by Sevenstars

Chris meanwhile had, for almost the first time since Buck stamped in through the batwings nearly an hour before, turned slowly to face his former partner, a hint of astonishment in his icy eyes. It had been a long time since the two of them had come independently to the same conclusion about something without even having to discuss it. It was like the way he and Vin worked now, but he and Buck didn't seem to do it any more. Not since Sarah and Adam had been alive. Chris found, even through the glaze of his misgivings about Dunne, that he had missed it, and that it gave him an odd sense of completion to realize that they were still capable of it. As the Seven had grown easier with one another, grown into a tight, mutually supportive team, he had found himself, more and more often, regretting the way he had behaved toward Buck during those first terrible dark months after he returned to a home that no longer existed. He knew, looking back, that Buck had been almost as grieved as he had, and had done his best to help him in every way he knew. And he had refused it all, shoved his longtime friend away until finally a breach opened between them and they went their separate ways. Thinking it over, it amazed him that Buck had been so willing to join them on that first job together, and he wondered what he'd been thinking that he'd expected Buck to do so. I should try to make it up with him, tell him I'm sorry, he thought. I took him for granted, just like I might a big clumsy loyal sheepdog. I was so damn focused on my own pain, I never stopped to think how much he must've been hurtin'. He wanted to help me and he needed me to help him, and I wouldn't do the one or let him do the other. And yet he came in with us, he accepted that he ain't first in my life no more, he even tried to smooth it over with Mary for me, and never said a word about it even when I put that razor to his throat for shootin' off his mouth. Damn. Why didn't I ever see? Larabee, there are times you don't deserve to call yourself a man.

"When do you figure that law from Silver City'll get in here, Chris?" Buck inquired.

"Tomorrow, I hope," the leader replied. "I don't know what kind of connections he'd have to make, or how often he can catch a stage out of there, but that's the soonest he could do it, I figure. 'Course he'll most likely have to stay in town overnight."

Well, it ain't gonna get no easier for puttin' it off, Vin told himself wearily, and before Buck could say anything he interjected in his soft raspy Texas drawl, "Longer'n that, I reckon. Wyatt just give me this wire from the Judge." He pulled it out of his pocket and laid it on the table in front of Chris.

The gunslinger scanned it once, then again, as if he didn't believe or understand the words. "What the hell is this?" he demanded. "How'd Travis know we even had this guy, and why's he issuin' injunctions about him?"

Buck snatched the flimsy away from him and read it through, frowning over the words, his face growing dark with anger. "Josiah messaged him about it," Vin explained calmly. "He said Dunne, or whoever he is, told Nathan and him that he couldn't get no fair trial back there, that he'd killed some big auger's son or somethin', I ain't right clear on all the details. He wants the Judge to try him here, Josiah used a word like 'venture'..."

"Venue? Change of venue?" Larabee guessed. Like Buck, he had done peace-officering work in his day, and learned something of legal language. "Son of a bitch! What was Josiah thinkin' about goin' over everybody's head like that? He knows better, damn it!"

"Chris," Vin said quietly, cutting off the tirade. "You got to keep it in your mind what Josiah is--was. He still figures he's got a higher loyalty than the one he owes us. If somethin' Dunne said appealed to the part of him that ain't ever quit bein' a preacher--"

"I don't give a damn what Dunne appealed to," Chris snapped. "I don't need none of this shit puttin' no more strain on us than what we're already dealin' with." He sees it too, Vin realized. Mad as he is, he knows what it could do to us. Well, I reckon I hadn't oughta be surprised. He's leader, and it's a leader's job to know how all his men think, know what to expect of 'em.

Buck crumpled the telegraph flimsy into a tight ball and hurled it across the room with a sizzling oath. "I'll kill him," he vowed. "Not Josiah, it ain't his fault. That piece of scum in the jail. I'll kill him. Then it won't matter what he wants the Judge to do, and we'll be rid of him for good."

"Buck." It was just one word, just his name, spoken softly and with no effort made to physically restrain him, yet something in its tone made the mustached gunslinger settle back hard in his chair, eyeing Vin uncertainly.

