by Sevenstars

After Vin had gone, Ezra passed an hour or so calmly perusing the latest issue of Mary's Clarion, which was always on hand at the jail, while he eyed the prisoner covertly. A con man needed to know how to size up a mark without letting him know he was under scrutiny, and a gambler too required the skill, though perhaps not quite so urgently. The man in the cell, for his part, dozed off and on but seemed disinclined toward deep slumber. Ezra of necessity had a keen memory for faces; in his line of work you never knew when you might get a sight of a former adversary, or a disgruntled former associate, just in time to avoid him, and so you needed to keep a close record in your head of the various people you'd dealt with over time. He soon decided that their prisoner was no one he had ever encountered, which made his job easier. He laid the paper aside and began dealing himself one of the more complicated kinds of solitaire. After a while he became aware that the prisoner was awake again and watching him. "That's not a very productive way to pass the time," he said. "How'd you like the chance to win some actual money?"

"I don't believe, sir, that we've been properly introduced," Ezra retorted with dignity: he didn't want to seem too eager or to make this too easy. "And in any case, I don't ordinarily play with incarcerated felons."

"But I'm only an alleged felon," the other pointed out. "I haven't been tried yet, and you didn't see me do anything illegal, so I'm innocent till proven guilty. And actually, we have been introduced, by Jock Steele. I know the two who brought me in had to be Tanner and Sanchez; I've met Jackson and Larabee, and I know who the kid is. You'd be Ezra Standish, and I've got a good idea you've been told who I am."

Ezra met his gaze and appraised him coolly. "As I understand it, you're the father of our young sheriff. Or, at the least, he has strong evidence to point to that conclusion."

Dunne grinned briefly. "A gentleman like yourself should appreciate the irony of the situation, I think."

The man certainly spoke as if he'd had an education, Ezra reflected, which made his task easier and harder at the same time. "I have heard of such instances," he observed truthfully, deciding he'd been coy long enough, "although I don't recall any of them bein' cross-generational. How do I know you have anythin' worth winnin', sir?"

"Take a look in my wallet, in your safe," the other suggested.

Ezra hesitated long enough to make it seem that he was debating the ethics of the idea, then did what Dunne had urged. The Cordova wallet contained about a hundred and twenty dollars in mixed bills in various states of wear, plus five hundred in crisp new fifty notes. Ezra hid his frown, remembering Chris's assertion that Dunne wasn't the common drifter he tried to appear on the outside. Well, that would be evident the instant he opened his mouth, but the money made it even more obvious. Ezra had rubbed elbows with a good many dubious characters in his career, and he knew that the going rate for a hired killer generally ranged from five to fifteen hundred dollars, varying somewhat with the reputation of the killer, the importance of his victim, and the eagerness of his employer. In most cases payment was half down and half on completion, but when the figure was at the upper end of the scale it might be one-third and two-thirds. A hired gun, then? the gambler thought. It might explain why he came this way instead of fleeing to Mexico after whatever occurred in Silver City. If there were some sort of time constraint on the job he was hired to do, he might have hesitated to waste any.

"Enough in there to interest you?" the prisoner inquired.

"Indeed," Ezra agreed smoothly, returning the wallet to the safe. "I suggest, however, that we employ some form of marker in case one of my associates should happen by. Would coffee beans be agreeable? They are a commodity we invariably have in abundance in this office."

"Coffee beans would suit just fine."

