The stars were shining that night.
Their light fell on the oceans, the forests and rivers, the towns and villages of a rough country still struggling to mature. They glowed on calmly that night, indifferent to the tumultuous activities in one country, in one territory, in one small western town...
They shone on the man in the tan coat, being taken to jail for a crime he didn't commit. Their luminence fell softly on the small white church, seeming to know that the healer and the preacher that were inside needed some heavenly reassurance. Their silvery shine glittered brightly, as if they knew that a solitary figure sat and stared at them from the dark, melancholy depths of his rented room, stared at them with tired green eyes and wished for sleep that wouldn't come.
And they seemed to shine more warmly where it was needed most, in the sickroom of a youth torn apart in body and soul, trapped in a nightmare prison no one could reach. It went unnoticed, but they also touched with their silvery light the anguished heart of the man who sat by the boy's side, and prayed that this night would end.
They also shone on another figure, riding alone through the moonswept prairie, his black clothes made blue by the stark light of the stars above. Thrown-back shoulders, a hard ride, but a face drawn in deepest pain, the heart made bare in the bitter eyes full of self-hatred and incrimination as his horse's hoofbeats beat the same cadence in his head, over and over...
My fault...run out of town...my fault...crippled for life...my fault...
And a great distance behind, another rider, searching beneath the white starlight, his handsome face sad and worried, and in his pocket a gold ring and a note, two words.
The rider would help, but not without the man in black. He would find him, he had to, and he wouldn't give up.
And all of this happened under a canopy of the most brilliant stars, removed and indifferent as they looked out over the wild territory and saw the terrible struggle that was going on, wherein everything could be lost or gained, in souls and minds and hearts of this handful of men waging war in the cold, dark night. An imaginative mind would say they could not be unsympathetic; there was too much turmoil here for the heavens to be uninvolved.
But the stars were not saying. They kept their silence, in the bleak night of that western town; kept their silence, and watched. And gave their light.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah had heard the gunshot as he worked in the candlelit church, and after a few minutes of deliberation decided to at least walk down the street and have a look at what was going on. He was buckling on his gun and walking toward the door when suddenly it burst open, and Conklin walked in, gun out and aimed at Josiah's chest.
Josiah blinked, said calmly, "Evening, Mr. Conklin." He looked closer, saw that the man was clutching his gun arm with his other hand, and there was blood there. His heart jumping, Josiah stepped closer. "Are you all - "
"Stay back," Conklin said in a shaky voice, rattling the gun in Josiah's direction. His wound was not major, but the pain was still enough to make his face pale and sweaty. Despite this, he cleared his throat and said in his most commanding voice, "You just stay away from me. And take off that gun."
Josiah paused, then very slowly unbuckled his gun and laid in on the nearest pew, never taking his eyes off Conklin. Deliberately he said, "Mr. Conklin, what's wrong? What happened? Are you all right?"
"I'll tell you what happened!" Conklin snarled, still waving the gun at Josiah. "That tracker friend of yours shot at me, tried to kill me. I was lucky, but I ain't gonna make the mistake of turning my back on you gunslingers twice."
"You're bleeding," Josiah rumbled in soothing tones, he hoped. "Do you want me to get Nathan?"
Conklin nodded, but hastily said, "Don't think I don't know this might be a trick! That little punk might be in on this with you, for all I know, and this is some kind of ambush. I'll just stay here by the door and you bring Nathan to me."
Josiah nodded, putting his hands up and backing away from his gun. "What little punk is that, Mr. Conklin?"
"Mr. Dunne," Conklin explained impatiently. "He told me Nathan was here, but I'm not stupid. He's one of you, even ifhe is just a kid."
Just then Nathan appeared out of the back room, and Conklin's arm shot up, his gun now uncertainly trained on the healer. Nathan leapt backward a bit and instinctively raised his hands.
"Mr. Conklin, it's me!" Nathan yelped, surprised. "Don't shoot!"
Conklin blinked, hesitantly lowered the gun a bit. Nathan cast a questioning look at Josiah, who locked eyes with him and said quietly, "He's hurt. Vin shot him."
