by Sevenstars

Just then the door blasted open and Chris Larabee stood on the threshold, a threatening thundercloud of a figure in his swirling black duster. His face had been more often than not grim, if not pained or furious, ever since Nathan had known him, but there was something about his eyes and stance that suggested a greater menace and rage than the healer had seen before, except perhaps when he'd learned the truth about his family's death. He looked from the prisoner to Nathan, and the watch open in his hand, and Nathan, almost without willing it, began, "Chris, this guy, he's--it looks like--"

"I know," Chris grunted, "JD just got done tellin' us." Crossing to the desk, he took the watch from Nathan's hand and scanned the dedication, then put it down again and strode the rest of the way across the office, just out of arm's reach of the bars.

"Well," the prisoner said, "you'd be Larabee."

"And you'd be Dunne," Chris retorted in the same flat voice.

The other allowed himself a faint smile. "I haven't said that."

"You don't need to. Up," Chris ordered.

Cocking his head, the prisoner stood, and as he reached his feet Chris moved with the speed of a tiger. His left arm flashed out as he took one long lunging step forward, his body turned just slightly profile-on to the bars, and his hand fisted in Dunne's shirtfront and hauled him up against them as his right hand drew and cocked his Colt and pushed it into the angle of the man's jaw. "All I know about you is what the boy told us," he growled quietly, "but judgin' from that you're not anywheres near good enough for him. I ought to shoot you now and get you out of his life again, this time for good."

Dunne seemed not at all disturbed by the threat; instead he remained still in Chris's grip and didn't lose his hint of smile. "You won't shoot me, Larabee. A helpless, unarmed prisoner in your own jail? No. That's not in your reputation."

Nathan could see the cords standing out in Chris's neck, the hard rhythm of his breathing, and could hear the air rasping in and out of his nostrils. "Don't tempt me," he said between his teeth. "There's always a first time. And if you mess with a man of mine, you deal with me. So you leave that kid's head alone, understand? And count yourself lucky I promised Judge Travis we wouldn't get too much blood on the walls in here." He released his grip with a shove that sent Dunne stumbling unsteadily backward until he sat down hard, barely managing to get his hands back in time to break some of the force of the fall. With what Nathan could see was an immense effort of will, Chris let down the hammer of his gun and returned it to the holster.

"I'm not responsible for what's in his head already, Larabee," Dunne said easily, clambering to his feet but keeping well back out of the black-dressed gunslinger's reach.

Chris's taut lips worked for a second, and then he turned away sharply, with an air that suggested he was having to force himself to do it. "That's your opinion," he spat back over his shoulder. "It ain't mine." He paused by the desk. "Nathan, you mind stayin' on here a while, at least till Vin and Josiah get some food and rest? If anybody comes around lookin' for you I'll send 'em over here."

"Sure, Chris, no problem," Nathan assured him quietly. "Only could you go over to my place and send me back the first big book on the left off my shelf? If I'm gonna be on jail watch before I was plannin' to be, I might as well do some more studyin'."

"I can do that," Chris agreed. "I'll have one of Mrs. Potter's kids fetch it." He looked again at the watch, then scooped it up in his hand, fitted the photograph back in place, closed the lid and pushed the timepiece into his pocket.

"That's my property, Larabee," Dunne remarked from the cell.

Chris whirled to face him, his harsh face starkly pale except for two bright red spots of fury riding his cheekbones. "You're pushin' your luck, Dunne," he said, his voice thin, and Nathan could see that he was trembling. "Remember, I might not kill unarmed prisoners in my own jail, but if you try to escape I'll assume you ain't unarmed any more, and I'll do what needs doin'." He spun on his heel and left as precipitously as he'd come.

"Well, now," said Dunne quietly, after the place had stopped vibrating to the slam of the closing door. "I didn't think Larabee had that in him, from what I'd heard about him."

