by Sevenstars

"Steven was in the war too," Mary told him. "Ninety-First New Jersey. One of his fellow officers transferred to the Regulars afterward. He's assigned to the War Department in Washington now; he'd have access to their records. And of course he's got contacts with the Commandery of the Grand Army of the Republic," naming the umbrella organization for Union veterans. "Unless we can somehow get hold of a photograph of JD's father, we can't prove that he and York are or aren't one and the same. But we know the full name of the man we're interested in, the regiment he enlisted in and the year he did it, even his approximate age. That should give Steven's friend enough information to learn what became of Dunne. Possibly he did die and the message to his widow went astray, or was never sent--it might have been a case of two or more officers each thinking someone else had done it. And if he's dead, then York can't be him."

Chris felt his heartbeat pick up. "That could work. Think this fellow'd do it?"

"I'll telegraph him. He's fairly high up, a Major now; he can delegate even if he doesn't have time to do the searching himself. It might take some time, you realize. There are such a lot of records to search, so many thousands of men--"

"Don't matter. At least there's some chance. If I know somebody's workin' on it, maybe the Judge and I can figure a way to stall." He hesitated. "Mary, I'll owe you a big one for this, and so will Buck if it works out like you say. It's killin' him already and JD ain't even realized yet just what it means that he's accepted York's story and forgiven him."

"You won't owe me a thing, either of you. It's my duty as a newspaperwoman to seek out the truth, just as it was your duty as peacekeepers to find Steven's killer." Their eyes met and each one read the unspoken message.

"You'll find me as soon as you hear," he said at length.

"Of course. I'll go down and send the telegram right away."

Chris went on his way, and found Buck slumped in a captain's chair in front of the saloon, a beer half forgotten in his hand and no sign of JD anywhere. The chief regulator smothered a sigh. It was still working on him. It wasn't like Buck to drink so early, not even beer.

He didn't want to let Buck know his drunken confidences of last night had been violated (even though Buck had never asked him not to pass them on), or raise any false hopes in him, so he said nothing of what Mary had suggested. He simply dragged over another chair and sat down beside his oldest friend, hoping his presence would be some comfort to the mustached gunslinger. They sat there in silence for a time, and then Vin came strolling along, saw them, and somehow guessed what was going on, and he got a chair of his own and settled down on Buck's other side in a gesture of solidarity.

They were still there when the stage from Santa Fe pulled in before the hotel on the other side of the street. Buck didn't seem to notice it, but Vin and Chris watched as the guard began passing down luggage. Since the disembarking passengers were getting off on the far side of the coach body, the two regulators couldn't see them, but they noticed Josiah's distinctive mass under the hotel awning, then saw him move forward, behind the shelter of the coach, as if to meet someone. Maude? Chris wondered. But after a moment Josiah reappeared alone, moving off toward the church. The driver urged his team forward again, making for the stage company's facilities a little farther down: Four Corners was both a relay point and a meal stop, and he'd take a few minutes to see the horses changed and check the harness and running gear before he headed back to the hotel to get his own dinner.

A man was left standing on the boardwalk, waiting until the coach got out of the way before he stepped down off the curb and angled across the dusty expanse. Vin quietly jacked up out of his chair and vanished into the saloon. As the newcomer got closer, Chris realized why: the sharpshooter's eagle eye for distance had picked out the flash of metal on his shirt. The chief regulator guessed who the stranger might be even before he stopped at the edge of the curb and looked up at them. He was perhaps sixty, brown and wiry, with silver-streaked hair and a heavy shoebrush mustache. His corduroy jacket hung open to allow a glimpse of the five-pointed bronze star pinned to his blue-and-white-checkered shirt; there was a string tie knotted at the collar. His gun was strapped high, so the black bone butt was near his waist, but that did nothing to deceive Chris as to his skill: he carried his own Colt rather high. A leather grip hung from his hand. "I'm looking for Chris Larabee."

The gunslinger eyed him from under the flat brim of his black Mexican hat. "You found him," he said meagerly.

"Name's Gattis McCray. Marshal out of Silver City. You wired me you had a man who's wanted in my town."

Chris slid a look at Buck out of the corner of his eye. "That's right. He's over in the jail. And I'd let you have him in a minute if I could, but I can't."

"What? Why not?"

Larabee reached into his pocket for the paper Judge Travis's messenger had laid beside his plate at breakfast. "That's why not. Injunction from Circuit Judge Orin Travis forbidding the prisoner to be removed from his district. Seems your fugitive's requested a change of venue. Says he doesn't think he'll get a fair trial back in Silver City."

