The shards of broken glass cried out in protest as the bartender, Billy, swept them across the saloon floor into the dustpan he was holding.
"Last night?" he said as he straightened up with the loaded dustpan and faced Vin and Buck, who were standing close by. "Yeah, I was open late last night. What do you want to know?"
"Who was in here?" Vin asked in his usual drawl, his languid tones not betraying the concern Buck knew he felt.
Billy shrugged as he carried the dustpan to the back of the bar. "Lots of people, until about one or so."
"Anybody after that?" Vin asked in an unhurried tone, thumbs looped through his belt.
"Just one." Billy said with a slight tone of disgust, as he returned to the table where another pile of glass shards was waiting. "That hired gun, Chris Larabee."
Buck's head cocked over. "Chris was here last night?"
"Yes," Billy replied tiredly, then stood up. "Look, I know he's a friend of yours, but that man is dangerous. He was drinkin' more last night than I ever seen one man drink, and I've been doin' this for - "
"How long did he stay?" Vin said, his blue eyes narrowing.
Billy stopped his prattle, thought a moment. "About two-thirty. He must have had ten bottles in him when he left. Dumped half the empties on the floor. I was so beat I just said screw it till this morning."
Buck looked at the bartender, then at Vin. "Was anybody with him when he left?"
"Are you kidding?" Billy said sarcastically as he bent to sweep the glass. "Who wants to be around that man when he's drunk?"
Vin and Buck traded glances of agreement as Billy shook his head and said, "You couldn't pay me to get near Larabee, especially last night. When he left here he looked like he wanted to kill somebody."
"Is that a fact." Buck said conversationally, remembering how moody Chris got when he drank.
"That's a fact," Billy replied, straightening up with a dustpan full of broken glass. "That's why I called the sheriff."
Vin and Buck both tilted their heads, and Buck said, "You called the sheriff?"
"Hell, yes." Billy frowned as he walked the dustpan behind the bar. "You think I wanted to run into Larabee in a dark alley when he's so drunk he don't know himself? After he left I went and knocked on the sheriff's door and told him Larabee was prowling the streets drunk." Billy dumped the glass into a trash can with a hugely noisy crash, then paused. "You know, one of these days we gotta get a real sheriff."
Vin shifted his weight and asked, "What happened then?"
Billy thought. "Well, the kid said he'd go make sure Larabee got home all right, and I guess he went and did it." A pause, and Billy's eyebrows came together in confusion. "Or did he? Why are you two asking me about last night, anyway?"
Buck scratched his neck nervously, and looked at Vin, who said quietly, "Somebody jumped JD last night, beat him up pretty bad."
"Yeah, we were hoping," Buck added quickly, wincing at the memory of what he'd seen in the alley, "That maybe you'd seen somebody who looked like the sorta varmint that mighta done it."
Billy laughed, a short bark, and his face grew hard. "I sure did. Larabee! That man was so drunk he'd have beaten his own mother to death and not known it."
Buck laughed at the notion of Chris attacking one of his own men, and was about to say something when he realized something that made him unreasonably angry.
Vin wasn't laughing. In fact, he was regarding Billy with an expression of deep thought on his face, and before Buck could say a word, Vin touched his hat to the bartender, said, "Well, thanks Billy." and turning, walked out of the bar.
Buck blinked in surprise, and looked first at Vin, then at Billy, but the bartender was busy scraping up the last of the previous evening and didn't acknowledge Vin's words. Frowning, Buck hurriedly followed Vin out the door.
Vin paused on the sidewalk, pursing his lips at the crowd that was gathering outside the jail across the street.
"This could get bad," he said to Buck as the other man caught up with him.
"It's already as bad as I want it to get," Buck replied. "You think we should go wake Chris up?"
Vin's eyes turned unaccountably sad. "I think we have to."
"Good idea'" Buck said under his breath as he followed Vin down the wooden boardwalk. "Even drunk, he mighta seen somethin'."
"Maybe." Vin said
It was the same laconic tone Vin always used, but there was something else in that voice, an undertone to it that made Buck nervous. Clearing his throat he asked, "You gettin' any ideas, Vin?"
The former bounty hunter shook his head as he walked. "Nothin' I want to discuss just yet."
A strange, painful knot was building in Buck's stomach, one that hadn't been there until Billy had mentioned that Chris had been drunk enough last night to kill his own mother. It wasn't possible, not Chris. But Buck noticed Vin's attitude had changed since being in the bar - his walk had a tension to it Buck hadn't seen since they met, and he was walking fast, something else Vin didn't do. Something was going on here Buck didn't like, and he was determined to make it go away as quick as possible, so he laughed and said, "Well, you know, Chris ain't gonna remember much if he was as drunk as Billy said."
