"What happened, Buck, forget somethin'?" asked Nathan without turning from his worktable. He knew the feet of each of his six partners on the steps by sound--perhaps inevitably since they all spent so much time in his clinic.
It was JD's strangled exclamation that spun the healer around. "Papa?!"
The kid was on his feet, staring in bewilderment at the two men who stood just inside the door: Buck, looking impotently furious, and Darrin York with his sixgun pressed against the back of the mustached man's neck. "Just stand easy, both of you," York warned. "Kid, drop your gunbelt, and don't try any fancy tricks or your partner here will be minus his head."
His eyes huge, JD slowly did as he was told. Nathan watched silently, keeping his hands where York could see them.
"Now," York went on, "Wilmington, you and I are going over into that corner where you can shield me. Jackson, move over by the bed and don't reach for anything. Kid, put your guns on the table and go get Judge Travis. You know where he is?"
"Likely at the saloon, hearing civil cases," JD replied. "Why? What do you want with him, Papa? And why've you got a gun on Buck, he ain't done you no hurt."
"Maybe I just circled around to fool those Winterhaven men and want to surrender," grinned York. And then: "No, you don't believe that, do you? Well, you'll find out soon enough, so I might just as well tell the truth. I'm going to kill Travis."
JD's mouth dropped open; Nathan grunted in surprise and Buck's shoulders jerked. "You sidewinder," he breathed, "what you wanta go and do that for? The man likely saved your life!"
"Business, Wilmington. Business pure and simple. It's what I was hired to do. It's why I came here. Nothing personal." He nudged his captive with his gun again. "Get going, boy. You've got fifteen minutes. If you and Travis aren't back by then, I start killing your friends."
JD sidled past him, eyes fixed on the man as if he thought this had to be some kind of terrible nightmare. This don't make sense, he told himself as he reached back for the doorknob and backed his way out the door. He ain't even actin' like before. He's like a whole different person.
He hurried down the steps and paused at the bottom. No sign of Ezra. God. It's all up to me. And I've got no guns.
But I know somebody who does-- he realized then, and took off, running, for the Clarion office.
+ + + + + + +
Mary looked up from her desk as the door crashed open and a white-faced JD Dunne hurtled in. "Miz Travis--"
"JD! What happened? I heard Vin had been hurt--is he--?"
"No, he's okay, but he might not be if I don't--" The boy stopped, took breath, and began over again. "Miz Travis, do you still have that gun Chris gave you?"
"Yes..." For the first time she noticed that she didn't see the familiar harness and ivory-butted Lightnings at his waist. "What happened to yours?"
JD shot a desperate look at the clock over the desk. "Ma'am, I don't mean no disrespect, but I got no time to tell you just now. I need that gun, please, ma'am."
She didn't hesitate. Yanking open a drawer, she reached under a pile of old subscription bills and pulled out the little single-action Smith & Wesson .32 six-shooter with its five-inch barrel, eight ounces of deadliness that Chris had taken off somebody soon after he first came to town and given to her for self-defense. He took it from her hand, spun the cylinder to check the loads, then opened the loading gate and hooked it over his waistband on the left side, the butt turned for a cross-draw, and let his suit-jacket fall over it. "Can you see it, Miz Travis?"
"Thank you, ma'am." And he was gone again.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was tired--not the tiredness of the flesh: he'd stayed up for poker marathons thirty-six hours and more several times in his career; the tiredness of nerve and soul. He'd stopped at his room to get cleaned up and change his shirt--no matter his humor, there was no excuse for a gentleman to appear in public unkempt--and gotten a quick cup of coffee at the restaurant, and then begun his patrol of the awakening town. He found that a certain amount of confusion existed among the citizens regarding the events of the previous night: it seemed to be generally accepted that the men who had held the seven peacekeepers overnight in the saloon had been strangers, but not outlaws; most people had heard that they had come with the intent of hanging the man in the jail; and there was a consensus that they had now left, but whether they had accomplished their goal or not was apparently uncertain. Ezra didn't enlighten them. If any who had heard of Vin's injury inquired as to the tracker's condition, he told what he knew, but that was all. And while he was by no means as forbidding in appearance as Chris, or even Vin or Buck or Josiah, could be, there was something about the air of him that fended off casual questioning.
