by Sevenstars

JD Dunne stepped out of the Four Corners post office and tugged his brown bowler down tighter against a sudden sharp gust of wind off the west mountains. He peered into it with slitted eyes, sniffing the air for a telltale clean, moist scent. None yet, but it was coming. There'd be snow on those peaks in another month. Already, though the thermometer still hit the mid-eighties in the afternoon, nights dipped to the high fifties and below. By November it would be cold enough down here on the flats for the first snow, and winter would unofficially arrive.

Winter. JD paused bemusedly at the thought that it would be his second winter in Four Corners. Hard to believe he wasn't yet twenty and had seen more action in the last two years than many men did in a lifetime. Harder yet to believe he'd found a place with a group of men so diverse, so...special...and earned their trust and their respect. Even the formidable Chris Larabee said he was a good man in a fight now, and counted on JD to watch his back when the need arose. Hell, JD was in dime novels now, like his first great hero, Bat Masterson. It was a sobering thing to reflect that maybe somewhere back East there was some kid reading of his exploits with the Seven as he'd read of Bat's, and saying to himself, "I want to be like JD Dunne when I get big. If he could do it, I can do it."

He knew how much his mother had wanted him to go to college, but he thought that even if the money had been enough for that, he wouldn't have done it. Anybody could go to college. It took a certain kind of man to tame a wild town, to stand beside the likes of Vin and Buck and Chris in a fight. What was it Horace Greeley used to say, twenty-odd years ago? "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country." JD was doing that, and it made him feel proud that he had the chance.

And he felt he'd grown so much. His mother might not have approved of the fact that he'd had to shoot some of his fellow men over the last couple of years, but he thought even she would have had to admit that college wasn't the only place a man could learn things. Each of the other six had had things to teach him, valuable, practical things: Chris how to lead others and be an example to them; Vin how to track, to shoot long distance, to find food and water in the most unpromising surroundings, and to see and appreciate the stark beauty of mountain and desert and high plain; Ezra to spot cheats, Nathan to accept each person he met as an individual and to look beyond surface appearances to the character within, Josiah to listen to the voice of God deep in his heart, and Buck...Buck had taught him what it was like to have a big brother.

They had all learned and grown and changed for the better. Chris had discovered his heart hadn't really burned with his family; he didn't drink anywhere near as much as Buck said he used to do, and Ezra had a pool on with the others as to how long it would take him to discover that Mary and Billy would make the perfect second family for him. Vin had learned to trust others to watch his back, had found that there really were people who believed he'd been framed and were willing to help him fight to prove his innocence and regain his good name when the time was right. Josiah had rediscovered his faith, integrating his father's stern Christianity with everything he had learned over his long years of doubt and travel and study. Nathan had found that there really were people who'd accept a former slave as an equal, and had honed his skills as a healer far beyond even what they'd already been when JD first met him. Ezra had learned that not everyone was a mark to be conned, that you could have friends--family--who cared about you no matter what his mother had tried to teach him as he was growing up. Buck...what had Buck learned? Maybe just that it really was possible for his oldest friend to be turned around, if not by himself alone.

You'd like them, Mamma, he thought; he found himself talking to his mother a lot more in his thoughts than he used to when he first came out here, perhaps because the loss was no longer so sharp and fresh and painful. Well, you'd like Buck, and Nathan and might be a little scared of Chris, though Mary and Billy and Casey and Nettie aren't, and you'd be a little unsure about Vin and Ezra...but they are good men, Mamma, all of them. They look out for me...we all look out for each other. And we're doin' something that's important, that matters, something we're appreciated for, something that'll be remembered for a while. Maybe we won't ever get rich at it, like you hoped I'd do if I went to college, but there's other things to life than gettin' rich-- he grinned to himself-- no matter what Ezra says about it.