Ezra made sure the jail doors were secure, locked and barred, and pulled down the shades on the window so no one could target his back through the glass, and then moved the oilcloth-covered table over in front of the cell and placed a cane-bottomed chair on the other side of it; Dunne set the cell's small stool up against the bars, and they began to play. Ezra had expected the man to have some skill at cards: he'd known many rich men's sons who'd learned the game in college or even before, and some of them had been such plungers as to accumulate considerable burdens of debt even before they took their diplomas. But he soon discovered that, while he didn't think Dunne was in quite the same league as himself, he was about as close to it as it was possible for a man to get without gaming for a living. He was an expert with the successful gambler's five weapons: skill, courage, strategy, psychology, and patience. What was more, as they played, Ezra began to realize that Chris had been right in his suspicions about the man. It wasn't just that he was cool and self-controlled, as a gunfighter always was; there was something about the way he sat, the way his eyes flicked from the cards to Ezra's face to the larger background of the office and back again, the look of his hands, as well cared for as Ezra's own except for the telltale calluses on his thumb where he had spent hundreds of hours flicking the hammer of his sixgun. Every gunfighter, to be successful, needed, among other qualities, the courage to fight (which was easily translated into the courage to run a bluff or to stand against someone else's), an intuitive ability to gauge human emotion (which was also an asset at the gaming table), a cool head, and steadiness of nerve--weapons equally important to a gambler, which was perhaps one reason most gunfighters were gamblers on the side and occasionally for a living. And Ezra had been around Chris and Buck, particularly, long enough to know that there was a certain air to the real professionals, an indefinable "something" that the experienced Westerner quickly learned to sense. Dunne was literally an old man to be in this line--to last to thirty-five or -six was to be luckier than most--but, like every gambler, Ezra knew that unlikely things did happen; Chris himself wasn't all that much younger.

He was also a master at fencing with words. It didn't take long for Ezra to realize, much to his consternation, that Dunne seemed to understand exactly what he was trying to do, and turned back each of his veiled inquiries with uncanny skill, or at least shifted their focus to improve his own knowledge. And he played poker like a master: the pot seesawed back and forth, each man winning just about as much as the other. "It appears, sir," Ezra mentioned after a while, "that we are evenly matched."

"It does, doesn't it? There isn't much fun or challenge in that--unless we agree to cheat," Dunne added slyly.

Of course, in games between master gamblers, it was almost certain that stacked decks would sooner or later be used; the "game" then wasn't so much win-vs.-lose, as it was machinations vs. cunning in foiling same. Ezra slowly laid down his hand and studied his opponent carefully. "I don't recall anyone ever bein' quite so bald-faced about the prospect, sir."

Dunne grinned briefly. "Come on, Standish, we each know what the other one's after here, and it isn't taking the pot. You're trying to figure out whether I'm who you think I am, and if I'm not why I'm pretending to be. And I'm trying to get an idea of what the boy's been up to these last eighteen years, what kind of man he's grown into. You know they say a man's known by the company he keeps."

"And what conclusion have you reached, then?" Ezra inquired icily.

"Well, his clothes tell me he hasn't been out here long," mused Dunne, "but the fact that he rides with an outfit like yours, and has lived this long doing it, tells me he's got more to him than he looks to. He'd have to be good in a fight, dependable, brave, cool under fire. He'd have to be smart, and able to think fast under pressure. And I think he'd have to care about justice and fairness. There are a lot of things said about Chris Larabee, but he doesn't shoot unarmed men, or shoot men in the back, and he wouldn't let anyone ride with him who did."

Ezra remembered JD's first day in Four Corners and how Chris had made it plain to him that there were certain things a man didn't do. "And?" he prompted.

"And," Dunne finished with a grin, "he's still boy enough to have a case of hero worship. I owe all of you some thanks, in that case. We're men of the world, you and I, Standish; we know what can become of starry-eyed kids when they cross the Big Muddy. It looks as if falling in with Larabee and the rest of you saved JD from that. His mother would have been pleased, if she'd known."

"Do you believe so? I had rather thought she would have been disappointed that he had failed to attend college."

"She was a country girl, a peasant if you like, and she had a peasant's practicality. If there wasn't money enough, or if the boy's dreams really ran in another track than her own, she'd have accepted that. What would have mattered the most to her would be for him to make something of himself, and to be a decent man." Ezra tried to remember whether he had given any hints of what he knew regarding Marged Dunne's background. If he hadn't, how would anyone but JD's real father have known so much? Or was he speculating, bluffing?

"Apparently, sir," he said coldly, pushing his chair back, "the boy has succeeded at that beyond the example of his parent. As you say, Mr. Larabee has his code, but so has any proper gentleman. And I do assure you, sir," he added, his drawl thickening and slowing as it did when he was deadly serious, "if that young man should come to any harm through your agency, your only option will involve the identity of the one of our company that catches up with you first. And you had best pray it is not Mr. Wilmington."