After a time he found himself at the livery barn and stopped in to visit his horse. The chestnut nuzzled him and eagerly accepted a pear he had picked up at the general store. Ezra patted the animal's neck, listening to its contented crunching, and thought about what was likely to happen next. As he'd told Chris over a week ago, a man in his line had to possess the gift of reading people, being able to guess, on the shortest of acquaintance, what they were likely to do in given circumstances. His acquaintance with the other six was anything but short, and he didn't have to guess; he knew. If Chris and Josiah didn't return, Vin's Comanche bloodthirst would drive him out on the trail of their killers as soon as he was able to stand, and while Ezra had the greatest and most genuine of respect for Vin's abilities, he knew that the man would never be able to take down sixty, not even one at a time, not if he made it his whole life's work. JD, too conscious that his action had caused the death of three of his friends, would drift away, and Buck would go with him in an effort to offer comfort and stability. Even if by some miracle Chris and Josiah did make it back, the boy and the gunslinger would never be able to live in the same town again. Either JD would go, and Buck with him; or Chris would go, and probably Vin with him, which in turn would leave the others leaderless and fragmented, unable to continue. In any case, it was finished; the Seven were done.
Ezra sighed and scratched the horse between the eyes, where all horses love to be scratched. "We've been together a long time, haven't we, dear Gambit?" he murmured. "And for so much of that time you were my sole companion and friend. Indeed, I wanted no others. Or, at least, I believed that to be the case. And I never even guessed what I was lackin'. As the Bard has it, 'Lord, Lord, what fools these mortals be...' " He shook his head. "And now, very soon, I fear, it will be once again as it was, you and I. At the most, we who were once seven will be five, possibly less. Nathan will remain, of course; this was his home long before we others came. Perhaps Josiah too; he seems to have found some meaning for his existence in that church. The rest of us...our bonds are dissolvin', Gambit, before my very eyes. And, by Heaven, how I shall miss them..."
He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "Still, Gambit, I am a gentleman, and I do not propose to shirk the obligations I have agreed to assume. Until I am reasonably certain of the fates of my companions, I shall go on as best I am able, and that means, at this point, that I must continue my patrol. I shall see you again tomorrow, old friend." With a gentle slap to the horse's flank, he left the stall and started out.
A stir in the box next door caught his attention, and a horse hung its blazed face over the barrier, nostrils spreading; perhaps it had smelled the pear. It was a black, a handsome creature and taller than many Ezra had seen in these regions. Being a Southern gentleman, Ezra invariably took note of fine horseflesh, and he had a keen memory for the details of equine appearance. He peered at the animal, frowning in concentration, and then moved to one side for a better angle of view. The horse stirred, stamping the litter on the stall floor. Each of its four legs bore a long white boot, a marking rarely seen in horses of any color.
Ezra's heart lurched. He had seen such a horse as this before, indeed every day of the past nine, when he paid his regular call on Gambit to make sure the animal was being properly cared for. Dunne's horse, he realized. But JD told us that he had brought it around to the back of the jail, and he said he saw his father ride off on it. So why would it be here?
Because its owner is here also.
But why? That he might circle back in some attempt to elude his pursuers I can accept, but to return to the very town where he was incarcerated? If he wished to surrender, to take his chances on a trial--there has been no one at the jail all day; he would have had to find one of us, and he has not done so. Or else he would have had to approach Judge Travis, and surely I would have heard something of so noteworthy an occurrence.
"Good Lord," he whispered aloud.
What was it Mr. Larabee said? 'He wanted to get caught...'
