Chris Larabee was drunk.
It was two o' clock in the morning, a warm, sticky night. Chris Larabee was sitting by himself in the empty saloon, ignoring the evil eye the bartender was giving him and trying to get the pain to go away. But it wasn't working.
Well, the liquor was working. Chris laughed sourly as he hunched over the table, letting limp strands of blond hair fall into his bloodshot eyes as they stared at nothing. The liquor was working just fine: he could hardly see straight. Two of empty Red Eye bottles sat next to him, and as long as he could still form words, Chris intended to keep the bottles coming, and drain them. The whiskey was fine. But the pain was still there.
Dammit. Chris blearily reached for the half-full bottle in front of him. Why can't I just die and get it over with? Didn't someone say once you can die of a broken heart? Then why can't pain kill you? Because tonight Chris wanted to die, very much. Or kill someone. Either option would do.
And the day had actually started out half-way decently. It was a bright, sunny day, not much going on. Chris had decided it was time for a haircut, and ran into his friend Buck Wilmington on the way to the barber's.
Hey there, Chris, Buck had said. Hate to waste a beautiful day like this, what say we go ridin' later?
Buck had a general good nature that was infectious, and his ebullient smile had cut through a few layers of the shell Chris had thrown up around himself, and he'd said all right. So they'd saddled up their horses and ridden out, after Buck had stopped by the jail to tell their friend and the youthful sheriff of Four Corners, JD Dunne, where they were going. Chris suspected Buck also wanted to tease JD about not being able to go along, but he'd stayed outside while Buck talked to JD and didn't really know.
And so they'd ridden out, and it really was liberating to be riding free on the range with Buck, just like the old days almost, when they were both bachelors and lived only to feel the sun in their faces and the wind at their backs. The old days, before Sarah, before Adam, before the fire...
Chris cursed and took another swig of whiskey, grunted at the raw pain as it stung his throat. He'd almost been able to forget today, for a few blissful hours life almost seemed normal. Then they saw the wagon...
They'd heard it first, the thunder of horses' hooves and the wild jangling of bits and bridles, then they saw it, some distance ahead of them - a covered wagon and a two-horse team, going too fast, with no one at the reins. And voices inside, screaming for help.
Buck had shot forward right away, like he usually did, racing toward the wagon like he thought he might actually catch it. Chris followed, and they did catch up with it, caught the flailing bridle and pulled the horses to a stop. It wasn't easy, but they did it, and Chris had just wanted to ride on, but Buck wanted to make sure everyone was all right, and leaned into the canvas hollow to smile at the occupants inside and introduce himself, and offer his hand. The woman inside accepted it, and climbed out, badly shaken.
It was Sarah. And Adam.
But no, it wasn't. Chris took another scorching swallow. The woman and her son didn't even resemble them really; she and the boy were both fair where Sarah and Adam dark, but they were both young, just like his wife and son, and so frightened that Buck fell over himself to reassure them that everything was all right. The woman thanked Buck, touched Chris' arm and thanked him too, and Chris had flinched. Something about the whole episode had unsettled him, the mad dash, the horrifying rush of adrenalin, it brought back those haunting memories of the morning he and Buck had ridden back from Mexico to see smoke curling above the trees and he had felt that same rush, that same thought, oh my God something's wrong, very wrong...
Chris had already started to walk back to his horse - he'd already decided it was time for a good, long drinking binge - when another horseman appeared, scared and out of breath.At the sight of him the woman called out a name and ran to him. The man all but leaped off his horse, and they met in a fierce embrace, then there was a rush and tumble of words, the man apologizing, asking if they were all right, the woman crying, glad her husband was safe.
Then Chris watched as the boy ran up to his father, wrapped his little arms around the man's leg, and called him papa in a high sweet voice.
And that's what did it. Chris had simply walked back to his horse, gotten on, and ridden back to town. Once there, he walked straight to the saloon, grabbed a bottle, and started drinking. And he'd been there ever since.
He figured Buck had noticed when he left, ridden some distance behind him, then pretty much warned everyone away. Chris knew Buck didn't really understand the man he had become, but he didn't care. His heart had been cut in two when he heard that little boy's laugh, and he was just going to stay there and drink until his heart either healed, or disappeared completely.
The clock chimed two fifteen, but Chris barely noticed. Nobody had been in to check on him, and he knew why. They were afraid of him, afraid of this miserable man and his tempers. Buck had probably said, watch out, Chris is really in a mood today. Chris had deliberately chosen a seat that put his back to the door, just so he wouldn't see the concerned faces that he knew were peeking in from time to time, but coming no closer. Even Vin had stayed away. Look out, Chris is on a bender...
