The rock outcropping proved an adequate shelter for Chris and Darcy as they prepared to make camp for the night. The sun had gone down almost completely; only the merest sliver of blue marked the horizon over the distant mountains. It would be completely dark soon, and cooler. Chris stoked the fire in the pit he'd dug to a blazing brightness as Darcy appeared with his saddlebags and an appreciative expression.
"Ah, now that's a sight for a weary traveller's eyes." Darcy sighed as he sat down on a nearby rock and opened up the saddlebag. "Ye're no stranger to outdoor livin', Chris Larabee."
Chris shrugged, continued to poke the fire.
Darcy dug through his saddlebag, and as he did so he remarked, "I've got some jerky in here someplace, if I didn't already eat it all...here it is." He brought out a handkerchief, began unfolding it. "Would ye care for some?"
"No, thanks." Chris said quietly, finally leaning back from the fire and sitting on the ground. The firelight flickered in his face, made twin points of light out of his eyes as they stared at the dancing flames.
Darcy picked out a piece of jerky, chewed in silence and watched the fire as well.
Uncounted minutes passed silently, the only sound in the desolate plain the crackle of the fire and the distant sounds of prairie life. Darcy didn't attempt conversation, simply ate and watched the fire.
Finally, Chris leaned forward again, crossed his long legs and put his arms around them, massaging his knuckles. They looked spotted in the orange light, from the scabs and bruises that were on them. Darcy saw his expression change, grow sadder, and at length Chris spoke, his voice low and serious.
"When we get near Four Corners," Chris began, studying his hands in the wavering light, "I already told you I can't go in. But if you'd..." He trailed off, flexed his hands, put them together and brought them up to his chin, and sighed.
Darcy began tying up his bundle, and asked softly, "Who is it ye'd like me to inquire after?"
Chris gave him a quick look, then lifted up one hand and ran it through his blond hair.
"He's the sheriff there," he said finally, in leaden tones. "Name's JD Dunne."
Darcy nodded. "Dunne. That's a fine old Irish name. Who else?"
Who else. Chris watched the flames, thinking. And said nothing.
Darcy's eyes went to the fire as well, and after a long pause he cleared his throat and said, "I'll wager yer friends will be wantin' to know what's become of ye."
"I don't have any friends anymore," Chris said without a trace of self-pity. It was merely fact.
Darcy leaned back on the rock, cocked his head. "Are you so sure of that?"
Chris stared at the fire, nodded a little, his eyes lost and hopeless.
There was no sound for a little while except for the wind, and the fire. Then Darcy said, "Ye remember the friend I told ye about, the one whose ribs I broke?"
Chris glanced at him, pulled himself out of the daze he had been in, nodded.
Darcy nodded back, and continued. "He was a good friend to me, best I ever had in fact. But he'd made the mistake of gettin' between me and a bottle of booze when I was feelin' sorry for meself. Well, I thought that was the end of it, and I felt terrible, because I knew the price I was payin' for one night in the bottle was too high. Too high, and I thought I had to do something to make up for me temper."
The fire crackled, the night grew deeper. Chris put his hands back together, massaged them. "What'd you do?"
Darcy's smile was crooked as he recalled. "I kept house fer him till he was back on his feet again. He told me later that was how he knew I was truly sorry. Anybody can apologize, he said. But only a truly repentant man does me laundry for three weeks."
Darcy laughed at the memory, and Chris smiled a bit. There was a bit of Buck in the man's humor, and it reminded Chris of what he'd thrown away. He stopped smiling, and winced.
The other man pulled out a pipe and some tobacco and eyed Chris seriously.
"It's none of me business to ask what it is in that town that has ye scared to set foot in it," he said slowly and somberly, "but if the stories I've heard are true, ye have friends back there who'll take ye back." He paused and lit the pipe, then added, "Ye also have a duty, to own up to yer mistakes and mend them."
Chris gave him a glare. "You don't know anything about my 'mistakes'."
"Oh, don't I!" Darcy shot back. "I'll wager I've made most of the same ones, and worse. There's a reason you and I met, Chris Larabee, maybe for no other purpose than ye need someone to thrash it into that thick head of yers that there are people who don't want ye to die, no matter what ye done."
Chris put both hands into his hair, so he wouldn't have to look at them. "How do you know?"
"Ah, by the Virgin Mary!" Darcy exclaimed, throwing the burnt match away and puffing on his pipe furiously before saying, "Tell me somethin', if I hadn't pulled ye away from that cliff, yer life would have ended at the bottom of it."
Chris shot him another glare; he didn't like being read.
"And what do ye suppose yer sainted wife and son would have to say about that, when they met ye at the pearly gates? 'Ah Chris, me bucko! I'm so glad ye took the yellow way out and killed yerself! What a shinin' example ye're settin' for future generations!' "
Chris' glare grew darker.
"And yer friends, the ones I've heard the tales about, I suppose it doesn't matter to ye that the memory of ye they'll carry to their graves has ye driftin' off into the night like a ghost, and never comin' back to make things right. And if there's a lass in that town, I'm sure you're perfectly contented that she'll think ye died a bleedin' coward."