Vin kept walking, didn't say anything.
Buck tried again. "Maybe there's some tracks in the alley we can follow, and we can talk to Chris later. He ain't gonna be much help till he sobers up anyhow."
Nothing. Vin's stride got a little wider.
"Vin? You hear me? We better leave Chris alone, he ain't gonna like bein' rolled outa bed so early."
A clipped response, short and tense. "No help for it. We gotta know."
"Know what?" Buck ran to keep up with Vin now, anxiety giving him the energy to keep up. "Jesus, Vin, what are you runnin' for? You think Chris knows who beat up on JD last night?"
Vin slowed, turned to look at Buck with eyes so full of distress and fear that Buck thought for one crazy moment that Vin was going to confess some horrible crime. Instead, the former bounty hunter paused, then turned to continue up the boardwalk.
Unsettled, but unwilling to leave the gnawing feeling in his gut alone, Buck hurried after Vin and commented, "Good thing Chris didn't hear that bartender. He'd turn him inside out, some of the things that man said."
Vin just kept walking, didn't even look back.
Buck chuckled, a forced bit of merriment to allay his wavering mood. "I bet if Chris heard someone say he'd gotten drunk and beat up on JD, he'd knock 'em into next week."
The sound of boots on weathered pine boards, nothing else.
"Vin?" Buck said uncertainly, "I mean, you ever hear such a dang fool thing in your life? Chris got himself a temper, I ain't sayin'...but beatin' on JD, that's just...Vin?"
Nothing. No reply. In a sudden fit of panic Buck reached out and grabbed Vin's sleeve, forcing the other man to stop. When Vin turned to face him, Buck saw a pained look in his eyes.
Buck's expression changed to one of amazement. "Oh, come on, Vin! You don't think Chris would - "
Vin's eyes darted to the sidewalk, and Buck saw his jaw tense. "I won't know what to think till we get some answers. Till then..." He shrugged, turned to go.
Buck pulled him back. "But you ain't sayin' it's possible?"
Vin pursed his lips, said nothing.
Buck laughed then, laughed at the absurdity of the thought that was coursing through both their minds. "Dang, Vin, you hear what you're sayin'? Chris wouldn't pound on JD! I mean, sure, Chris gets drunk sometimes - hell, after... after the fire he'd get so drunk he even took a few swings at me, but that was three years ago. He ain't been like that since, and he's comin' out of it. Oh, don't let all that moodiness and sour looks fool you, deep down inside he's still Chris, and Chris wouldn't do a thing like that. He just ain't capable." Buck finished firmly, almost convincing himself. Yet the knot was still there...
"Whatever you say, Buck," Vin answered back over his shoulder.
Buck didn't like the sound of Vin's voice, didn't like the slightly accusatory tone against Chris. Feeling the uneasiness in his belly grow to outright fear, Buck once again pulled on Vin's jacket, and as the other man turned around he met Buck's burning eyes. "Now, now hold on there, Vin," Buck said somewhat plaintively. "You ain't sayin' you seriously think Chris is responsible for all this?"
Vin paused, once again looked down thoughtfully. "I don't know, Buck. I don't want to think so."
"Well, then don't!" Buck was growing aghast at Vin's thinking. "Cause I can tell you right now Chris just wouldn't do it. Even dead drunk he - "
"He took a swing at you once," Vin pointed out, his blue eyes steady. "And we've all seen how riled he can get. Bartender said he was pretty drunk."
"Well, sure, but - " Buck cast around in his mind, tried to think of some reason why Vin's argument wouldn't make sense. "But - "
Vin had turned away, but Buck tightened his hold on Vin's jacket, infuriated at the man's reticence, because it added to the knot in his stomach, and made the knot wrap around his spine and threaten to strangle him with a thought that was too horrible for him to contemplate. He had to ask, had to hear a negative answer or the possibility of it would drive him mad, right there on the street. Glaring at Vin accusingly, Buck said, "Dammit, Vin, are you thinkin' that Chris did this?"
Vin's eyes were hooded, but his face was set with a reluctant anger. "I don't want to say yet, Buck. We gotta - "
"God dammit!" Buck yelled, all of the pain and anger and fear he'd been feeling since three o'clock that morning roaring out of him as he pulled Vin into an alleyway and stared him down. "God dammit, you give me a straight answer for once! Do you think Chris - " Buck had to pause and take a deep, unsteady breath, "Do you think that Chris beat up on JD?"
