Nathan pushed at the reluctant window sash, finally getting it to rise a couple of inches. It was almost noon, and the room was becoming warm. A cool breeze blew in, and he smiled in slight gratification before returning to his duties.
Josiah was still sitting by JD's bedside, where he'd been since midmorning, not saying a whole lot but gazing quietly into the boy's battered face. Nathan thought maybe he was praying. And that was a good thing, because JD needed a lot of prayers. They all did, if what Josiah had told him was true.
And it was beginning to look like it was. Nathan sat down by JD and picked up a clean cloth to dip in the washbasin. He glanced at JD, who was still unconscious, his pale face fixed and unmoving, as if he was made of wax. The bruises there were deepening, spreading and growing darker as bruises did, and against JD's fair skin the aggravations looked frighteningly stark and vivid. Nathan wrung out the cloth and laid it carefully on the afflicted youth's forehead, and watched for any sign of a response.
There wasn't any.
Josiah's eyes moved from JD's face to Nathan's, and he said in a low rumble. "You need some rest, doc."
Nathan blinked, shook his head as his sorrowful eyes met Josiah's. "What are we gonna do, Josiah? If that girl is right, and Chris is the one, what are we gonna do?"
Josiah's expression became solemn as his eyes once more went to the sleeping face fringed with drooping black hair that only half-hid the row of neat stitches, the angry cuts and bruises. "I don't know, brother Nate. I only know that in his right mind, Chris would turn the man inside out who would do this to JD. Or you, or me, or anybody."
Nathan pursed his lips, gently moved JD's bandaged arm to turn down the coverlet and check his other wrappings. "And in his wrong mind, he could kill a man. I know the people here, they ain't likely to forgive and forget. They'll string him up."
Josiah nodded soberly. "Yes, Chris' demons are legion. And they'll get him killed if we don't help him."
"Help him?" Nathan sounded almost shocked, looking up from where he'd been checking JD's collarbone.
At that moment the door to Nathan's room opened, and Vin came in, his face as downcast and serious as everyone else's. He closed the door quietly, walked to Nathan's side and turned his worried blue eyes to the motionless form on the bed.
"How's he doin'?" He asked in quiet tones.
"No change." Nathan admitted tiredly, giving Vin a searching look. "How's it going out there?"
"Gettin' worse." Vin made his way to the end of the bed, put his hands on the curved footboard, his eyes not leaving JD's beaten face. "Crowd's gettin' restless, askin' questions."
"You see Chris?" Josiah wanted to know.
Vin nodded, looked down at the footboard as he spoke. "Yep." There was a very long, weighted pause before he looked up again and said, "His hands were all torn up. Like he'd been fightin'."
There was a sudden heaviness in the air, an invisible presence of something terrible that none of the men wanted to acknowledge. No one moved, or spoke, for a long moment.
Finally Vin said, "Buck wanted to talk to him alone, so I went and looked over where it happened. Followed the tracks."
Nathan and Josiah both looked at him, and there was hope in their eyes, a lonely little scrap of hope that the next words out of Vin's mouth would bring absolution.
Vin shook his head, his voice leaden with sadness. "Led right to Chris' door. "
"Oh, Lord." Josiah sighed, and ran a huge hand through his curling hair.
Nathan heard voices in the streets, looked over his shoulder at the open window. "Do they know?"
Vin shrugged a little. "They're scared, but they ain't stupid. Bartender's got a big mouth, plus Chris is layin' low. They know, but they ain't got no proof. Yet."
Nathan sighed dejectedly, tucked the sheet under JD's injured right arm, over his left which was still bound to his side to protect his broken collarbone and shattered ribs. Josiah helped him, and after Nathan was finished he looked up at Vin, saw the former bounty hunter's jaw tense as he scanned JD's injuries.
The door opened again and Buck entered, a dark cloud seeming to envelop him, full of electricity and anger. He didn't close the door as Vin had, just stomped into the room and stood in the middle of it, glaring at the occupants with his hands on his hips.
Vin walked over and closed the door, eyeing Buck curiously as he returned. "You talk to Chris?"
"Never mind him." Buck said in a tight rasp, his burning eyes flicking to Vin for a moment. Then Buck looked at JD, and his expression changed from anger to exhausted concern. Moving to stand just behind Nathan, Buck asked, "Anything?"
"Not yet," Nathan said as gently as he could. He sensed that Buck was wound tight as a watch spring, and didn't want to say anything that would set him off.
"God damn." Buck growled quietly, taking off his hat and walking back to the middle of the room. He paced it in a circle, running his hand through his hair, once, twice, finally stopping and staring out into the street.