McCray stepped up onto the boardwalk, took the injunction from Chris's hand and scanned it carefully, noting the signature and seals at the bottom. Chris watched him closely, seeing the way his eyes narrowed and his lips compressed under the mustache; Buck ignored the entire exchange.

"All right," said McCray at length, handing the paper back. "When do you figure we can move on to the next stage?"

"Don't know," Chris told him. "Judge'll be here when he gets here. Hotel ain't a bad place to stay, or there's a boardinghouse down street a ways, first left turn and third house on your right."

"I'll let you know where I land," the older man promised. "Where do I send a telegram?"

"Fourth door that way," Chris replied with a jerk of his thumb. "If I ain't here you can leave word inside, I'll get it. Or tell whoever's on duty at the jail, I reckon you can find that easy enough."

"Thanks." McCray set off in the direction of the telegraph office. Chris watched him go, his face thoughtful.

Vin put his head out. "I heard."

"Might be nothin'," Chris observed. "Might just be havin' to let his head deputy know he'll be held up a spell."

"Might," Vin agreed. "Might not." Chris could sense him glancing at Buck. "Best I find JD and then stay low."

"See you later, pard," Chris said. Vin withdrew like a turtle pulling into its shell. He'd go out the back door and stick to the alleys. McCray wasn't a bounty hunter and he wasn't from Tascosa, but he'd almost certainly seen Vin's Wanted poster; Vin hadn't stayed alive these twenty-seven years by taking damnfool chances.

"Buck," Chris said quietly, reaching over to touch his friend's arm. "Stage is in, must be noon or past. How about I buy you some dinner?"

The other man lifted his head slowly; his eyes were still red from last night's overindulgence, haunted and underlain with dark smudges. "Not much in the mood," he said.

"Can't live on air and flat beer till Travis makes it in," Chris pointed out. "JD'll see soon enough that you ain't yourself, and you know what'll happen then. Come on."

Buck sighed enormously and got to his feet. "Reckon you're right," he agreed dispiritedly. "Don't feel much like eatin', but I don't feel like dealin' with the kid's questions more."

"Saw on the menu board they got fresh antelope cutlets at the restaurant," Chris mentioned. "That's just about your favorite game, ain't it? Been a time since either of us had any." He laid his hand lightly on Buck's arm, just above the elbow, and began guiding his friend up the street.

+ + + + + + +

Gattis McCray bent over the counter in the telegraph office, trying to decide just how to word--or for that matter address--his message. He'd heard enough of the seven regulators of Four Corners to have a lot of respect for their instincts and intelligence; if York had requested a change of venue, he'd have had to tell them why he wanted it, and that would mean they might guess that McCray was somehow connected to the situation. Being lawmen, however unofficially, they'd have no problem getting a look at the file copy of his telegram after it was sent.

At sixty, after a career that had included a youthful stint in the Rangers in the early days of the Texas Republic, service in two wars, and experience as both civilian and lawman in several mineral rushes and a number of cowtowns, McCray knew he was closing in on the end of life. There were scars and a couple of embedded bullets that ached in bad weather, and at his age little prospect of high-paying work; in that he thought he could almost sympathize with York, even though the man was almost a generation his junior. He knew he'd been lucky to get the marshal's star in Silver City; like any town marshal's slot, it exposed him to the worst troublemakers on a day-to-day basis, but with two or three stout, quick-handed young deputies he could handle it, and the pay was good, and he had a certain authority and respect. He also knew that it was largely Brice Winterhaven's influence that had opened the position to a man his age, and he knew men like Winterhaven didn't do favors without expecting something in return. So McCray closed his eyes to certain things, like the way Winterhaven put men like York on his payroll to keep the Miners' Union in line and deal with the occasional smaller mineowner whose holding Winterhaven coveted. He didn't accept bribes, exactly; he just rationalized that he did what was necessary to hold onto what he had.

He hadn't been there the night Drew Winterhaven was killed, though he'd heard about it, both versions. He could guess which one York had told the Seven, and he was willing to believe it too; he'd known Drew rather better than he'd really wanted to. The kid had been asking to get shot for the last three years, and somebody had finally obliged him. McCray was surprised it had taken so long. He understood that York had given in his notice only minutes before it happened, asked to have his pay; he'd been figuring to get started right off, had his horse outside all saddled and packed, wanting to make some time while nighttime cool lay on the border country. That was probably what had pushed Drew into making his play: the kid had figured he wouldn't get another chance. York's forebearance with Drew's continual baiting had rather amazed the veteran marshal, though on reflection he realized that a man of York's reputation and caliber couldn't afford to lose his temper: he fought at times of his choosing whenever it was possible. That night it hadn't been. McCray didn't doubt it had been a matter of self-defense, and if that was so he knew Winterhaven knew it.