Chris took another long pull, and thought some more. He could feel his bad mood spiraling downward, feel himself sinking into another black depression, but didn't care enough to fight it. That couple looked so happy with their son, and Chris and Buck had saved them. Somebody could have saved Sarah and Adam. The ranch house burned for an hour or more, why hadn't anybody come to see what the fire was about? Because nobody gave a damn, that's why. Nobody cared if he never felt his wife's hair again. Nobody cared if he never felt the gentle pressure of his little boy's arms around his leg, or a small voice joyfully calling him papa.
Chris finished the last of the bottle, thought about getting another one. Damn bartender, where the hell did he go? Oh well. Chris slouched amid the glass forest of empty bottles. I can wait till he comes back. I got all night.
The whiskey was continuing its savagely soothing course through his system, and Chris could feel himself detaching, separating from that jarring hurt. But he hadn't passed out yet, and that was what he was aiming for. He wasn't far; as he looked around the bar, Chris marveled at how it was losing its edges, the tables and walls and low-lit lamps melting together like sticks of wax on a hot day, blending together in a weird, distorted way that made sense only when you were drunk. Kind of like the way he was thinking...
Chris sunk his chin into his arms, wrapping himself around the depression that had been his faithful companion for three years. His only companion. Well, no, that wasn't quite right, at least not lately, but at the thought of the men he'd been riding with Chris grunted in disgust and fished around the table for a bottle with a few drops left in it. Finding one, he tilted it upward and drained it, then set it back on the table with a rattling bang.
Tonight Chris hated the men he rode with, hated them with an almost unreasoning fury made liquid by the huge amount of whiskey he'd downed. He hated that Buck didn't seem hurt by such an obvious reminder of Sarah and Adam; hadn't he said he loved them almost as much as Chris did? And yet he hadn't been stabbed in the gut today, like Chris had. Despite his loss, Buck had retained the giddy, happy personality he'd always had. In fact, sometimes it didn't seem to bother him at all. And Chris hated that Buck couldn't share his agony. Didn't the bastard care about him at all? So, Chris resented Buck.
And then there was Vin. Vin was dependable, solid, always there for Chris. Quiet, sympathetic, Vin could always be counted on, and usually Chris appreciated it, but tonight it bugged the hell out of him. What right did Vin have anyway, being such a steady presence? Who the hell told him to watch Chris' back all the time? Maybe Chris wanted to die - guess Vin never thought of that. The worst part was, no matter how angry, drunk, or miserable Chris got, Vin never pushed, never lectured, just gave Chris a small smile and arranged himself somewhere nearby, out of sight but definitely there. As if Chris deserved a real friend.
And what about Nathan, and Josiah? How in the world could they stay so focused, so calm when the world was full of such rotten people? Why would Nathan take five seconds to care about anybody, after what he had gone through in the South as a slave? His life had to have been a nightmare, but still he was cheerful, helpful, always keeping one eye on everyone else. Why wasn't he bitter? Why wasn't he angry? And Josiah too, always so damn even-keeled, working on that church like somebody cared if it ever opened again...he always claimed he'd lost his faith, but who did he think he was fooling? Chris had been religious, once, but he'd thrown it out after the fire, and tonight it infuriated him to think that anybody - especially a hired gun - could hold on to the slightest shred of hope for the future. Josiah wasn't stupid, so Chris concluded that the ex-preacher knew something he didn't. And that made him even madder.
And Ezra! How the hell did that man do it? Chris' bleary eyes scanned the bottles for a drop, two maybe, something he could consume. Ezra could turn his feelings on and off like a faucet. Ezra had no feelings, only con games. He knew how to use people, and was good at it, and it enraged Chris because a lot of the time he didn't like Ezra - but he desperately wanted to be him. Shamefully, Chris longed to be like the aloof gambler, someone who had no memories to cry over, no loved ones to miss, no past to reckon with - only a present full of gain, and a future he couldn't care less about. Chris thought about his future, a long, dark tunnel that yawned before him tonight, how long would he live if a bullet didn't find him first? Fifty, sixty years? An eternity of waiting to die while being swallowed up by the writhing pit of memory.
All the bottles were empty, but Chris wrapped one sweaty hand around the closest one anyway, taking comfort in the cool, smooth glass against his hot skin. And then there was JD. JD, who'd come all the way west just to be a gunfighter. Just couldn't wait to get shot and end up dead in a ditch somewhere - oh, but that 's not how he thinks his life is going to end. Thanks to those ridiculous dime novels he read, JD still thought there was something actually noble in what they did, some honor to be found in spilling your guts all over the desert floor. Stupid kid. He'd find out soon enough. If he was lucky, he'd be dead by the end of the year. If he wasn't, he'd get his ideals stomped on just like Chris had, and have sixty years of endless, torturing memories to remind him that not only was life not fair, no one gave a damn that it wasn't fair. Good people died, bad people lived, and none of it meant anything.