He stepped off the boardwalk and angled slowly across the street toward the jail, dodging the puddles and mudholes from last night's rain and the wagons and riders beginning to fill the thoroughfare, touching his hat to the ladies. He wondered sometimes at how he'd happened to land just here, right where and when good guns were needed. Josiah would have said the Good Lord was guiding his finger when he jabbed it down on that map in Omaha, and maybe Josiah would be right. When he'd first headed west out of New York he hadn't really given a lot of thought to where in the West he wanted to go. He'd thought about Dodge, since it was where Bat had made his name. But during the two-day Pullman journey to the UP junction at Omaha, he'd begun to have second thoughts. The railroad was in Dodge, and the railroad (he told himself, looking around at the fancies of the sleeper car) always brought civilization with it. He wanted someplace that was still wild, someplace where adventure could be had and he could feel he was following Bat's example in bringing law and order. So when he got to Omaha he stopped over for a few days, staying in an inexpensive boardinghouse while he shopped for guns and a saddle and spent some time in the city library and the newspaper's morgue. In the end he'd fixed on two main choices, Montana or New Mexico: both long enough settled to have a reasonably well established range-and-mining society, both remote enough to be "wild." And then he'd closed his eyes and stabbed his finger at the atlas, and when he looked, it was bang on Four Corners. Not a particularly auspicious-sounding name, as Ezra might have said, but, he told himself, it was a place to start. So he'd boarded another train, this one to Denver, and from there a stagecoach south, and here he was.

Funny how things worked out. He'd jumped off that stage with nothing more to his name than a saddle, two Colt Lightnings, a new eighteen-dollar all-wool suit, a bowler hat and forty dollars. He still didn't have much more than that, in a material way. But he had things that mattered more to him than mere money. Friends--no, make that family--that he respected and trusted and, yes, loved. The trust of a Federal circuit-court judge and his feisty daughter-in-law. A girl he'd probably marry a few more years down the road. A sheriff's badge and the position that went with it. The respect and gratitude of a town, no, a whole district--white folks and red and brown and yellow and even black. He made it to the other side of the street and stopped just under the awning to scan up and down the dusty thoroughfare. Nothing like New York. But that was good. It was a fresh, new place, a place to start over, a place where nobody cared that your mother had been a domestic and you'd never known your father. A place where you truly could climb as high as your own innate talents and abilities would take you, and where you had friends, good friends, to help you do it. Where there was so much you'd learned--about tracking, and fighting, and surviving on the trail, and reading people...about yourself.

Something up the other end of the street caught his eye and he looked that way. Three riders, and he'd recognize Josiah's bulk and the blazed face of Vin's Peso anywhere. They must have caught the fellow they'd gone out for, and he seemed to be upright in the saddle, which suggested they'd taken him alive, if perhaps not entirely unpunctured. He opened the jail door and leaned in to call to Buck, who'd gone over ahead of him while he stopped for the office mail after breakfast. "Hey, Buck, Vin'n'Josiah're comin' in. Looks like they got him."

"No foolin'?" The older man came to the door and stood beside him, a solid warm head-taller presence that always made him feel safe and cared for even when they argued, eyeing the trio which had stopped in front of Yosemite's livery barn. A telegram had come in from Silver City last week, with the description of a man wanted for murder there and believed to have been fleeing east. JD hadn't been able to keep himself from wondering why the man would do that when the Mexican border was so close to Silver City, but apparently he had: a few days later Vin had had word from Kojay that a man who fit the description was camping in the hills at the edge of the reservation, and he'd gone out to see. Josiah had elected to go along, citing the fact that the church was finally just about as finished as he could get it and it might be the last chance he'd have to get out in the Lord's good wilderness for a while, what with the winter coming on.

Buck watched the trio dismounting, Josiah handing over the horses' reins to Yosemite while Vin watched their prisoner, and gave a hitch to his waistband before he said, "Well, ain't no use standin' around here waitin' for 'em when we could do it inside. Don't look hardly professional. They'll be along in a little bit. C'mon, kid, I got a fresh pot of coffee goin'."

"Yeah, I guess. Got a new mailing of Wanted posters here," JD added, flourishing a large envelope. "We better take a look through 'em."

"You're learnin', boy," Buck told him with a light affectionate swat that tilted his bowler forward on his head. "Always helps to know who you need to be keepin' an eye out for."