"Maybe now," Nathan offered, "you know one of the reasons them books call us the Magnificent Seven." And he turned the swivel chair so his back was to the cell, gathered up the Wanted posters and went back to scanning them.

+ + + + + + +

It must have been nearly eleven o'clock when Buck, who had been waiting back in the awning shadow across from the livery ever since a little after sundown, saw JD's little bay mare turn in at the broad doors and the kid's slight shape, crowned by the telltale bowler, slip out of the saddle and go to open one of the leaves. He'd stayed in the saloon for the "few hours" Josiah had recommended, morosely playing cribbage with Ezra (who had had the compassion not to suggest poker), and then gone looking for the kid, hoping he'd just holed up in his room or somewhere else around town. It hadn't taken him long to find that Seven and JD's saddle were missing. He'd thought about taking his own gray and going in pursuit--he might not be the kind of tracker Vin was, but he'd worn a badge himself and knew a thing or two about trails, and in any case he doubted JD would be in any humor to conceal his traces--and then Josiah's voice had echoed in his mind again and he'd known that, as much as it hurt, he had to give the kid at least the chance to straighten out the broth of emotions that must be swirling around inside of him. What would you have felt like, Bucklin, if your pa had turned up twenty years ago? he'd asked himelf. You gotta have some respect for the kid's privacy or you could end up losin' him altogether over this.

He sighed faintly in relief as JD led the mare inside. At least he'd come back. Buck hadn't been quite sure he would. He gave the boy a minute or two and then crossed the quiet street and opened the small man-door set into the bigger half-leaf. He could see the glow of the lantern down the runway and JD's hat moving around as he stripped the gear off Seven and provided her with water and feed. "JD?" he called softly.

The hat stopped moving a moment, as if JD had to steel himself to face his closest friend, and then the kid put his head out the opening of the stall and managed to summon a ghost of a smile. "Hey, Buck. You been waitin'?"

Buck slowly moved up the centerway, not wanting to spook the kid. "Knew I would, didn't you?"

"Yeah." The word was little more than a sigh. JD returned to his task and Buck stopped beside the upright beam that defined the outer corner of Seven's stall, uncertain of what precisely he ought to do next.

"JD--look, I'm sorry I hollered at you and shoved you around in the jail like I done. I know you must've been half loco with what you--well, you know--but all I could think was what if that guy'd got his hands on one of your guns, or his arm around your throat? I've put too damn much effort into you, boy, I didn't wanta chance--I couldn't--well, I'm sorry, anyhow."

"It's all right, Buck." JD didn't turn, but he spoke gently, and the older man could hear the hint of smile in his voice. "I understand. I did do a stupid thing and I know it, and I'm lucky I got you to look out for me when my brain don't work, and it don't work near often enough." There was no anger in the tone, just a kind of sad self-mockery. "Now that I know what I came from, I ain't surprised."

"You ain't got proof yet he's your pa," Buck ventured.

"Aw, come on, Buck, how much more proof d'you think I need?" JD retorted. "The watch, and the picture, and he's the right age...but I shouldn't be hollerin' at you about it," he added. "I don't hold you no grudges." His tone hardened a touch. "My grudges are all for him."