"You can't do that, Buck," the ex-bounty hunter went on. "You can't kill JD's pa. It don't matter if JD's forgive him or ain't, the man's still his blood and you can't take that blood and put it on your hands. Or you want to lose the kid for good?"

Vin wasn't comfortable in the role of peacemaker, and he didn't consider it his place to act that role: ordinarily it was Nathan and Josiah who served as the voices of wisdom and reason in their group. But they weren't here, and Buck was, and he was very close to the edge: as a bounty hunter Vin had had to learn to tell when a man was likely to do something crazy, and he saw the signs all too clearly now. And he'd be damned if he'd let any man be railroaded into a noose, or allow anyone, outsider or in-, to wreck the best thing that had ever happened to him. "And if you don't," he went on, "the Judge'll hang you for murder, and what do you think that'll do to JD? He'd never survive it. You can't do that to him, Buck, or to yourself either. You're better'n that."

He saw Buck's expression change at the image the words brought forth, and knew he was on the right track. Chris was looking at him with that same expression of surprise that Vin had seen him direct at Buck a little while before, and truth to tell Vin was astonished at his own eloquence. But he kept on, inexorably, letting the words flow as if he'd been given what Josiah might have called the gift of tongues. "I know it ain't easy, Buck, but you got to ride it out to the end. It ain't got nothin' to do with Dunne really. It's about you and JD and the rest of us. It's about each of us knowin' he can depend on all the others to do what's right for all of us when things get rough. That's what makes us who we are and what we are and keeps us alive. You took the responsibility for the kid, first of all of us, that first day. You done it of your own free will, and now you got to play it out. You got to think of him." And then he fell silent and waited, and the silence was a challenge.

And Buck, very quietly, said, "Vin, I don't never stop thinkin' of him." He looked up, his dark eyes meeting the tracker's vivid blue ones. "I'm all right now. I won't be doin' anything stupid." And without another word he got up and left, still walking straight and firm for all the whiskey he'd consumed.

Buck was lounging on the front porch of the boardinghouse when JD finally reappeared, coming up from the far end of town. "Hey, Buck," he said cheerfully, plopping down in the chair next to his friend's. "Any notion what we're gettin' for supper tonight?"

"Smelled like pork chops and sauerkraut," the gunslinger returned. "Where you been so long anyhow? Vin said he seen you goin' in the church with Josiah--"

"Yeah, I was with him a while, talkin'. But mostly I been visitin' Papa."

Papa. Buck's heart lurched. This was the first time the kid had used that word. Whenever he spoke of his mother he always said "Mamma," but till now he had never referred to Dunne except formally, as "m'father."

"Chris said he didn't want you in the jail," Buck reminded him.

"Wasn't in the jail. We talked through the cell window. Buck, Papa told me why they want him back in Silver City. He said he was doin' a job for this big local fella, Brice Winterhaven, owns a mine called the Royal Tiger. Well, this Winterhaven had a son named Drew, a year or two older'n me I guess, and he kept raggin' on Papa, callin' him an old man. Well, he kind of is for gunfightin', but that don't give a body no right to throw it in his face. This Drew kept on at him and at him, and then one night in a saloon, in front of his pa and God and everybody, he done what his name says--he drew. His gun was out of the leather before Papa moved. He killed him in self-defense, and Winterhaven knows that 'cause he saw, but Papa didn't figure he was gonna let that stop him from evening the score for his boy even if Papa was workin' for him at the time. So Papa backed his way out of the bar and made a run."

The story in itself wasn't implausible; Buck had seen similar things over his years of experience, and heard of others. Still-- "You sure of this, kid? After all, most men that get accused of murder claim they didn't do it. He could be lyin' to you. Remember, he deserted you and your mamma. A man that does that kind of thing could do other things too, like lie."

"He told me why he done that too," JD replied. "He got captured and gave his parole, and then he decided to go out to Montana and see if he could make a fortune for all of us." He sketched the story as Dunne/York had told it to him, not neglecting to reveal his father's alias. "All he wants is the same thing Vin wants, for the truth to come out. He got Josiah to send to the Judge askin' if he could be tried here instead of bein' shipped back to Silver City. He figures Winterhaven'll still bring in a bunch of lyin' witnesses, but at least he might have a little better chance up here."