Two-thirty. The bartender began going around the room, blowing out the lights and clearing off the tables in a not-so-subtle way, looking at Chris every so often as he did so. But Chris was caught in his drunken reverie, and sullenly ignored him.
Good people die, evil lives on. Sarah was dead, Adam was dead, their killer was still free. Chris' eyes narrowed as he remembered Cletus Fowler, the man who'd admitted - bragged! - that he'd killed Chris' wife and son. That cocky swagger, that slimy smirk - and he had lived, laughing, while Sarah and Adam died in the flames. Chris' mind wandered around, and other faces came to him, floating in the air it seemed - Colonel Anderson, who thought nothing of shooting a man in the back, and nearly killed Buck before Chris had gunned him down...Stuart James, a wealthy cattle baron who had almost gotten the lot of them killed...the warden at the prison where Chris had been unfairly incarcerated, a sadistic pig of a man who beat the prisoners, beat a sick and weakened man Chris only knew as Inmate 46, would have killed him if Chris hadn't intervened, despite being half-dead from abuse himself...the warden had backed off, but he hated Chris, almost killed him, and Chris couldn't even fight back, not the way he'd wanted to...they were all alive, or had been until recently. And Sarah and Adam were dead. Which two of his enemies' lives were so important to God that He would rather they stayed, than spare the two that were more precious to Chris than anything? What would it have hurt, to just let them live...
Chris took another drink, and felt the world blurring away.
+ + + + + + +
It was after two-thirty, and Billy the bartender wanted to close up. Trouble was, that damn gunslinger Chris Larabee was still sitting there like he didn't give a hoot that Billy still had to clean up the place. Well, the hell with it. Billy wanted to close, and he'd stalled long enough. Screwing up his courage, the bartender walked over to the table and moved to tap Chris on the shoulder.
Without warning Chris jumped up, as if shocked. The empty bottle shook on the table, and the other two rolled off and broke on the floor. Billy looked at Chris, uncertain fear in his eyes; he knew Chris of course, had seen him drunk many times, but never this bad. The man's eyes looked...dead, as if they weren't seeing the world anymore. The bartender saw the bottle on the table, added the few that were in bits on the floor, and slowly backed away from the wasted-looking black-clad gunslinger with the tears in his vacant eyes. Chris glared at him, and through him, for what seemed to the bartender like a couple of hours. Then he turned around unsteadily and staggered out into the street. Damn drunk, Billy the bartender thought, and went to get his broom.
+ + + + + + +
It was a warm night, but humid, so the street fires gave off very little light as Chris tried to find his way to his room. There was smoke everywhere from the sputtering fires, and the acrid tang made Chris think of that awful morning, the still-smoldering house, the soul-numbing discovery...as he stumbled down the dark-blue street, Chris blinked against the stinging smoke, staggered and caught himself against a post as it choked him. The world was spinning, pulling him downward, and when Chris tried to look around him he was astonished that there was so much smoke, and he couldn't see the ranch house - he couldn't be that far from it, could he?
It was too dark to see much of anything, and Chris groped around the brick building to his left, found the long, narrow alley that he knew was the back of their smokehouse. Trying to peer through the suffocating smoke he walked into it. Dammit, where's the ranch house? I know it's close, here's the smokehouse, and the wagon stall is just over there...
It was pitch black in the alley, and Chris had to put one hand out, touch the damp brick, to find his way. Sarah. why hadn't she noticed he was gone and come looking for him? He smelled the smoke again, and an alarm sounded in his mind. She's in trouble. They're both in trouble. Chris tried to run, but he could barely stand. Fowler was back, it was happening again, no -
Chris heard footsteps and looked up, but saw no one. He tensed, swallowing. They've come back. Maybe Sarah isn't dead, maybe Adam isn't dead, I can save them this time. Chris saw a shape coming toward him, a mere shadow back lit by a faraway fire.
It was one of Fowler's men.
Chris shrank against the wall, wanting to be invisible so the man would pass him by. Chris could go get Sarah and Adam away from there. Then he'd come back and finish this bastard. Chris' eyes narrowed as the figure approached. You son of a bitch, you killed my wife and son. He felt the familiar rush of hate-filled adrenalin, felt it consume him until he had to fight every nerve in his body to keep from jumping the man, and strangling him. But no - Sarah and Adam. Wait.
The shadow seemed to see him, and paused; then it walked on. Chris let out his breath. Thank God that pig didn't see me. He tried to slip away, but stumbled a little bit and fell, and before he could right himself he felt a firm hand on his shoulder, heard a muffled voice call his name. Fowler's man had him.