But to go up against Winterhaven would mean the end of everything he had in Silver City, such as it was, and not much chance of getting anything else as good. And Winterhaven was going to want his son paid for, one way or another. McCray had known the mineowner long enough to have a pretty good idea of how he'd respond to the prospect of a change of venue. On the other hand, he reasoned, Larabee and the other six would figure that if such a change were possible, Winterhaven and any other prospective witnesses would have to be told about it so they could get started on the way here in time not to keep Judge Travis waiting. They couldn't fault McCray for trying to save their own judge's valuable time.

And so, after some consideration, McCray wrote on the form before him:


I'm just doin' my job, he told himself as he handed the completed message to the operator and watched him counting the words. I ain't responsible for what others do with the news I send 'em.

But the conscience of an experienced and generally honest lawman continued to whisper in his unwilling ear even after he'd paid the operator and set off in search of a place to stay. Shut up, he told it. Brice won't do the town no hurt, why should he? The only ones likely to stand in his way will be them seven, and most of 'em ain't even officially lawmen from what I hear. Brice knows about 'em too; he'll make sure he's got an advantage, numbers or whatever. They ain't stayed alive as long as they have without knowin' there's times any man has to back down.

Thing is, each man's got a different idea of just where the odds get to be too high, and them seven don't give up easy.

Still, it ain't my lookout. I got to survive; just like York did when he shot Drew. First law, so they say.

I need to get a drink.

+ + + + + + +

Vin found JD at the back of the jail visiting with his father. He passed on the news of McCray's arrival and his reception of the news of Travis's injunction, well aware that Dunne was listening too but figuring the man had a right to know, since it was his neck on the line.

"Who do you reckon he wanted to send a telegram to?" JD asked.

"Whoever he left in charge back there, to tell 'em he'll be here longer'n he 's figurin' on," Vin replied with a shrug. "It's best he don't know just how you and the prisoner's connected, though. You better go talk to Chris, see if he'll want you to go back to takin' a spell inside yonder, 'long as McCray's with us."

"Okay," JD agreed. "I'll see you later, Papa." And he turned Seven carefully in the limited confines of the alley and nudged her into motion.

Vin eyed Dunne warningly until the man's face disappeared from the window, then drifted off himself.

In his cell, Dunne/York stretched out on the bunk and clasped his hands behind his head, trying not to let Ezra, who was on duty at the desk, see the gleam in his eye. It was all coming together just as he had hoped it would.

Past forty, he had reached a point in his career where he would almost inevitably begin to head downhill. He was still alert, still perceptive, and he had all the wisdom and experience of years on his side, but inevitably as time went on he knew he would slow down, maybe only a shade each year, but enough so that one day he'd lose a fight. He wanted to avoid that. Already for several years now the big prestigious jobs hadn't been so available to him as once they had; prospective employers considered how long he'd been in the business and knew--as he did himself--that every job in his line was a toss of the dice, that the odds built up against you and eventually you rolled snake eyes, and given the kind of stakes for which most of them played, they preferred not to pin their hopes on a man who might not have what it took any more. That was why he'd been more or less forced into accepting Winterhaven's pay, even though the job itself had been of a kind he considered beneath him, not much better than hired bully. But it was money, and he needed money. He'd set himself a goal: ten thousand dollars. With that he could buy himself some land or start a pleasant little saloon somewhere, and hang up his gun for good, go back to his right name so nobody would know what had become of 'Darrin York,' and eventually die in bed, old and comfortable if not perhaps rich.

The letter that had come to him in Silver City two weeks ago had surprised him a little. So had the amount of cash enclosed with it, and the figure promised him if he could do the job. Fifteen hundred total, and almost no expenses. It would bring him within a thousand dollars of his goal. This job, then maybe one more, and I'll be finished, he'd told himself.

He wouldn't have accepted such a commission in his younger days; back then he had taken some pride in the fact that he didn't set out in search of trouble--he handled it when it came his way, killed only as an element of the job, whether that job was shotgun guarding or wearing a badge or whatever. But now he had to take what he could get, and hires that paid like this one were few and far between. He couldn't afford to pass it up.