Josiah and Vin traded anxious glances, then both men looked at Buck. He continued to stare out the window, turning his hat in his hands, crumpling and twisting it. Nathan concentrated on soothing JD's injuries, but he didn't have to look at Buck to sense his presence. It was palpable, a sparking mixture of the concern and outrage and helplessness that they all felt, but amplified. They were all full of confusion; Buck was wild with it.
For what seemed a long time no words were spoken. Josiah and Vin continued to hover next to the bed, watching Nathan dab the wet cloth on JD's swollen, silent face, across the pale forehead crossed with cuts and scratches, over one hurt cheek and onto split and bloodied lips. Buck alone didn't watch, continued to look out the window, unwilling or unable to share his thoughts with the group, and this alone made the other men nervous; Buck was easily the most open, talkative member of their makeshift family, and when he didn't talk, it seemed like the calm before the biggest storm they'd ever seen.
A few minutes later Ezra walked in, and the storm broke.
The room had been so quiet for so long that they all started when the door opened with a loud thunk. Ezra strode in, his face maroon with a fury that made Nathan blink in surprise - he'd never seen Ezra look so upset.
The gambler made no greetings, no acknowledgements of anyone in the room except Nathan. Coming to stand next to Vin, he gripped the iron railing of the footboard with one hand and said to the healer, "I've heard - a disturbing rumor that Mr. Dunne was the victim of a - an accident last evening." His green eyes went to JD, then back to Nathan, and they were huge and round. "Is he - will he recover?"
Nathan glanced at Buck, who was still facing the window. "Don't know yet. He's been hurt pretty - "
"And I also understand," Ezra hurried forward, his face growing darker yet, "that..." He swallowed hard. "That Mr. Larabee is the perpetrator of these injuries. Is this true?"
Josiah looked at Vin, who looked at Buck, who still stared out the window, and when Nathan turned to look at Buck he saw that the man was trembling as he stood there.
His eyes on his hands, Vin said quietly,. "Looks that way. I wish it weren't - "
"Then, if that is the case," Ezra said in the same tight, high tones that suggested that he, like Buck, was on the very verge of becoming completely unhinged, "may I suggest that we waste no time in apprehending Mr. Larabee and making sure that fucking son of a bitch is punished?"
Everybody looked at Ezra. He cursed some, but no one had ever heard him use that vulgarism before. Even Buck glanced at him.
The silence in the room was thick and hot with unsaid realities. The men looked at each other, but it was Nathan who finally spoke.
"Well, what are we gonna do?" he said, looking around him at the men who, up until that morning, had always acknowledged Chris as their leader.
"Is it even a discussion?" Ezra asked in astonishment. "We are the law in this town. Clearly the law has been broken. Chris Larabee is the criminal. What more do we need?"
Vin leaned back, thumbed a hand over his pantswaist. "We take Chris in, there's no telling how folks will react."
"They'll be happy," Ezra said archly, "that we captured Mr. Dunne's assailant."
"Or they'll be petrified," Nathan observed, "that it turned out a man the judge hired to protect 'em could do somethin' like this."
"Chris didn't do this," Josiah said softly. "His demons did."
Ezra's eyes went round with horror as he looked at Josiah. "Sir, you are not attempting to suggest that Mr. Larabee is not responsible for his actions?"
"No," Josiah said evenly. "I'm sayin' he needs to have a chance to get rid of what's tormentin' him, so he can atone for what he's done. He won't do much healin' at the end of a rope."
Vin was regarding Josiah thoughtfully, and next to him Ezra was shaking his head. Buck still hadn't said anything, and Nathan was dabbing the cloth over JD's face, his face solemn and silent.
After a beat, Vin asked, "You got something in mind, Josiah?"
Josiah regarded the group with his gray eyes. "We know Chris better than anyone in this town. Anyone here want to tell me under what circumstances Chris would do this, if he was sober? Anyone in this room want to prove to me that, if Chris knew what he was doin', that he would go ahead and beat JD into the ground for no reason?"
The room was silent. Buck hung his head.
"The Chris Larabee that did this is not the Chris Larabee we'd be hangin'," Josiah went on. "Because if it were, I can think of many times when any one of us could have found ourselves under his fists. And we didn't."
He looked at Ezra pointedly, but the gambler scowled off the unsaid accusation.
"Are you saying," Ezra said hotly, "that because Mr. Larabee was intoxicated and not in control of himself, that he should not pay for his crime?"
"I'm sayin," Josiah stood up, towering over the other men as he spoke, "That if we brought Chris in now, he would be dead before Judge Travis could get here. For all his faults JD's mighty well-liked, and Chris...well, he isn't by some. Townsfolk don't want atonement right now. They want revenge."