And Chris Larabee snapped.
Roaring so loud it hurt his ears, Chris reared his body backwards, slamming his assailant against the brick wall with all his strength. Before the other man could even react, Chris whipped around and slugged him as hard as he could, first in the face, then in the gut, smiling in grim satisfaction as he felt the flesh cave in beneath his fist. The other man slumped against the wall, then tried to get up, but Chris grabbed him, and suddenly it wasn't Fowler's man at all, but Cletus Fowler himself who was trying to get away, and Chris would be damned if he was going to let that happen again. Gripping the shoulder of Fowler's jacket, Chris struck him hard across the face again, then shook him, snarling inarticulate rage at the man who'd butchered the only two people in the world he cared about. The fury built up, spilled over, and Chris flung Fowler into the dirt and kicked him savagely, once, twice, then noticed that Fowler was gone and the man gasping in the street, covered with blood, was the Warden.
Chris felt light, unattached to his body as he hauled the Warden to his feet. The memories of his incarceration came back, the pain, the humiliation, and Chris screamed against those memories, yelled at the impotent anger and rage he'd been forced to keep locked inside, and suddenly it came pouring out, like water through a burst pipe. The warden fell out of Chris' hands against the brick wall, but Chris lunged forward and grabbed him, slung him across the alley and watched him bounce off the opposite wall and land in the street. Not so tough now, are you? Chris soared with his anger . It was odd, he felt so full and free that he didn't think he could still be in his body. His rage and grief flooded over his whiskey-soaked mind until there was no longer cohesive thought left, only feelings - outrage, grief, guilt, soul-numbing loneliness all spiraled around him, shot out of him like lightning bolts. The warden groaned, tried to rise, but Chris kicked him again, then punched him, over and over, couldn't believe how fantastic it felt to finally win, to finally beat the man - the men - who had held him down for so long. The warden made one last, staggering attempt to break free, but before he had taken two steps Chris grabbed him by the collar and one arm and threw him with all his frenzied strength into the brick wall. Finally, the warden crumpled in a heap against the wall, and lay still.
For a long, free-falling moment Chris stood there in the dark, his heart pounding in his ears, his head splitting from a sudden, violent headache. He felt spent, exhausted, but triumphant, and he grinned drunkenly at the battered form of one of his worst enemies as it lay bleeding against the rough brick. God, he was tired. Home. Bed. Panting with exhaustion, he turned and stumbled out of the alley toward his rented room, sparing only a few of his still-functioning brain cells to wonder why, in the black gloom of the alley, the Warden suddenly looked so much like JD Dunne. But that thought didn't go much of anywhere, and Chris disregarded it, and concentrated on finding his way home.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington sat bolt upright in his bed and gasped.
He didn't know why he had done it. Blinking blearily, Buck wiped his eyes and looked around his room. It was dark, and quiet. He'd been in a dead sleep not two seconds before, so deep he hadn't even been dreaming, and now he was wide awake. Why?
Then Buck looked toward his door and smiled a little. It was open a crack, and the sweet little Mexican girl he'd been romancing, Rita, was standing in the thin sliver of light, talking to somebody, it looked like. She was a beauty, and talented too, although she didn't speak English all that well. But that was okay; they'd managed to have a fine old time without words.
Buck rolled over in the bed, checked his pocket watch that was on the nightstand, and cast a curious eye to the door. Who the hell was Rita talking to at three o'clock in the morning? It wasn't a man, Buck realized when he heard the voice, and relaxed. Sometimes you couldn't be too careful...
Rita looked back toward the bed, just a silhouette in the darkness, large brown eyes and tumbling black hair. She turned back to the door, said something very fast and low in Spanish, then leaving the door open she tiptoed to the bed and leaned on it.
"Hey there, darlin'," Buck said conversationally, smiling even though he knew she couldn't see it. "You got a friend out there? She want to come in?"
"Please, Buck," Rita said, and when he caught her tone Buck could tell she wasn't in the mood for play. "Maria says you should come...um, out. Go, to the alleyway."
"Huh?" Buck asked in confusion as he leaned over and fumbled with the bedside lamp. After a moment, he had it lit, and saw as the flame slowly glowed brighter that Rita looked worried about something.
"Um..." Rita glanced toward the half-open door where Buck could see another Mexican girl, sixteen maybe, looking fearfully into the room. "Um, she says there is a man...how you say..." She struck her head lightly with her hand. "He's bleeding, bleeding. Knocked out."
"Oh." Buck sat up, put on a reassuring smile. "Probably another bar brawl." He looked at the girl in the doorway, waved his hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it, Maria. Happens here all the time."