Could that be the answer? Has it indeed been an elaborate scam? Has he set us up, knowing what Winterhaven would be likely to do? We know who the man is, or rather the name he has made over the years. A gunfighter, as surely as Mr. Larabee. If he is here on business--but then--
He remembered the money he had discovered in Dunne's wallet the night they played poker in the jail, the ten crisp new fifty notes so oddly juxtaposed against the smaller, more battered bills, and remembered too how that discovery had first alerted him to the possibility of Dunne's being a professional gunthrower. He, and whoever had checked Dunne's belongings in, were almost certainly the only two of the Seven who knew the exact makeup of the man's finances. And he thought of his reflections about where that money might have come from. My God. He's here to kill someone.
"He's here to kill someone." He didn't realize he was speaking the words until he heard their hushed echo in the quiet barn. "Good Lord. He's here to kill someone, and it must be someone he anticipates finding within the town limits. One of us, perhaps. Or Mrs. Travis. Or the Judge?"
His heart had begun to hammer. "Take control, Ezra," he commanded himself sternly. "You must remain calm. What is the first order of business in such a situation? To inform your compatriots. If they are not at Nathan's clinic, they will have told him where they were goin'. Inquire there first." He headed for the main door, striding fast--
and was all but knocked over by Chris and Josiah's horses as they pulled up just outside. "What?" he exclaimed. "You've returned so soon, Mr. Larabee? Why?"
"Josiah had a feeling," the leader replied briefly. "Said there was trouble back here and Dunne was in on it."
The gambler shot the big man an awed look as he dismounted. "Mr. Sanchez, I am not ordinarily a devout man, but in this moment I can well believe in guardian angels. Gentlemen, I have but now discovered Dunne's horse in this very stable. Clearly he is somewhere at large about our fair community, and I am convinced it is not with the intent of returnin' to confinement. He is, as we know, a man who earns his livin' by his gun; he has admitted this freely. It is my belief that he has been hired to slay either one of us or some citizen under our protection, and it is for that reason, Mr. Larabee, that he permitted himself to be apprehended."
Chris's eyes sparked. "I was right," he breathed. "It was a con."
"I fear so," Ezra agreed.
"The others," Chris barked then. "Where?"
"I don't know, although I dare say Mr. Jackson will have some notion. I was just about to make my way to his precincts when you arrived--"
Just then a fusillade of gunfire swung all three of them around.
"Nathan's place!" gasped Josiah.
"Trouble," snapped Chris. "Come on!"
+ + + + + + +
Footsteps on the clinic steps: slow, measured ones, each stride thought out and visualized in the mind, and weaving a pattern around them the quick, light, springing ones of someone small and wiry and young. York tightened his grip on Buck's shoulder. Vin moaned softly, rousing just enough to be aware of the pain, and Nathan leaned over to soothe him, glancing longingly at the knife harness hung on the coat rack. Only ten feet away, and it might just as well be ten miles.
The door opened. Judge Travis's black-suited, ramrod-erect form filled the opening, with JD close behind. "Step right in, Judge," York commanded gently, "and close it after you."
Travis crossed the threshold, JD following, hanging close to the door as the man slowly moved further in, taking in the situation with a slow sweeping glance: Buck in the corner, his hands slightly raised, arms beginning to tremble a bit with the strain of the prolonged position, his body shielding York, who was also protected by the shadow of Nathan's nearby simples cupboard; Nathan sitting on the bed, talking soothingly to Vin, who was awake but confused and trying to struggle into a sitting position. "I understand you have some business with me," the Judge said evenly.
"That's right," York agreed. He nodded toward the table where JD's harness lay. "Pick up one of the guns, Your Honor. When you're found, I want you to be armed and shot in the front."
Travis's eyes flicked to the twin Colt Lightnings, then back to the waiting gunfighter. "No," he said simply.
"Pick one up," York repeated, his tone hardening. "I've fallen a long way in my life, Your Honor, but I try never to shoot unarmed men. On the other hand, I don't have a great many options just now. So pick one up, or else I'll shoot Jackson first, and then Tanner, and then Wilmington. And then I'll shoot you anyway, because I'll have nothing left to lose." His Colt's muzzle elevated by a fraction. "Pick up the gun."