Vin shook Buck's hand off, hot anger glowing in his normally placid eyes. His cheeks were flushed red, but still in that calm, steady voice he said, "I ain't gonna say - "
"Oh, yes you are," Buck growled, astonished himself at how furious he was getting, but damn! Damn, here was this man who didn't know Chris half as well as Buck did, standing there and practically accusing him of things Buck knew for a fact Chris was totally incapable of. Sure, he'd been known to kick back a few, and yes, it was best to avoid him when he'd been on a bender but - but - damn! Beat up on JD? Yes, Chris had beaten up on Buck, once, worse than Buck had let on to Vin, but that had been all right, Buck had forgiven Chris because, well, Buck knew Chris was all torn up over Sarah and Adam, and besides, Buck knew he could take a little roughing up. But JD was half Chris' size, inexperienced at street fighting, and nowhere near a match for him physically. For an instant the image flashed through Buck's mind of Chris Larabee - the man he'd always been proud to call partner and friend, Sarah's husband and Adam's father, one of the most sensitive souls he'd ever known - Chris, standing in that alley looming over the small form crumpled at his feet, with JD's blood on his hands. Chris, Buck's onetime second self, kicking and punching the youth who, next to Chris, Buck had found himself feeling the closest kinship to. Chris, Buck's best friend, killing JD, Buck's surrogate little brother and protected charge.
With a small growl of rage, Buck grabbed Vin's collar and backed him up against the alley wall, not violently but slowly, as if he was having trouble thinking and moving at the same time.
"Now you tell me," Buck said in a low voice. "Tell me what you're thinkin'. You don't think Chris would hurt that boy."
Again Vin's jaw tensed, and he looked at Buck with pity in his blue eyes. "Buck, I know you don't want to think it might be so - "
Buck let go of Vin's collar, backed away a step. "How dare you," he rumbled, "even think that that man could do somethin' like this."
Vin straightened his jacket, shook his head. "He ain't the man you knew, Buck. Before. You know it's so."
Buck began violently shaking his head. "And he thinks you're on his side."
Vin squared his shoulders, gazed at Buck steadily. "We all are, Buck. But I ain't blind. Chris has got himself some demons, and when he drinks they come on out."
Buck looked away, unable to believe Vin's treachery. "And you think they'd 'come out' so bad that he'd beat someone into a pulp and not even care who it was? Is that the kind of man you think Chris really is?"
"When he drinks he is," Vin said. "He drinks deep, so's he don't have to think on things. He drinks till he can't feel no more, and when a man gets to that place he's capable of just about anything. Including murder."
Buck's mouth hung open. "I never would have figured you for a turncoat, Vin. Talkin' about Chris like he was some no-account drifter. I oughta take you apart right now."
"And I reckon you could do it," Vin said evenly. "But it won't change what Chris has to go through. His demons been ridin' him pretty rough, and he's gotta buck 'em or JD won't be the last - "
"Now you hold it right there," Buck said angrily, getting close to Vin and pointing a finger in his face. "Chris may have had his share of bad nights, but he did not hurt that boy! Do you hear me?"
There was the pity again, so vibrant in Vin's eyes that Buck had to fight the urge to slug Vin across the face. Buck didn't know why he wanted to slug Vin, except that Vin was giving voice to the silent terrors that were slowly strangling Buck, and he hated it. There was a long, heavy pause, broken only by Buck's rough breathing; then Vin blinked slowly and said quietly, resignedly, "He ain't the man he was, Buck. He ain't, and you know it."
Then Vin adjusted his jacket again, and walked with determination out of the narrow alley. After a moment, Buck let out a huge, exhausted sigh, wiped his face with his bandanna, and followed the bounty hunter down the boardwalk that led to Chris' room, and answers.
It was a long time before the air in the little alleyway stirred again, and Mary Travis emerged from the shadows by the rain barrel, the washbasin full of bloody water still in her hands, and her face as white as new-milled paper.
+ + + + + + +
The air in Chris' room was fetid, and reeked of alcohol. It hung in the air, clung to the thin drapes, and assailed Vin and Buck like a physical force as they slowly opened the door to Chris' rented room. Vin went in first, looked around. The room was dark in the morning sunshine, the only light coming in thin streaks around the pulled-down shades. The room looked tidy, almost empty of personal effects, and as Buck entered that close, dim room they saw the sprawled-out form of Chris Larabee, draped over his small bed fully dressed and sound asleep.
As they approached, Buck could heard Chris' ragged snoring. They drew closer, and Vin moaned. It really was a moan, and in the next heartbeat Vin said in the saddest voice Buck had ever heard, "Buck, look at his hands."
Buck looked. It was hard to see in the low light, but Chris was lying on his stomach, and both hands were flung above his head and clearly visible. The pale skin on them was torn, bloodied, and skinned. As if he'd been fighting.
Buck felt like he was going to throw up. No, he thought wildly in one final attempt to shove the truth away, but it came back and said sorry, I'm gonna hang around awhile. It was impossible, but Buck couldn't turn it away.