"Wilmington," Dunne repeated. "That would be Number Seven, the one who was with him today, the tall one with the mustache. I ought to be jealous of the man; he seems to have slipped into the father's place with the boy."

"I should say rather elder brother," Ezra corrected, "but make no mistake, sir, he takes his obligations with great seriousness. As do we all. Now, sir, I believe this association has become distasteful to me. I bid you good evening." He replaced the chair and table and went back to the desk, feeling almost humiliated for the first time in longer than he liked to think about. Chris Larabee wasn't going to be happy, either, to find out that he'd been so easily outfenced. And Ezra, although he'd sooner have lost every penny he had than admit it, really didn't relish the prospect of disappointing any of his compatriots. Damn, he thought as he got his cards out and began dealing another game of solitaire. Whether or not the man is who JD believes him to be, he is a threat--to the boy's peace of mind, to Mr. Wilmington's, perhaps to more than that. If I weren't a gentleman, I'd be sorely tempted--

No, Ezra, you're not a murderer, no matter how much of a scoundrel you may be. But there are times when I almost wish--

He shut off that line of speculation angrily. What would come would come. He had done the best he could, and he would react as developments demanded. Even Larabee could do no better than that.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan came and took over from him around sunrise. A couple of hours later Josiah arrived with three breakfast trays, slid one through the little trap at the bottom of the cell door, and sat down to keep the healer company over the other two. "Got anything on the program today, Josiah?" Nathan asked him.

"Paint," the big man replied. "Now that I got the Lord's House weathertight, I figure I best get some good white paint on it to protect the wood, before the snow flies. This nice warm weather we're havin' afternoons ought to dry it nice and quick."

"You need any help? I'll come over after I finish here, if anybody's lookin' for me they can see me easy enough, long as I'm on the street side."

"Never say no to another pair of willing hands," Josiah answered with a grin, digging into his hash-brown potatoes and pink fried ham. "How about you? Expecting any calls?"

"Well, Mrs. Taylor's likely to deliver almost any day now, but as far as I can tell everything's goin' along like it should, and her sister's come down from Pueblo to help; if it looks bad they'll send in for me, or more likely Granny Fitch." Like almost any town that lacked a "real" doctor, Four Corners did boast a midwife to deliver babies, and though Nathan had had to come and lend a hand at a few difficult births, he usually left that side of the district's welfare to her. Granny had been "catching babies" ever since her young womanhood in Missouri, fifty years ago, and she took justifiable pride in her skill and her record.

"And what happens to me?" asked Dunne unexpectedly from his cell.

Josiah turned slowly to regard him gravely from deep-set blue eyes. "We've sent a telegram to the law at Silver City. They'll be sending someone up to take you back for trial. Take him close to two full days by stage, I reckon. If he left soon as he got the message, he'll get here tomorrow."

"Trial?" Dunne echoed with a snort. "That's a good one. Just how much do you know about what happened back there, Preacher?"

"Just that you were wanted for murder," Josiah answered truthfully. "Seein' that it didn't take place here, I don't figure the details are much business of ours. We're paid to keep the peace in Four Corners, not elsewhere."

"But you're a man of God, or so they say," Dunne observed, "and isn't it true that one of the Commandments is that 'thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor'?"

"It's true," Josiah agreed slowly. "What of it?"

"Just that there a lot of people back in Silver City who'll do exactly that," Dunne told him. "The man they say I murdered, he was the son of a big mineowner; maybe you've heard the name--Winterhaven. With his money buying revenge for his boy, there's no way I'll get a fair trial back there."

The two men exchanged glances. Josiah could see the memories in Nathan's eyes, the thought of his father's trouble. You didn't have to be black, after all, for someone else's power to set you up for a fall.

"What do you figure we can do about it?" Nathan asked. "You must have somethin' in mind, short of breakin' out, or you wouldn't be tellin' us this."

"All I'm asking," said Dunne, "is for that judge of yours--Travis, is it?--to run the trial himself, here. What they call a change of venue. At least I might get an impartial jury out of the deal, though it won't stop Winterhaven from bringing in witnesses who'll lie themselves black--no offense intended."

