The Magnificent Seven
The Ballad of Bad-Ass Beamington

by Sarah B.

Webmaster Note: This fic was originally hosted at another
website and was moved to blackraptor in August 2004.

Size: Approx. 155K

The morning sun made long, slanting rays as it crept up the dusty streets of Four Corners, its light warming the cool rocks and pale dust. In the distance, a rooster crowed, signalling that soon the empty streets of the little western town would be busy with people off to work, or farm. For the moment, though, the street was deserted, populated only by stray wisps of dust that swirled occasionally across the rutted street, and by a man, alone, walking slowly through the thin veil of sunlight.

Anyone who knew him, and a lot of people who didn't, would have said that Chris Larabee was always alone, even in a crowd of people. He was polite enough, even kind on occasion, but even in his warmest moods there was an aloofness to him, a drawn-back look in his eyes that warned even friends not to get too close. He could be frightening, with his black clothes and icy stare, but if you needed help there was no one else in the territory who was better to ask.

And Four Corners needed help.

Mary Travis stood on the porch of the local telegraph office, a young woman of perhaps 35, her eyes concerned as she watched Chris amble up the street. She knew his moods, and was trying to read by his face whether this was a good time to bother the gunman. As usual, she really couldn't tell, and so simply stepped out into the street and said, "Mr. Larabee?"

Chris stopped, looked at her with those hidden blue eyes, and tugged at his black hat. "Ma'am."

Mary took another step forward, held out a yellow slip of paper. "I'm sorry to bother you, but this came over the wire this morning and I thought you should see it."

Chris frowned a bit, took the paper. It read:

Warning - Bad-Ass Beamington Heading Your Way from Lubbock

Mary tried again to read Chris' face as he scanned the telegram, noticed the unsettled look in his eyes as he raised his head and said, "Damn."

"Do you know him?" Mary asked worriedly. "Who is he?"

"Gunslinger." Chris studied the faraway blue hills as he spoke. "Didn't hear about him till I came west. Killed his share of men, robbed banks."

"So it is cause for concern?"

Chris folded the telegram, nodded. "Cause enough. When some renegade lawmen caught him once, they cut off his index fingers so he couldn't shoot a gun."

"Good Lord." Mary's hand went to her throat.

"But he fooled 'em. Learned to shoot with his second finger, then went and had "bad" and "ass" tattooed on his knuckles."

Mary looked up and down the street, as if expecting to see this desperado riding into town that minute.

Chris tucked the telegram away, touched Mary's arm lightly. "Now, there's no need to alarm the townfolk. Don't mention this to anyone till I can get some guns together in case Bad-Ass decides to pay us a visit."

Mary looked at him worriedly, rubbed her forehead, nodded. Chris took a step back and touched the brim of his hat with one hand. "Ma'am."

And turning on his heel, walked purposefully down the dusty street glowing warm in the morning light.

When Chris Larabee had come to Four Corners some months back, even the most polite member of society would have called the place an abject wreck. Lawless and overrun by drunken bandits and other folk, it was a town where the regular citizens huddled behind thier doors, terrified, while rioters and lynch mobs roamed the boarded-up streets, laying waste to everything in sight.

Then the Seven came.

Nobody ever actually called them "the magnificent seven", even after a New York writer stuck them with that appellation when he made them the subjects of a dime novel. But there was little doubt that what this disparate group of men had accomplished was nothing short of miraculous, for now the streets of Four Corners were, if not completely safe, well on thier way to being so, and stories of what the Seven had been doing to protect the town, and others, from harm had spread to the point where it seemed lawlessness was going out of the way to avoid the place. And for that, at least, people were glad these men were around.

The morning sun was rising higher in the sky as Chris made his way to the saloon. Even though it was still pretty early, Chris always knew his friends would be hanging out at the saloon. And they didn't dissappoint him.

There, at a table near the door, the preacher Josiah was having a discussion with the former slave and doctor, Nathan, as the pair dug into a plate of eggs and bacon no doubt procured at the restaurant next door. At the bar, the buffalo hunter Vin was leaning against the bar, taking occasional drinks from a large beer mug and quietly keeping an eye on things. In the back of the saloon, dimly, Chris could make out the gambler Ezra, his red jacket seeming to make him melt into the maroon wallpaper as he sat, alone, shuffling and reshuffling his ever-present deck of cards. Practicing for that night's fleecing of the local cardplayers, Chris guessed, and gave another glance over the room. The only two missing from the group were JD, who was fulfilling his duty as town sheriff by keeping watch over the empty jail, and Buck, who Chris had seen the previous evening heading for his room with a beautiful woman and a huge grin on his face. Chris didn't expect to see him before noon.