Chris let out an inarticulate growl and jumped to his feet, pulling back his fist in a lightning move. He didn't throw the punch, however, but stood there, a look of wild anger in his blue eyes.
Darcy remained still, puffing on his pipe, and eyed Chris calmly, except his eyebrows went up in mild surprise.
"Strike me if ye like," he said, "but I assure ye, I can take ye two falls out o' three."
Chris blinked, as if shocked by his action; then he slowly lowered his fist, a look of mingled anger and horror on his face.
"Aye," Darcy nodded, a look of total understanding. "Gets away from ye, doesn't it."
Chris walked back to his spot, sat down and ran his hands through his hair miserably.
"I can't go back," he said in a small, bewildered voice.
Darcy leaned back on the rock, puffed his pipe, then asked, "Why not?"
It was a simple question, calmly and unobtrusively asked, but it took Chris a long time to open his mouth to answer it, and when he did his eyes were distant and anguished. "I got drunk, and I hurt someone. Someone who didn't deserve it. Damn kid who thought I was some kind of hero."
Chris paused, buried his hands in his hair again, and sighed. "He might be dead. He's probably hurt real bad. Josiah said...townspeople want me hung. I hurt some good men too, They trusted me and I let 'em down. Townspeople probably hate them too, and they don't deserve that."
Darcy smoked his pipe quietly, watched Chris with an empathetic eye.
Chris balled up his hands and pushed them against his mouth, staring at the flames with tears in his eyes. "I faced down men twice my size and licked 'em, but...if I go back, I'll go to jail, and I keep thinkin' how I'll have nowhere to go if one of 'em comes to see me. I'll have to look in their eyes."
Darcy's question was softer, almost invisible in the quiet desert night. "And what do ye expect ye'll see?"
"Hate," Chris said at once, his fist pushing tighter against his lips as he talked. After a pause, he added, "Betrayal. Disappointment."
Darcy nodded. "And if ye don't go back, they'll feel the same things, but at least ye won't have to look at 'em. Is that it?"
Chris winced and looked down.
The fire crackled. Somewhere in the distance, a coyote howled. Chris didn't move for a few minutes, then said in a forlorn voice wracked with guilt, "Things were bad when I left. They've probably gotten worse. I want to set things right, but probably I can't."
"Ye can," Darcy said simply. "Don't think I'm makin' light of yer heavy heart. But if there's one thing I learned, it's that people will surprise ye. If it's askin' after yer friend you're wantin', I'll do it. But if ye come with me to Four Corners, if ye go back there like a man and try to correct the wrong ye done, it's for sure ye'll be seein' somethin' else in those eyes ye're so afraid of. Ye'll see forgiveness."
Chris' heart ached at those words. It was all he wanted, but...he shook his head, remembering Buck's eyes, his bitter words. "I don't think so. Not from everybody."
Darcy waved his pipe. "Ye're only a man. Ye do yer damnedest, and let each man choose his own path from then on. Some men are pig-headed, but the men I think ye're referin' to, they want ye back. They know yer weaknesses, they want to see yer strengths. Ye've battled injustice together for six months, they've seen yer courage and yer integrity. They know that ye'll not stand down when one is injured, and fightin' for his life. That ye'll not step aside from protectin' the helpless and the weak. But now the one who needs help is you, Chris Larabee. Will ye not stand up for yerself as well?"
Chris' eyes never moved from the fire as Darcy spoke. He gazed at the dancing tongues of flame as if hypnotized. There were images in the fire; Chris knew Darcy couldn't see them, but he could. There were Sarah and Adam, smiling and full of life; a burning house and three years of drunken sorrow; Buck's face, smiling and welcoming, good to see you, buddy; the others, Vin's quiet support, Ezra's cheerful cunning; Nathan's eternal patience, and Josiah's calm wisdom. Another face appeared, all buoyancy and enthusiasm, a cocky grin and determined eyes half-hidden by unruly black hair. And they were riding, all riding, and he was riding with them. Chris felt the pain of that loss, the emptiness that it could never be that way again. But - but maybe he could do something. But what could erase the hatred he had seen in Buck's eyes that morning? How could he atone in a way that the others would accept? He had seen JD's eyes in his nightmares, bitter and resentful eyes that glared at him from a face marred with purple bruises and matted hair, and a body crippled and broken. You did this to me, those eyes said. You aren't a hero. You're a drunken loser.
Chris took a shaky breath. God, to change that. To amend it, even in the smallest way...just so that people in the town wouldn't spit when they said his name. So the other men wouldn't have to pretend they'd never known him, to be trusted. And maybe, maybe someday, JD wouldn't be ashamed to admit that he'd once seen something to admire in the man who, one awful out-of-control night, had thrown him into a brick wall and beat him senseless. Chris felt tears sting his eyes, shut them to seal the images in his exhausted mind. What wouldn't he do to make things right? Just the chance...