They retreated to the interior of the office and JD hung up his suit jacket while Buck filled two heavy white crockery cups from the gray granite pot that was always brewing on the heater stove. A few minutes later the door opened and their two friends came in, urging their prisoner on ahead of them at the point of Vin's mare's leg. JD and Buck looked him over carefully on the chance that he might have been on some poster they'd seen recently. He didn't appear to be the sort who would stand out in a crowd: reasonably good-looking in a weathered way, but not tall like Chris or Buck, or big like Josiah, or well-dressed like Ezra. He was about the gambler's size and build and moved with a certain grace that was apparent even past the dust and stiffness of the ride from the reservation. About forty to forty-five, JD estimated, with fair skin burned light bronze by much sun and wind, a nose that had been broken at some point in the past, sandy hair, cool gray eyes, sharply-trimmed sideburns down to the edge of the jaw, a close-cropped mustache. His black Stetson hat was of the style commonly worn in Montana--straight-brimmed, low-crowned, four-ways-dented; if it was a true signpost to his origins he was a long way from home. Apart from that his clothes weren't all that different from Buck's: a double-breasted blue cotton shirt, short canvas jacket, gray trousers lined on the seat and inner legs, where the most wear came, with dun-colored antelope skin that gave a gently contrasting effect, and a cherry silk bandanna. Even the almost liver-colored brown gloves were nothing out of the ordinary: many riders liked to use them to protect their hands from rope burns, weather, and fencewire. Only the silver band and ornaments that brightened the hat, and the black boots with green ornamental stitching and long-shanked jingling Mexican spurs, suggested any large expenditure, and the latter at least, JD knew, was to be expected: any Westerner would spend a month's pay or more on his footgear.

Josiah was carrying three bedrolls, three sets of saddlebags, three rifles and an extra shell belt, which he deposited in the corner by the safe. "Good mornin', brethren," he said. "Got the prisoner's worldly goods here, JD; thought they'd be better here than left on his saddle."

"Thanks, Josiah. Have any trouble with him?"

"Naw." It was Vin who answered. "Took him like he was some greenhorn never heard of stalkin'. Hold 'em out, you," he added to the prisoner, fishing a key out of his jacket pocket. The man extended his manacled wrists and Vin unlocked the shackles. JD had seen Vin work a prisoner before. He'd have tethered the man's horse to Josiah's and had the ex-preacher ride ahead, leading the animal, while he himself hung back and a little to one side with his mare's leg crosswise on his pommel, ready in case the man should try a break. Bringing someone in always went easier if you had two men to do it.

Buck got up and went over to unlock one of the cells as Vin gathered in the manacles--they were his, left over from his bounty-hunting days--and JD stood. "Empty your pockets," he said.

The prisoner eyed him. "Who says?"

"I say, and I'm the sheriff here," JD told him. "And I don't know how they do it in any other jail, but in this one we lock your valuables up for you and give you a receipt while you're with us. That's the proper way of doin' it, and that's what we do."

Buck drifted lazily over from the cell bloc, but the look on his face was far from lazy. "Our young sheriff asked you politely to comply with the rules, friend," Josiah rumbled quietly. "Your visit here will go a lot more smoothly if you learn to do as you're told." Vin didn't say anything, but the muzzle of the mare's leg traversed gently, lining on the man's belt buckle.

After a heartbeat of hesitation, as if he were estimating the character of the quartet, the prisoner slowly began fishing things out of his pockets and laying them on the desk. A ten-inch ivory-handled spring knife, a tin match case, a cigar cutter, a black leather cheroot case, a slim Cordova-leather wallet and a small buckskin bag, firmly swollen, for coins, and last of all an expensive-looking watch, a fine thin gold one incongruously moored to his shirt collar, cowboy-fashion, by a braided chain of sorrel horsehair. "The belt too," JD told him, and waited while he undid the silver buckle and pulled the length of stamped leather out of the loops. "Okay, Buck, put him away."

Buck clamped his hand on the prisoner's shoulder and steered him toward the cell. "Got a name for him, Vin?" JD asked his friend. "I'll need it for my report to the Judge."

The tracker shook his head. "We asked'n'he just told us to go to hell," he said. "Chris'n'them around?"

"Saloon, I guess. You want some coffee?"

"Naw. You maybe had some rain down here, but out where we were it 's dry as a bone. Josiah'n'me was figurin' somethin' to cut the dust, and then a bath'n'some food'n'a few hours'a sleep."

"Okay, we'll see you later then," JD told him, as the cell door clanged shut and Buck came back and threw himself down in the extra chair set alongside the desk.

JD opened a drawer, pulled out a sheet of paper, and set to work on the receipt. September 11, 1879. Receipt for personal items surrendered by prisoner-- he hesitated a moment before adding-- John Doe. He pulled the wallet across the desktop, opened it and began carefully counting the greenbacks inside. There didn't seem to be any personal papers, letters or the like, not even a bill of sale for his horse.