Vin lifted his mug as Chris approached him at the bar and said matter-of-factly, "You're up early."

"Best to be up when trouble's comin'." Chris replied, tossing the telegram onto the bar.

Vin eyed it, picked it up, read it, squinted at Chris. "Bad-Ass Beamington?"

Josiah and Nathan both looked up from thier eggs.

Chris nodded toward the bartender. "You heard of him?"

Vin scratched his chin in thought. "He that feller with no shootin' fingers?"

"That's the one."

"Uh-oh." Vin puckered his lips and studied the telegram.

"Are you ready?" Chris asked, grinning humorlessly as the bartender set a bottle before him. "There's more."

Nathan and Josiah had both risen from their table, and were ambling over to the bar. Nathan wrinkled his brow at Chris. "Who's Bad-Ass Beamington?"

"This is," Chris replied, pulling another object from his coat and throwing it on the bar.

It was a dime-store novel, obviously well-read by it torn pages and dog-eared cover. A drawing on the front showed a huge, snarling beast of a man, dressed in black, rearing back on a huge charger and apparently laughing evilly, showing off his six-inch fangs. The title read, "The Bodacious Ballad of Bad-Ass Beamington."

"I don't get it," Nathan admitted, "Is he real or is he made-up?"

"Oh, he's real all right," Chris said lightly, uncorking the bottle.

Josiah picked up the book, flipped through it. "Where did you get this?"

"Found it in the bottom drawer of JD's desk at the jail." Chris said, taking a drink.

Vin was eyeing the cover of the book warily. "What makes you think JD'll challenge Bad-Ass when he comes to town?"

"Take a look at the book." Chris suggested, taking a swig out of the bottle.

Cocking an eyebrow, Vin picked the paperback up and opened it as Nathan and Josiah peered over his shoulder.

Inside, along with the text, were several pen-and-ink illustrations showing Bad-Ass Beamington robbing banks gunning down innocent people, and rustling livestock. There were also depictions of a young dark-haired hero wearing a badge, who in the last illustration was shown bravely gunning Bad-Ass down in the main street of the town as several swooning townwomen looked on.

Vin set the book down and returned to his drink. "He even looks like JD."

Nathan sighed,shook his head. "I'd better go get the stitchin' kit again."

"Now, wait." Chris cautioned. "I'm pretty sure I can take care of Bad-Ass, but I don't want JD gettin' himself hurt goin' up against some vicious bastard who wouldn't waste two seconds fillin' him full of lead."

Vin slid him a sideways glance. "So what, you want us to hide him somewhere?"

Chris cocked his head in thought, studying the bottle in front of him. "Well, I figured someone could take him out of town for the day. Huntin' or something. By the time you get back, Bad-Ass will be history."

"You think that's a good idea?" Nathan asked. "After all, if this Bad-Ass is as tough as you say he is, you're gonna need all the hands you can get."

"'Sides," Vin commented to the inside of his beer mug, "JD's got his pride. He finds out you kept him from facing his biggest enemy he's gonna be mighty sore. And if we herd him out of town he's gonna know something's up."

Chris shrugged. "You're not all going anyway. Vin, I need you and Josiah for backup, and Nathan's gotta stay to clean up what's left of Bad-Ass."

Josiah seemed to accept this, then asked, "So who were you thinkin' of sendin' out with JD?"

Chris turned around, leaned against the bar and gave the group a mischievous smile. "I figured that to pull this little charade off, I need someone who makes his living fooling other people."

They all grinned at him, then turned to look at Ezra, who had so far been keeping his seat at the poker table and ignoring the whole conversation. The gambler was busily shuffling cards, and only slowly looked up from the table to find all four of his compatriots standing around him, staring at him with enigmatic smiles on thier faces.

There was a long, painful pause as Ezra's eyes flitted suspicously from one face to the next. Then he stopped shuffling his cards and said, "What?"

"I don't believe this."

Ezra moaned the sentence out loud as he and Buck strode through the early afternoon sunshine toward the jailhouse where JD presiding as sheriff.

Unlike his companion, Buck was in a spirited mood, and slapped Ezra on the back jovially, "Aw, come on, Ezra," he chortled, "Where's your sense of adventure?"

"Adventure?" The southerner drawled, giving Buck a droll look. "You call riding around in the desert in the heat of the day an adventure?"