"Revenge." Buck said, the first word he'd spoken in a long while.
"And if we give it to 'em," Josiah continued, "Judge Travis won't have any choice but to let us go. At best, we'll be the unwitting followers of a murderer. At worst, we'll be branded as bloodthirsty and outlaw as Chris is thought to be. No one in town will trust us to catch a stray dog, let alone help it with its troubles. And when JD wakes up - " Josiah moved, walking around the bed, "Chris will be dead, we will have all fallen from grace, and he won't be sheriff anymore because the townspeople will be afraid that he'll turn out to be as bad as any of us."
Eyes shifted to the still-somnolent form on the bed. Josiah walked to where Buck stood, shoulders rigid, his eyes fixed on some distant point beyond the window. Josiah looked into Buck's wounded blue eyes until the gunslinger turned to him, then said, "Now, I can put up with a lot of things in my life, and I have. But I don't want to be the man to tell that boy that while he was sleeping we killed his hero, split up the group and lost him his job. Do you?"
Buck's eyes were haunted, far away as he shook his head. "I just want things set right," he said in plaintive, husky tones, his voice barely a whisper.
"I know, brother," Josiah said consolingly, putting a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I do, too."
Ezra's face was still red, but he didn't raise any more objections. Vin cocked his head and asked, "What do you think should we do, Josiah?"
"I think..." Josiah moved away from Buck a little, but remained in the middle of the room. "We need to get Chris out of here, quickly, give him a chance to find his peace before he's brought to justice."
"You mean give him a chance to run," Ezra growled.
"He won't run," Buck said firmly, giving Ezra a piercing look.
Josiah paused, then said, "In the meantime, we'll tell the good folks here that Chris is gone after the man who assaulted JD. We'll wire the judge, and give Chris time to exorcise his demons and return. By then, things should quiet down and we can have a civil proceedings instead of a lynch mob."
Vin leaned back, clearly considering Josiah's proposal. Ezra, however, was still unconvinced.
"And if Mr. Larabee does not see fit to return?" he asked, his Southern tones dripping with certainty of the worst. "And if Mr. Dunne succumbs? Then what?"
"Well, then we form a posse," Josiah said in heavy, serious tones. "And we hunt him down for a murderer. And we let him hang."
They all looked at him, each man absorbing the implications of the five of them forming a posse and hunting Chris Larabee down. Hunting their leader, their friend. And JD might die.
"This is a nightmare," Buck said quietly, his tortured eyes still gazing out the window. "It's a god-damned, awful nightmare."
"That it is, brother Wilmington," Josiah agreed as he moved back to his chair and sat down, and as the others watched he gently laid his hand on JD's head, into the wandering black locks that fell over eyes that didn't flutter or move in the slightest. "That it most certainly is."
+ + + + + + +
The salesman Timothy Alderman, better known to his friends as Tims, strode lazily out of the saloon clutching his beer mug, leaned against a post, and shook his head.
Hm. Looks like rain. Tims eyes the sky casually as he waited for his friends to join him, and took a drink of beer. The day had started off pleasant, but now dark clouds were rolling in, bringing with them the promise of wet and forbidding weather. Eh, we'll stay another night. Gotta see how this whole thing shakes out.
Tims pondered that he should be depressed; all reports indicated that the man they'd wagered on hadn't died yet, so he'd lost the bet they all made. But he wasn't depressed, not really, because what was happening now was so fascinating he felt like he was in one of those foreign countries you read about, exotic places where they cut off people's hands for stealing a loaf of bread. Nothing like this is St. Louis, that's for sure.
Looking across the street, Tims saw the same groups of townspeople he'd seen that morning, milling around the jail and muttering amongst themselves. Sheesh. He took another drink. Don't these people have anything else to do?
But still, it was fascinating because of the rumors he'd heard; the sheriff was dead, a hired gun was responsible, and his hired-gun friends were trying to save his neck. Well, according to the undertaker they'd talked to, the first rumor wasn't true, at least no one had contacted him. As to the others, who knew, but Tims had heard enough bad talk about Chris Larabee that day to make him really want to see the bastard up close. What a letter home this would make!
The saloon doors thwapped open, and Times turned to see the other salesmen wander out onto the sidewalk just as the jailhouse doors opened across the street.
"What's going on, Tims?" Durning asked curiously as he stepped up to the edge of the pine boards.
"How the hell should I know?" Tims answered. At that moment someone walked through the jail door and onto the walk. It was a tall man with short, curly grey hair, and as Tims watched the townspeople clustered around him, and he held one hand up for silence.