"Vin?" Nathan asked as he walked toward Conklin, who was sitting down heavily in the pew next to him, sweat glistening on his white face. Nathan stopped a few feet from him, said, "Now, Mr. Conklin, I need to get that jacket off to look at your arm, and to do that I need you to put down that gun. Can you do that for me?"
Conklin eyed Nathan suspiciously, almost put the gun down. Nathan smiled reassuringly and said, "Come on, Mr. Conklin, it's me. I ain't gonna hurt you, I just wanna look at that arm."
"Well..." Conklin finally laid the gun on the pew, winced as Nathan gently took the bloodstained arm of the jacket and began to pull it off.
"You say Vin did this?" Nathan asked as he laid the jacket aside and picked a pair of scissors out of his pocket.
Conklin nodded, grimacing as Nathan touched a sore spot. "I was attempting to arrest some thieves behind the jewelry store, and Mr. Tanner tried to interfere. Thanks to my quick thinking, however, he didn't get away."
"Hm." Nathan finished cutting the sleeve away, began to inspect the wound itself, a deep gash on Conklin's arm. "You arrest him?"
"You bet I did." Conklin nodded in self- satisfaction. "He'll stand trial as soon as the judge gets here. I have a witness who saw the whole thing."
"You do?" Josiah asked in surprise. "Who?"
"Businessman, from out of town. Ow!" Conklin jerked his arm, sighed and settled back down. "He was out walking, saw Mr. Tanner try and take me out. Plain as day."
Josiah scratched his beard. "He'll swear to this in a court of law? What's his name?"
Conklin frowned threateningly at Josiah. "I won't tell you any more. I don't want your kind harassing my witnesses! Just leave him alone, or you'll be joining your friend in jail."
Josiah and Nathan traded looks, and Nathan said, "Looks like you just been grazed, Mr. Conklin. Bullet didn't come close to goin' in. It'll hurt, but you'll be fine."
"Oh?" Conklin looked disappointed it wasn't more serious. "You're sure?"
Nathan tried not to smile too much. "Yep. Hold on, I'll get you a clean bandage."
"I'll get them," Josiah said, his serious gray eyes not moving from Conklin's face, that scowl. Then he moved away, into the back room.
Conklin watched him go, whispered to Nathan, "You know, Nathan, I always knew you were a better man than to get mixed up with this gang of Larabee's. Just wanted you to know, I won't be asking you to leave."
Nathan kept his eyes on tending to Conklin's wound, replied, "I appreciate that, Mr. Conklin."
"I thought you would." Conklin sat for a moment, said wistfully, "You know, I always wondered what it felt like to get shot."
"Hurts, don't it?" Nathan said as sympathetically as he could.
Conklin made a face. "I should have known better. Should never have turned my back on that renegade."
Nathan bit his lip, said nothing.
"They're all alike," Conklin went on, ignoring the smoldering look in Nathan's eyes. "First Larabee beats that boy half to death, and now Tanner tries to shoot me. No loyalty, no respect for life at all."
Nathan still said nothing.
"And the funny thing is," Conklin said with a raspy chuckle, "is that Mr. Dunne still defended that scoundrel. Called him a 'great man'! Can you imagine? I guess that knock he got rattled his brains right out of his head." He paused, then said, "Oh, you might want to look in on him, after you're done with me. I think he was having a seizure or something."
Nathan stopped what he was doing, peered at Conklin in alarm. "What?"
"Um - " Conklin stammered a bit, then said, "Well, while we were talking about Mr. Larabee beating him up, he kind of went pale and kind of started shaking."
"And you left him alone like that?" Nathan stood up straight now, and glared at Conklin openly.
"Hell, no!" Conklin said defensively. "That Wilmington fellow was with him. There's another fine one for you. He seemed to know what he was doing, so I left. What could I do, anyway?"
Nathan gaze was very intent, and a little frightened. "Mr. Conklin, you sayin' JD told you Chris beat him up?"
"Well, I mentioned it first I think," Conklin said. "Why? What difference does it make?"