JD stepped forward, smoothly pulling a small handgun from under his suit-jacket. "No, Papa. Put it down," he said.
For a moment, it seemed, everyone in the room was stunned by his action. "Well, I'll be damned," said York at length, with a low chuckle. "Where did you get that?"
"I borrowed it from a friend." JD's voice was tight and thin, but the little Smith & Wesson was cocked and held steady, his left hand clapped up under his right wrist to brace it. "Let Buck go, Papa, and drop your gun."
York smiled. "You're not going to shoot. You won't risk killing your partner, and you'd never kill me."
JD's body was rigid, every joint locked, but his breathing had quickened, and even in the low light Nathan could see the determined flush creeping over his face. He saw something flash between Buck and the boy and knew a message had been exchanged. "I betrayed a trust, Papa. I thought I was doin' right, but I know now I wasn't. I got to make up for it. I know I owe you, I wouldn't even be without you, but I owe my friends too, and the Judge. Drop your gun, Papa."
"You can't make it out of here, Papa. Don't make me do this, please."
"You're not going to do it."
"You don't know me well enough to say that. You got no right to say that. You don't know. Papa, I'm tellin' you for the last time, don't make me do this. Please don't, for Mamma's sake, please." His breathing was much too fast now, and his eyes seemed to fill his whole face, but the gun was still steady. He's hyperventilating, Nathan realized. If he don't do somethin' quick he's gonna pass out. How the hell does he keep that gun so still?
And then Buck made his move.
He stamped down as hard as he could on York's foot, jacking his elbow back against the man's body, and hurled himself forward just as Judge Travis made a dive for the table. Nathan threw his own body across Vin's helpless form. Gunfire exploded in the enclosed room, sounding like the cannon fire Nathan had known so often in the War. The table went over with a crash and the shattering sound of glass and ceramic breaking. The healer thought he heard a despairing wail from JD, and a loud grunt of pain from someone, perhaps only Vin reacting to the sudden pressure of his body weight forcing the breath from his lungs. Then silence.
Nathan slowly pushed himself up. The room was filled with the thick reek of gunsmoke, a fog of it drifting by slow thermoclines onto its own levels. Judge Travis had somehow ended up near the foot of the bed, with JD's harness held in his left hand and one of the Lightnings in his right. JD stood where he'd been, slowly lowering the Smith & Wesson, gazing around him in a dazed fashion. Buck was face down, groaning, blood on the back of his jacket. York had fallen back in the corner and slid to a sitting position, his Colt sagging out of a slack hand; his eyes were open, his chest rising and falling raggedly, but there were two red blossoms on his shirt front, and Nathan's practised eye caught the thin trailers of crimson from his nose and mouth.
"Oh, God," JD moaned. "Oh, God. Buck...Papa...?" He jittered a little where he stood, as if not quite sure what to do next.
Judge Travis got to his feet, the Lightning trained on York, and moved past the boy to quickly nudge the gun away from York's unresisting hand. "Nathan, we need your help here, please," he said, his voice firm.
Nathan already knew just where that help had the best chance of meaning anything. He moved quickly to Buck, who was trying to push himself up. "Hold still," he ordered. "Damnit, Buck, don't move! If that slug's near your spine--"
"JD," Buck gasped. "JD. Is he hit?"
"He's still standin', Buck. Let me see--"
"Buck?" JD's breathless inquiry over Nathan's shoulder brought the gunslinger's head painfully around. "Buck, oh my God, Buck, I'm sorry--"
"'S'okay, kid. Don't you worry none on ol' Buck, I'm in good hands. Hell, I had worse from a fishhook. Go see to your pa."
"I think he's right," Nathan agreed wonderingly. "Yeah, he is. Damn. I can feel the bullet, it's just maybe half an inch under the skin, in the muscle here. Buck, you are the luckiest--"
"But there's so much blood," JD protested.