"Let me handle this," Buck said in a husky voice as he looked at Vin in the liquid darkness.
Vin hesitated. "Buck - "
"Just - let me talk to him." Buck's eyes went back to the unconscious man sleeping off three years of painful memories on his narrow bed. "Alone."
Vin rubbed his chin, tilted his head uncertainly. "I ain't so sure - "
"Vin," Buck said tightly, as if in danger of flying apart at any moment. "You and me ain't never had words, but if you don't go right now I'm gonna have to take your head off."
Vin paused again, looked at Chris, finally nodded and wordlessly left the room.
As Buck heard the low click of the door closing behind Vin, he sat down heavily on the windowsill by Chris' bed and let his shoulders sag in despair. He stared at Chris for a long time, thought of when they'd met, of Sarah and Adam, how Chris disappeared one day and Buck thought he'd never see his friend again. Then one day Chris had come back -
No, not quite. Buck looked sorrowfully at that wracked face pressed into the pillow. Chris' shell had come back. Chris was long gone.
But that can't be, Buck thought as his spirits rallied a little. Chris is still in there, someplace, he has to be. Maybe not the whorin', fun-lovin', good-times-till-dawn Chris, but the solid, dependable, good-friend Chris, the one who smiled and joked, the one who enjoyed life, the one who didn't see anything wrong with being friends with the bastard son of a working girl... he was still in there under those dark clothes and behind those haunted eyes. He had to be.
If only you'd come out of there sometime. Buck felt a sudden pang of loneliness as he cleared his throat to call Chris' name and wake him up. Sure do miss you, buddy.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was mired in that brick-heavy sleep particular to the drunken binge when somewhere in the murky blackness he heard somebody calling his name. Irritated, in his sleep he tried to ignore it, but the voice came again, a little louder. God damn it. Chris struggled through the tangled, bloated spider web of unconsciousness, trying to work his way to the surface. But he was in no hurry.
"Chris?" The voice again. Buck. Damn him.
Chris pulled himself a little closer to the world, very reluctantly, and moved a bit. His cramped muscles protested, and he briefly thought about attempting to go back to sleep again, but Buck's voice came again, and the tone in it told Chris that his friend wasn't going to go away.
Crap. Chris painfully pulled his eyelids open.
The room was dark, but it might as well have housed the sun, the way Chris was forced to squint against the meager light. His head throbbed, his mouth tasted thick and strange, and the only thing going through his mind was that as soon as he found out why Buck had gotten him up, Chris was going to kill him.
"Chris?" Once more, the gentle, worried voice. "You awake?"
Chris grunted, scowled as he rolled over very, very slowly. He tried to focus on the blurry form sitting on his windowsill, but there were two of them, and he really didn't want to try all that hard to figure out which one to look at. So he just lay there, and moved as little as possible. Even his eyelashes hurt.
"What do you want, Buck?" Chris growled, amazed in his foggy brain that Buck would even think to disturb him. This had better be damn important.
Buck didn't answer right away, and Chris felt himself being pulled back into sleep. What the hell? He was almost out when Buck said, "We got a problem, Chris."
It was the sad, hopeless tone in Buck's voice that pulled Chris back. His friend rarely ever talked in that voice. Only one other time...Sarah and Adam...the thought didn't form beyond those words, so Chris let it go and gingerly opened his eyes again, tried mightily to look at Buck.
"What is it?" he slurred, hoping it was something Buck just wanted to let him know about. That way he'd leave quicker.
But two things happened instantaneously that proved to Chris that whatever Buck had to tell him was no light matter. One, Chris' vision was improving and he could see that Buck's face was flushed with some intense emotion; and two, as he was talking to Buck Chris had reached up to rub his eyes with the back of one hand.
Instant, stabbing pain in his knuckles made Chris jerk his hand away and look at it. In the soft morning light he could see that his hand was bruised and scraped; pale brown scabs dotted his knuckles, ringed with dried blood. And his hands hurt, really hurt, like he'd been punching rocks.
Now, what the hell? Chris momentarily forgot Buck was there. When did his hands get all torn up? Last night? No...he'd had a dream about getting into a fight, but...
"Chris?" Buck said uncertainly, and it seemed to Chris he was trying to corral his wandering attention. Squinting, Chris took his eyes from his injured hand and wobbled his head in Buck's direction.
Buck took a deep breath. "Chris, you remember last night?"
Chris got a bad feeling this had something to do with the current state of his hands, but chose to overlook it. Thinking as hard as his pounding head would allow, Chris coughed and shrugged. "Went drinkin'. Came home. Went to bed."
Buck's head came back, silhouetted like the rest of him against the windowsill. "Nothin' else?"
Why did Buck's voice have that scared kind of ring to it? Chris suddenly wanted to roll over and go back to sleep, so he gave Buck a glare and said, "Buck, you got something to tell me?"