He'd taken a day or two to think it over, even so. Like almost everyone else in the Territory, he had heard of Judge Orin Travis's Magnificent Seven. Even if he didn't do the job in Four Corners itself, he was pretty sure they'd take an interest in running him down afterward. Still, the money...and in the end he decided to take the chance. The worst he could get was dead, and everybody died sooner or later anyhow.

When he'd first gone into the Winter's Eve Saloon in Silver City (one of Winterhaven's assorted non-mineral holdings), he hadn't been planning to do the job as he was now. Drew's suicidal challenge had changed that. You didn't work for a man even as long as he had for Winterhaven, to say nothing of dealing with others of his kind over the years (they being prominent members of that class of humanity likely to have both the reason and the wherewithal to hire a gunfighter for whatever cause), without knowing what to expect of him. Winterhaven wouldn't care that his son had pushed it; all he'd care about was that he'd lost a son. Small loss, the gunfighter told himself, Perry's worth five of his brother, and then there's that youngest boy coming up, though he's only twelve. Still, blood's blood. Even as he backed out of the saloon, holding the crowd at gunpoint, and swung to the saddle of his waiting black, then scared off the tethered horses with a flurry of skyward shots and took off at full gallop, he'd known that Winterhaven would have McCray after him in no time; maybe a posse, certainly telegrams.

His initial plan had been to ride casually into Four Corners and stock up his supplies, maybe spend a few hours in a saloon, and find out when Travis was due in, then ride out again as quietly as he'd arrived, giving the seven regulators no excuse to think it odd that he loitered about as if waiting for something. He'd set up a comfortable camp somewhere far enough out that he wouldn't be likely to be stumbled across, keep track of the days, and then when the time came go back in, covered by the activity that was almost certain to accompany the prospect of court (good trials being considered prime entertainment and not something the locals would miss if they could help it), and do it. But the fact of becoming a fugitive had changed the look of the landscape. He didn't let it panic him. In his line you couldn't afford to give in to panic, and you had to be able to adjust to changing situations and make the best of every opportunity that opened up before you. Knowing Winterhaven and McCray as he did, it didn't take him long to make a new plan. The Seven wouldn't be expecting trouble so close to home, and if he could get them off guard--where better, and least likely for Travis to look for an attack, than right under the noses of his own men? All he needed was to get one of them on his side--

And so far it was all working out just as he'd hoped. The kid had been a little explosive at first, but he'd been expecting that and had allowed for it. He'd been sure the boy's nature would force him back, make him look for answers; once it did, it was simply a matter of telling him what he wanted to hear. Now McCray was here, and if Winterhaven reacted as his former gunhand figured he would, he'd be coming along soon. Travis would want to wait for witnesses before he held a hearing about the venue request; it shouldn't be too hard to convince him to hold off a few days. Then all the actors would be in place on the stage, and it would be time for the director, watching quietly from the barred security of his cell, to make his move.

Winterhaven will know about these seven just the way I did. He'll want to assure himself of as much of an advantage as he can. Twenty men at least, maybe thirty or more. They won't take a stage; they won't be able to. They'll load up a few packhorses and come straight overland by as direct a route as they can. It still won't take them any less than five days, but I think Travis will wait; he's not even here yet.

There was considerable risk to himself, but if he read the seven regulators right, and if the stories about them, printed and otherwise, were true, they would play the part he had assigned them without even knowing whose ends they were furthering. And Winterhaven would act like Winterhaven, and then--

I hope your will is in order, Judge Travis.

+ + + + + + +

Three days passed. As Vin had guessed he would, Chris agreed that, with peace made between JD and his father, there was no reason not to let the kid go back to taking his regular watch at the jail. He did, however, caution JD and the others to say nothing to McCray, if they encountered him, about the relationship. If Dunne's misgivings about Winterhaven's power in Silver City had been enough to convince Judge Travis to at least consider the possibility of a change of venue, Winterhaven's finding out that one of the Judge's peacekeepers was the son of the accused might be reason enough for him to countersuggest yet another change. Chris preferred to keep the whole situation under his eye if he could.

Buck, however, couldn't face being in the jail, watching JD getting to know his father, or even, if JD wasn't there, seeing the man he knew might soon take the kid away from him. Instead he volunteered for patrol and stayed out most of every day. He hated not being able to wring out every second he could with the boy he loved more than life, but he just couldn't deal with Dunne's presence. He was genuinely afraid that if he were forced to associate with the man for too long, he'd beat him up or kill him. And then, as Vin had said, he would lose JD for sure.