The night was total now. The last faint glimmer of blue had given way to deepest black, complete except for the twinkling stars overhead and the brilliant fire.
Finally, Chris spoke, and his voice was a whisper. "I'll think on it," he said, and didn't shift his eyes from the fire.
Darcy nodded silently, and puffed his pipe, watching the smoke trail upward towards the mountains, and disappear into the pitch-black night.
+ + + + + + +
Durning stood on the wooden boardwalk in front of the saloon with his friends and drank his beer with a smug smile.
"Nice night." he said, looking around at the others. Durning was leaning against the nearest post, his hands in his business suit. Tims was sitting on the bench in front of the big saloon window. Next to him, Sherson smoked a cigar and stared in a bored manner down the alley next to the saloon. Childers was propped against a barrel on the other side of the saloon doors, his arms crossed in an impatient way.
Tims shrugged, cast nervous eyes into the street. It had all seemed so exciting before, the prospect of making a killing breaking into the jewelry store with that outlaw, but now that the night was closing in he was visibly unsure.
"Maybe this isn't a good idea," Tims said uncertainly, scratching his neck.
Sherson turned and glared at him. "You turning chicken?"
"No," Tims said quickly. "It's just - if we get caught - "
"Sh!" Durning hissed, casting a watchful eye to the noisy clamor inside the brightly lit saloon.
Tims made a face, lowered his voice. "Well, it's dangerous. I mean, how can we trust this Concho guy?"
"We don't," Durning said matter-of-factly, shrugging. "Or, I don't. I just want the cash."
"Will you guys shut up!" Childers whispered tightly. "Christ, why don't you just yell it out, and let everybody know."
Durning squinted into the street, saw Ezra coming, his fine red jacket flapping in the evening breeze.
"Ah, good evening, Standish," he said in an oily way, lifting up his hat as Ezra approached.
The gambler looked up, blinked at him as if trying to place his face. He didn't smile, simply replied, "Good evening."
"You've been a stranger," Sherson said with a smile, walking closer as Ezra put one hand on the swinging doors. "Got a hot prospect you didn't want to tell your old friends about?"
Ezra stopped, looked around at them with what Sherson interpreted as a contemptuous expression.
"I've been occupied in other matters," Ezra said in an irritated tone, his eyes on the saloon inside.
"You mean the guy who got beat up?" Sherson asked in conversational tones.
Ezra turned glaring eyes at him, didn't respond.
"Well, you know we still got that bet going, if you're interested. Uh - no offense, if you know him. Just thought you might want in, the pot's pretty big - "
"Excuse me." Ezra stabbed the words at Sherson, then pushed the saloon doors open and went inside.
Sherson had to jump back to avoid being hit by the saloon doors, and as the others looked at him he laughed a bit and said, "What a jerk."
Durning made a face, pulled his watch out.
"What time is it?" Tims asked from the bench. He was wiping his face on his handkerchief. Despite the cool evening, sweat ran down his face.
"Eleven o'clock," Durning replied.
Tims nodded, seemed to sweat more.
A minute passed. Sherson walked up to Durning, and when he'd caught his eye said in a low voice, "I think you and me are the only ones who can handle this thing."
Durning looked down the street. "Maybe."
A figure came down the street on a horse. The men on the porch all seemed to see him at the same time, and instantly straightened themselves and tried to look casual. It was dark in the street, but that jacket with the shoulder flaps was unmistakable.
"Evenin' boys," Vin said as he reined his horse to a stop in front of the saloon.
"Evenin'," Sherson responded politely, giving Vin a big smile.
The tracker seemed to be studying them, eyeing them silently in a way Durning didn't like, so he asked, "So, you find out who took our money yet?"
Vin shook his head. "But I got some ideas."
"Well, fine." Durning grinned. "We'll be here a few more days yet. Just let us know."
Vin nodded a little, hardly moved otherwise. "You boys best be careful about where you take your air. This town can get kinda rough this time of night."
"Oh - oh, we're fine." Sherson smiled. "Don't worry about us."
Vin blinked, still sat there on his horse, not moving a damn muscle. Durning felt he was being turned inside out, like a trouser pocket, and he resented it. Resented it a lot.
"Well," the former bounty hunter finally said in a low rasp. "You boys have a pleasant evening." And gently urging his horse forward, Vin rode down the dark and smoky street.
Tims almost jumped off his bench. "He knows," he screeched in a tiny voice.
"Shut up." Durning commanded as he glared at Vin's retreating back, and tried not to let on that Vin had gotten him nervous.
"All of you shut up," Childers snapped. He leaned away from the barrel and walked a short distance down the boardwalk.
Sherson shook his head, his eyes on the horseman who was melting in and out of the shadows. "It don't matter. He's not the law anymore, he can't do nothing to us. Nobody can."
"That's right," Durning agreed, nodding as the noises of the saloon grew louder behind them. "And once we do this, we go on our merry way and good riddance."
The other men nodded, Sherson confidently, Childers a little worried, Tims swallowing his worry and staring after Vin.