Maria gave Rita an urgent look, said something rapidly. Rita nodded, then looked at Buck. "She says you should come. Very bad."
Buck sighed, scratched his head. "Rita, I'd love to, but what am I gonna do with an unconscious drunk at three o'clock in the morning? Go get JD Dunne, he's the sheriff. Go pull his hide outa bed, you feel like rousting somebody."
Rita translated this to Maria. Buck was settling himself back onto the bed, and saw Maria's eyes widen and she said, "Esta Señor Dunne."
Buck stopped; he couldn't have heard that right. But Rita looked at him and said, "She says the bleeding man is Mr. Dunne."
No, that can't be. Buck felt a sudden pang of fear, but fought it. "You sure?"
The girl started babbling then, pulling at her plain dress and her hair. Without being aware of it Buck got out of the bed and, without taking his eyes off Maria, began pulling on his pants, then his shirt, faster and faster as she spoke.
Rita nodded at the girl's words and said, "She says she knows him, black hair, star on...on him, white shirt, but hurry, it's bad, hurry."
Rita sounded almost panicked, in fact they both did, and it didn't help Buck in his rush to get dressed. This girl has to be wrong, hell, what would JD be doin' prowlin' the streets at this hour? She's wrong. Buck grabbed a lantern from his bureau. She's got to be wrong. But, just in case, Buck sent Rita over to Nathan's before lighting the lantern and heading out into the dark street.
+ + + + + + +
Maria grabbed Buck's hand from the moment they left his room, and she was tugging at him insistently, so Buck just let her lead him along. He was fighting a battle within himself, a war between the absurd notion that JD had gotten himself into a fight when usually he was snoozin' in his room, and the unsettling knowledge that this girl seemed pretty sure it was him.
Buck had always been an optimist, and so by the time they reached the alleyway had pretty much convinced himself that Maria was wrong, and it was somebody else she was dragging him to. He was already picturing the laugh he and JD would share about this in the saloon the next day when Maria pulled him into the alley, and his lantern filled the narrow walkway with light.
What he saw shattered the reassuring illusion.
"Jesus Christ," Buck said quickly, almost running forward and quickly putting the lantern on the ground, so he had both hands free. It was JD, huddled against the brick wall as if he'd been thrown there like an abandoned doll. His face was half-hidden in his arms, but what Buck could see looked beaten black and blue. The boy's white shirt and brown vest were dirty and bloodstained, and near his collar the shirt was ripped. Most frightening of all, JD was not moving, not at all.
"JD?" Buck said, trying not to sound too terrified, but Christ, who would beat up on JD like this? Bending closer so he could see the tiniest movement of JD's eyelashes, Buck tried again, "JD? Can you hear me, son?"
Nothing. Good God. Buck tried to brush some of that wayward black hair out of JD's eyes. Wincing, he drew his hand back in shock; JD's hair was slick with blood.
Nathan! Buck stood up very fast. As if his thoughts could be heard, Buck saw Nathan come tearing around the corner not half a moment later, half-dressed and carrying his medical kit. Seeing JD, the healer hurried to the boy's side and knelt down, peering into that scratched, bruised face. Buck stepped aside, then got as close as he could to Nathan without interfering.
"JD?" Nathan said quietly, reaching up to gently pull JD's arms away from his face.
Buck saw Nathan wince at how swollen and bloodied JD's face was; Buck didn't like the look Nathan was giving the small, drying rivers of blood that ran down the side of JD's face. Buck felt a sudden chill. This is a nightmare. It has to be.
Nathan had just begun to slowly unfold JD's arms when the boy suddenly gasped, started and opened his eyes. Buck shuddered when he saw those eyes; they didn't seem to be looking at anything.
JD gave a loud, hitching whimper, and Nathan stopped. "May be his collarbone's broke, " he said somberly. "Don't know what else might be. We gotta get him somewhere where I can see what I'm doing."
Buck was hardly listening. Leaning close to JD he said hopefully, "Hey, JD? You still with us, buddy?"
JD blinked, but didn't look at Buck or Nathan, just stared straight ahead, the deep red cuts and blue bruises standing out in ghastly relief to his white-pale skin.
"Shock," Nathan said confidently, worry in his deep tones as he placed an expert hand on JD's forehead, touched the bleeding wound there. "He ain't really awake, Buck. He can't hear you."
"Damn," Buck swore, his frustration mounting as he watched a trickle of blood seep from underneath JD's hair and snake down his face. Buck's face clouded with anger as the blood flowed down JD's cheek, then dripped onto his shirt, staining it deep red.