Buck took off his hat, ran one hand through his hair.
"Buck," Chris repeated, getting really pissed now because this conversation was starting to frighten him. He remembered nothing about last night after he went into the saloon, nothing. There was a gray curtain in his mind across those hours, and then sleep and vivid dreams about him beating up on the Warden, and Cletus Fowler, and for some reason JD Dunne.
Chris' eyes shot to his hands. Very vivid dreams...
"Oh, shit." Chris moaned, wiping his bloodshot eyes with the palm of one hand. "Oh, shit, Buck, tell me I didn't beat somebody up last night."
Buck's face grew redder, but he didn't answer.
"Oh, shit." Chris rolled over on his back, dragged his hands through his blond hair, and his headache got worse.
"You don't remember?" Buck's voice was shaky in the shadows.
Chris shook his head as he stared at the ceiling, nauseated. "No, not after we came back and I went to the saloon. Aw, damn." He groaned again, and shut his eyes. "Is that what you came to tell me? Did somebody get hurt last night?"
Buck didn't meet his gaze, looked at the floor and nodded.
"'Bout two-thirty. We asked the barkeep, he said you'd left the place by then."
"Oh, no." Chris sighed, a deep remorseful sigh. "Why the hell couldn't they just leave me alone?"
Buck's voice invaded his throbbing brain. "Who?"
"Whoever I took a swing at!" Chris snapped as he gave Buck another glare. He felt chagrined and angry and terribly hung over, and just wanted to go back to sleep. "You'd think people would know when to leave a man alone."
Was Buck's mouth hanging open? "Chris, you - "
Chris tried sitting up, and thought that the effort could take most of the morning. "God dammit, you don't bother a man when he's drinkin'. " Chris paused, turned his left hand over. "Was it bad?"
Buck nodded again, swallowing loud enough for Chris to hear it. "Real bad."
"Oooh, shit." Chris sat up further, raked a hand through his hair. "Damn idiot."
Buck was standing up. "Chris, you ain't blamin' the man you hit - "
"Well, who else, Buck!" Chris was getting furious now, furious and embarrassed - some local yokel gets in his way, and now Mary would have a ton of questions, the townspeople would be giving him dirty looks for six months...
Screw it. He was leaving this afternoon.
Buck's hands were on his hips. "You ain't meanin' that!"
Chris sighed in exasperation. "Get off your high horse, Buck. Anybody gets near a man when he's tryin' to find a little peace wherever he can get it, they gotta know they're gonna get hurt."
"Bartender said you looked like you wanted to commit murder last night." Buck's voice was tight and thin,
"I did, Buck," Chris growled, stepping very close to Buck and glaring at him. "I been wantin' to commit murder since the moment I held Sarah's dead body in my arms. Since I put that dirt on top of my little boy's grave. Since everything that mattered to me was ripped out, I been lookin' real hard for a reason not to wipe out every living thing I'm forced to look at. Including my own worthless life."
Buck's breath came out, scared and slow. "Can't believe you'd beat a man senseless and then say it's his doin'. That ain't the Chris I know."
"The Chris you know don't live here no more," Chris said wearily, picking up his boots. "Thought you knew that."
"Reckon I did," Buck said in even sadder tones, slumping against the windowsill. "Just didn't want to think on it."
"Oh, cut the melodrama, Buck," Chris said in irritation as he sat down on the bed to pull on his boots. "My drinkin's no secret in this town, nor the reason for it. I got a right to do whatever I want when we're not out saving the stinking world."
"Does that include beatin' a man half to death?" Buck asked in a husky whisper.
Chris stood up, shook his pants out. "He should have stayed away from me, he had to know I was drunk. Well," Chris looked around, spoke casually as he hunted for his hat. " It ain't on my head..."
Buck's head snapped up, a spark of something awful in those blue eyes. What the hell. Chris thought his argument made perfect sense, after all, why would anyone want to get close to him if they didn't want to get hurt?
"The hell it ain't," Buck said in a dangerously passionate voice, and in two steps he was standing close to Chris, and repeated, "The hell it ain't."
Chris' eyes glittered. Was Buck challenging him? "What are you saying?"
"What I'm sayin'," Buck squared his shoulders, looked Chris straight in the eye, "Is that the man standin' before me is no friend of mine. Chris Larabee - " Buck had to pause, compose himself, then he continued, "Chris Larabee was the most upright man I ever knew. He'd own up to whatever wrong he done, and he'd never run. But you ain't him."
Chris felt an odd knot in his stomach as Buck stepped back from him, disgust on his face. Buck was saying these things? Impossible - Buck was the most loyal friend he -
"Chris Larabee would feel sorry for what he done." Buck continued, acid hatred welling up in his eyes. "First words out of his mouth would be to say he was sorry. Second words would be how can I help. Not 'he was askin' for it'. Not 'it ain't my fault if he dies'."