"Hey, look at it as an opportunity!" Buck said happily, "A chance for a little fun."

Ezra stopped and looked at Buck sternly. "Mr. Wilmington,I can understand why you're in such a good mood - "

"Ya can?" Buck seemed surprised.

"Yes," the gambler replied archly, "Your room happens to be right above mine."

Buck smiled unabashedly and shrugged. "She was a beauty."

"However," Ezra continued, "I must say that I cannot share it. As much as I detest getting projectiles fired in my direction, I must say I prefer it to sweltering in the desert trying to keep our young friend distracted."

"Now, you're looking at it all wrong," Buck suggested as he resumed walking, "There is a way we can get JD safe out of harm's way, and still be back here in time to help Chris."

"There is?" Ezra seemed incredulous. "Might I ask how?"

Buck rubbed his chin, stopped again. "Ever hear tell of a thing called a snipe hunt?"

Ezra's eyebrows came together. "A what?"

"Snipe hunt!" Buck enthused. "That's when you get some young fella, who don't quite know what's goin' on , and you tell him you're takin' him on a snipe hunt."

Ezra paused, shook his head in confusion. "I have never in all my life heard of a creature called a snipe."

"Well, that's the point!" Buck said gleefully. "You see, there really ain't no such animal, but you trick your victim into thinking that there is."

Ezra looked as if he thought Buck was losing his mind. "Uh-huh."

"Then, you take him out to the middle of nowhere, and while he's huntin' for the snipe, you turn around and come back home!"

Ezra absorbed this for a moment, then said, "Oh, come on, Mr. Wilmington! Are you seriously suggesting that we trick Mr. Dunne into believing that we are taking him on a - on a -"

"Snipe hunt."

"Thank you - snipe hunt, then lead him out into the desert, abandon him, and return here to face down this Beamington character?"

Buck thought about it, then said, "Yep. That's about it. 'Cept of course, if he don't find his way back by nightfall, we'll go out and get him."

"And you honestly think Mr. Larabee will go along with this plan of yours?"

"Ah - " Buck's brow wrinkled in concern. "I'm thinkin' it's best if Chris don't know about this. You know, he's got enough to worry about..."

"Not to mention," Ezra lilted, giving Buck a significant look, "He would never let you do it."

"Exactly. See, I figure this way, we get JD out of town, JD thinks he's on to somethin' exciting, and we get to be here when Bad-Ass shows up. Sure, Chris'll be surprised, but I bet he'll be happy as hell to have the support."

Ezra searched Buck's face closely. "And you have no compunction against pulling such an underhanded trick on the boy?"

Buck happily rattled his head back and forth. "Nope. Had it done to me once, and I survived."

Ezra's eyebrows arched elegantly. "You did?"

"Well, hell, Ezra, how do you think I found out about it?"

Ezra seemed to think it over, squinted his eyes at the bright sunlit street, shook his head. "This is without a doubt the most underhanded bit of chicanery I have ever seen you devise."

Buck shrugged his guilt.

Ezra paused, then broke into a devilish grin. "I'm pleased to see that I'm having some influence on you."

Buck laughed, and they continued to the jail.

+ + + + + + +

JD sat sulking in the large wooden chair he always occupied when presiding as sheriff in the town's jail. Despite the warm late morning sun beaming across the huge, polished desk, his mood was black.

Anyone who knew JD a little would have been surprised to find him depressed; after all, the young man had come west some months before looking for adventure, and he had certainly found it; not only was he the sheriff of Four Corners, but he was also one of the group dubbed by some "The Magnificent Seven." Quite an honor.

But it was also frustrating; as the youngest and most inexperienced of the Seven, JD often found himself at the rear of the group, and it was this fact that had the young man simmering with aggravation as he sat staring at the jail's stone walls.

It just wasn't fair, JD huffed to himself as he hunkered down further into the chair; he never got to prove himself...not with the ladies, at least not whenever Buck was around. Buck sure had a way of pleasing women, JD thought, rubbing the back of his head and effectively pushing his bowler over his eyes. Whenever Buck came into view, JD sighed, he might as well be invisible...

And he never got to prove himself with a gun, either, JD grumped to himself. Even though he was the sheriff of this town, he didn't think he got much respect, not even from his friends. Every time there was a serious fight, it was "Get down, JD", or "Look out, JD" - never, "Take 'em JD!" or "You gotta do this - we're counting on you!". Nobody in the group seemed to think he was capable of handling real danger. The fact he looked about 12 didn't help, the youth thought sullenly as he ran one hand through his thick black hair.