"Damn it, Nathan," Buck growled. "We gotta find the bastard that did this. Now." JD let out another soft gasp and closed his eyes, and Nathan gently guided his head back so it wouldn't strike the brick wall.
"First things first, Buck," Nathan said, and Buck listened to the authority in his voice. "Go to the undertaker's. He's got a stretcher. Then we'll get JD inside, and I can find out how bad he's hurt."
Buck nodded and jumped to his feet, fear and anxiety fighting with a fury he hadn't thought he was capable of until he had looked into those glazed, unseeing eyes round with pain. Nathan gently, cautiously turned JD over so the youth was lying on his back, and Nathan could better assess his injuries. The unconscious youth let out a low moan, almost a sob, and in the lantern light the bruises and welts on his face and neck were turned black and a sickening green. Buck grit his teeth and said, "Nathan?"
"Hm?" Nathan didn't look at Buck, moved the lantern closer.
"Just so you know, when we do find him? He's mine."
Nathan began to cut the blood-encrusted sleeve of JD's shirt away from one limp arm. "Go get the stretcher, Buck."
Buck stood there for one long moment, his hands clenched into fists, his eyes riveted on the quiet, still youth at his feet. His friend, who might die while he was gone.
"That son of a bitch is mine," Buck hissed, and went to do as he was told.
+ + + + + + +
Dawn was just beginning to break over Four Corners when Josiah Sanchez walked through the doorway of the church, ready for another day of repairs.
He looked around the whitewashed walls and rough- hewn pews. This place is really coming along. When they had all arrived, the place was a wreck, a lot like the town. And now...well, it would never rival the Sistine Chapel, but perhaps someday he'd baptize a baby here, or unite a couple in marriage, or be witness to someone finding peace in a Lord he had all but given up on years ago. Perhaps...
It was still dim in the church, despite the tall windows that graced the walls, but still Josiah had no trouble finding the Bible he read, sometimes. He'd found it, while he was cleaning, shut away in a dusty, unused desk drawer. At first Josiah almost recoiled from it; that innocent-looking book had been the cause of an untold number of troubles in his life, a source of war, not peace, and he had thought about giving it away, or just putting it back in the drawer. But, once, he'd opened it after a weary day and found that the lyrical cadence of the old-language passages could be soothing in a way, and he'd found himself turning to it from time to time ever since. It wasn't a habit, just something Josiah did whenever he felt a little spiritual tug to go give it a read.
Like this morning. Leaning against the lectern with a steaming cup of coffee, Josiah followed his usual habit when reading the Bible: He ran his thumb along the edge of the pages and just opened it, randomly. He'd never been one to read the Book cover-to-cover, or to follow any set pattern; he just let it open wherever it happened to, and he read a few verses or chapters until something made sense.
Hm. Josiah's thumb found a page and pushed into it, opening the book. The Gospel - Mark, Chapter five. Taking a sip of his coffee, Josiah turned his blue eyes to the text and read:
"And they came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Geraseries. And when Jesus came out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him. And he had his dwelling among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him any more, not even with a chain; because he had often been bound with chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him. And constantly night and day, among the tombs and in the mountains, he was crying out and gashing himself with stones."
Josiah swallowed his coffee and frowned. No uplifting psalms today, I guess.
"And seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him and crying out with a loud voice, he said, 'What do I have to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore you by God, do not torment me!"
For Jesus had been saying to him, 'Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!"
And He was asking him, 'What is your name?' And he said to Him, 'My name is Legion, for we are many.'"
Josiah took another drink of coffee, stopped reading, suddenly depressed. It always depressed him, the Bible stories about men being driven mad by spirits. It made him feel that somehow man was little more to God than an experiment, a tool used to prove a point. Let a man be possessed by demons, then send your Son to drive them out. Then everyone will know that He is God. Unless no one drives them out, in which case the man ultimately dies, tormented and insane, which Josiah had always felt had to have happened at least once. And it had always irritated him.
Well, it was time to get some breakfast. Josiah closed the Bible and started walking down the apse toward the door when his eye fell on one of the pews, near the back of the church, and he stopped.
There was a young girl asleep in the pew, and Josiah recognized her as one of the unfortunate orphans of the streets. He'd often tried to get the working girls of Four Corners to come into his church, not necessarily for spiritual guidance, but because it was safer than being on a wooden boardwalk amongst prowling wolves. They were babies, some of them, and Josiah hated to see innocence taken so young.
And this girl really was young, younger than JD, by a good three years. She was curled tightly up against the back of the pew, and Josiah decided not to disturb her, but as he moved past her, the girl gasped and opened her eyes.
"Easy, Maria," Josiah soothed in Spanish, coming closer and leaning over to look at her. "It' s okay. You decide to pay me a visit?"