Bunch of idiots, Durning thought to himself, and leaned against the post once more, and waited for midnight.
+ + + + + + +
Vin slowly guided his horse down the deserted street, his dark eyes flickering from street fire to empty window to dark alley as he plodded along in silence.
Conklin's voice. Vin reined in, turned in his saddle to see the new sheriff standing proudly on the porch of the jail, his badge gleaming as it caught the glow of the fires. He left the porch and sauntered up to Vin with a smug grin. "Out for an evening ride?"
Vin nodded slowly, said nothing.
"Well, it's a nice night for it," Conklin said, looking up and down the street in satisfaction. "Just so you know, you and your boys don't need to patrol the streets anymore. Me and Gerald can handle things just fine from here on out."
Vin nodded again, picked up his reins.
"Oh - one more thing." Conklin held up his hand.
Vin looked back at him.
"It's come back to me," Conklin said with an air of importance, one hand going up to clutch his badge-laden lapel, "that you and your friends had some kind of meeting this afternoon with Mary Travis."
Vin cocked his head, eyes calm as a summer lake. "She came askin' about JD."
"Well, uh, still," Conklin coughed. "Still, I'm aware of the association you men have with her, being that her father-in-law appointed you, but now that that association has ended it's best you respect her position and leave her alone."
Vin blinked. "She know you're tellin' me this?"
"Well - no," Conklin admitted. "But Stephen would agree with me, I think. It's just...well, it's not appropriate, her a young widow and you a gang - a group of unattached men. You're kind of known for wild ways and Mr. Wilmington - well, everybody knows what kind of a man he is. People are talking already, and I simply want to protect her from any scandal."
Vin eyed him, the face a placid mask. "I see."
Conklin took this remark for agreement, nodded with a smile. "Now, you and the others are welcome to stay here as long as you behave yourselves. Just let me do my job, don't get in the way, and we'll all be happy."
Vin sighed a little, gathered up his reins, and giving Conklin a tired look said, "You might want to keep your eye on that bunch in front of the bar. Could be trouble."
"Who?" Conklin squinted down the street. "Oh, they're all right. Businessmen from out east, they won't be any bother."
Vin looked back over his shoulder, then faced front again and dug some jerky out of his pocket. He bit a little off, then tucked the jerky back into his jacket and tugged at his hat.
"Evenin', Mr. Conklin." He said softly, and continued down the street.
"Good evening, Mr. Tanner." Conklin replied, then watched the horseman fade into the night before climbing back up on the porch, glancing at the cluster of men in front of the bar, and shaking his head. Trouble. Tanner and his bunch, they were the trouble.
Conklin patted the gun in his pocket, and watched the street.
+ + + + + + +
JD lay in Nathan's bed, staring at the ceiling. He'd awakened about fifteen minutes before, and couldn't get back to sleep. Buck slumbered in a chair nearby, and JD didn't think he needed anything, so he didn't wake him up. Instead, he lay in the bed and thought.
He remembered things. He was still remembering them, and it bothered him that he couldn't remember everything. His mind was like a patchwork quilt with pieces missing. Some things he remembered didn't seem like real occurrences, and he wasn't sure what was real and what he just dreamed, or imagined. Images came up, like a lantern show: The little girl Olivia, Ezra's mother, Stuart James' ranch, the working girl Emily. Hunting down the Indian renegade Chanu, riding out with the others to rescue Chris from the prison, drinking with Vin and Josiah. Bits and pieces, but there was so much more that he knew he'd done and lived through, but it wasn't coming. Well, it would.
He reached up with his good hand and gingerly touched his face. It hurt like hell, and JD wondered what it looked like. God, I hope I'm not disfigured. He moved his sore jaw. Somebody really punched me. Ow. OW. His fingers wandered up into his hairline, where something was sharply painful, like a cut. He touched the stitches Nathan had made, and frowned. How had that happened? He couldn't remember.
Not that he hadn't tried. JD put every ounce of effort he had into remembering how he had gotten injured, but nothing. Dark. He knew it had been dark, night probably. And Chris was involved somehow, because he remembered saying his name. Maybe he'd found JD, and JD had said it before passing out. Dang it! Why couldn't he remember?
Then it came to him, swept into his mind like a monsoon. Fists. Fists and something hard, rough, sudden...the ground. No, a wall. Yes, wait a minute...a brick wall. Yes, it was a brick wall, he remembered running into one, really hard, but he didn't remember how or why, just that it had hurt like hell. Fallen off his horse? Maybe, but JD knew he had always been a careful rider. He didn't just fling himself off of his horse into a brick wall. Maybe the horse threw him? Ah, maybe...but...no. Well, maybe.
JD sighed in frustration, winced as his broken ribs protested his breathing. He wondered idly if he should try to walk again. Maybe he could do it now. JD didn't understand why he couldn't walk; his legs weren't broken, and he could move them, so he knew he wasn't paralyzed. It was just...when it came time to move, for some reason he just didn't know what to do. He remembered walking, riding - in fact, in his dreams he still did plenty of both. So why couldn't he do it when he was awake?