JD frowned. He really wanted to do the right thing, to be brave and noble and admired, but he was always screwing up. Once, just once, he'd like to do something right...

At that moment the door to the jailhouse opened with such a gigantic crash that JD jumped backwards and landed on the floor. As he was gathering his wits, along with his hat, he heard Buck's enthusiastic voice shout, "C'mon kid! Time's a-wastin'!"

Groping his way to his chair, JD brushed his unruly black hair out of his eyes and squinted. "What?"

"Well, didn't you hear?" Buck said brightly, smiling broadly. Behind him, JD saw Ezra closing the door. "You got the afternoon off! And I am gonna show you the time of your life!"

"Buck," JD said wearily, retrieving his hat, "You know I can't leave town. I'm the sheriff, even if nobody else thinks so."

"Well, sure you are," Buck said, dulling his gleam a bit. "And a stellar job you're doing too. But hey, everybody needs a little time off now and then, and how many times have you told me how much you wanted to just - " Here Buck shot his arm out, "Take off and not look back."

JD sat down, brushing his hair back and replacing his hat. "Buck, what are you talking about?"

"I'm talkin' about you. And me. And...Ezra. Huntin'. "



Pause. "Ezra ?"

Buck swung his head to regard Ezra for a moment, then swung it back. "Well...sure. Why not?"

JD looked at Buck closely. Out of all the friends he'd made since coming west, Buck was the best one he had, but sometimes JD didn't trust that broad grin and those twinkling eyes. Still...he had always wanted to be accepted, be part of the gang, and here was an invitation from Chris' oldest would he look if he turned it down?

JD bit his lip, looked at the two men. "Are you guys drunk?"

Buck feigned indignance, shooting Ezra an astonished look. "Why, the nerve of this stripling! I'll have you know I am far too sore to even think about getting drunk and making myself worse."

JD saw Ezra's eyes roll, decided to ignore it, then said, "But you're not too sore to ride a horse?"

Ezra stepped in an put a hand on Buck's shoulder. "Come, gentlemen, the day is growing weary."

Buck gave JD his most brilliant smile. "So are you in?"

JD looked around in confusion, as if the answer was somewhere on the floor. "Well, what if something happens?"

"Mr. Larabee has given his word that he will be on the watch for any miscreants." Ezra replied, and began pulling Buck out the door.

JD puckered his eyebrows again. Something about this wasn't quite right, but they obviously wanted him to go..."All right. Let me get my coat..."

Buck grinned even wider. "We'll be waiting outside."

A few moments later Buck was readying his saddle and squinting at the dusty road that cut through Four Corners. Chris was standing right behind him, looking in the same direction.

"You sure you're going to be OK with this?" Buck said, giving his friend a concerned look. "This Bad-Ass Beamington could be a handful. You're gonna need all the guns you can get."

"I can care of Bad-Ass," Chris assured Buck around his cigarette. "You just make sure JD stays out of town as long as necessary."

"Not to worry," Ezra said confidently, swinging himself with ease into the saddle of his horse, Chaucer. "We will make sure the youth is fully occupied."

Chris shot Ezra a look. Then he said, "Bad-Ass is coming from the east. That means you go west. We got another telegraph, says he'll be here late this afternoon. So don't come back till after dark."

Buck said "Got it," just as the door of the jail opened and JD came out. Buck flashed his grin again and hollered, "Saddle up, junior! We're taking you for a ride!"

"Are we ever," Ezra muttered.

JD, who thankfully hadn't heard Ezra's remark, threw his saddlebags over his horse's back and prepared to mount up.

At that moment, Josiah walked up, wiping his hands on a towel.

"Hey, " He said amiably to the group, "I heard you folks were off hunting today. Just wanted to come by and wish you Godspeed."

Buck tipped his hat. "Thank you kindly, Josiah."

"That, and don't get your butts shot at."

"Er - " Buck hesitated. "Is that scriptural?"

Josiah smiled gently. "I may have paraphrased it a bit."

Once mounted, JD found himself actually becoming a bit jittery. "Are we ready to go?"

"Son - " Buck turned to look at his young friend, then started laughing.

"What?!" JD said in exasperation.

"Christ," Buck said, "Boy, we have got to find you a decent hat."

JD just scowled at him. Suddenly remembering himself, Buck said, "Uh, pardon the cussing, Josiah."

"That's all right," the preacher observed. "The Almighty knows, we do have to find JD a decent hat."