"Man can bleed a lot from a wound that ain't real serious." Nathan glanced toward York, who was bleeding hardly at all. "Judge Travis, you mind comin' here and puttin' some pressure on this? Not too much, we don't want to push that bullet in deeper--"
"Certainly, Nathan." Travis knelt beside the wounded man, positioning his hands as the healer showed him. Nathan left Buck to his care and moved to York, aware of JD almost trampling on his heels.
The clinic door burst open and Chris, Josiah, and Ezra hurtled in, armed and ready for anything. Judge Travis looked up and nodded calmly. "Gentlemen. You may put up your weapons. JD has covered the situation adequately."
"Buck?" Chris inquired.
"Gonna be fine, pard," Buck insisted, though still somewhat breathlessly. "The kid--damn--his pa was gonna shoot the Judge--said it was what he was hired to do--'n'JD, he got hold of a gun somewheres'n'he shot'im--"
"Good Lord," Ezra whispered.
"Hold still," Nathan ordered the man in the corner.
"Why?" York retorted. "We both know what this is, Jackson. We've both seen it."
Nathan sighed and sat back on his heels. "Yeah," he agreed simply.
"Papa?" JD asked.
The healer looked around. "There's nothin' I can do, JD. You got him two clean shots through the lungs. He's dyin'."
"Oh, Jesus," JD moaned, and his fingers loosened on Mary's S&W and let it clatter to the floor. "Oh, God. Papa, why'd you make me do it? I didn't want to do it. Why'd you make me? You had no right to make me." Then sudden fury: "Who hired you, Papa? Who paid you to force me into this? I'll kill him, I swear I'll kill him--"
Chris took a step, but Josiah barred his progress with an arm across his chest. JD was kneeling in front of York now, white-faced and crying silently. York forced out a painful chuckle. "No. I'm not telling you. Wouldn't be ethical."
"But you're dyin', man," Nathan reminded him.
"Doesn't matter," York insisted. His gaze moved past JD's shoulder. "Larabee, you tell them. It's not what a man does, to tell who hires him to kill someone."
Chris nodded. "It's true. It just ain't done. What you're sayin' is just why, JD. A man don't want to feel he's set off some kind of feud."
York nodded weakly. Nathan knew from his studies that a man wounded this way could be a long time dying: the blood came up in his windpipe, some of it ran out his nose and mouth, and occasionally, as it was now beginning to do in York's case, a crimson froth came bubbling to his lips, but he quite literally drowned on the rest of it. "That's it."
"Oh, God," JD moaned again. "Oh, Papa, I didn't want to--"
"'M not your papa, kid."
"What?!" JD's head shot up. "But you said--but you knew--"
"No," York interrupted. "Think about it. I just used what you said. I never volunteered anything. I'm not your papa."
Buck had hitched himself around, supported by Judge Travis, and was listening in amazement. Vin had managed to get up on one elbow on the bed. It was Josiah who asked the question: "If you're not Daniel Dunne, then who are you really?"
"Name is Doyle. Joseph Doyle, out of York, Pennsylvania. Father was a local lawyer...wanted me to come in with him, made sure I got a college education...mother was Virginian, from a Richmond merchant family. Followed her people and went for the South in the War. Knew I'd never be able to go back no matter who won..."
"But the watch, sir," Ezra interrupted.
"Found it...on a dead man...at Gettysburg," York got out. "Man in Union blue...your father, kid. Was right after that I deserted...went to Montana...just so sick of it all...found the inscription months later, but by then...I'd picked a new name...York for my home town, Darrin for a family I knew there..." He paused, gathering strength. "No man sees a battle, kid, but your father...I remember his face was peaceful, and...and his wounds were in front...not too different from mine right now. He died...in battle...going toward his enemy. He must...have been a good soldier...and a brave man...better than me, maybe." A choked laugh: "No. Better than me. No maybe. Had to have been. Wouldn't have had a son like you, otherwise."
JD stared at him, tears drying on his cheeks. "Not...m'father?"