Watching JD's face, Buck wondered again, as he did almost daily, at the good fortune that had dropped the kid literally at his feet that first day. It wasn't merely what JD had gotten out of the deal--a partner, mentor, protector, and big brother all rolled up in one laughing, wisecracking, fiercely affectionate gunslinger; as he'd come to know JD better, Buck had realized that the kid was a lot tougher and smarter than he looked. He'd been making a good deal of his own way, helping his mamma, for a long time, working as a stableboy and riding as a jockey when he didn't stand much higher than a horse's belly (Buck often figured he must have had to stand on a box to do his job), dealing with grown men on a footing most kids that age never did. All he'd needed, really, was someone to teach him the technical tricks of surviving in his new, non-city environment. But he, and Buck, had both needed something neither one had realized he'd been looking for, till JD jumped off that stage. In each of the succession of brothels in which he'd grown up, as his mother worked her way westward with the nomadism typical of prostitutes, there had been at least one or two kids younger than Buck himself: when a woman made her living by selling her body, it was inevitable that she'd get caught out at least once. But they didn't generally stay very long: as a rule, as soon as the mother could save up enough money to do it, she'd pack the kid off to a convent or other boarding school, not because she didn't love her son or daughter, but because she desperately wanted the child to have a better life than she had. Buck had often wondered why his ma hadn't done the like by him, though he was thankful she hadn't: he might never have come West elsewise, never met Chris or been a part of the family with Sarah and Adam--or been one of the Seven and had the opportunity to know JD. But still, the custom had meant that he'd never really had the chance to mentor anyone younger than himself, and so he'd never understood just how much he had wanted that, till JD. It was true he'd never expected to get a little brother twenty years his junior--hell, time he was twenty he'd been out on his own three years already, and had the solid beginnings of a reputation as a gunthrower. But now that he'd gotten one, he wondered sometimes at how lonely he'd been inside, without knowing it. Chris was his oldest friend and in some ways still his closest, even for all the rough times after the fire, but JD filled a place for him that he'd never knew needed filling. Till that morning.

"I told you 'bout my ma, didn't I?" he asked.

"Yeah." And there was another thing. What toss of Fate's dice had had it that both of them should have been raised by mothers alone, never knowing their fathers? It was enough to make a man believe in some of the things Josiah talked about sometimes--even Buck, who was by no means a religious or even a superstitious man.

"My pa was one of her customers back East, she never told me who," Buck proceeded. "I don't remember the town I was born in real well, we left it when I was about four. When I was a kid--" he paused a moment at JD's look, then amended, "a real kid, like thirteen, fourteen--I used to be real peeved that he'd never acknowledged us, never done anything to support us. But as I got older I come to realize some important things. I saw that he must've been a big man in his community, somebody who thought his business or his reputation with his neighbors'd be hurt if it got around he'd frequented a brothel and sired a son on one of the women. That meant I came from good stock even if I didn't know just whose blood I was, and it gave me somethin' to live up to--and somethin' not to." He didn't say that he'd long ago made up his mind that if ever he knew of a child of his, he would give it everything he could: his name (such as it was), money, his guiding presence. "It would've been nice to've known who he was, known him like, say, Nathan knew his, carried his name. But all them things is just surface. They ain't really me. And then I came out here, after Ma died, and I learned somethin' that mattered even more. It don't matter who fathers you, kid. Least of all here. It matters who you are, not who he was. Matters you can be trusted. Matters you can do a job and do it right." A serious gaze into the boy's hurting eyes: "Matters you can be a friend."

"But this ain't about me, Buck, don't you see that?" JD demanded. "It's about Mamma. It's about what she had to do to stay alive and keep me fed and clothes on my back. How could he've done that to her, after the way they started out? If he'd even just sent for us later, I wouldn't care so much that he deserted, if that's what he done. Maybe I could even respect him more for standin' up for his beliefs, even if I didn't agree with 'em. But the way she talked about him, I thought--I thought he loved her. Ain't like you, Buck. Ain't like your ma. She was already--" and he stopped, a look of sick horror spreading over his features as he realized what he'd been about to say.

"A whore," Buck finished quietly. "It's all right, kid, you can say it. I don't mind if you say it, or Chris, or one of the others. I mind gettin' called 'son of a whore' as an insult, but I don't mind it when it's just plain spoke fact."

JD sighed softly and looked away. "You know," Buck went on, "I know somethin' about the feeling that somebody's misused your ma, the only family you got. If there's somethin' you'd like for me to do--"

JD glanced up at him, quick, scared, searching. "No--Buck, I'd never ask you--whatever I decide to do about this, it's gotta be me that does it. It's gotta be, or I'll never be able to put it to rest."