Even Chris smiled at that remark, and with that Ezra, Buck, and JD turned their horses about and headed west.

Chris and Josiah watched the cloud of dust and horses as it got smaller, turned the corner at the end of the main street, and was gone. Then Chris took a deep breath and turned to Josiah, to find the former preacher's steely eyes trained on him.

"You know," Josiah rumbled, "That boy finds out what you're up to, he likely won't forgive you for it."

Chris thought a moment, shrugged. "I can live with that better than him being dead." He paused. "Oh, well. Time to strap those guns on, preacher man. "

Josiah nodded, and together they walked back up the street.

A short time later, while Chris ,Vin, and Nathan were in the saloon discussing strategies and depleting the whiskey supply, a small group of nine horsemen rode inconspicuously into town. They were a young, rough-looking crew, scowling and dirty, none more so than the leader, a stringy-haired blond youth who stopped his panting horse just inside the town's limits and gazed at Four Corners with cloudy, red-rimmed eyes.

Another of the young horsemen trotted his steed to stand next to the leader and, spitting tobacco on the warm ground, said in coarse tones, "Hey, Jimmy, is he here yet?"

The blond youth, Jimmy, squinted down the main street, saw only the laconic swirls of sunlit dust, and shook his head. "Don't see him."

"He's coming, though, right?" The other persisted. "Cause I didn't ride all this way for nothin'."

Grumbles of assent rose from the rest of the group, and Jimmy turned his head and glared at them. "He'll be here." He pulled a crumpled, filthy telegram from the pocket of his tattered coat. "Says right here in the telegram..."He peered hard at the words, straining to read each one. 'War-warning, Bad-Ass Bee-ming-tun hedded yer way frum Lub-uk.' And this town is between us and Lubbock."

The other seemed to acquiece, looked up with admiration at his leader. "Boy, Jimmy, we're sure lucky your pa runs the telegraph office. We'd of never found out first otherwise."

"Yeah," Another of the group, a husky-looking youth with small cruel eyes, said, "Too bad you didn't leave that telegram behind, Jimmy. Nobody in Wheeler even knows he's comin' yet."

Jimmy shrugged and pocketed the telegram. "By the time they find out, we'll be in Bad-Ass' gang, and there won't be nothin' they can do about it. 'Cept start takin' orders from us." He grinned at the thought.

The other boys chuckled amongst themselves. One of the townspeople crossed the street a few hundred yards in front of the scruffy little band, and gave them a suspicious look, hurrying on a little more quickly to the other side of the street.

Jimmy grunted. "We'd better lay low until Bad-Ass arrives, so the heat stays off us."

His compatriot nodded. "Where should we go? The saloon?"

"Nah..." Jimmy rubbed his chin, scratching the stubble, and surveyed the shabby buildings that made up Four Corners until his eyes settled on one and he smiled slickly and pointed. "There."

Josiah stood up from the altar he'd been working on, took a few steps back, and grinned to himself. Not bad, he decided. Not bad at all.

When he and his friends had decided to stay in Four Corners, Josiah knew he had to keep himself occupied or he would go stir-crazy with the monotony that was small-town western life. The Seven all seemed to have their own diversions - Chris was obsessed with finding his wife and son's killer, Vin was always polishing his gun when he wasn't shooting it. Ezra was always in the saloon, looking for someone hapless enough to not know who he was, and Nathan spent his time healing the town's physical hurts. Buck was, of course, out of his trousers as much as in them, and JD kept himself occupied with being sheriff. And Josiah...

Josiah had his church.

It was a small church, not at all elaborate or decorative. It seemed tired and worn out, and made Josiah think of his own faith, once so new and shining but now pitted and scarred, and so his heart took to restoring it - and perhaps himself - immediately. He'd bought paint, lumber, other supplies, and set about tidying up the little edifice with a whole heart, and had to say he was pleased with the results so far. The townspeople seemed to appreciate what he was doing, even though he knew they couldn't completely trust a former preacher man who now shot people practically for a living. They didn't seem to know what to make of him, and kept their distance, but he hoped - and sometimes, prayed - that would change. He didn't want violence to be a way of life for him all the time, and would in fact have welcomed a sign, any sign, that maybe the beliefs he once clung to and then abandoned were in fact valid. Maybe, maybe someday he'd take off the guns forever, and put his vestments back on...

Until then, his gunbelt lay just behind him, beneath the nearest pew.

Josiah looked at the altar again, at the glistening white paint he had just applied, and decided perhaps it needed an accent color - at that moment the door behind him opened, and tensing, he turned around.