A flood of panic came over JD as he considered that maybe this was permanent - maybe he was crippled for life, like those men he'd seen as a child in Boston, at the soldiers' home. God, what if he never walked again? He glanced at Buck, fear gripping him. He'd have to leave, go to some big city and live in one of those sanitariums. He'd be alone. And his sheriff's job, he'd have to give that up. But it was all he ever wanted, that and to ride, and prove to the others that he was a man. Geez. What if - what if -
Ah, that's crazy, JD's eyes went back to the ceiling. You got your memory back, the other stuff will come back to. And when Chris gets back, you'll impress him with how quickly you recovered, and maybe he'll give you one of those crooked smiles of his and nod in that kind of halfway-approving way he does sometimes. JD smiled. Maybe he'd surprise everybody, and be back at the jail when Chris brought his attacker in. Just a scratch, Chris. All in a day's work for men like us, huh.
JD's hand wandered to where his right arm was still bound, and he grew more reflective. He was no fool. He felt like he'd been thrown off a cliff, and that wasn't going to heal in a day. When his walking came back, he'd have to go easy on the riding, and he could tell he was going to be sleeping a lot. He felt helpless, and JD hated that. They probably think I'm finished. He once again glanced at Buck. Well, I'll show them. As soon as Buck wakes up I'll try to walk again, and maybe it's come back and I don't even know it. Then I'll just have to wait for - ow, dammit! - wait for this collarbone to heal up, and I'll be better than ever. And Chris'll show up dragging some...some...
JD had a shadowy image dance through his mind, a dark form lurching in a darker place. It didn't connect to anything else, didn't even make sense, but somehow that image frightened him, like a half-remembered nightmare. Maybe that was the person who attacked him?
The image came again, and JD strained to make out details. Everything was blurred, indistinct, but JD got the sense that whoever attacked him...knew him? Or JD knew who he was? Maybe somebody he put away, with a grudge? That must be it.
Nothing else would come, and JD sighed and gave up. It made his head hurt anyway. God, I'm bored. He looked over at Buck. When he wakes up, I'll ask him to go to my room and get my dime novels. That's what I'll do. It'll give me something to do until I get out of this damn bed. Until Chris gets back.
Then JD shut his eyes, and tried in a soft, unhurried way to remember more. He knew there was a lot he hadn't remembered yet, and he didn't want to lose a thing.
+ + + + + + +
The alleyway was dark, but the livery had a lone lantern glowing beside its wide entrance, and the four businessmen huddled around it as if they were freezing cold.
They didn't talk, hadn't said much since they left the saloon. Tims was looking around in a birdlike way, searching every dark corner around them as if expecting to get caught any second. Durning shook his head at the man's nervousness and sighed. He should have done this alone.
After a few minutes footsteps were heard, and Concho Charles slid out of the darkness, with four men behind him. They walked silently up to the businessmen, and Concho gave them a friendly smile. "Ready?"
Durning and Sherson looked at each other, and Durning nodded.
"Excellent." Concho was putting on a pair of kid gloves, fitting them around his fingers. "I can get us in all right, but I'll need whichever of you so expertly opened that safe to help me out once we get inside."
"That's me." Durning said in hard tones.
Concho looked him up and down, quickly, and pulled out four dirty bandannas. "Put these over your faces. Let's get going, we haven't much time."
They all nodded, took the cloths, and followed Concho back down the alleyway, and down a path that took them past the back entrances to most of Four Corners' main street shops. The night was black, pitch black, no light except the occasional glow of a street fire slicing through the narrow alleyways between the buildings.
Tims tripped, grabbed Childers and let out a sharp curse.
"Sh!" Concho warned, and kept walking.
Tims removed himself from Childers, and whispered, "Sorry."
They slid down one alleyway, up another, until at last they were behind a one-story brick building with a small back door.
"This is it, gentlemen," Concho said quietly. He pulled out some tools, then set to work unlocking the back door.
Tims looked at the men Concho had brought with him. They looked hard, mean, scarred, the kind of man Tims sometimes wished he was. He knew it took a lot of guts to be that kind of man, and thought that, since he was in the middle of committing a pretty big crime, he must be turning into an outlaw. He supposed he should be thrilled, but instead he felt like throwing up. And wondered why.
There was a small click, and the sound of a door on slightly rusty hinges being nudged open.
"Hurry up," Concho commanded, and Tims felt a hand on his arm, pulling him into the store.
Suddenly one of Concho's men said, "Hssst!" and darted into the shadows.
"Shit!" Concho spat, and pushed Tims back into the alleyway. The businessman lost his balance and fell, shook his head to clear it and said in a whisper, "What - "
Then he found himself looking into the barrel of the long-haired tracker's shotgun.
"Evenin', folks." the tracker drawled in the dark. "Out for the night air?"
There was a flare of light, and suddenly the alley was brightly lit from a lantern that the tracker was setting on the ground. In its spectral glow, Tims looked around and saw that Concho and his men had run, leaving him and his friends alone with this maniac.