"All right." Buck nodded slowly. "Reckon I can see that. Just so you know I'm here."

The kid turned away a moment, then whirled back to impulsively throw his arms around Buck's waist. "I know I been so lucky to have you, Buck--I wanted you to know that--"

Buck looked down at him, troubled now; it sounded like the kid was trying to say goodbye, somehow. He slipped his arm around JD's shoulder and held him gently close, as if to remind him again, I'm here, I ain't give up on you yet and I ain't about to neither. "Naw, kid, it's me, us, that's lucky to have you. And I never thought you was stupid, not really. Just in case you ever wondered. Fact is I think you're pretty damn sharp. All this time, you ain't ever asked the same question twice of any of us; once you know somethin', you know it. You just don't always think before you do things, is your trouble," trying desperately to lighten the mood, "but that's a trouble we all of us had one time when we were your age, and we got over it."

"All of you? Even Chris?"

"Well, now," Buck answered thoughtfully, giving the question the consideration it deserved, "I didn't know him back then, but I bet yeah, he had his moments...I ever tell you 'bout the time, lemme think now, must've been six, eight years back, me an' him decided to do a little wolfin' for bounty, get in some extra money...?"

JD suddenly drew back, the moodiness returning. "I don't--I ain't just in the mood for no stories right now, Buck...I had a rough day, I think--I think I wanta go up and get some sleep, it's gettin' kinda late--"

As far as Buck was concerned the night was young yet, and he still felt uneasy about all the possibilities he could hear under the words. It bothered him, JD not wanting to talk--usually the boy would rattle on for hours if you didn't shut him up, and silence was a sure sign that he was sick or bad troubled. And yet Buck had learned to his cost, from Chris, that there were times you just couldn't force a man to open up no matter how close you were; sometimes he wasn't ready, or he didn't have the words yet, or-- no, JD wasn't going to die inside like Chris had done, surely this day's discovery was nothing like the soul-killing pain Chris had suffered when he lost Sarah and Adam; a shock, yes, and Buck could see how it might tire him out, being out in the air most of the day trying to figure out how to deal with it all, the old memories and the anger and the pain, quite apart from the blow to his nerves. "All right, then," he said softly, "you go on, and I'll come get you for breakfast, okay." It wasn't a question, but a statement; the sooner the kid understood that Buck wasn't giving up on him, wasn't going to let him turn his hurt and confusion in on himself, the better for all of them and especially for JD.

"Yeah, okay...sure...'night, Buck." And JD wandered slowly off down the shadowy street.

Whispery sweet music of spurs, a shadow detaching itself from shadows at the corner of Buck's eye, and Chris was there. "Hey, pard," the dark-haired gunslinger said wearily, not turning around, "how much you hear of that?"

"Enough to know that it don't look like one session of bein' off by himself was enough for him to, what was it Josiah said, get his thoughts straight," the other man replied.

"He's hurtin', Chris. Hurtin' somethin' awful. I ain't heard that kind of pain in his voice even when he's talked about his mamma--before, I mean."

"No, I know. That's on account he could always remember good times with her, even if it was just knowin' she loved him. This..."

Buck swore viciously and kicked at a water bucket, sending it banging and clattering down the runway and waking the horses, which whinnied and snorted in distress. "Of all the people for this to happen to. We gotta get that guy out of our jail, Chris. Maybe if he ain't here all the time JD'll have some chance of pullin' himself out of it."

"I already wired Silver City, told 'em to send somebody up to either get him the hell out of our hair or tell us he ain't the guy they want, and if he ain't I'll give him just fifteen minutes to get out of town," Chris grated. It was almost as close as Buck could recall him coming to expressing a real concern for JD's emotional equilibrium; usually he left that to Buck, and lesserly to Josiah, who was the spiritual advisor to the entire group, seemed indeed to want to be that regardless of all the misgivings he'd had about his faith. "Buck, I don't think you or JD better take jail duty for a while."