It was a group of young men - no, boys, he decided, squinting at them as they stood in the doorway, bathed in the dusty light that shone through the plain windows. Kind of scruffy-looking, the one in front hunched forward a little, maybe looking for a fight. Be ready.

"Can I help you boys?" He said amiably, turning slowly and putting down his paintbrush.

The group began to walk slowly up the apse, everyone looking around curiously except the leader, who regarded Josiah with cold eyes. "All right if we rest here awhile?"

"I reckon." Josiah replied lightly, his eyes going quickly to check the youths for guns. If they had them, they were hidden. "You boys lost?"

"Nah," The leader said, casting his eyes casually around the place. "Just travellin'. You the preacher?"

"After a fashion. My name's Josiah." The big man held out his hand, but instead of taking it the youth just peered into his face. After a moment, Josiah dropped his hand and picked up the brush again. "Are you in need of some guidance?"

"" The youth replied as his friends began to settle into the pews, stretching out in them and throwing their ragged coats over the backs. "Just felt like stoppin' for a rest is all. Just go back to what you was doin'."

Josiah took a closer look at the shaggy bunch that was draping itself all over his church. They aren't local. They sure aren't regular travellers. They look too rough to be just out for fun.

He watched the leader take off his coat, heard a hard sound as it fell into the pew. And they're carrying guns.

"Well," Josiah said as the leader sprawled in the pew beneath him. "You boys make yourselves comfortable, you're welcome to stay as long as you need to."

"Oh," One of the other boys muttered. "We shouldn't be here too long."

"Maybe just till tonight." Another mumbled, then snickered until one of the other boys hit him.

Josiah pursed his lips. "Well, if you need anything, let me know." He reached under the pew where his gun was, and carefully wrapped it in a nearby towel. Glancing quickly up to make sure none of the boys was watching, he carefully hoisted the bundle from beneath the pew, carried it to a small room behind the sanctuary, and there quietly buckled his gunbelt on.

"So what are we hunting?"

Buck smiled at Ezra as they and JD picked a careful path among the rocky brush outside of Four Corners, guiding thier horses slowly around the many rocks and pits that dotted the landscape. Ezra smiled back, the sun glinting off his gold tooth, but let Buck do the talking.

"Well," Buck said lightly, swinging his pistol carelessly in one hand while he guided his horse with the other, "We could go after some coyotes, or bobcats..." He looked back at JD, "Or, if you want, we could try and flush out some snipe."

"Huh?" JD responded, tilting his head. "Did you say 'snipe', Buck?"

"He did indeed." Ezra nodded, turning his best poker face to the youth behind him. "But that might have been rash, Buck. After all, coyotes is one thing, but snipe...we wouldn't want our young friend here to get himself injured, as you did the first time you attempted to subdue the dreadful beast."

Buck supressed a smile with some difficulty, and a quick glance at JD showed the young man was more than curious. Clearing his throat, Buck said, "Hm - I guess you're right, Ezra. Forget I mentioned it, JD. Coyotes is fine."

"Well - " JD hesitated a moment, then asked, "You hunted snipe, Buck?"

"Sure did. Damn near killed me too. And Ezra - hell, took him three days to recover the time he tried to corner one - "

"And I nearly had the varmint," Ezra said in mock frustration, "And but for the dizziness brought on by loss of blood, I would have bagged him. "

Buck could almost feel the keenness of JD's interest. He heard JD's horse trot a little quicker, and an instant later the young man was riding next to him, looking a bit flushed. "You hunted snipe too, Ezra?"

"Well, certainly," Ezra replied. "Everyone in the Seven has, at one time or another."

Buck turned to JD and raised an eyebrow. "You ever hunted snipe, JD?"

Feeling himself about to be embarrassed, JD laughed nervously. "Hell, I ain't ever even heard of snipe till now. What kind of animal is it?"

Buck and Ezra traded thoughtful looks. Buck said, "Well, they're about as big as a mountain lion - "

"But a lot more teeth - "

"And a big shaggy mane, like a lion - "

"And long claws too..."

"Oo - yes indeed, you have to watch those claws."

"But don't concentrate on 'em too much, or you might miss his tail."

"Yeah, knocked me down more than once..."

Buck looked at JD. The youth had been listening eagerly, but his expression had changed from rapt attention to open skepticism as he sneered, "Oh, sure. I ain't never heard of no animal like that. You're just making it up."