He found himself remembering what he'd told the kid about Chris and the walls men build in self-defense. And now I'm the one doin' it. But what else is there? Force him to choose between me and his pa? That ain't even an option. A boy should know his pa and be with him, if there's any way. It's better I start pushin' him away now, so he don't have to make that choice. If he thinks somethin's gone wrong between us, maybe it'll be easier for him to go the way that's best for him. He wondered sadly what would be left for him afterward. The others would help if they could, he supposed, but none of them could ever be what JD was to him. And Chris--well, Chris had Vin now, and Vin seemed so much better suited to the man Chris had become than Buck was; would there be any chance of re-establishing their old friendship? Buck doubted it. He had always known that if JD were to die, he'd have a pretty barren prospect before him, but he'd never stopped to think that the boy leaving of his own free will would be just as bad.

He might have been surprised to know just how keenly his old friend sensed his despondency. On the third morning, at breakfast, Chris braced Josiah over the change of venue. "I'm not sayin' you were wrong to do it, I know I ain't the judge or the jury; as long as there's an off chance the man ain't a murderer, I can see how you'd figure it was an obligation you had. But you shouldn't go makin' decisions like that on your own, least of all when it's somethin' affects all of us this personal. Buck ain't takin' this good, you know that. He's sick right down to the soul of him thinkin' he might lose JD."

The preacher eyed him levelly, knowing Chris well enough to know he was spoiling for a fight and not planning to give him one. "I regret Brother Buck's pain as much as any of us, Chris. But you don't think for me. You're not even that good of a conscience for yourself, much less someone else. I consider all seven of us to be equals, and if ever you take it on yourself to be the decision maker for everyone, you can do it without me, because I won't be here."

Vin, looking on, said nothing, but he saw the threat hit his friend and realized that Chris was again thinking, as he had the day Travis's telegram came, of how the issues brought up by Dunne's presence could end up fracturing their union beyond all repair. The ex-bounty hunter began to understand, as he never really had before, that he might have to continue to steer both Chris's and Buck's decision-making, simply because, perhaps apart from Ezra whose profession demanded that he be at all times cool and self-possessed, he was simply the most levelheaded member of the group, the one least likely to allow his emotions to affect his judgment. Damn, this is gettin' worse all the time, he told himself unhappily. I'm beginnin' to wish Dunne had resisted arrest, back there in the hills, and given me an excuse to shoot him.

On the fourth day Judge Travis arrived. He conferred first with Chris, who told him everything he knew, including JD's relationship with the prisoner and Mary's offer to try to substantiate or disprove it. He then went to the jail and talked with Dunne alone while Josiah and Chris kept watch outside the door. Later he rejoined five of the seven--Chris, Vin, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan; Buck was out on patrol again, and JD at the jail--in the saloon. "Gentlemen, I think the prisoner's misgivings may be well founded," he said. "I've never met Brice Winterhaven, but I've heard of him. He is wealthy, he has considerable power in and around Silver City, and he possesses a certain ruthlessness of character which might well lead to his attempting to fix the outcome of the accused's trial. I intend to hold a hearing to determine the proper course of action to take. Did you say, Chris, that you thought Marshal McCray had messaged home?"

"I know he did, Judge. I had Josiah go down and take a look at Wyatt's file. He sent a telegram to Silver City, to his head deputy, and he specifically ordered him to 'inform the witnesses.' "

"In that case, they should be on their way here as we speak," Travis noted. "As soon as they arrive I'll set the date for the hearing."

"Is there no possibility, Judge Travis," Ezra inquired, "that the process might be in any way...prolonged?" He knew, as did the others, of Buck's fears; Chris had shared his old friend's ramblings with them (though not with JD) two nights before. "We must permit your late son's comrade-in-arms as much opportunity as possible to uncover, if he can, the exact fate of Daniel Dunne."

"I understand your feelings, Ezra. But the Constitution provides that any person accused of crime must have a trial both public and speedy. The quicker we get the hearing out of the way and the location of the trial decided upon, the quicker his rights will be exercised." Travis shook his head. "I feel for Buck too, and I've got a strong sense that his fears are just as well founded as his rival's, but my duty is clear."

Ezra shook his head mournfully but didn't protest further. "Even if he gets the change of venue," Nathan pointed out, "it don't mean he won't get found guilty anyhow. Papa did."

"Don't know as that would improve the situation any, Brother Nate," Josiah told him. "Suppose he hangs, do you figure JD'll be able to stay on in the town where it happened?"

"But Buck would still have him," said Nathan.

"Maybe and maybe not. Might be the boy would associate all of us with his father's death, and that would make for an even wider breach between him and--not just Buck, but every one of us."


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