"Oh, Father!" The girl cried out, gripping the back of the pew with both young hands. "I'm sorry! I had to get off the street."
"Good," Josiah said with a smile, coming around the pew to sit next to her. "It's much safer in here."
"No, that's not what I mean," the girl said, confused. "I mean last night. I was scared, so I came in here. I'm sorry." She hung her head, her long black hair streaming over her face.
"Hush, Maria." Josiah put out one big hand and brought her chin up so he could meet her eyes. "You have nothing to be sorry for. The streets at night are very scary. Did something happen?"
Maria nodded. "I saw a demon in the alleyway!"
Josiah brought his head back in surprise. "A demon? Are you sure?"
The girl gulped and nodded. "It was in the shape of a man, dressed all in black. He looked terrible!"
Josiah tried not to grin when the girl mentioned the 'dressed in black' part; he had to admit that in certain kinds of light, Chris did look demonic.
Maria had started crying, so Josiah laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and said, "Did you see something else?"
The girl nodded, trying to control her tears. "The demon was trying to take a soul!" She sobbed and crossed herself repeatedly, "I thought we were not to see such things!"
Hm. Josiah did not not like the turn this was taking. "What do you mean, trying to take a soul?"
"He was - " Her voice hitched, and she looked at Josiah with huge, terrified eyes, "He was throwing him around, hitting him and kicking, and he hit his head against the wall and just laid there, and that was when the demon left and I went and found Rita."
Uh-oh. Chris got in a fight. But was it a fight? "Then what happened?"
"Her lover went to the alleyway, and then a black man came and they took him away." Maria started crying again and she said, "Does the devil want young souls now? Will they be coming for me next? He was almost as young as me, Father! "
Black man. Lover. Nathan - and Buck? "Who, Maria?"
"The man the demon was trying to take away! Senor Dunne!"
Josiah's mind froze for a moment, then regained itself. He licked his lips and said slowly, "Maria, are you telling me the demon you saw last night was attacking JD Dunne?"
Maria nodded wildly. "I think he killed him, Father! Please protect me!"
Good God! Chris attacked... Looking at Maria intently, Josiah said, "I'll protect you, Maria, just stay here. There's some rolls and coffee in the back room if you're hungry. I'll be back when I can."
The girl gulped back her tears, wiped her face. "Yes, Father. Thank you."
Josiah tried to give her a reassuring smile, but what he was feeling was far beyond reassurance. Patting her on the head, he rose and left the church for Nathan's, the same words echoing in his head over and over:
I implore you by God, do not torment me...Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!...What is your name?...My name is Legion, for we are many...
+ + + + + + +
Mary Travis finished pinning her hair into its neat blond bun and walked tiredly from her room to the front door of the printing office. She hadn't slept well the night before and somewhat resented the morning light that she could see peeking around the edges of the window shades that shielded the large front windows. Why did the sun have to rise so early?
Yawning and stretching, Mary raised the window shade that blocked the window in the front door, then looked out onto the street, puzzled. Usually the grey predawn light showed her an empty street, occupied only by stray wisps of early-morning fog. But today, there was a small knot of people, farmers mostly by the looks of them, milling around the alleyway a short distance down the street. Her newspaperwoman's instincts now fully awake, Mary hastily opened the door and stepped into the chilly morning air.
As she neared the alley, one of the men, a grizzled old man she only knew as Pete, turned toward her and said, "Miz Travis, did you hear? Sheriff's been murdered!"
Mary's mouth dropped open. "What?"
Another man turned to look at her, one of the local farmers. "Pete here was comin' up the alley 'bout half an hour go, and found that."
Mary looked to where the man was pointing. Just inside the alley was the signs of a recent struggle; the dirt in the alleyway was churned up and scattered, and against one wall Mary could see a few dark brown smears she could only guess was blood.
Mary gulped, her mouth dry. "But what makes you think Mr. Dunne was the victim?"
"Found this too." Pete said in an oddly triumphant way, holding up a dusty, bloodstained bowler hat. "Sheriff's the only feller I know wears one of these things."
"I'll take that," Mary said suddenly, and took the hat. She didn't know why she should mind that Pete was holding it. She only knew that for some reason she felt better having possession of it herself. "Does anyone know where Mr. Dunne is now?"
The men mostly shook their heads, but Pete said, "Prob'ly he's at that doctor fella's. Only game in town, ya might say."
Mary nodded and, hurriedly turning on her heel, walked swiftly away from the little group, her skirts raising small clouds of swirling dust in the morning light.
"Huh," Pete said as he and his friends went back to gawking at the bloody alley. "What's she in sich a hurry to see a dead body fer?"