"Is JD dead?" one of the women in the crowd asked anxiously.
The tall man shook his head and said in a loud voice, "No, the sheriff is still with us. Nathan's takin' care of him right now. He's pretty banged up, but he'll be all right."
Tims heard Durning laugh. "What a lie. Little bastard's probably already dead."
"If he is," Tims noted, "I win the bet."
The crowd's shouted questions nearly drowned out Durning's chuckle.
"Did you catch the man that done it?" a farmer wanted to know.
"Not yet," the tall man answered. "But we're lookin' real hard."
"I heard it was Larabee!" another man accused. "Where's he hidin' at?"
The crowd bubbled up again, and the tall man had to hold up his hand and wait for silence before he answered. "We don't know who JD's attacker is, but once we get a good idea Chris is going to go huntin' for him."
Durning laughed again, nudged his friends with his elbow and yelled out, "Bullshit!"
A few people in the crowd turned their way, eyeing them distrustfully, then turned back to the tall man. As Tims laughed at Durning's remark, he noticed a tall, dark-haired man walking at the edge of the crowd. He was dressed cleanly but shabbily, and was eyeing the tall man on the porch with keen interest.
He looked like an outlaw. Tim took in the rough face, the arrogant swagger. It occured to him that outlaws would probably like to know that Larabee was gone, that the sheriff was dead; they'd probably be running into this town in swarms, like locusts, shooting off their guns and carrying away anything that wasn't nailed down.
A real outlaw. Tims was thrilled.
One of the crowd, an older gent with a flat hat and spectacles, stepped forward and said, "Why should we believe you? You're one of Larabee's gang - you're probably hiding him somewhere so's he can't be brought to justice!"
The crowd reacted to this, but the tall man said quietly, "Is it justice you want, Mr. Conklin, or a hangin'? Sometimes you can't have both."
The crowd murmured a little more, and the tall man shifted his weight and said, "Whoever hurt JD is gonna pay for it, no matter who he is. I can't say Mr. Larabee is responsible, but if he was you have my word he'd be brought to justice just like anyone else."
"Your word!" Mr. Conklin spat, turning to the crowd. "What's that worth?"
The tall man cocked his head, regarded the nervous man coldly. "It's worth more than accusations and hasty conclusions right now. Now you folks go on home. We'll let you know if something happens."
A few people walked away, but that was all. One of the remaining citizens asked, "Is the judge coming?"
"He'll be here in just a few days," the tall man assured them. "And we'll keep watch till then."
"I'll bet you will," Conklin muttered to those standing near him. "You'll watch Larabee's back while he's escaping!"
The tall man left the porch then, walked over to Conklin and stood right in front of him. He really was a very tall man, and Conklin was pretty short, so the effect was dramatic.
"Mr. Conklin," the tall man said in a quiet but commanding tone, "you're agitated, and it's making me powerful sore. Please go home."
Conklin sputtered, said nothing, then turned and abruptly left.
The tall man addressed the crowd. "Folks, as soon as we know anything we'll fill you in. Until then, it's best you just go about your business and not worry."
The people seemed unsure, milled about, finally flowed apart, muttering. Only the dark-haired outlaw remained, and Tims saw him leaning against a support post nearby, calmly smoking a cheroot and peering at the tall man intently. The tall man looked at him, then turned and walked off the porch. The dark-haired man glared after, pulled out his gun and idly twirled it, ignoring the fearful stares of passersby.
"God dang," Tims said in delight, his eyes riveted on the fascinating outlaw. "The wild west. Ain't it the damnedest thing?"
+ + + + + + +
Sitting at her desk, Mary drew her hand across her eyes and sighed. God, she was tired.
The short article on JD's beating was getting a little longer, but she didn't know what to put in. She'd talked to the bartender, some townspeople, a few others, but what she learned she didn't want to report.
Facts, Mary, she heard Stephen's voice say. Facts. Even if it breaks your heart.
Where was Chris? Mary gazed out the windows that showed how dark it was getting outside. We'll have rain soon, she realized, and the thought depressed her. She'd gone to Chris' room, but he was gone, or he wouldn't answer his locked door. A crowd had gathered outside, a vengeful, angry crowd she had discovered, one that was full of loaded questions. Will the judge hang Larabee when he comes? What if it turns out they were all in on this together? You know, get rid of the sheriff so they could take over the town? What if they all planned this?
Mary had been aghast at that last question, and still was. How could anyone think that the men who had been protecting this town for so long could even conceive to ambush JD in an alley and beat him up like that? Surely the townspeople had seen how JD was like a little brother to all of them. Surely they saw how much they all liked his enthusiasm and good humor. Did they really think these men would bushwhack JD? How could they?