"What? You don't trust me, pard?" There was a little laugh in his voice, but it didn't hide the bitterness and anger.

"Not when it's something means this much. You wouldn't let me take jail duty, if we managed to take Ella alive, would you?"

Buck did turn then, and gazed quite seriously at his oldest friend. "Could I stop you?"

"I think you'd do what you had to," said Chris quietly. "I know, you've said it, there's just one person on this earth wants the scales balanced for Sarah and Adam almost as much as I do, and that's you. But I also think you don't want me to put my head in a noose with a cold-blooded murder."

"No," Buck agreed thoughtfully, "'cause that'd make you no better'n them, and you are better'n them, pard, no matter how much of a pain in the ass you've tried to be the last four-five years."

"So there you are, then," said Chris. "You and JD can take patrol duty, meet the stage, whatever comes up, but keep away from the jail." And before Buck could say anything he had melted back into the night.

"Well, hell," said Buck to himself, almost querulously, as he realized how he'd been maneuvered, and then he turned away and headed down the street. He needed a drink. No, not a drink, a bottle, and a nice quiet place to be alone with it.

+ + + + + + +

When Chris got back to the saloon it was empty except for Inez wiping the bar, the swamper stacking the chairs, and Ezra back at his table playing a halfhearted-looking game of solitaire. With a nod to the woman, the gunslinger climbed the short flight of steps to the raised platform and touched the back of the chair opposite the gambler's own. "You mind?"

"Why, Mr. Larabee, such unaccustomed politeness, and from you? Certainly, be my guest."

Chris settled slowly into the chair as if he were afraid that moving too quickly would release again the violence that had threatened to take control of him in the jail. After arranging the rest of the day's schedule with Vin and Josiah, he'd assigned himself patrol and stayed out for most of the day, only returning to Four Corners about an hour before to wait at the livery for JD--and Buck. "Looks like you had a quiet night," he observed.

Ezra sighed dramatically. "Business has been abysmal, even for midweek," he agreed. "We've had scarcely custom enough to compensate us for the outlay in kerosene. That is the reason we are, as you see, preparin' to shutter our doors and seek the embrace of Morpheus."

"Early for you," Chris noted.

"Indeed. However, I dare say our esteemed Mr. Jackson would be pleased to observe me goin' to my couch at what he might consider a civilized hour. He has often rebuked me with the assertion that marathons are injurious to the health."

"How about night watches at the jail?" Chris asked.

The emerald eyes brightened. "Is that why you happened in?"

"Not entirely," Chris admitted, and fished the watch out of his pocket. "What do you think of this?" he asked, passing it across the table. Ezra accepted it, weighed it in his hand, turned it over a couple of times to study the workmanship, then clicked the lid open. He gazed at the photograph, his gambler's face in place, and then pulled out his penknife, gently prised the paper out of the lid, studied the engraved sentiment and scratched the case lightly with the point of the knife. That done, he carefully replaced the picture and snapped the lid shut before returning the watch to the gunslinger.

"Without doubt a superior example of the watchmaker's art," he said. "A product, I speculate, of Geneva--that is in Switzerland," he amplified at Larabee's questioning look, "and by no means new; certainly old enough to substantiate the engravin'. I would estimate its worth, when originally retailed, at no less than one hundred and fifty dollars. And the case, in the event that you wondered, is solid gold. Definitely an item of considerable intrinsic value. I can see why a man might retain it even if it had been acquired, shall we say, secondhand."

"But?" Larabee prompted.

" did our young Mr. Dunne this morning, I question as to why a man not his father would keep the photograph. What possible meanin' would it have to him?"

"You're sayin' you think this guy is who he says he is?" There was something in the other man's eyes that Ezra couldn't define and certainly could never remember having seen there before. Not merely concern, he thought. Worry?