"Not...your father," York repeated. "Larabee--Judge Travis--"
The jurist and the chief regulator passed a look and moved forward, into his field of vision. Josiah went to take over Buck's care. "I don't know if this...is legal, but...maybe you can figure out a way to make it so," York went on. "Kid told me about...his girl. There's...better than six hundred dollars...in my wallet, and...in my bedroll...bankbook...Cheyenne, Wyoming...seventy-seven hundred more. See...the kid and his girl...get it, all right? Sooner them...than the Territory or...whatever...and the watch...it should be his...and Ebony, I know...he'll take good care of Ebony...good horse...deserves a good man..." He shivered a little. "Jackson, you need...to do something about...the drafts in this place of yours..."
Nathan shot a look at Chris. He's slipping away and he don't even realize it. "Yeah, I know. Building ain't nowheres near as sound as I'd like."
There was a pause; York was fighting for every breath now. "Wilmington...you hear me?"
"I hear you, York." Buck's voice was quiet, but it carried.
"You take care...of this kid, you understand? Or I'll...come back and...haunt you."
"You don't worry about me and the kid, York. I'll see to him."
"Standish..." The summons was breathy, barely audible.
"You...were right, you know." Nothing more than that, no explanation. "Larabee--"
"Kid did...what he thought was right. Same as...any of us. You don't...blame him for...a bad choice...he thought he had...he didn't realize I...just used him..." Shuddering breath. "Used...all of you...him the most..."
Chris nodded evenly. "We understand that now, York."
"Good." No strength left in the voice at all now. "Damn, it's...getting cold in here..." His hand moved, a tentative outreach, and paused short of touching JD's knee, fell back as if it lacked the energy. "Go see...to Wilmington, kid...I'm all right here...and remember...always remember...you're a good man...and your mamma...she'd be...proud..." He didn't finish the sentence; the last word sighed out of him and his chest shuddered once, twice, and was still. His head fell sideways, eyes half closing. Nathan knelt quickly, held the back of his hand against the man's lips rather than touch the shattered chest, and then reached to close his eyelids.
"He's dead?" JD asked in a small voice.
"Yeah, he's dead." Nathan put his hand under the youth's elbow and helped him up. "Buck needs you now, JD."
JD shuffled numbly across the room to where his partner lay, cradled in Josiah's powerful arms. He sank down beside the wounded man, his eyes filling again with tears. "I'm sorry, Buck. I'm so sorry for everything...the way I snapped at you and...and this...I knew you were gonna try to knock the Judge and maybe me out of the line of fire...but I...oh, God, Buck, I ran off at the mouth just like you always say I do, and I told him...I told him...he knew you were my best friend...he knew to use you against me..."
Buck lifted his hand painfully to JD's shoulder and squeezed. "Indeed, Mr. Dunne," came Ezra's quiet cultured drawl, "I must beg to differ with that assertion. It was I who first revealed to the deceased the nature of your bond with Mr. Wilmington, well before you had made, as you believed, your peace with your parent. I was quite aware of what I was doin', although I confess I never believed he would be in a position to make use of the intelligence. He may have suspected before, but owin' to my impulsive speech he knew, or thought he knew, where to attack, when the time came, for the quickest, most reflexive response. As clearly he did. I apologize most profoundly and humbly to you, and to Mr. Wilmington, for the part I have played in your pain."
"There, now, kid...you see?" Buck managed, his voice tight as the shock wore off and the pain began to hit, the torn muscle cramping in spasms in a reflexive effort to rid itself of the embedded bullet. "Not your fault...oh damn! Oh Christ!--sorry, Josiah."
"Help me get him on the cot," Nathan ordered, all business. "Ezra, hand me the ether. Chris, see to Vin. Judge Travis, would you go fetch the undertaker, please?"
Buck's friends moved in to lift him as his hand folded around JD's and their fingers intertwined.