"Making it - !" Buck looked at Ezra, aghast, and reined in his horse. Turning his best angry face to JD he intoned. "Listen boy, I am telling you the God's honest truth. Lookee here - " Buck hastily rolled up his sleeve and pointed at four rows of faded scars that ran up the length of his left arm. "That look like a made-up animal to you?"

JD's eyes were wide as he stared at the scars, and shining with a mixture of fear and admiration that made the older man feel a little guilty. Still, if it kept JD out of Bad-Ass's way...

Ezra leaned toward Buck and said, "Buck, I believe we've frightened the lad."

Buck gave JD a searching look, at which the youth hastily rearranged his features and blustered, "Who's scared? I bet I could catch one of these snipes bare-handed!"

Buck and Ezra looked at each other and laughed. Buck said, "Naw, boy, we got to work you up to snipe. First you gotta get a mountain lion, then maybe one or two of those grizzly bears..."

But JD was shaking his head. "No, I definitely think I'm ready to go for snipe."

Buck grinned at him sideways, turned to Ezra. "What do you think?"

Ezra rubbed his chin. "Chris would likely be angry if he knew we let the boy try for snipe his first time hunting..."

"What 'first time'?" JD puffed up. "I been hunting lots of times!"

Buck pulled a face at Ezra. "There too, if our young friend here was able to bring home one of these creatures, our fearless leader would be suitably impressed. He never managed to kill one, himself."

That did it. JD decided he was going to hunt for snipe, with or without the other men's permission. He practically blurted out, "Then let's do it!"

"Well..." Buck appeared to think it over. "Well, JD, if you think you would like to give it a try, then by all means let's ride out and see if we can scare you up some snipe."

JD scanned the horizon impatiently. "Where do we start?"

"Try those canyons over there." Ezra suggested. "They would probably - "

He was cut off by JD's horse, which shot off with its excited rider before Ezra had a chance to even blink.

Buck laughed happily as he watched JD gallop off toward the horizon. "My God, look at him go. We have done our job well."

"I suppose." Ezra looked back toward town. "When do we head back?"

"Well, let's stay with him a little ways, just so he doesn't think we got lost and head back himself."

Ezra nodded, then asked, "If I might inquire, how did you get those scars on your arm?"

Buck thought a moment. "Whore in San Antonio."

Ezra grinned. "Huh. I might have known. "

And with that, the two galloped off after JD, who was already little more than a dark spot against the bright afternoon landscape.

Josiah looked up from the baseboard he was quietly inspecting and checked once more on the dozing group that was still occupying the pews of his church. They had been there more than two hours, and he had been waiting for the last of them to succumb to the drowzy afternoon heat. And that time had come.

Cautiously, the big preacher stood up and made his way from the tiny altar to the sun-dappled pews, looking for a clue as to who these scruffy boys were and why they had come to Four Corners. Looking at them closely, he felt a twinge of concern. None of them looked over sixteen, and from the ragged clothes they wore and unkempt hair, none were from what might be called loving families. They looked innocent, even angelic in thier current dozing state, and as he cast his eyes over the collection of coats, saddlebags, and other items that had been strewn over the pews and floors Josiah thought of lost sheep. Then he spied a handgun poking out of one coat pocket and thought, no. Wolves.

He quietly walked to the pew where the leader of the boys was sleeping . The wiry youth was hunched in the farthest end of the pew, his arms crossed and legs brought up to his chest. He had thrown his coat over himself, and Josiah saw an edge of yellow poking out of one of its pockets. Inspired, he edged over to the youth and surreptitiously slid the paper out, so gently that it hardly made a sound. It was crumpled, and he knew that attempting to unfold it would make too much noise, so Josiah held the slip up, trying to read it around the bumps and crinkles. He deciphered enough to guess the rest, and brought his head down in dismay.

"Give that back."

The youth was awake, glaring at the larger man and holding out one chapped hand.

Josiah looked at him evenly and said quietly, "You joining Beamington, son?"

"I'm not your son." The youth said flatly. "And it ain't none of your business. Now hand that over."

Josiah did. "It is my business, boy, if it gets you killed. Don't your folks worry about you?"

The boy scowled. "My folks are dead, and my name isn't boy. It's Jimmy."

"Sorry, Jimmy. What about these other boys?"

"Thier folks are dead, or don't care. And neither should you."

"Well, you see," Josiah said, "you came into my church, and it is my job to care for all who come here, even those who don't think they need it. When'd you eat last?"

Jimmy hunched back in the pew, folded his arms petulantly.