Josiah frowned again. The legal terminology was something many men out here might not know; indeed, many might not even be aware that such a measure was possible. But a man with the education JD had described his father as having--yes, a man like that would probably know it, if not from direct experience then from talking with friends or relatives who were lawyers. More and more it was looking as if Dunne really was who they believed him to be--or else he was someone from a very similar background, and why in that case would he pretend the slight difference in identity? The preacher looked at Nathan, remembering how Travis had agreed to hold Obadiah's trial in Four Corners rather than extraditing him back East. He knew the healer had to be thinking of the same thing. The prospect of any man, be he white, black, green, or striped, being railroaded into prison or a hangman's noose for something he hadn't done, or had had good reason for doing, would inevitably disturb the younger man. For that matter, it disturbed Josiah. He guessed what Nathan was about to say even before he opened his mouth. "Reckon we could send the Judge a telegram, ask if he'd be couldn't hurt nothin'..."

"No," mused Josiah, "it couldn't hurt nothin'; not likely he'd fire us for askin'. He could anyways hear what our prisoner has to say, and make up his mind then."

"Where's he at this time of the month?" Nathan asked.

"Madera, I think," mused Josiah, naming a town about ninety miles northeast as the crow flew. "I'm not officially on duty, so I'll go and send him a message when I take the dishes back."

"Chris ain't going to like it," observed Nathan. "No more's Buck."

"Don't I know," his friend agreed with a sigh. "But the man's got the same right to a fair trial that anyone else does, and if he can't get it where he stands accused, he's got the right to ask to have it somewheres else."

"Glad you said it and not me," murmured Nathan. "We might's well finish our food before it gets cold."

+ + + + + + +

JD had been slow getting on his feet that morning, and Buck could make a pretty accurate guess as to why. His room was right next door to the kid's, after all, and he'd heard JD's bedsprings squeaking as he'd tossed and turned; he might have been tired from the shock of his discovery and his day out in the fresh air, but it hadn't been enough to bring him the sleep he'd claimed to be seeking. He looked too pale for Buck's liking, with dark shadows under his hazel eyes. Buck knew very well how far it was to Silver City and how long it would take, even under the best of conditions, for some representative of the local law to arrive. The kid couldn't take two or three more days of this; even if he got through it without his health breaking down, he wouldn't be much good to his teammates in a fight.

Chris said he didn't want us on jail duty, he remembered, and at this time of year there shouldn't be much trouble from cowhands; all the ranches are gettin' ready for the fall roundup, it won't get bad till after the tally's done and every son feels like celebratin'. We could be spared, most likely. Question is, will the kid go along? Likely not, but I got to try at least.

"I was thinkin', kid," he began as casually as he could, "we'll have a little break while the roundup's on, and it wouldn't hurt us none to get rested up and ready for what's likely to come afterward. What would you think about goin' off and gettin' some huntin' done, you and me? The geese'll be startin' to come down, and the elk'll be movin' pretty soon, or we could try for a deer or two--"

JD glanced up quickly from under his unruly curtain of hair, and as quickly returned his attention to his fried eggs. "Thanks, Buck," he said quietly, "but I guess not."

The older man sighed and decided to try again, this time with an appeal to JD's common sense. "Look, it ain't like you wanted anything to do with the man," he observed reasonably. "Hell, the way you climbed him in the jail yesterday it half looked like you was about to shoot him where he stood. And we ain't got anything to do with what's gonna happen to him; that's Silver City's job. There's nothin' you could do for him even if you wanted to, and you don't want to, do you? You near about accused him of murderin' your mamma. He hangs in Silver City, he'll be hangin' for that too, one way you look at it. No need for you to stay around here and flog yourself about what's done and over with."

"But if I don't," JD replied, "I'll be running away. And I can't do that. It's a rotten habit to get into in our line of work. I've got to face up to this and deal with it, somehow. I've got to. Don't you see it?"