"Well, it ain't!" Chris exploded, hating the raw stab of guilt in his gut and flinging it away as hard as he could. "What kind of idiot is stupid enough to mess with a man when he knows he's drunk?"
Buck's head was down, his voice savagely low. "A friend. One who was only tryin' to help you, 'cause Billy asked him to and he was the sheriff, and 'cause he looked up to you."
"A fr-" Chris blinked, his foggy mind not understanding. Not wanting to. Dear God...
"And if he dies..." Buck took another breath, deep and hitching, and gave Chris the most hateful, accusing glare Chris had ever seen. "If that boy dies, Chris, and you run, I'll hunt you down. It won't matter where you run, cause you know I'll find you. And I'll kill you."
Chris suddenly felt numb. Something was trying to break into his mind, but he couldn't -
Fowler's man -
The warden -
Chris' legs wouldn't let him stand anymore, and he sat down on the bed. He looked at his knuckles, dazed, and suddenly details flashed through his mind. It wasn't a dream? Punching, kicking, again and again, ferocious anger and tremendous release, harder and harder, balled fists slamming into soft flesh over and over, with all his strength, feeling warm blood ooze over his fingers, exulting over his enemies' defeat and it wasn't his enemies at all...
No! I'm still dreaming and drunk, this can't be real. When he looked up Buck was gone, and for a still, hanging moment he felt as if he was still asleep, and he couldn't feel anything.
A battered body, lying in the alley, blood on the bricks, on his shirt, on his dark brown vest and in his black hair, blood all over, and it would never come clean.
If you run I'll hunt you down.
Not his enemies at all, but JD.
Shit. Chris' mind stuck on that word as if it could save him somehow, but he didn't want to let go of it because he didn't want to think what he knew was true, so he just kept thinking shit, shit, shit -
And realized suddenly with a surge of shame that what he wanted at that moment, the only thing he wanted in the whole wide world, was to get blinding, stinking, falling-down drunk.
+ + + + + + +
Mary walked down the sunny streets in a daze, her eyes barely focusing on the tense little knots of people she could see milling around the alley, the jail, and huddling in tight groups elsewhere on the street. None of them seemed to see her, thank God. She didn't really want to talk to anybody, not until she'd had a chance to think...
She'd gotten Nathan's water, brought him a cup of coffee and some eggs, but then she just couldn't stay. She had thought maybe she might, before she got back to Nathan's room, but when she opened the door and saw once again JD lying on the bed, still, pale, his young face swollen and dark with bruises, she had thought of Vin and Buck's conversation, and she just couldn't stay. So she had made some excuse to Nathan, and Josiah who was there also, and left.
Finally Mary made it to her office, and slipped inside and closed the door. She made her way to her desk and sat down - she always thought better at her desk, it made her feel in control, intelligent, as if she could do things that mattered. Like the captain of a ship, Stephen had always said, and he was right. When she was at that desk, Mary had control of her world. Even now.
What should I do? She bit a fingernail and swept her eyes over the neatly organized desk. Facts, get facts, don't let your emotions run away with you. You don't know that Chris was responsible for what happened to JD, that was just Vin and Buck talking. Yes, Vin seemed sure, and yes, everyone knows Chris' temper and how he is when he drinks, but that doesn't prove anything. Facts.
Mary took a deep breath, started to feel better, but then she became fearful again. If Chris didn't attack JD, who did? Nathan was right, whoever did this didn't seem to care that JD was the sheriff. If JD didn't recover soon, Four Corners would have no law for a while, except for the hired guns. And if...if Chris was responsible, how long would the townspeople trust the others?
No, wait, Mary, first things first. Facts.
Mary reached into her desk drawer, pulled out a pad of paper. Whatever else this brutality was, it was news, and she had to put it in her paper. Picking up a pen, she wrote, "Sheriff wounded in nighttime attack." Then she quickly sketched out what she knew in a few swift, incomplete sentences.
It didn't end up being a long article, only a few paragraphs, and Mary decided to wait until she knew more to finish it. The paper wasn't being set up until tomorrow anyway, so she had plenty of time. Her objective journalist's mind was fully alert now and working, and Mary was seriously beginning to consider that perhaps Vin was wrong, that Chris didn't do it, and she would go outside later to see the almost familiar sight of the men she'd come to know saddling up to ride after whoever was responsible for JD's injuries. Buck would probably be at the lead, he did seem to set quite a store by the boy...
I should talk to some people, get some more information. Didn't Vin say something about the bartender? I should go to the saloon first...
