stranger screamed. His harsh squalls ripped from him as fast as he could draw breath. Each paroxysm of his body painted a bloody map of his suffering on the floor. Inez is gonna hit the ceiling, Chris thought briefly. He watched as Nathan shook his head, tapping a small syringe in readiness. Into the arms of Morpheus, as Ezra might say, but only morphine could ease that man's hell, until Death claimed him. God, let that stuff work fast, or Chris would jam a rag in the man's mouth, just to stop his gawdawful -.
The doors clapped nearly off their hinges as JD skidded into the hellish racket, eyes huge and pistol in hand. He took the scene in with a glance, however, and holstered his Colt as he eased to Chris's side.
"My God, what happened?" he whispered. As if that man could hear anything over his own howls.
"That kid shot some fella."
"What kid?" Then JD peered closer at the still-doubled form that Vin guarded, and his eyebrows shot almost to his hairline. "Oh, God. Sam . . . Chris, did they fight?"
"No." Suddenly Chris felt simply too damn tired. "I have no idea why. They might know each other."
JD closed his mouth, looked at Nathan's drawn face, met Vin's opaque stare, looked at the thick blood smearing the floor like some ghastly syrup. Now they could smell the stuff, gawdawful brassy stink that stayed in the back of a man's nose for days. The man seemed to be relaxing, his cries now dropping to guttural groans. And another smell arose, green and cloying, which told them that more parts of the man were relaxing, as well.
"I think . . . " JD swallowed and tried again. "I think I'll find a couple extra blankets for the jail. It's gonna be cold in there, tonight."
Jail? JD had already gone, before it sank in that Chris had to throw a skinny, fifteen year old, half-starved coyote of a kid ~ who had just blown a man's guts open ~ into that miserable, puke-stinking pesthole of a jail. Damn this job, anyhow!
+ + + + + + +
Larabee's eyes looked haggard, as he watched JD's arrival over a cup of coffee. The young man pulled off his bowler hat and raked the other hand through his too-long dark hair. Likely he had not slept much last night, either.
"Not a peep. He won't even look at anybody. God, Chris, this is just so . . . weird." JD dropped into the chair opposite, absently tucking his now-tousled hair behind one ear. "I mean, if Sam knows this guy, if this is someone he's running away from, why shoot him? The man wasn't even armed! And it's not like we'd let anyone do anything to Sam."
"Something already happened once, remember?"
JD stared at him, that open-mouthed look of realization. "Damn. So you think he was afraid this guy was gonna jump him in some alley, like the other time?"
"Maybe. I don't know. Point is, you can't kill a man for what you fear he'll do later. What else you got?"
"Oh!" Fumbling in a vest pocket, JD pulled out a folded piece of paper. "Not a lot. The dead man is Lew Yarbrough of Licking Creek, Tennessee, according to the hotel register. Paid for two nights in advance, with cash. He had left on him sixty-three dollars and seventeen cents, no large bills, and uh, a letter addressed to him from one John Frame of Boone Station, Tennessee. Just personal stuff, sounds like he knew about Yarbrough's trip West, but don't say what it was for."
"Is Frame a relative?"
"No, or at least it's don't really say. It's just signed, 'faithfully yours, John Frame.' And there's a couple receipts from bank drafts, small amounts, also with Yarbrough's name, but they look like things he's been carrying around for ages. That's about all, other than personal stuff, clothes and shavin' kit and all. It's all listed here." JD made a face, as he pushed the paper over to Chris. "Next time, let someone else go through a dead guy's things. That felt too spooky. Like he was gonna walk in and grab my shoulder with his cold, dead hand, or something."
Chris surprised himself by chuckling, as he folded the paper and pocketed it. "Sat up reading that Dr. Frankenstein story again, huh?"
"No." A rueful grin eased the younger man's tired face. "But I might as well have."
"Well, get some coffee and breakfast, looks like we got some investigatin' to do. If Sam won't talk, we may end up contacting this John Frame, just to get a line on any family or whatever."
"He did what?"
Buck and Ezra's twin looks of astonishment greeted Larabee's recital of the night's events. Leaning against his saddle rack with his hat in hand, Buck could only shake his head. The two of them had barely gotten their saddles pulled, when Chris came in with that look of doom on his face. In the sweet hay-scented dimness of their stable, his sparse words painted a stark picture.
"I'd a never guessed that of the kid," Buck said heavily. "Hell, there's gotta be more to this than meets the eye! I mean, he's a tough lil' shit, but he's got a good heart. He works like a mule, and you seen how he tried to defend Inez."
"Could be he's got a hair-trigger, too," Chris replied.
"For God's sake, Chris! Do you gotta be the Devil's advocate about everything?"
"It's our job to look at all sides, Buck. And that man was in no way endangering that boy, when he chose to take his life."
"Well, you just said he laid a hand on him -."
"The back of an open hand, and it was not -." Chris found himself floundering for a description. "Not a blow. Something else."
"Like what else?"
Chris scowled, then that little devil that Buck always raised in him woke up. He stepped over to offer the same, languid touch - and Buck almost brained himself on an overhead shelf.
"Geezus, Chris! That's disgusting!" Then the tall man's dark brows drew down like a squall line. "Maybe this guy was one of them . . . them . . . C'mon, Ezra!"
"Pervert?" As always, Ezra tried hard to remain invisible, when it came to sparring between Buck and Chris Larabee. A man ran less risk standing between two oncoming trains.
"Yeah, them fellas that like little boys. Maybe that's what Sam was runnin' from."
"Could be." Larabee nodded. "Which is what we have to find out. Sam still ain't talking, though, so this may take a while to sort out."
"And meanwhile the poor kid is sittin' in that stinkin' jail."
"Got a better idea?"
"No." Buck's face fell, and he sighed deeply. "Have you heard back from Judge Travis?"
"Yep. He'll be down in a few days. Said he'll wire ahead, and meanwhile, we've got to get statements from the witnesses, and find out where they'll be, when he sets a hearing date."
"I guess it'll likely come to trial, won't it?"
"Unless Sam pleads guilty from the get-go, you can count on it."
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