He ventured another look at the tracker, but the long-haired man looked bizarre in the flickering lamplight, all huge shadows and bright patches of light, and his eyes were blazing. Leveling the gun at the businessmen, the tracker said quietly, "You men best give up your guns. Let's make this easy on all of us."
Tims didn't know what to do. He looked at the others, but got no help; Durning was hanging by the door, glaring at the tracker like he wanted to kill him. Sherson and Childers were standing together, their hands up, looking like they wanted to bolt, but frightened of this ghostly vision.
Tims decided the best thing to do would be to pass out, and was about to when another voice broke the silence.
"What's going on here?"
Tims looked up, saw the sheriff Conklin striding toward him.
"Sheriff," the tracker said calmly, "these men were about to visit the jewelry store after hours."
"I can see that," Conklin snapped, but his harsh look was for the tracker, not the thieves. "What do you think you're doing, Mr. Tanner? Didn't I tell you to stay out of my way?"
Tanner lowered his gun, backed up a step. "Yes, sir, you did, but - "
"Oooh, you gunslingers," Conklin grumbled as he pulled out his pistol and began loading it. "You think you got the right to make your own law. Didn't nobody teach you to respect authority?"
Childers and Sherson looked at each other, then lowered their hands and started edging away, toward the open alleyway.
Tanner noticed this, raised his rifle.
"Put that thing down!" Conklin commanded, still loading his pistol. "I'm the law here, remember?"
Durning was backing away from the door, toward his compatriots and freedom. Tanner eyed them and said, "Mr. Conklin - "
"God damn renegades." Conklin finished loading his pistol and snapped the chamber shut. Only then did he look up, but by then three of the businessmen were mostly into the adjoining alleyway, and were edging backwards very fast.
"Hey!" Conklin said crossly. "What the hell - "
"RUN!" Durning hollered, and several things happened at once.
Durning, Sherson, and Childers ran like lightning down the alley.
Conklin, too stunned to do anything, watched the would-be thieves run away in stupefication.
Tanner cursed, primed his Winchester, and raised it to fire off a warning shot.
And Tims jumped up in a tremendous burst of pent- up energy, and tackled him.
The gun went off, horribly loud in that small space. Tims rolled over, almost into the lantern, and when he had righted himself leaped to his feet and began to run, then looked behind him, slowed down and stopped.
The sheriff - the new sheriff - was sitting on the ground, holding his arm and staring at Vin in dumbfounded shock. Blood trickled from around his fingers. Vin was lowering the gun, leaning toward Conklin to help him up.
"You shot me!" Conklin said in disbelief.
Tims noticed they weren't looking at him, and paused to watch.
The tracker put his hand out. "Mr. Conklin - "
"My God." Conklin was getting to his feet, clumsily, favoring his wounded arm, "I can't believe you shot me!"
Tanner lowered the gun completely. "It was a accident. The fella on the gr - "
"Like hell it was!" Conklin growled. "You shot me on purpose!"
Tims saw the tracker's expression turned to confusion, and he shook his head.
"That's right," a voice in the shadows said suddenly. "He did."
Durning. Tims blinked in amazement as his business partner staggered back out of the shadows, panting but earnestly nodding his head. He had taken the bandanna off, and Tims remembered that he'd been in the shadows the whole time. Conklin probably hadn't even seen him.
"See?" Conklin spat as Durning came closer. "I have a witness!"
Tanner backed up a step, shook his head. "Mr. Conklin, this is one of the men who was trying to rob the jewelry store. He's lyin' to you."
"Rob the jewelry store!" Durning snorted in mortification. "Me? You're out of your mind."
More footsteps. A stout older man came up, out of breath and red- faced.
"Conklin!" he exclaimed when he saw the blood. "What happened?"
Conklin's face went black and he stabbed a bloody finger at Vin.
"Gerald, arrest that man for assault. Look at this! He shot me!"
Townsend's jaw dropped, and he stared at the tracker in alarm.
Tanner sighed in exasperation. "It was a accident!"
"That's not what I saw," Durning said smoothly.
Townsend began digging around in his pockets, glancing at Tanner to make sure he wasn't trying to escape. "I think I got the handcuffs here somewhere..."
"God damn it, this hurts!" Conklin wailed, pulling at his shirtsleeve to look at his wound. He looked up at Vin with burning, vengeful eyes and hissed, "I always knew your kind was trouble. You want to make your own law, bring decent people down to your own low level. I told them you should havebeen run out right after Larabee, or you'd try to take over. And I was right!"
Tanner looked at Durning, but Tims watched as the businessman looked back at him with a smugly triumphant expression that said, guess I got you. Townsend finally found the handcuffs, walked over to Tanner and paused.
Conklin began to walk away, turned around and gave Townsend an aggravated look. "Well, what are you waiting for?"
"Well - " Townsend turned to Conklin. "How do we do this? I mean, is there some procedure I follow...?"
"Aw, hell, Gerald, just throw the handcuffs on him and drag him to jail!" Conklin turned back around. "Get an account from the witness and I'll be back in a while." And he was gone.