"Looks like he might get what he wants, too," Buck said. "Vin brought a wire into the saloon while I was there a while back. Seems the Judge is writin' up some kind of paper to keep the Silver City law from takin' him, I don't remember the word he used for it, and he'll be sendin' it by a messenger as soon as it's done." He watched JD's face carefully.

The relief that flooded JD's features was plain: the kid had never had any talent for concealing his feelings. Buck's heart felt as if it had dropped onto his stomach. In that moment he knew, he knew, that if Judge Travis decided in Dunne's favor, JD would be going away with him. Buck had done the very best he knew, these last couple of years, but blood was thicker than water, and JD was such a hero-worshipper--how could he resist the siren call of a famous father? It would be almost like finding out he was the son of his hero Bat Masterson.

Buck wasn't ordinarily a pessimist; indeed, he tended to look on the bright side of most things. But he knew Judge Travis. The man was true to the law, but even above that he was passionately devoted to justice and truth. Mary had told Buck once that her father-in-law's philosophy of judgeship was the same as Andy Jackson's, as expressed in his customary charge to juries: "Do what is right between these parties. That is what the law always means." And if Travis thought the right was with Dunne, if he believed the man's version of Drew Winterhaven's death and accepted that Winterhaven would do just about anything to have Dunne's blood for it, he would find in Dunne's favor, because that, to his mind, was what the law stood for--what he stood for. It was, after all, one reason he had looked the other way about Vin's want, and Ezra's shady past, and included them in the company he hired to make Four Corners a decent place for folks to live and do business. And if he did that, Buck would lose the kid, not to death, but to distance and another human being.

Buck was a simple, straightforward, surprisingly gentle man of warm heart and generous nature, who found love much easier and more attractive than hate, hadn't held a grudge in over twenty years (except against the murderers of Chris Larabee's family), and considered loyalty the supreme human virtue. If a man had friends, he clove to them, stood by them come blizzard, blasphemy, or the rebuilding of Babylon, gave them help or protection when they needed it. It had hurt him badly when Chris, in the wake of his loss, had refused his every attempt to offer either one and in the end had driven him away. That was, perhaps, one reason he had bonded so powerfully with JD, who seemed to need both. And now the kid too seemed to be pushing him away, and Buck didn't know if he could stand that. Not twice in one lifetime. Not two best friends in a row. Not to lose that much. No.

Buck had always been easy to confide in, easy to get to know and get along with; he had had many friends and many loves. But until the day he drifted into Four Corners, they had all been people he loved and left, literally. He had committed to only four people in his entire life: his mother; Chris; and, through Chris, Sarah and Adam. Only four in thirty-eight years. Losing his mother had forced him out into the world, grief-stricken and alone, too conscious of his shadowy birth, and he'd done some things he wasn't proud of. Losing Sarah and Adam, even though they had been more Chris's than his, had been like having the heart ripped out of him. And then he'd met JD, and suddenly he had someone who was his, someone he could belong to and love and commit to and be himself with, someone who didn't try or even want to change him, who didn't care about his roots or his past or anything except that this was the first of the group to accept him fully and give him a chance and stand in the place of the mentor/father/elder brother/best friend a lonely city boy so desperately needed. Buck had seen so much of his younger self in JD, it had scared him. Not that he'd ever been as brash and naive and enthusiastic as JD was, but he felt that sympathy between them from the first, two souls forced to grow up far too soon and too hard, left without anyone in the world to care if they lived or died. The kid's unspoiled innocence, his energy, his unquenchable zest for life, his honesty and openness and splendid stubbornness, the bright inquiring mind that kept him constantly learning everything he could about his new environment--and, yes, the sheer gutsiness he'd displayed in standing up to the intimidating Chris Larabee at his worst --had captivated Buck completely. Buck's own still boyish enthusiasm for the beauties of life and the sheer process of living--for he was, somehow, the least hardened of the six older men--resonated to the kid's wide-eyed wonder at everything he found around him. And Buck had known at once that he'd found his place in the world, his mission in life. He'd see to it that this kid grew up clean, without making the mistakes he had, and learned to handle himself and survive and make the best use of all the tremendous potential Buck saw in him, all the potential he himself had wasted twenty years before. It didn't matter what Chris thought about it. It didn't have anything to do with Chris. It was just Buck and JD. It always had been, from the first, and Buck thought now that if Chris hadn't accepted the kid into his company, Buck wouldn't have stayed either. He'd have found some way to convince the kid to stick with him, and they'd have gone off on their own, but together. Because that was how they were meant to be.