As Mary was mapping out her strategy, the door to her office opened and one of the townspeople came in. She immediately recognized him as Mr. Conklin, one of the older and more outspoken citizens of the town.
"You hear, Mrs. Travis?" he asked in a loud voice, coming right up to her desk and putting his hands on his hips.
Mary looked up at him and nodded. "Yes, Mr. Conklin, I - "
"You wire the judge?"
Mary blinked. "Well, no, I don't know that we need him here just - "
"Well, you should. This place is going to go the hell pretty quick."
Mary cocked her head. Mr. Conklin had always been somewhat of an alarmist, and he was one of the more vocal opponents of her father-in-law's decision to hire Chris and his men to protect the town. "Now, Mr. Conklin, rest assured my father - "
But the man wasn't listening; he had started pacing, and interrupted her with, "You see that mess out there? That sheriff's going to die, and once that happens his gunslinging friends are going to head for the hills and we'll never see 'em again. You know what I heard?"
Mary was starting to get a headache. "What?"
"I heard it was one of them that done it! You believe that? That one that dresses all in black. Billy told me he sent the sheriff after him, said he was piss-drunk last night and looking for trouble."
"Oh, now, Mr. Conklin," Mary said, trying to ignore the painful twinge in her stomach, "that's just a rumor. We don't have all the facts - "
"Facts!" Mr. Conklin spat the word, came to her desk and slammed both hands down on it, staring her in the face. "You want facts? That alleyway's covered in blood. That's a fact! Sheriff's been beat to within an inch of his life. That's a fact! That hired gun you're so thick with was drunkern' a skunk last night, the sheriff was sent after him, and now our only law's been beat about to death and Larabee ain't been seen today. That's three facts, strung together. Now you're a smart lady. What does that tell you?"
Mary sat stone-still, staring at Mr. Conklin, willing herself not to respond. She had nothing to respond with.
"I always said those hired guns were trouble," Mr. Conklin said in grim satisfaction as he backed away from the desk. "And I was right."
Mary watched him back away, unable to think for a moment.
"You better wire the judge," Mr. Conklin said, nodding in encouragement as he reached the door. "We got problems comin', and I don't want those outlaws bein' the only thing that stands between us and the end of the world."
He opened the door and walked out, leaving Mary badly rattled. Well, that's Conklin. She glanced at her notepad, the spidery lines there. He's just scared, and talks too much, and spreads rumors. She needed facts, and she needed them now, quickly, before the rumors spread and Chris saw himself looking at a lynch mob. Yes, she needed to know the truth. It might exonerate Chris. It probably would exonerate him. Resolutely, Mary picked up her notepad and stood up, looking toward the door.
For a brief, flashback instant she saw Chris standing there, all in black, his eyes burning white hot as he looked at her, no, glared at her with thinly-masked anger that stopped just short of rampaging hatred. Barely-constrained rage vibrated in every inch of him, and he looked dangerous, brutal and uncontrollable. He was looking at Mary like he wanted to tear her apart. Then he spoke.
"Lady, I am the bad element."
"Oh." Mary said unconsciously, and sat down again, hard, remembering the fear she felt when she first met Chris, the thin veil of easily-torn self-control she'd seen in those ice blue eyes. The truth might clear Chris, she realized. It might...
Or it might damn him forever.
It was quite a while before Mary regained her composure, and felt strong enough to leave the office again.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish walked casually down the stairs that led from his boarding room on the second floor of the saloon to the main rooms below. As was his usual habit, he had slept past ten, then had risen and at a leisurely pace done his morning ablutions in preparation for the day's dealings. Lucrative dealings, he hoped, for Ezra was a gambler and any day that ended with his purse weighing more than it did in the morning was a good day to him.
Yawning and fastening his cufflinks, Ezra made his way down the stairs and looked around the saloon. Hm, not too many people. Well, it was early yet. Ah, there's that group of traveling salesmen I met last night, the ones from the hotel. Ezra smiled as he remembered the poker game he'd enjoyed with them. They were good players, and it was a pleasure to actually have a challenge sitting at the table, even if they were city types who seemed to look down on the small Western town they were passing through. They had sneered at the other patrons and congratulated Ezra on his being able to retain his civility in such barbaric surroundings. Ezra had smiled and thanked them, but was surprised that their rude remarks about the town had offended him. He didn't let on, of course; he'd simply smiled and taken most of their money. It was the best revenge. Then he'd invited them back to game with him.
And, it seems, they had accepted.
"Gentlemen," Ezra said smoothly as he approached the table where the men were sitting.
The stocky man in the checkered grey suit - Sherson, Ezra remembered - waved to Ezra and said, "Ah, Mr. Standish, good morning! Join us?"
Ezra grinned, showing his gold tooth. "Certainly, gentlemen, just allow me to get some morning libations."