Facts. Mary sifted through her notes, her weary eyes scanning them reluctantly. Chris Larabee was last seen at two-thirty this morning. He was very drunk, according to the bartender, and in a very bad temper. Soon after Chris left the saloon, the bartender went and roused Sheriff Dunne, who promised that he would ensure that Larabee made it home safely. Then, a short while later, a young Mexican girl witnessed Mr. Larabee fighting someone in the alley by the jail, the same alley where sheriff Dunne was found some forty-five minutes later...
Mary groaned and pressed her hands to her temples. It couldn't be, but it had to be, and where was Chris? Distant thunder rumbled as she picked up her pen. Only Chris could save himself now, it seemed, and he had vanished. She had gone to Nathan's room, found solemn faces there in the gloom, and JD still lying inanimate on Nathan's bed. Was it her imagination, or was JD starting to fade visibly, almost looking transparent in the dim light? It was as if his spirit was no longer in his body, but hovering nearby, unable to make up its mind whether to leave or not.
And none of Chris' friends had seen him. Josiah and Nathan were polite, but Buck didn't even acknowledge her presence, which was very odd for Buck. She saw the helplessness in their faces, knew that momentarily at least they felt as confused as she did, and so she had smiled encouragingly, accepted their request to wire the judge as soon as possible, and backed out. And come home.
And now, here she was, a deskful of accusations against Chris staring at her, and her responsibility to report on it weighing across her shoulders like a cross, and a storm rolling in.
She sighed. Facts.
Mary picked up her pen, was going to start writing something, when she glanced up at the door and saw someone silhouetted there against the gloom.
Chris. Her breath caught in her throat as she began to stand up.
But no, the man was too short, and stockier. It was Ezra.
"Forgive me, Mrs. Travis," the gambler said in his Southern tones, removing his hat as he walked into her office. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"Oh - not at all," Mary stammered, smoothing her dress to cover her consternation. She saw the oddly distressed look on Ezra's face, felt her heart constrict. "It's not JD, is it? He's not - "
"No," Ezra answered somewhat blankly, looking at Mary earnestly. "Mr. Dunne is still living, thanks to Mr. Jackson's immeasurable talents."
"That's good," Mary said lamely.
"However," Ezra continued, and Mary noticed his voice was getting tighter. "he has yet to awake. Apparently his attacker has left the young man with...injuries from which he may never recover."
It took Mary a moment to find her voice. Ezra was usually so smooth and facile that you didn't know what he was thinking; she wasn't used to his emotions being so bare in his voice, as they were now. "Oh - well, I'm - "
"What I've come to tell you," Ezra continued, in a voice dripping with anger, "is that it seems Mr. Larabee has admitted being the attacker."
"He has?" Mary asked in a tiny voice. Oh, no. Oh, no.
Ezra nodded. "This according to Mr. Wilmington. It has been decided," Ezra began to stalk around the office, drifting among the pools of lamplight made brighter by the darkening sky outside, "That Mr. Larabee should be secreted away for his own safety, until Judge Travis can arrive and he can be tried fairly."
"Oh." Mary was trying to think, and deduce Ezra's motives at the same time. She found it impossible.
"It was also decided," Ezra said, his face glowing bright, then falling into shadow as he walked, "That we appeal to you for...discretion...in your journalistic responsibilities. There are those, it seems, who fear a bounty will be placed on Mr. Larabee's head if his crimes are known while he is abroad."
Mary's head came back as she moved to sit back down. Gad, she hadn't thought of that. "Um...well, I'll see what I can - "
There was a choking note in Ezra's voice that made Mary stop halfway into her seat and look at him. He stood before her desk, illuminated in golden lamplight, his face ominous and flint-hard as he spoke.
"Mrs. Travis," he repeated, and his words had razor edges to them. "You may consider this request if you wish, but speaking only for myself - don't."
Mary blinked, sat down all the way and folded her hands. There had to be more.
"Mr...Larabee..." Ezra stared at the hat in his hand as he spoke, picked invisible pieces of lint off it, "Is quite respected by those closest to him, and their affection has caused them to lose their objectivity. I did not agree with this course of action the others are allowing him to take, but as one among many, I cannot prevent it."
Mary nodded, could think of nothing to say.
"But I for one am not afraid for Mr. Larabee to suffer." Ezra's eyes went to Mary then, and there was alarming fury in them, and terrible hurt, "If he is alone, somewhere, and a bounty is made, I for one would not remove the danger from him. He chose this path, and he must take the consequences that come of it."
"I see." Mary said, as evenly as she could. "So you have no loyalty to Mr. Larabee, then?"