How am I gonna let him go? Buck wondered. But I got to. Hard as I tried, I ain't really his kin. He belongs with his pa. He knows it and I know it even if neither one of us wants to say it out loud. Even if he ain't admitted it to himself just yet.

But you hear me, Dunne, or York, or whatever you want to call yourself. If I ever find out you've done anything to hurt this kid, there ain't no place you'll be able to hide from me and nothin' that'll stop me from killin' you, if I have to crawl over coals of fire to get to you. Because even if I ain't beside him no more, there's no way I'll ever stop carin' what happens to him. Because I'll still be his, and a little part of him will still be mine, even after he's got you.

"What all else you talk about?" he asked, trying to make it sound casual.

"Oh, everything. All of you and how I met you, and Casey, and Miss Nettie, and Mary and the Judge--he wanted to know what kind of man the Judge was." Buck could well imagine it: try though he might to emulate his six heroes, there was one Western trait Buck could never see the boy acquiring, and that was sententiousness.

"Yeah, reckon he would," Buck agreed. "So you...made peace with him, then? You forgive him?"

"Guess I did," said JD, in a tone that suggested he hadn't fully realized it himself until this moment. "Guess none of it was really his fault, when you think about it. Josiah said somethin' that made a lot of sense. He said each of our lives is the result of all the choices we've made, all the actions we've taken, and all the choices and actions of others that have acted on us. And he said lots of times we think we're doin' the right thing, but it turns out to be for the wrong reason, or it don't turn out like we thought it would 'cause we can't see all the things that could come from it. I guess that's what happened with Papa, that and time just gettin' away from him."

Yeah, I'm gonna lose him, Buck told himself. He don't know it yet, but it's true. And I gotta be strong, I gotta make him feel that he's free to do what he thinks is best, without havin' to worry about whether it'll hurt me or won't.

I don't know as I ever had a tougher row to hoe in my whole life. Not losin' Ma, not pickin' through what was left of Chris's house lookin' for Sarah's and Adam's bodies, not havin' Chris push me away afterward. But I gotta be strong, I gotta set the boy free to live his life without a big brother hoverin' over him all the time.

Dear Lord, give me strength...

+ + + + + + +

Chris was making his way up the street from the restaurant the next morning when the door of the Clarion office opened and Mary Travis spoke from the threshold. "Chris, do you have a minute? I'd like to speak to you in private."

He hesitated a moment, then turned in to the cluttered printshop. The door to the living quarters at the back banged open and Mary's going-on-eight-year-old son, Billy, came flying out to hurl himself at his black-clad hero. Chris reached down and swept the boy off the floor and around until he came to rest perched astride the man's left hip. "Chris! Are we gonna go fishin' like you said? I got my pole all ready, and Ma said she'd fix us a lunch--"

"Not today, Billy. I'm kind of expectin' somebody important to come in on the stage. Sunday maybe, after church. Okay?"

Seeing his father murdered and his mother forced to take over the newspaper had made Billy much older, on one level, than most boys his age; made him aware of the importance of grownup duties and commitments. "Okay," he agreed, with only the faintest note of disappointment in his voice.

"Billy," Mary added, "Chris and I need to have some grownup talk. Would you go outside and play for a while?"

"Sure, Ma." Billy let Chris set him on his feet, darted back into the rear for his hat and rushed out the front.

"Don't slam the--" Mary began, and was cut off by the crash of the door.