Watching JD's steel-nibbed pen scratching across the paper, Buck idly drew the watch across for a closer look. It wasn't merely women whose beauty Buck Wilmington appreciated; anything that pleased the eye--a landscape, a fine horse, a good piece of workmanship--was worth a second look. He turned the watch slowly in his hand, rubbing his thumb lightly over the engraved decoration on the case, then popped the lid open to see whether it kept good time. Inside was a little round photograph of a woman and child. Buck guessed the woman to be no more than twenty if she was that, a small-boned, delicate person with very dark, glossy hair worn not in the pulled-to-the-back-of-the-head style currently fashionable, but parted in the center and drawn smoothly over the ears to a bun just above the nape of the neck, the way he remembered his ma doing it when he was a kid in the '50's. Her dress appeared to be a plaid, with a little white collar and a dark bow tie at the neck, accented by a couple of velvet bands between shoulder and elbow. Instead of a hat or bonnet she wore what was apparently a close-fitted little cap of some sort on the back of her head; he could see the long ribbon streamers trailing from it to either side of her neck. The child, a solemn dark-haired infant of indeterminate sex, might have been a year old; it certainly seemed capable of holding its head up, and was staring into the camera as if fascinated. Buck frowned briefly, wondering what there was about the mother's face that seemed so familiar to him. Thing's gotta be, what, close on twenty years old...can't be I met her somewheres, can it?

"Hey, kid, lookit this. Looks like he's got a family, or had, maybe," he said, and held out the opened watch for JD to see.

He had expected that, as a conscientious officer of the law, JD would scold him for fooling around with the prisoner's personal belongings. Instead his face went absolutely chalk white, and Buck honestly wasn't sure which he was going to do first, pass out where he sat or lose the flapjacks and bacon he'd had for breakfast. With a hand that trembled, the kid plucked the watch from Buck's fingers, staring at it with dilated eyes. ""

Deeply concerned, Buck reached out to put a hand on JD's shoulder. "Hey, kid, what is it? What's got you so spooked? It's just'n old picture--"

The moment he felt Wilmington's touch JD flinched violently and seemed to come back from wherever he'd been. His head snapped up, his light eyes fixing on the cell where their new prisoner had settled onto the cot, and with a sudden surge he was on his feet, the swivel chair crashing back against the wall with the violence of his movement. Buck jumped at the sound and scrambled up himself, but JD was already across the room, standing right up against the bars, his pale features contorted with a rage so deep it almost scared the experienced gunslinger, who had seen him terrified, furious, and ridden with guilt, but never so consumed with anger. "You!" he yelled. "You! HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO US??"

"What?" the prisoner responded, looking up.

"Don't try to pretend you don't know what I'm talkin' about, you--you--you self-made son-of-a-bitch!" JD shouted. "Do you think I don't know my own mamma when I see her picture? Or didn't you ever stop to think I might not spend my whole life in New York? Get up on your feet when I talk to you, you deserter!"

His mamma? Buck thought, in astonished horror. My God, he can't mean--but then--

The man stood, seeming to Buck's eye more confused than anything else, until his eye fell on the watch still clutched in JD's hand. "Your mamma," he echoed; the tone held the faintest hint of a question.

JD was shaking again, his whole slight, fine-boned body trembling like an aspen leaf with the violence of his passion. My God, that's why I thought I'd seen her before. She looks just like him. Or he looks like her. Same's Adam looked mostly like Sarah. "What'd you think, that we were both dead and out of your hair?" the kid demanded. "That would've been a lot easier on your conscience, I guess, if you've got one! You bastard, you as good as killed her yourself! It wasn't any different than if you'd put a gun to her head, except it took a lot longer!"

A gun, Buck realized, his gaze flicking to the twin ivory-handled Colt Lightnings at JD's waist. He made one long desperate lunge, wrapped his big hand around JD's slender right arm, and yanked him back away from the cell and out of the man's reach. "What in the hell have I told you!" he rebuked the kid. "Don't you know he could've reached through the bars and grabbed one of your guns?" He shot his best Chris Larabee-style intimidating glare at the prisoner, who still seemed bemused and astonished by the sudden confrontation. "If he'd had another minute or two to think--"

JD tore at Buck's grip with his other hand. "Let go of me, Buck. I'm warnin' you, turn loose or I'll--"

"I'll turn loose all right," Buck muttered, and spun the kid completely around once before he let go, hurling him backward into the abandoned swivel chair. The whole jail seemed to vibrate to the violence of body meeting furniture. "NATHAN!!" Buck bellowed. "Nathan, get in here now!"

JD, with his back to the windows, hadn't noticed the healer passing by outside, but Buck had. The former slave threw the door open and paused on the threshold, looking in bewilderment from Buck's expression of half fury and half terrified concern, to JD's awkwardly sprawled position half on and half off the chair. "Somethin' wrong?"