"To command my loyalty, one must first command my respect," Ezra answered, shaking his head and frowning. "And I respect no man less than one who cannot control himself."
The way Ezra said these words was so biting, so full of animosity and bitterness that Mary was genuinely terrified. So she sat still and listened.
Ezra paused, cleared his throat, gave Mary an apologetic smile. "I believe I've frightened you, Mrs. Travis. My apologies. I am not accustomed to explaining myself to people. You must believe that my...that to confess that my opinion of Mr. Larabee has fallen to its lowest possible depths causes me no end of despair. It is not something I do lightly."
"Then why do it?" Mary asked sympathetically.
"Because, Mrs. Travis," Ezra said in a rough voice, "although I would deny it to my grave, I have come to ... respect my associates, including Mr. Dunne. Perhaps especially Mr. Dunne. He had...has a capacity for trusting people that I have lacked from the earliest age. He has a light inside of him that was extinguished in me long ago."
Mary wondered at the poetry of Ezra's words, thought suddenly that he was right. She'd never thought about JD that way, but Ezra was right.
"Because of Mr. Larabee's actions - " Ezra cleared his throat again. "It is now possible that our young friend may die. Or if he awakens, as a result of the blow to his head, he may find himself blind. Or deaf. Or unable to walk. Mrs. Travis, are you aware of the lives of those in this world with such infirmities?"
"Well, I..." Mary trailed off. She really didn't know.
"As a result of Mr. Larabee's inability to stop himself from uncorking that first bottle," Ezra said in a thick voice, and Mary could swear she saw tears in his eyes. No, that was impossible..."Mr. Dunne may spend the next sixty or seventy years staring out of a window from a wheelchair and wishing he had died. Or perhaps he will die, and the rest of us will spend the next sixty years wishing it had been one of us instead."
Mary sat silent, speechless. The mental image came to her of JD - bright, energetic, rambunctious JD a motionless, dejected figure slumped in a wooden wheelchair, staring glumly out a window at a world he could no longer take part of. She suddenly wanted to cry.
"I have respected Mr. Larabee before this," Ezra said almost apologetically, "because I believed him to have control of his emotions. But now I see he lets them be the other way around. Mr. Dunne lies unaware and near death because Mr. Larabee could not stop himself from listening to his baser instincts. And while the others may desire to give him time to atone, I, for one, feel the time is long past. He has nearly done murder, and he should pay for it."
You've got to defend Chris. Mary blurted out, "But Mr. Standish, Chris was drunk! He didn't know what he was doing!"
Ezra paused, placed his hat on his head, and gave Mary a melancholy look.
"If Mr. Dunne dies," he said softly, "I doubt the Almighty will let him return, simply because Mr. Larabee didn't know he was killing him."
And with that Ezra turned and walked out of the office, and Mary heard the distant thunder as the first raindrops started to fall.
In the lobby of Virginia's Hotel, four businessmen were sitting playing cards and sighing with bored frustration.
The man known as Durning took out his pocket watch, frowned at it, put it back. Thunder rumbled outside, and he turned his head to look at the slashing rain outside the tall windows.
"Well, gentlemen," he said with a sigh as he turned back to the others, "this keeps up there won't be a stage tomorrow."
The others had mixed reactions, from Tims' shrug of apathy to Sherson's scowl of impatient disappointment.
"We should have left this morning," Sherson said regretfully.
"And miss all the fun?" Childers said as he fanned his cards in one fat hand. "Not everyday you get to practically witness a murder."
"It's every day out here," Durning pointed out, glancing at the chips piled in the middle of the lobby table before adding a few of his own. "I'll raise two."
"Yes, well," Sherson muttered as he glared at the mist that hung outside, "The lawless west is entertaining, but it won't pay for Hattie's summer wardrobe. We gotta get out of this hick town or I'll go broke."
There was a silence then, reluctant acquiescence. Tims studied his cards, threw a few chips in. "Did you guys notice we didn't see Standish tonight?" he asked conversationally.
Durning shrugged. "Maybe we scared him off."
"Or maybe he left town," Childers suggested. "Them gambler types, they never stay in one place too long."
"Speaking of that," Sherson grumbled, "I'm stuck here one more day I'll lose that commission from Ridge City."
"Oh, cripes, Frank," Tims answered, waving toward the now-vacant hotelkeeper's desk that sat in the darkened corner. "Why don't you sell these people a safe? They could probably use a better one."
"You're telling me." Sherson glanced at the closed door that led to the hotel's office. "The one they got now's a piece of shit."
Tims shrugged, the others shook their heads at the general concept of shabby quality.