+ + + + + + +
Early evening the same day. Vin was asleep in Nathan's clinic. Chris, Ezra, Nathan, Judge Travis, and a bandaged, pale, but recovering Buck sat on the open deck outside, watching the stars appear. They had discussed the apparent reality that someone wanted the Judge dead, and had passed some time trying to reason out who it might be, but with no solid clues they could only agree that he'd have to watch himself more closely than usual. "You ain't expectin' me to stay here, are you, Nate?" Buck was asking. "No offense, but the smell of all them herbs you got makes me sneeze. You don't want me sneezin' to where I break this thing open again, do you?"
"No, I reckon I don't," Nathan allowed. "At that you might do better in your own bed, it ain't as hard as my cot, and I can't move Vin just yet. When Josiah gets back, you can have him help you over to the boardinghouse. But you take it easy, understand? And I'll be checkin' on you regular, you could still pick up a nasty infection if that wound ain't seen to proper."
Buck sighed. "Yeah, doc, I understand." He glanced across at his oldest friend. "Chris...about JD--"
"What about him, Buck?"
"Chris, that boy--there ain't but three things in this world he's scared of: hurtin' me, lettin' you down, and disgracin' his mamma's memory. Right about now he still ain't sure he ain't done all three. He's gonna need a lot of help, Chris. From both of us." The question hung in the air, unasked.
"I know, Buck." There was a surprising gentleness to Chris's reply, a gentleness that widened Buck's eyes a moment. He had heard it before, so long ago, so many times, from a man basking in the love of his wife, his son, and the partner who shared their lives. Damn, the mustached man realized, he's learnin' how to forgive again. Other folks first, which I guess is how it's supposed to be. Maybe, in time, himself too. Damn. Thank God. We might bring him back yet, me and JD and Nate and Ezra and Josiah and Vin. We might do it.
Heavy footsteps at the bottom of the flight, and Josiah came into view and settled into one of the chairs. "Is Mr. Dunne made comfortable, Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra inquired.
"Out like a light," the big man agreed. "That tea packet Nathan gave me put him to sleep before he'd drunk more than half the cup. What was in it, Brother Nate?"
"Hops, valerian, and passion flower," the healer replied. "Don't give me that look, Buck, it ain't that kind of passion. It was mostly the hops anyhow, and it's a good mix to insure a restful sleep. 'Course he'd been through so much strain already, his body just needed somethin' to help him wind down, then nature took over."
"It's almost incredible," mused Travis, "that York could have not only originated such a complex plan but carried it through, and all from a cell. I suppose a man has to be intelligent to survive and gain a reputation in his line, but still, it's not as if he were in the same profession as a certain member of our company."
Ezra didn't even bristle. "I confess I am astonished--and embarrassed at the ease with which I was manipulated. Even Mr. Larabee, whose perceptions in that direction are hardly trained, warned me that all was not as it seemed with that man, and yet I permitted him to use me as surely as he did any of the rest of us."
"If he'd ever really gone outlaw," said Nathan with a shake of his head, "and if he'd been one of the ones we had to deal with when we first started out here..."
"Indeed, Mr. Jackson," said Ezra quietly. "The adversary, as Mr. Sanchez might put it, could well have emerged triumphant in such a case."
"Hello? Who's up there?" came a call from below.
"Mary?" Travis called back. "All of us, except JD and Vin. Come on up."
The woman's blonde head rose into view and the men got to their feet. "Please don't, Buck," she said. "How are you feeling?"
"Kinda sore, Miz Travis, but Nate gave me somethin' that cuts it down to a buzz, you might say. I got a pillow in back of me so the chair don't rub, and I got to take it a little easy for a while, but I'll be just fine."
"Still a little woozy, Miz Travis," Nathan reported. "Likely got a mild concussion--amazes me it ain't worse, the way he looked when he first come in last night. But he's been awake and talkin', he knows us. He'll make it."
"Please, Mrs. Travis, do make yourself comfortable, I implore," said Ezra, holding a chair for her. She accepted it gracefully, and the others reassumed their seats.
"JD?" was her next query.
"In his room, asleep," Josiah reported. "It's early, but he was just plain worn out."