"Oh, there ain't a damn thing wrong, unless you count this fool kid gettin' right up in the face of a wanted murderer with both his guns on and just about rippin' him up one side and down the other!" the gunslinger retorted in a voice heavy with sarcasm. He was almost panting as the reaction set in and he began to visualize what could have happened if he'd been a fraction slower, or if he hadn't been there at all. "Take a look at him, will you, Nate, and tell me if he's got a fever or if I just need to slap some good sense into his head!"

Nathan, looking little more enlightened than before, crossed the room quickly and squatted on his heels next to the chair. JD seemed a little dazed, as if the force of his impact had stunned him, but he put up a hand as if to ward his friend off. "I ain't--leave off, Nathan, there's nothin'--"

"You let me decide that," Nathan ordered. "You must be actin' someways diff'rent for Buck to be like this." He felt JD's forehead, then for good measure checked his pulse and peered under his lifted eyelid. "Damn, your heart's goin' like a runaway stagecoach."

"He all right?" Buck demanded from where he stood. Nathan was surprised the older man wasn't right up alongside him, watching over his shoulder; that was where he could usually be found whenever JD was the subject of a medical examination, however cursory. He observed, as he turned his head to answer, that Buck was alternating glares from JD to the prisoner in the cell, some guy Nathan had never seen before. Remembering that Vin and Josiah had headed out after a fugitive a couple of days ago, he hazarded a guess that this might be the one they'd caught.

"He ain't fevered," Nathan allowed. "But you best get him calmed down, Buck--I don't know what happened in here, but it can't be no good for him to have a pulse rate like that."

Buck hesitated, and Nathan could see the wheels turning inside his head as he considered pros and cons: for all his years in the gun trade, Buck was far more transparent than Chris or the younger Vin. "You take care of things here?" he asked after a moment. "Can't leave a prisoner with nobody to watch him--"

"Sure," the healer agreed. "But you owe me an explanation some time, hear?"

"Yeah, right." Buck strode over to the chair and pulled JD to his feet. "Get your coat on," he ordered in a no-nonsense voice. "We're goin' over to the saloon."

"Buck, I--"

Buck fisted a hand in the front of the kid's white cotton city shirt and pulled him up on his toes so they were nose to nose. "Don't you mess with me, boy," he growled. "I ain't in no mood, you savvy? Now do like I tell you." He gave JD a quick little shove toward the coatrack in the corner. JD caught his balance awkwardly, looking back, drawing breath as if to continue his protests, then apparently thinking better of it and turning sullenly to obey.

Buck could hear the rumble of Josiah's voice from the otherwise quiet saloon--it was, after all, very early in the day--as he all but hauled JD up onto the boardwalk by the scruff of his neck and pushed him inside. The other four of the Seven were gathered around Ezra's usual table, Vin and Josiah nursing a couple of cold beers, Chris and Ezra--who, given his usual routine, had probably only just finished breakfast--with steaming cups of coffee in front of them, the gambler as usual almost unconsciously practising fancy shuffles and one-handed cuts with his ever-present deck of cards. He threw his head back and laughed, his gold tooth flashing. "Oh, Mr. Sanchez, how I wish I might have been present to observe the expression on the miscreant's visage when he turned around and beheld you!" he exclaimed in a tone of delight. "You continue to astonish me with your ability to move in silence a feline would blush to note. I salute you, sir!" and he lifted his cup as if it had been a glass of fine wine.

"Yeah," said Vin, "the guy was s'busy keepin' his eye on me, pokin' around the flat just below his campsite, he never stopped to think maybe there'd been somebody with me. That's why we split up a couple miles afore we got to where Kojay'd said he was at. Gotta give him one thing, though, he camps like a redskin. Up high, and you couldn't hardly see no smoke off his fire."

Their heads came around sharply as Buck spoke to Inez in a hard, flat voice. "Whiskey. A bottle."

"Si, Señor Buck." Inez had caught the warning in his tone.

Chris sat forward, agate eyes narrowing, knowing something had to be very wrong if Buck wasn't even making his usual attempt to flirt. They watched as Buck marched the obviously angry JD over to the table, plunked him down in one of the vacant chairs, turned to accept the bottle and glasses Inez brought, and splashed amber-brown liquor into one glass until it was full almost to the rim. "Drink that, kid," he ordered.


"You can drink it or I can hold your nose and make you drink it," Buck told him. "And I'll do it, you know damn well I will. Now belt it down."