After a pause Durning said, "Oh, did I tell you guys what that newspaper lady told me today?"
"No, what?" Sherson asked in a tone that yelled out that he couldn't care less.
"She told me if that Larabee fella stays they'll likely hang him. Like as soon as they found him, isn't that a hoot?"
"Well, that's the law of the west, Durning," Tims said lightly, looking over his cards and putting one down to pick up another.
"She also said," Durning continued, as if he was telling the best joke in the world, "that her father-in-law hired him and some other men to be the law here. Including the sheriff fella that got beat up."
Childers' eyebrows went up. "Larabee beat up one of his own men? That's cold."
Durning nodded hugely, happy his news had some impact. "She thinks Larabee is going to run."
"You don't say," Sherson said in a tone that was growing increasingly annoyed.
"She sure did. Well - she didn't put it in those words, but she said if he didn't leave town he was as good as dead."
"Huh." Tims seemed impressed.
"That's it," Sherson growled in disgust, throwing down his cards and standing up. "I've had enough of this. You guys can play till dawn if you want to, I'm goin' to bed. I'm down to my last hundred anyway."
The other men gave him slightly surprised looks, but then leaned back into the game.
"Suit yourself." Tims shrugged, fiddling with his cards. "See you in the morning."
Sherson began to walk away, and as he did Childers leaned back in his chair and said, "You know, guys, maybe we better find another way out of this place. If Larabee's gone and the sheriff bites it, there ain't gonna be no law in this town."
"What's the matter, Jack?" Durning chuckled as he threw down a card. "'Fraid of getting murdered in your sleep?"
The other men smiled, and Tims said, "Yeah, besides, no law ain't so bad. If we run out of here without paying, who's going to arrest us?"
More chuckles. The click of poker chips.
"Hell," Tims continued, in a good humor despite the depressing weather, "I bet we could make off with what's inside that piece of shit hotel safe, nobody would even stop us."
Nods of agreement, another cloud of cigar smoke. Tims grimaced at his cards, looked up and suddenly saw that Sherson had returned, and was standing behind Childers with his hands on his hips. Tims stared at him, the others noticed, and Sherson waited until they were all looking at him to speak.
"You know what?" he said in a low voice, full of confidence. "I bet we could."
+ + + + + + +
Thunder and lightning. A summer storm.
Nathan had seen the thickening clouds, knew as he tended to JD that it would be getting darker earlier than usual, and so he trimmed the wicks on his lanterns and lit all of them. So when the first flash of lightning was seen, he was ready. Buck sat by JD's bedside, in the chair Josiah had vacated, his weathered gunslinger's face soft and worried as his blue eyes silently pleaded with JD to wake up. Make a sound. Anything.
In her office, Mary watched the fat drops of water fall, her bleak mood made bleaker by the slanting rain. It would get dark soon, and stay that way. She avoided that last article she knew had to be written, hung back from her desk like it would bite her if she went close.
Vin patrolled, his hat and coat slowly soaking in the rain, steadfastly ignoring the open glares and muttered whisperings of the townspeople as he passed through the muddied streets on his horse. You don't suppose, he heard. One of 'them'. Don't want their kind here anymore. Vin ignored them all, and did his job. And thought.
Ezra watched the storm from his room. He found company repulsive this evening, so he stayed locked away, tried to read but failed. So, he simply sat on his bed in the dark and watched the rain shimmer down the glass windowpanes in undulating waves, punctuated by flashes of bright-edged lightning, the crack of thunder so loud it rattled the windows. The soft swishing noise of rain running down swollen gutters may have been soothing, but for Ezra's mood. He didn't even try to keep out the dark thoughts that filled his mind, the memories of the large, long-ago cities and veterans' hospitals he'd known in the South, full of shattered bodies and crippled minds. And now he thought of one body, one mind, caught in a timeless limbo, separated from his friends, lost and hurt. And the one responsible...
Josiah checked the candles in his church, watching them gutter fitfully against the wind that blew in gusts from the streets outside. It was getting late now, nearly nine. He thought about blowing the candles out and turning in, decided to let them burn a little longer. He moved about the church, taper in one hand, lighting the ones that had gone out, saw them struggle in the blasting wind that, try as he might, Josiah couldn't keep out completely. Some stayed lit, others didn't. Why did he feel sorry for the ones that couldn't make it?
A crack of thunder, the rain fell harder. Josiah sighed as he stood at the front door, no use fighting the weather. Blow the candles out and go home.
A tentative voice, familiar but not its normal self. Josiah looked up, toward the back of the church.
It was Chris.