Mary nodded. Chris had told her the story of York's death when he went over to return her Smith & Wesson. "Yes, I can see how he would have been. So many shocks in less than twenty-four hours..."
"He's tougher'n he looks, though," Buck declared, a note of pride in his voice. "We'll all be there for him, and he'll make it. He's a damn good kid. Uh, pardon, Miz Travis."
"Yes, of course," Mary agreed absently. "Chris, I had a telegram from Major Bowman in Washington--Steven's friend?" She drew the folded flimsy out of her sleeve. "Maybe you'd better read it."
Chris peered at her keenly, took the paper, unfolded and scanned it. " 'Sgt. Daniel Valerius Dunne, Company F, Seventh New York Infantry, recorded AWOL as of morning report, May 11, 1863. No further official reference to him found.' "
"What?" "Good Lord!" "Well, shit!--sorry, Miz Travis."
"May 11, 1863," the Judge repeated. "Almost two months before the Battle of Gettysburg--"
"--Where York claimed he found a dead man carrying Dunne's watch," Ezra finished slowly, with the quick adaptability to changing conditions bred into him by his mother's stringent example.
"S'pose Dunne might've lost the watch?" Nathan suggested. "There was poker and dice and all kinds of gambling in them camps--"
"But if he did," Josiah interrupted, "surely he'd at least have asked to have the photograph out of it; that wouldn't have any value to the new owner."
"And even if he didn't," Chris added thoughtfully, "we end up back at the same place we started from. Why would anybody keep a picture of a family that wasn't his?"
"Sweet Jesus," murmured Josiah. "You don't suppose--?"
"That he was trying to give JD closure and make him proud of his father again," Travis finished. "That he didn't want the lad to suffer the guilt of knowing he had killed his own parent. That he may really have been Daniel Dunne after all, but in a last-minute twinge of conscience decided not to let JD know it."
"He told me I was right," Ezra remembered, his voice hushed. "I believe now I know to what he was referring. That first night in the jail, he spoke of our young friend as being a decent man, and I told him the lad had succeeded at that beyond his parent's example."
"He seemed like he was gonna squeeze JD's knee, just before he died," Nathan added, "only he stopped his hand before it got there."
"He told me to look after the kid," Buck remembered. "Said he'd haunt me if I didn't. I'll be damned--sorry, Miz Travis. You honestly think he could've been, Judge?"
"I think it's a possibility we can't ignore," Travis said slowly, "although of course we'll never know for sure, now. I wonder why he deserted--the emancipation, his family, or some motivation we've never considered? Clearly he did."
"And yet in the end," Josiah mused softly, "he--if it was he--gave up all possibility of being mourned by any of his kin, gave up his name, so his son could look life and his friends in the eye. 'The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation.' Epicurus. He did the only thing time allowed him, the only thing he could think of, to redeem himself in his own eyes and God's. I think I'll light a candle for him tonight, before I go to bed."
"Just as JD did the only thing he could think of, to make up for the mistakes he'd made," Mary added. "To redeem himself to all of you."
"It is rather awesome," Ezra breathed, "to contemplate to what ends a man will go, for the sake of honor--or friendship."
Buck hitched himself up a little higher in his chair, his face tight with resolve. "We ain't tellin' JD, Chris. We ain't never tellin' him, you hear me?"
"No, Buck. We ain't tellin' him," the leader agreed evenly. With a sweep of a glance around at the others: "Everybody agreed on that?"
"You have my word, Mr. Larabee," said Ezra at once. "My lips are sealed."
"And mine," Mary added.
"Mine too." Nathan.
"No question." Josiah.
"Y'all know where I stand." Buck.
"All right, then." Chris took a cheroot out of his vest, scratched a match on the sole of his boot, lit the smoke and puffed it well into action, and then touched the crimson tip to one corner of the flimsy and held it as it smoked, caught, burst into an ephemeral blaze, crisped, blackened, and crumbled in a shower of ashes. He dropped it just before his fingers would have been burned and stomped on what was left, grinding it to powder and forcing the powder into the planks.
Comments to: email@example.com