A faint frown showed on Vin's face and he shot a look at Chris. Whatever he read in the black-dressed man's ordinarily inscrutable expression apparently convinced him that it was worthwhile waiting for an explanation. JD, watching Buck with an eye that walled like a nervous horse's, hesitantly picked up the glass, paused, and then, with a look as if he were downing some of Nathan's "ditch water," tossed the whole thing down in one desperate gulp. Immediately he turned red and began to cough. Josiah reached over and whacked him gently between the shoulderblades a few times. Buck inexorably poured another and set it in front of him.

"No," JD protested again, but in a feebler, less argumentative tone. "Please, Buck, I don't want--I don't need it no more."

Buck stared hard at him a moment, then relented. "'Least you got some color back in your face. Damnit, boy, I ain't seen anythin' as white as you since the last snow." He pulled out the chair beside JD's and sat down with the air of a man prepared to stay for as long as it took. "Now, you gonna tell me what that was all about just now?"

JD clasped his hands tightly together and stared at them wordlessly. "You know," he whispered. "I can tell you know."

"Don't matter what I know." There was suddenly a gentler note in Buck's voice that brought the kid's head up sharply. "Matters this is somethin' you need to get said and off your chest, you think I don't know that too? You ain't got no call to be shy about it now, JD. You know ain't nobody here'll think less of you no matter what you got to say."

There was a silence while JD seemingly tried to get his courage up. Buck waited, his patience suddenly as vast as the desert. After a moment he gently put his hand on his young partner's shoulder, a gesture of encouragement and support. He could feel the faint tremoring coursing through JD's body as he struggled to organize his thoughts.

As if the touch had broken down some invisible barrier, JD spoke. "That guy in the jail... he's... I think he's... my father."

Vin shot another quick look at Chris. Ever since the day of their first meeting they had seemed able to read each other's thoughts, but this time the others at the table, except perhaps for JD, felt that they knew what was passing between the gunslinger and the tracker.

He ain't ever talked about his pa, has he?

No. Just his ma and not much of her, maybe 'cause when he first got here she wasn't much more'n a month dead and it was still too fresh a wound for him to like pickin' at.

I always kinda figured it they was both dead.

Me too. Looks like we both jumped to a conclusion.

Fathers were something of a tender subject among the Seven. Of JD's elders, Buck and Vin had never known theirs, and Ezra had only the imperfect memories of the six-year-old child he had been when his disappeared without trace. Josiah's relationship with his father had been at best adversarial and had been a strong contributing factor to all the doubts and misdeeds of his life. Nathan had both known and loved Obadiah as a child, but they had eventually fallen out. Only Chris had had anything like a secure and conventional childhood. His earliest memories were of a farm in Indiana, but when he was eight years old his parents had joined the emigration to Oregon. His mother died of snakebite near Independence Rock, and the rest of the family went on, mourning but together, until they reached the Promised Land and established their new home. Like many pioneers, starting a farm from scratch away from the traditional Eastern network of relatives and time-tested neighbors available to help families through the labors of the annual agrarian cycle, Chris's father was thrown back on his own resources, especially the labor of his children, and during the summer he was often busy building and repairing outbuildings and fences or off somewhere working for much-needed cash, while in the fall he had to take long hunting trips to get in winter meat, and in winter he ran a trap line for supplemental income. As a result Chris and his sibs took over the field work when he wasn't around, and Chris stalked and killed deer, antelope, wild hogs, occasional mired cattle, fowl of every kind, and of course rabbits. That was how he first learned to ride, to shoot, and to live in wild country, and Buck sometimes thought it was the necessary solidarity of the family he'd grown up in that had given him enough strength to survive the loss of wife and child with as much of his sanity as he had. Then when he was twelve he went to California with a sister and her new husband, and four years later he killed his first man there when he was forced into a gun battle. At seventeen he was riding shotgun for a stage line in the Mother Lode country. Three men tried to hold up his coach. They jumped down in front of it and ordered everyone to hold up their hands. The driver made a move to quiet his team and one of them shot him. In that instant Chris fired. He killed two, one with each barrel, and he nailed the other with a pistol shot at eighty yards and hunted him down when he got away. A few months later he got a tip that there would be another attempt, so he rode on ahead of the coach. He found four men set for an ambush. He came up behind them and called them. Three were killed. The survivor said he never even drew till their guns were already out. There were no more tries on that line while he was with it. And Chris Larabee's reputation was begun.


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