He was dressed in his usual black, soaking wet. He didn't move, regarded Josiah with eyes that looked huge, horrified, as if they'd just seen something that was too terrible to absorb all at once. Chris didn't move, so Josiah walked toward him, slowly.
"Chris," he said simply, a low-rumbled word. As he drew closer, Josiah saw the drawn face, unshaven and unkempt, like the rest of him.
Chris took a shaking step, two, and sat down hard in one of the pews, covered his face with hands that Josiah saw were covered with scratches and scabs and dried blood.
"Oh, God," Chris pleaded, his voice harsh and hopeless, muffled by his hands.
Josiah moved next to him, sat down. Waited.
It was a long time, or seemed like it, before Chris removed his hands from his face and stared forlornly at the flickering candles on the altar.
"JD?" he said finally, and Josiah saw tears in his eyes.
"He's still alive," Josiah said softly. "But he ain't woke up yet."
"How bad?" Chris ran one hand raggedly through his hair, his voice a rasping whisper.
Josiah paused. "Broken collarbone, busted ribs. Hurt leg."
Chris swallowed, hard. "What else?"
Josiah sighed. "He got - slammed into that wall pretty hard. He - "
"No!" Chris cried suddenly, shooting off the pew and standing in front of Josiah, both hands in his blond hair. "No, it wasn't him! It wasn't, it was the Warden I threw into the wall. I remember, it was...and it wasn't JD, it was Fowler, it was his man, it was...oh, God!" Chris sobbed, falling back into the pew and once more burying his head in his hands. After a long moment he shook his head and said, "It was JD. It was and I was so drunk I didn't know."
"We figured on that, Chris," Josiah said quietly.
The thunder rumbled outside, thick and ominous. Chris sat there for a few minutes, his heavy breathing the only sound in the little church. Finally he brought his head up and asked, "They looking for me?"
"Some are." Josiah answered. "They want to hang you. We wired the judge."
Chris sighed hugely. "Everybody want me dead?"
"No," Josiah said comfortingly, and paused, a long pause. "You've got to go, Chris."
The wind blew out a few more candles, made it a little darker. Chris turned to face Josiah, his blue eyes pained and hopeless. "What?"
"We talked it over." Josiah leaned close. "We can buy you some time, till the judge gets here."
Chris thought about it, shook his head. "I ain't gonna run."
"You're not runnin'," Josiah said firmly. "But you stay here and you're a dead man."
More thunder. Chris sat silhouetted in the dim candlelight of the church, lank blond locks falling over his creased forehead as he sat motionless, his creased face bleak with despair and guilt and fathomless grief.
Josiah regarded the sight sadly, and said, "Chris Larabee, your demons are Legion."
Chris looked at him, squinted in the glowing light.
"And you need to get rid of them before you kill someone."
Chris shifted in the pew, shook his head. "I can't go. Not until I know."
"Don't worry about the boy," Josiah advised. "He's got every soul in this town pulling for him."
"And when he wakes up," Chris said, in the most miserable, godforsaken tones Josiah had ever heard, "he'll hate me for the rest of his life."
Josiah had no answer for that, simply said, "You'd best go now, while the rain can hide you. Judge'll be here in five days. That's when we need you back. After that, we come lookin', and you won't want us to find you if it comes to that."
"It won't," Chris said resolutely, and stood up. He slicked his hair back, looked around the church. "Where should I go?"
Josiah thought a moment. "Go among the tombs and the mountains, Chris. Go where someone who can help can find you."
Chris's shoulders sagged, and Josiah thought he'd never seen Chris look so defeated. After a pause he shook his head and said, "Josiah?"
The preacher faced his friend, sympathy and pity in his blue eyes.
"I can't make up for what I done," Chris said in a voice that had none of its usual hard edge, only a bottomless unhappiness, deep and wide. "But if something happens and I don't make it back..."
Chris paused then, bit his lip, and when he looked back up at Josiah the preacher saw tears in those tortured eyes, and Chris Larabee choked back a sob. "God, Josiah. Tell 'em I wish to Hell I'd died three years ago."
A roll of thunder, the rain came harder still. Chris quietly left the church, and before he followed him Josiah paused, and lit two more candles on the altar. Then he extinguished the others and walked out, leaving the two struggling candles to glow together in the gathering darkness....darkness.
Soft, endless darkness, floating quietly, thinking of nothing.
Some memories, good ones, bad ones, sudden, sharp pain, then a detached wispiness, as if nothing much mattered anymore.
Coming close, moving away, hands helping, lifting, hurts but passes, something cool, silence.
Someone near, hovering, maybe waiting too? Don't want to go, only starting, something wraps around, comforting and warming, love and protection, the pain eases, goes away, nestling down now, stay here forever.
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org