Buck hesitated before he spoke, thinking about Chris and the whiskey. It wasn't that his friend had been running away, exactly; even when he came close to hitting bottom, he had never let go of the resolve to someday find his family's murderers and even the score. But he'd been trying to hide from the pain, or at least to dull it, and it hadn't done him any good in the end; it had turned him into someone Buck wasn't always sure he knew or liked any more. No, he told himself resignedly, one's enough. I can't let it happen to the boy too. "Yeah," he admitted, "I reckon I do. I just sorta hoped--"

JD gave him a sad little smile that didn't reach his eyes. "I know. And I want you to know, Buck, I'm grateful. It's hard enough figurin' out how to do this knowin' I've got you to go to. I don't know how I'd do it if I was alone."

"You ain't alone, boy," Buck told him in a fierce voice. "You ain't ever alone no more. None of us is. That's what makes us strong." He turned back to his plate. "If you don't want to go huntin', what do you figure to do instead? Chris said last night he don't want you and me doin' jail duty for a while."

JD's head snapped up; it was the first he'd heard of it. "Why don't he?"

"Because he knows this is hard for you, and that makes it hard for me," the gunslinger explained. "I know Chris acts like a bear a lot of the time, kid, but it don't mean he don't care. He just...don't find it easy to express no more. When he was with Sarah, or Adam...hell, you'd never've known him. Losin' them seared a lot of it out of him, and the rest he's been tryin' to hide from for a long time. He's gettin' better, but he still has a rough time admittin' to himself what drives him, sometimes."

"Like if he don't admit he can care, he won't get hurt as much?"

"Somethin' like that," Buck agreed. "There's just so much a man can take before he starts puttin' up walls just to survive. The walls don't always look the same, and they don't go up at the same point, but just about everybody's got 'em."

"I guess mine were not talkin' about my father," JD observed. "I guess I built up a lot of resentment against him. And it's had close to eight years, almost half my life, to turn into what it is. Do you think I was right to hold onto it like that, Buck? I know what you said about your pa and how you finally decided it didn't matter--"

"Two different situations, boy, like you said last night," Buck told him. "And the way I look at it, there ain't a right or a wrong about feelings. I got a notion each one of us is different about things like that. What we think, how we feel, don't matter much anyhow. What matters is what we do with it."

"How so?"

"Well, like that first day," Buck explained. "Those guys had every right to be mad with Nathan 'cause he couldn't save their friend. They didn't have a right to try and lynch him over it, which is why Mary, and Chris and Vin, had to step in like they done. You think about it a minute, kid. Ain't no law been made says how you're allowed to think or feel. Laws are about what you do."

JD considered the concept for a moment or two. Then his features tightened slightly and he pushed his plate away. "I gotta go," he said.

Buck shot a hand out to stop him. "Where?"

"Wherever I want to," the kid snapped, startling his friend with the sudden mood swing. "Let go, Buck. We're partners but you ain't my keeper. I just..." His voice softened a bit. "I just gotta walk, okay?"

The gunslinger sighed and released him. "Yeah, okay. But if you want to talk--"

"I'll find you," JD half-promised. And he plucked his bowler off the back of his chair and went out.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah, up on the ladder slathering paint on the side of the church, felt the eyes on him before the watcher spoke. He had a good idea who it was, but he was experienced enough not to seem too eager. "It's really beginnin' to look like a proper church, ain't it?" came JD's voice.

Josiah carefully turned his upper body, pretending not to have known he wasn't alone. "Well, John Dunne, it's a pleasure to see you this fine morning. Yes, it is. You know the Preacher says, 'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,' but I always thought a little vanity was balm of Gilead to the spirit. It's good to know that you can do a job so well that it's worth takin' a little pride in, most of all when it's a job done in His name and for His glory." He backed his way down the ladder to firm ground, noticing at once the tiredness evident on the boy's face. "Something you wanted to talk about, son?"

"I guess." JD didn't sound very enthusiastic about the prospect; his voice was soft and flat, with a tight undercurrent of old pain. "Could we...go inside? I don't want--I mean--"

"I could use a cool drink of water anyway," Josiah told him. "Come on."

The sun's angle made the interior of the little building dim and comfortingly shadowy. Josiah took down the sweaty water olla from its woven net in the darkest corner of his room and poured two big Mexican clay mugs full of the water while JD drifted briefly around the sanctuary looking for a place to sit that felt comfortable to him. He finally settled on one of the back pews, as if somehow being too close to the altar and pulpit didn't suit what was weighing on his mind.