Townsend behaved as if he was trying to handcuff a bear. He looked uncertainly at Tanner, but the former bounty hunter shook his head.
"You won't be needin' those," he said sadly, handing his gun to Townsend. "I won't put up a fight."
"Well - well, you'd better not." Townsend tried to sound threatening, but failed. He seemed to be afraid to touch the tracker. Instead of taking his arm, he merely cleared his throat and said, "Well, let's...go to the jail. I guess."
Tanner threw Durning a withering look. "Right," he said, and walked with Townsend out of the alley.
Durning watched them go, hands in his pockets, and after a few minutes Tims scurried over to join him.
"What'd you do that for?" he babbled.
"You kidding?" Durning grinned, "Who you want in jail, him or us? Come on, let's go back to the hotel. I'll go to the jail in the morning."
They hurried out of the alleyway, Tims looking behind him the whole way.
After a moment, two other shadows appeared out of the darkness. Concho's teeth gleamed as he surveyed the empty alleyway.
"This is wonderful." The criminal laughed. "This is better than I ever dreamed."
The other man, Torres, peered after the figures. "What?"
Concho smiled broadly. "By this time tomorrow, there won't be a hired gun within fifty miles of this town. Torres, get back to the boys. I have another message for you."
Torres nodded. "What is it?"
Concho walked over to the still-open back door of the jewelry store, pulled a bag out of his jacket,and held the door for a moment before going inside. His smile looked ghoulish, almost undead in the orange light as he looked as his companion.
"Tell them it's time to come back," he said in a happy voice. "Tell them the door is open."
And went inside.
+ + + + + + +
JD sat propped up in Nathan's bed, and was trying to keep his mind occupied until Buck returned with his dime novels. His brain hurt from trying to remember things, so he decided to give it a rest and sat humming to himself.
He didn't know many songs. Most of the ones he did know came from his mother. And even those he couldn't really remember all the words, just some of them. But it was something to do besides pick the lint off Nathan's bedspread, so JD stared at the coverlet in the low light and tried to remember as much of his mother's songs as he could as his free hand roamed over the worn fabric.
"The minstrel boy to the...war is gone..." JD sung quietly, smiling as he remembered his mother's voice. The memory felt warm, and he wrapped himself in it. "In the ranks of...hm hm hmmm..."
Now what were the words? JD tried to picture his mother singing them, and smiled again.
At that moment the door burst open and Mr. Conklin stormed in.
JD started, blinked at the man in fear before he recognized him.
Conklin barely looked at him. "Where's Nathan?"
JD blinked again. Conklin was holding his arm, and he looked like he was bleeding. "Uh - he's asleep at the church."
"God damn it," Conklin swore, and seemed to see JD for the first time. His jaw dropped.
It was then that the light caught his sheriff's badge, and JD noticed it.
"Hey!" he protested. "You're wearing my badge! "
"I sure am," Conklin said gruffly. "And your fine friend almost killed me because of it!"
JD winced at Conklin's loud voice, and said, "Huh?"
"That tracker!" Conklin rubbed his arm. "He just shot me." He shook his head, glared at JD. "What a bunch of no-good rough-housers. Think just because they can sweet-talk the judge, they can do whatever they want!"
JD was getting annoyed, and wished Conklin would leave, since Nathan wasn't there.
"And you." Conklin shook his head again, looking JD up and down as he lay in the bed, "You're worse than any of them. You couldn't stay east and let trouble find you. You had to come out here looking for it! Well, I guess you learned. You put your trust in a maniac like Larabee, and this is what you get!"
Now JD was really angry, and confused. "What are you talking about, Mr. Conklin?"
"What do you think, son?" Conklin screeched. "The man's a lunatic! They all are!"
"Chris isn't a lunatic." JD said hotly, "He's a great man!"
"Huh!" Conklin replied. "A great man who beat you black and blue!"
JD stopped. Everything stopped for the merest fraction of a second.
Then JD blinked and recovered himself, recalled that Conklin was an alarmist. "Oh, come on!"
"Ain't you got no sense left?" Conklin cried. "You're going to defend a man who ambushed you in a dark alley and threw you around like a sack of dirt? He nearly killed you, son! Don't you remember?"
JD stopped again, longer this time, and his mind grabbed onto Conklin's words, and did not let go. JD stared at the coverlet in panic, shoved the attacking thought away, but it came back. And still he could not accept it.
Dark alley? Threw...around...?
Rushing images, kicking, hitting, he's too fast and strong, hard and tight and pain, Jesus, pain -
JD raised one trembling hand slowly, touched the stitches, but his hand was numb with shock.
A knock on the door, two-thirty, come quick will you, Larabee's drunk -
Dark, very dark, cold and tired, there he is, oh boy he is drunk, well maybe I'll just follow him, oops he saw me, wait no he didn't, there he goes. Woops, he's falling down maybe he needs a hand Chris? Chris?