+ + + + + + +
Nathan wrung the cloth out, knew from the pink tint of the water that he'd have to change it soon. Again.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes tiredly. Morning. Must be about five, five-thirty. People will be up soon, asking questions. And he didn't have any answers.
Who did this? Nathan asked himself for the thousandth time as he turned his attention to his bed where JD was lying, naked except for his cotton underdrawers and half-covered with bandages. Nathan gently dabbed at the youth's beaten face, pursing his lips as he willed as hard as he could for JD to wake up. It wasn't good - well, hell, none of it was good, JD's collarbone was broken, along with two or three ribs, and there were some bruises on his arms and legs Nathan wasn't sure about yet, maybe one of those limbs was fractured. JD's stomach and back were a mass of cuts and welts where someone had hit him hard, repeatedly. Whether they might have hurt him inside, Nathan had no way of telling yet. And some scared, horrified part of him really didn't want to know.
But what really concerned Nathan was that JD hadn't opened his eyes. Not in the two hours since he and Buck had brought him in here. It hadn't been easy, getting JD up the stairs in a stretcher, but they'd done it, and once there Buck had alternately paced the floor, sat in stony, glaring silence, and ranted at the top of his lungs about the kind of low-down scum that would jump a man in an alley and beat him senseless. Buck's restless concern had finally been too much for Nathan's concentration, and he ordered the gunslinger to go get some rest or some food - either one could keep Buck occupied for a while, and Nathan really needed to focus. For that he needed silence.
Nathan had been sure that sometime while he was binding JD's wounds, the boy would wake up. At some point when he was securing JD's right arm against his side so the collarbone could heal, Nathan knew he'd hear a young voice yelling in his ear that it hurt, and to stop it. But he didn't hear a thing, except for an occasional, unconscious moan.
Well, certainly then, Nathan had thought that JD would be alert enough to put up a fuss while he was binding his ribs. Busted ribs hurt like hell, and JD would have to be pretty out of it not to become alert enough to give Nathan hell for tying him up like that. But, nothing. Only the labored breathing of the profoundly asleep. And silence.
And now...Nathan bit his lip, stroked JD's forehead with the cloth, careful not to disturb the new rows of stitches in the youth's scalp. Someone - or maybe more than one someone - had slammed JD pretty hard in the head, more than once. A dark, angry bruise blotched the left side of JD's face, where Nathan guessed he'd been thrown into the wall. From the looks of it, by the time that had happened JD hadn't been able to stop himself from hitting the wall full force. Nathan thought of the War, of men he'd seen with injuries like that, from shells and shrapnel and exploding buildings. Some woke up, and were never quite the same after. Some went blind, a few couldn't hear anymore. And there were some that he knew would have been better off dying.
The morning sun leaked around the edges of his window shade, as if asking to come in. It was pretty gloomy in the little room, but Nathan was in no mood to be cheered up. He stood, picked up the coverlet which had been hastily stripped off the bed and covered JD with it, tucking the top of the sheet under the boy's chin. Nathan had done all he could, and he didn't want to look at those bruises anymore.
Nathan had just picked up the washbasin to dump the water out when the door opened and Mary Travis came in. She started when she saw the pale form on the bed, and Nathan was secretly glad he'd spared her the sight of the rest of his shattered body.
"Is he dead?" Mary blurted in frightened tones.
Nathan shook his head, his eyes casting down to the basin of bloodied water in his hand. "But he's beat up awful bad."
"By who?" Mary asked in anxious frustration as her round blue eyes scanned JD's silent form. "Nathan, who would do such a thing?"
Nathan bit his lip, and when he looked up at Mary his kind eyes were hard with resolve. "Don't know, ma'am, but I intend to find out. Cause any man does this to the law in a town, he ain't scared of much. Best we find him before he finds somebody else to beat on."
Mary's face changed, and Nathan realized she was thinking the same thing he was - a madman might be on the loose, a powerful, dangerous one at that, with no respect for authority and no fear of reprisal. And he had to be found. Quick.
Nathan began to move toward the door, the washbasin heavy in his hand. "Now if you'll excuse me, Miz Travis - "
"Oh - " Mary reached out and took the bowl from Nathan's hands. "I'll take care of that, Nathan, you must be exhausted. Can I get anything for you? Would you like some breakfast?"
Nathan relinquished the bowl, thought suddenly that he was very hungry. "Some coffee and eggs would be good, thank you, ma'am. You seen Buck?"
Mary backed toward the door. "He's over at the saloon with Vin, questioning the bartender. The saloon is usually open pretty late, they think maybe he saw something."
Nathan nodded, and as Mary silently left the room he went back to JD's bedside, sat in the hard wooden chair, and waited.
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org