"I detest playin' devil's advocate, Mr. Larabee," he declared. "I've played the devil myself far too many times to be comfortable in the role. But the evidence cannot be denied, sir. In my profession, if one hopes to succeed and survive, one becomes of necessity both a close observer and a keen student of character and of human nature. And the latter, however arbitrary it may on occasion appear to be, is logical, in its fashion. Even allowin' for the apparent fact that he neither re-established contact with his wife and son nor had any intention of doin' so, there is no logical reason for any man to retain a photograph when it holds no sentimental value for him and he has no possibility of knowin' that, years in future, it might be of use to cast doubt upon his identity or gain partisans for his cause. Whichever our current guest is in fact attemptin' to do," he added.

"The watch itself would be enough to support a claim of a different name," mused Larabee, "with that dedication in it. If he'd just taken the picture out and burned it, he'd still have that, plus the watch to pawn or sell if he got hungry enough."

"Exactly my point," the gambler agreed. "Had you thought it might be otherwise?"

"I don't know," Chris admitted, and Ezra thought it cost him a good deal to do that. "I guess it just bothers me that JD's father would turn up here, like that, with a want out on him."

"Mr. Tanner havin' a want on him," Ezra mentioned mildly, "has never had an adverse effect on your trust in him."

"Trust ain't the issue," the gunslinger retorted. "Man ain't responsible for what anybody does 'cept himself." Ezra's eyes narrowed slightly as he thought of the years of drinking and killing with which Larabee had attempted to get past the self-blame he'd heaped on his own shoulders for the death of his wife and child. As Brother Sanchez might say, he mused silently, 'Why regardest thou the mote which is in thy neighbor's eye, and not the beam which is in thine own?' Or, as Goethe put it,

Wouldst shape a noble life? Then cast
No backward glances toward the past,
And though somewhat be lost and gone,
Yet do thou act as one new born;
What each day needs, that shalt thou ask,
Each day will set its proper task.

"What then?" he prompted quietly.

Chris shook his head. "I don't know," he said again. "Just something don't feel right."

"Ah." Ezra nodded. "The same misgivings have been a part of my experience. Had you some thought that I might be of assistance?"

The agate eyes lifted, hard and unforgiving but with a new spark somewhere deep behind them. "You know that saying, 'Set a thief to catch a thief'?" he asked. "Comes to me it might take a con to spot a con."

Ezra slowly raked in his spread of solitaire, squared the deck and began shuffling. "You are of the opinion that Dunne is not in fact what he seems?"

"I'm of the opinion maybe he wanted to get caught. What Vin said about the way he camped... and when I was over at the jail earlier I was noticin' how his holster's rubbed his pant leg over time, and how there's a little line around it where he's used a tiedown. That man ain't the common drifter he's tryin' to look like he is."

"But if he merely wished to get acquainted with his son," Ezra observed, "why not simply ride into town openly and make himself known? Why resort to a con?"

"That's what I want you to find out," Chris told him. "Vin's at the jail now. Go over and relieve him. See if you can pry anything out of that guy. If there's any one of the seven of us that'd know how to do that without puttin' him on guard, it'd be you." The faintest hint of a smile flickered across his face. "That's why we succeed, Ezra, because each of us has a skill the others need."

"Yes," drawled the Southerner, "a pertinent point, indeed." He swept the cards together and tucked them into his plum-colored jacket. "Well, I will confess I am hardly yet wearied enough to retire, and this evening's diversions, such as they were, have not been challenging enough to give my various gifts the sort of workout I prefer. One cannot permit oneself to become rusty, after all. I shall be delighted to take over from Mr. Tanner." He shoved his chair back and stood, and Chris did likewise.

"Thanks, Ezra." It was said so softly that only the gambler could have heard it. And without a backward glance, Larabee dropped down the stairs and crossed the main floor to exit by the batwings and become one with the shadows outside.


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