"--Door," Chris finished. "Adam used to do the same thing. Reckon it's a stage they go through." For a moment he found himself wondering that it was possible for him to think or talk casually about his lost son without the pain ripping through him like iron claws. It had taken him close to four years to even begin to live again after the boy and his mother were murdered, and for a little while after he learned who'd been behind it the blackness had threatened to overwhelm him again. But six men and a town had brought him back from the edge, and he knew now that he was healing, that a time would come when he could be again the man his family and Buck had known in those vanished days. He turned his attention to Mary, oddly elegant even in a simple sprigged calico dress with the collar open and an ink-stained canvas apron and black sateen sleeve protectors over it and a smudge of ink already on her nose. That's right, he remembered, today's the day she makes the paper up for publication. She was nothing like Sarah in looks, which was perhaps one reason he could begin to see himself with her, and yet in brains and spirit and courage the two women could have been sisters. "You need to hire yourself a pressman, or anyway a typesetter," he observed. "Not right you doin' all this heavy work."

"Maybe someday," she tossed it off. "I just can't afford it yet. I'm doing much better than I was when you and the others first came here--everyone is--but there isn't really all that much cash income to a paper like the Clarion." She sobered then. "Chris, what's going on with Buck?"

"What makes you think somethin' is?"

"The fact that he's been going around town the last day and a half looking like he's lost his best friend," Mary told him with her typical forthrightness. Then her tone softened. "He's my friend too, Chris. And I--all Four Corners--owe him such a tremendous debt, as we do all of you seven. If there's anything I can do--"

Chris turned away a moment and stared out the big multipaned front window, thinking of how, long after JD was in bed last night, Buck had found him at the saloon and poured everything out to him over what had seemed an endless succession of drinks. Chris had finally gotten his oldest friend to bed, hours later, his heart aching at the man's restless, broken mutterings. He loses that kid, the heart'll go right out of him. He won't be Buck no more.

Mary was waiting patiently when he turned back to face her. " 'Lost his best friend,' " Chris repeated. "You might be closer right than you know, Mary. Off the record?"


"'Cause if this whole story gets out," he replied, "it could hurt JD's reputation, his authority as sheriff...and anyhow Buck don't need a lot of other folks remindin' him about it, he's too damn conscious of it just the way things stand."

She watched him a moment, trying to gauge his seriousness. "Off the record," she agreed at last.

"You best sit down," Chris suggested. "This'll take some time to tell."

She pulled out the swivel chair from the editor's rolltop desk, sat and folded her hands in her lap and eyed him expectantly. He told her the whole story: the telegram that had come in from Silver City (she had heard of it), the message Kojay had sent to Vin, Vin and Josiah's departure to check it out (she had seen them riding out), the discovery of the photograph in the prisoner's watch, everything JD had told his friends in the saloon, Ezra's meager findings and his opinions of Dunne, the man's plea for a change of venue and Judge Travis's response, and what Buck had had to say as he rambled despairingly on last night. She listened attentively, saying little, until he indicated that he was finished.

"When will Orin get here?" was her first query.

"He didn't say exactly, just 'as soon as possible,' " Chris replied. "He'll want to finish up in Madera, most likely, and then he might want to go on to Eagle Bend and at least clear up any minor cases that're waitin' for him there. A few days, I figure."

She nodded and was silent a moment, clearly deep in thought. "I might be able to help," she observed then.

"What? How?"

"If JD was right in what he said, and if Dunne, or York, is telling the truth," Mary said thoughtfully, "it wouldn't do any good for me to contact Silver City and ask for details of the case. We've both seen it before, what a single important man's money and power can do to seal people's lips or make them change their stories. But there's a chance I can find out whether York really is Dunne. You and Ezra both think he might be pulling some kind of con. If he is, it's almost certainly connected to his identity, somehow--wouldn't you agree?"

"I don't rightly know," Chris admitted, "but if he's spinnin' JD a windy about bein' his pa, and you could find somethin' out that would prove it, it would make a helluva difference to Buck." He watched her with curiosity and a faint thrill of hope. He had no opinions one way or the other about Dunne/York's innocence--he could hardly condemn the man out of hand for his reputation as a gunfighter, given the line of work he was in himself--though he still didn't feel that the man was telling everything about his situation. But if he could be shown to have been leading the youngest of the seven on-- "How would you do this?"


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