Josiah pressed a bit more. "Rabbit stew sound good to you? I got some in the back."

Jimmy's eyes seemed to brighten a bit as he slowly said, "Yeah. Yeah, that sounds real good."

Josiah nodded, smiled. "I'll be right back."

Josiah stood and walked back into the rooms behind the altar. Jimmy bit his lip, watched the preacher go, then sat up and looked over his shoulder at the door to the church. Then, quickly, he lept up with the nimbleness of a cat and tiptoed to the altar area, where after whipping a quick glance toward the back room he began rifling through the papers and other objects on the lectern.

One of the boys dozing in the first pew roused and bit and blinked at Jimmy groggily. "Hey,Jimmy, whatcha - "

"Shuttup!" Jimmy hissed, nailing the boy with a vicious glare. The youth shrank back, and Jimmy continued rummaging around the altar area, pocketing two small silver candle holders and a gilt cross he came across before he heard a noise in the back room and hurried back to his place in the pew.

Josiah emerged from the back room, his hands full of a large bowl of steaming rabbit stew.

"Here you go, Jimmy," He said pleasantly, setting the bowl in the pew next to the boy.

Jimmy smiled a little too widely at the preacher. "Thanks, mister," he said almost snidely, digging a crusty spoon out of one pocket.

"My pleasure," Josiah replied, straightening to his full height and watching the youth pick up the bowl and begin shoveling the stew into his mouth.

Jimmy had gotten about four spoonfuls in when he noticed Josiah staring at him. Giving the large man a rather suspicious look he stopped shovelling and mumbled, "What're you lookin' at?"

"Ain't you gonna say grace?" Josiah asked lightly.

Jimmy just snorted derisively and kept shovelling.

"Well, you won't mind if I do?"

The youth shrugged, his face in the bowl.

Josiah nodded, folded his hands, and with his steely eyes fixed on Jimmy prayed, "Dear Lord, bless this child with the bounty of your wonderful blessings and give him the strength he needs to recover after I turn him inside out for stealin' from my church."

Jimmy started, looked up, saw the huge man towering over him, eyes burning like coal fires. Throwing his spoon into the mostly-empty bowl, he sputtered, "You - "

"Save it, junior," Josiah rumbled, his eyes never wavering, "I saw you take those things. Now you can either give 'em back, or I can take 'em back. But I'm warnin' you it's far more blessed to give than to recieve what's comin' to you if you make me do this the hard way."

Jimmy chewed for a moment, studied the muscular preacher in front of him, then slammed the bowl down on the pew, jammed his hand into his pocket and with a defiant expression threw the cross and candlesticks on the floor behind Josiah's feet.

Josiah cocked his head. "Much obliged. Now kindly replace those articles where you found them."

"%#!!@ you," Jimmy muttered with a sneer, and went to pick up the bowl again.

Seemingly without moving a muscle, Josiah leaned over, grabbed Jimmy by the collar and hauled him off the pew and onto the floor.

"Son of a - " Jimmy snarled, and twisted around for the gun in his pocket.

The loud click of Josiah's sidearm made the boy stop, and he turned wide eyes to the barrel that was staring at him from the end of Josiah's hand.

"I wouldn't." Josiah commented.

Jimmy paused, looked around him. The other boys were stirring now, some giving the scene before them curious, frightened glances. A few were moving toward thier guns, but a quick shake of the head by Jimmy made them hesitate.

Reluctantly, resentfully, Jimmy crawled to his feet and picked up the cross and candlesticks and dumped them on the lectern.

"Thank you." Josiah said as he holstered his gun.

Jimmy just peered at him darkly. "What kind of a preacher man are you, anyway?"

Josiah cast his gaze on the sea of dirty, uneasy faces in front of him. "Kind that'll do anything he can to see you don't end up in a pine box."

Jimmy scoffed. "You almost shot me!"

"Don't want to end up in one myself, either."

Jimmy blinked, had no response.

Josiah gave the boys in his church another look, thought, you'd better turn them out now or there'll be trouble.

But turn them away, the other side of his mind reckoned, and you won't know where they go. Let them stay, and at least you'll keep the wolves in the pen.

Taking a deep breath he said, "Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to attend to. You're welcome to stay, but remember God's eye is on you. "

Josiah turned, walked a few steps toward the altar where his work waited. Then he paused, turned back, fixed all the boys but especially Jimmy with a warning stare as he said, "But so is mine, and I got a much shorter fuse."

With that, he walked back to the altar area and continued his work.