- oh -
- OH -
no... The door opened, and Buck came in, the dime novels in his hand, but JD barely noticed him. He knew, somehow, that Buck had tossed the books down, was rushing to his side, and Buck was asking something, and he looked concerned, but JD felt like he was underwater, he couldn't hear what Buck was saying; he didn't think Buck was really with him anymore. Buck touched his good arm, but JD didn't feel it, he was in a tight tunnel with only one awful thought to focus on, one reality that was unspooling itself, horrible and scarring and unstoppable, and it was true, but it couldn't be, but it was, it was, and a searing pain shot up through JD's being and before he could stop himself he remembered.
He felt himself slipping down in the bed, shrinking away from the assault of memories, but it was no use. No use. Buck was there but too far away. JD felt his body begin to shake, heard himself start to whimper and moan helplessly under what he was experiencing, but he was outside himself, and could not stop the pain.
A voice, somewhere distant, calling for Nathan.
Agony, everywhere, great red bursts of color. Slamming into the wall, again and again, can't stop it, oh, oh, no -
A hand, clutching his, but too late. He gripped it back, tried to, but there was another way.
JD let out a small, sobbing gasp and passed out cold.
+ + + + + + +
Darcy was sitting by the fire, still smoking his pipe and scribbling some words in a journal he kept in his saddlebag. He heard a horseman approaching, glanced over to where Chris was sleeping, half-hidden by a boulder a few yards away. Then Darcy set down the journal, pulled out his derringer, stood up and walked toward the sound of the hooves.
It was a middle-aged man with a sheriff's star on his coat. Darcy was in the shadow of the rock now, so he couldn't see the man very well. The man tugged his hat and said, "Evenin'."
"Good evening to ye." Darcy said in friendly but uncertain tones.
The man stayed on his horse. "Mind if I ask your business out here?"
Darcy took a step closer. "Me an' my friend just stopped here for the night. Is that a problem, sheriff?"
"Hm." The man urged his mount a little closer, regarded Darcy in the starlight. "No, not really, but you'd better be careful. There's been a lot of marauders out this way, and it's not very safe for travelers."
"Oh." Darcy pocketed his pistol. "Well, thanks for the warnin'."
The sheriff nodded. "Where you headed?"
"Four Corners." Darcy responded conversationally, and looked back toward the fire, but it and Chris were hidden by the rock. "We - "
"Four Corners?" the sheriff repeated, and there was a sound of alarm in his voice that made Darcy turn back in curiosity.
"Yes," he said. "Why?"
"Well..." The sheriff rubbed his chin. "I should probably warn you, Four Corners isn't a very good place to be just now. The sheriff's been attacked, and there ain't much law left."
"You don't say?" Darcy cocked his head.
The sheriff nodded. "I've been in touch with Mary Travis, her father in law is a circuit judge. She just cabled me this afternoon, told me herself. One of the hired guns beat up the sheriff, pretty bad, and the town's turned on the rest of the men Travis hired. Last cable said, if things kept goin' the way they were, they'd be gone by tomorrow."
"Oh." Darcy replied, then asked, "Did she say how the sheriff was faring?"
"Bad," came the immediate reply. "Broken ribs, busted collarbone, but the worst thing is he's crippled. Can't walk anymore. She didn't say so, but my guess is they'll be shipping him off to a home pretty soon."
Darcy winced. "That bad is it?"
The man nodded, then added, "I had a cousin once, same thing happened to him, same age too, real young. He was attacked by a drunk in New Orleans in seventy-three, got hit in the head with a brick. Put him right in a wheelchair."
"That's a shame," Darcy said sympathetically. "Where is he now?"
The man looked down. "He killed himself last year."
Darcy took a sharp breath.
"Well, you be careful," the man said, picking up the reins of his horse. "Oh, and be on the lookout for a man dressed all in black, wandering around. His name is Larabee."
Darcy looked up, and his face was calm. "Who's he?"
The man fiddled with the reins as he spoke. "Well, according to Four Corners' new sheriff, he's the man who's responsible for the other sheriff's injuries . He's supposed to be in hiding, so's he don't get lynched, but word is he's running. There's about four bounties on his head, all from outlaws with a grudge I guess. In any case, if you see him, steer clear. He's rumored to be one dangerous son of a bitch when he's drunk, and from what I hear every soul in Four Corners wants him dead, including a few of his men. And you don't want to be standing in the way when they catch up with him."
Darcy smiled benignly. "Right. Thank you, sheriff."
"Good night," the man said, tugged on his hat, and rode off into the night.
Darcy stood there for a moment, shaking his head sadly. Then he turned and went back to the rock, put out the fire, and despite his troubled mind, in a few minutes was fast asleep.
He awoke with a start a while later; how long, he didn't know. The embers from the fire were still glowing a little, and in the low light Darcy saw a glimmering object that lay directly in front of his face, with a scrap of paper that looked like it had been torn from his journal lying next to it.
Darcy sat up, reached for the object and paper.
A man's gold wedding ring. And a note.
Darcy looked up.
Chris Larabee was gone.
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