The others nodded and gave him oily grins. Salesmen. Ezra walked over to the bar, not even looking at Billy, who put a small glass of brandy on the bar. Ezra stretched his legs, in no great hurry to sit down among those fancy-pants sharks, and listened with one ear to their conversation, so he would know best how to play them when he joined in.
"I say two days." the fat man in the cheap suit, who Ezra recalled as being named Childers, said firmly.
The man next to him, an older gent named Durning, shook his head and said, "No way. You see all that blood? Ten bucks says this afternoon."
Another man, a thin fellow Ezra knew only as Tims, laughed. "You're a cold man, Durning."
"Oh, not at all," Durning replied easily as he took a drink of beer. "Come on, it's not like a man's death means anything out here. These cowboys shoot each other all the time, it don't mean nothing."
"Well, I guess you're right." Sherson rubbed his chin. "But this man wasn't shot, he was beaten. Takes longer to die. I give it a week. He'll linger long enough to let me win."
The other men chuckled, and Tims said, "Well, I'm not going to miss out on this. I'll say ten bucks that he's already dead."
"Ha!" Sherson's eyebrows went up. "Now I didn't think of that. You might win, Tims."
"Excuse me, gentlemen." Ezra had picked up his drink and wandered over to the table.
"Oh! Have a seat, Mr. Standish." Sherson said amiably, gesturing to an empty chair.
"In a moment." Ezra replied, his keen pale-green eyes scanning the group. "Am I missing a wager here?"
"Well - yes," Durning admitted reluctantly. "I don't know if it's your kind of gambling, but you can join in if you like."
"What are we wagering on?" Ezra asked. He sat down as if he hadn't heard a word of their conversation until that point.
"You believe it, Standish?" Sherson said in amazed tones. "I spend most of last night tryin' to convince these guys the west is the most lawless place on earth, and damned if this town didn't prove me right."
"Feller got beat up last night," Tims said. "Right out in the alley, by the jail."
"Do tell." Ezra sipped his drink. "And you are all wagering on his passing?"
Tims looked a bit embarrassed, but Durning shrugged his shoulders. "Why not? Life is so cheap out here, these idiots are killing each other by the barrelful. We got forty bucks sitting on the table so far, what do you say?"
Ezra's eyelids moved, not a blink but a half- blink, as he took another sip. "What are the bids so far?"
"Um - " Durning thought a moment. "Well, Sherson gives it a week, Childers says two days, I give it till this afternoon. Tims thinks he might have already kicked."
"Hm." Ezra's skin crawled at these men's nonchalant wagering over a man's life, but he'd seen worse things in his travels. Much worse. "Before I decide, may I inquire as to the physical type of the injured gentleman, and the extent of his injuries?"
Childers laughed and looked around. "Don't you guys love how he talks? Well, there's a bunch of rumors going around, nobody know for sure how bad he's hurt, but there's a ton of blood out in the alley, on the brick wall, so it's gotta be bad. Broken ribs, bruises, probably he got hit in the head. Real rough stuff."
"And to make things more interesting," Sherson added gleefully, "I heard the assailant was one of the hired guns some judge got to look over this town. Some guy named Larabee."
"Really," Ezra said, not reacting visibly. My God. Chris finally went berserk and killed somebody. Well, with his temper, it was bound to happen sooner or later...
"Did you guys talk to any of the rustics out there?" Childers chuckled as he jabbed a thumb toward the door. "You'd think Lincoln had been shot all over again, the way they're squawking over this."
"Yeah, the whole town's going nuts." Durning agreed with a smile. "Bunch of hicks. Like a burg this small can't function without a sheriff."
Ezra had lifted his glass to take another drink, paused and looked at Durning. "Without a sheriff? What do you mean?"
"Well - the injured guy is the sheriff." Durning explained. "Newspaper lady told me."
Ezra put his drink down very fast.
"He was up until this morning, anyway," Sherson mumbled, fixing his eyes on his drink. "I think I saw him yesterday. Geez, he didn't look old enough to shave yet."
"Yeah, the good die young," Durning said sarcastically, "Especially around here, I guess. So, Standish, what do you say? You in?"
Ezra was standing, his face a carefully arranged mask of blandness. Only two small spots of color on his cheeks betrayed any emotion at all.
"Mr. Standish?" Sherson said, a little loudly.
"If you'll excuse me, gentlemen," Ezra said in a low, preoccupied voice, then quickly pulled his chair out, turned around and walked out of the saloon.
The salesmen stared after him for a moment. Finally Tims said, "You don't suppose he knows the guy?"
"You kidding?" Durning laughed. "Why would the local con man have an in with the sheriff? Come on, guys, put your money on the table. I still say, he dies this afternoon."
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