"What you said about pride...did you mean that, Josiah?" he asked as he accepted the water, eyeing the big man shyly from under his hair.

"You ever know me to say things I didn't mean?" the man replied.

He heard the breath catch in JD's throat. "No. Guess I ain't."

"Each of us is an individual, John Dunne. That's how God creates us. We should be proud of that individuality and exercise it, because along with everything else He gives each of us some special gift or talent, and since it's His gift, we're obligated to find out what it is and how best to use it--and within our rights to take pride in it. The animals are proud too. You've seen a stag showing off his rack, or a stallion prancing and shaking his head, or maybe even a peacock spreading his fan. Do you think God is displeased with them for doin' that? How could He be, when it's how He made them? It's vanity and arrogance, not pride, that are the true sins."

JD sipped his water. "It don't matter a lot, I guess. I mean, I'm proud I'm good enough to ride with you all, but..." He sighed. "I wish I could be as proud of what I came from."

"You mean your father," Josiah guessed. "I never got the notion you felt any shame about your mother."

"Oh, no, I never's just that...when you carry somebody's name, you want--well, until that day I told you about, when I was twelve, I guess--I was like Mamma, I figured he'd died fightin' for his country. I mean, it didn't matter if he was actually fightin', like in a battle; it mattered he'd cared enough to put himself at risk, enlisting and all. It was something I could be proud of, you know? That and him bein' an educated gentleman, like Mamma always said he was, and lovin' her enough to give up everything he knew on her account. And now--"

"And now it's like an image of yourself is broken, or distorted somehow," Josiah finished.

"I guess so." JD's voice was hushed, tight in his throat. "And yet...that ain't all there is to it either. I mean, I know I've proved myself, and it's like Buck told me last night, out here it don't matter so much who your folks were, it matters who you are yourself, how good you are, how much others can depend on you and like that. I just...I can't understand how anyone can do that. He told her he loved her. He married her and everything. She told me he used to come home from his job and sweep me up off the floor and swing me around in the air so I'd scream with delight. I figured he'd loved us, both of us. Why would he take off like that? I mean, I could understand him headin' west, where there'd be so much less chance of somebody from the provost marshal's office layin' hold of him, but couldn't he have sent for us afterward?"

"We can't know everything that causes others to do what they do," Josiah mused. "But you could ask him."

"Chris told Buck he didn't want me or him in the jail, while he's there," JD observed. "And anyhow, I--" a painful pause-- "I don't know if I can deal with it, facin' him, askin' him those questions. What's to say he won't lie?"

"Of course there's always that possibility," the man agreed. "But there's the possibility that he won't, too. It must have been somethin' of a shock to him to find himself face to face with his own flesh and blood. Ezra told Nathan he admitted to being pretty impressed with what you'd made of yourself. In any case, you'll never find out if you don't try."

"I'd like to know," JD admitted in a whisper. "Even if it turned out to be a lie in the end, I'd like to know. And I'd like to know what he's been doin' all these years--the way he looks and stands and all, he reminds me a little of Chris or Buck, and I can't help wonderin' if what I've ended up doin' is connected to him somehow--you know? But's..."

"It's that he left," Josiah finished for him. "It's that he broke his marriage vows, and the vows he implied to any child that might come of the union he was making."

"Buck said at breakfast, what matters isn't what you think or feel, it's what you do about it," JD told him. "And all I could think was, maybe there ain't any laws to say he had to stay with us, but he made a promise. And then he broke it, and that was doing something."

"Yes, it was. And he shouldn't have. But you told us yourself, he was a very young man when he made that promise. Often we truly believe that a promise we're making is something we can hold to. But we change, and times change, and it isn't like, oh, being a sheriff. You took an oath when the Judge gave you your badge, but you have the option of resigning. I made vows when I first put my collar on backward, but even God doesn't expect His servants to labor all their lives in His vineyard if they find their hearts are no longer in it, and when mine went sour I walked away, as you can do. You can't do a job, any job, well if it's grown to be something you hate, or no longer believe in."


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