Josiah reappeared with a white bandage, noticed Nathan's tense posture and asked, "What is it?"
Nathan grabbed the bandage out of Josiah hands, said urgently, "Get to my room quick. Conklin told JD that Chris hurt him. I think he's gonna need some help. I'll be there quick as I can."
Josiah took a deep breath, didn't waste a look at Conklin, nodded and hurried out.
Conklin glared at the path the preacher had taken. "He better not be thinking of breaking Tanner out. Townsend's watching the jail, and we have enough people to make sure Larabee's gang doesn't cause trouble."
Nathan sighed, picked up the bandage and began to gently wind it around the reddening wound. As he did, he asked in an voice struggling for politeness, "What about the other gang?"
Conklin wrinkled his face. "Huh?"
"The other gang. The one robbin' the jewelry store."
"Oh." Conklin's eyes darted to the floor in embarrassment, then he shrugged as nonchalantly as he could. "Um - just a bunch of kids out for some fun. I let them off the hook. This time. Probably never see them again."
+ + + + + + +
Durning walked casually up the alleyway toward the hotel, hands in his pockets. Tims tried to look just as unconcerned but was failing miserably; he'd turned his trouser pockets inside out several times, and was at that moment fiddling nervously with his pocket watch.
People were starting to come out into the streets, whispering and asking questions. As they wandered down the alleyway, Durning shot Tims a nasty look. "For cryin' out loud, Tims, simmer down, will ya? You'll have every eye on us in a second."
"I can't help it," Tims whined, his eyes bugging out of his head. "What if we get caught? What if Concho rats on us? What if - "
"Oh, shut up," Durning growled in annoyance, looking around the alleyway, "We're free and clear. I'm a witness, remember?"
"Yeah, I do," Tims said sharply. "A witness to something that didn't even happen!"
"Oh, yes, it did," Durning growled, turning suddenly and grabbing Tims' lapel. "It did and I saw the whole thing. And if you know what's good for you, you'll keep your mouth shut. Got it?"
Tims stared at Durning for a moment, shocked, then reached up and yanked the other man's hand off his lapel. "Jeez, Durning," he said in surprised dismay. "What's gotten into you? You're turning into a real hooligan."
Durning shrugged off the suggestion, scanned the alley as they came near the stable, where the lone lamp still shone. "Wonder where the others went."
"We're right here," Childers' voice piped up behind them. Tims jumped, and Durning turned to see Childers and Sherson walking up behind them, their clothes rumpled and their hair mussed.
"Huh." Durning looked the men up and down. "You didn't get caught either?"
"Nah," Sherson shook his head. "They forgot about us. Too busy trying to kill each other."
"That was an accident," Tims moaned. "It happened when I saw the long-hair fellow making to shoot at you guys. I didn't even know I was going to rush him till I did it."
"Yeah, well...good job, Tims." Sherson smiled and gave Tims a whack on the shoulder. "Got him off our backs, anyway."
"And right into the town jail." Durning said triumphantly.
Childers crossed his arms, looked at Durning. "So now what?"
"We go back to the hotel," Durning said obviously, shrugging hugely, "We were just out for a walk, saw the long-haired guy shoot the sheriff, and now we're going back, nothing to it."
"Then what?" Sherson asked. "We can't stay here."
"And why not?" A new voice asked, and Durning turned to see Concho Charles step from the shadows.
"Huh." Durning commented. "You got away too, huh?"
"Obviously," Concho smiled, "Well, gentlemen, not quite a success, but still, I must thank you."
"For what?" Tims asked in curiosity. "We didn't get in."
"No, but you accomplished something much, much better." Concho took out a cheroot, lit it, and took a slow puff before continuing, "Thanks to your associate's little...mishap, the sheriff is wounded and Tanner is in jail. And if I read my bleating sheep correctly, by this time tomorrow the other hired guns will be gone as well. So, I must say thank you. And I'd like to invite you to stay a while longer."
"For what?" Childers asked.
Concho took another drag, began to pace a little. "For a chance of a lifetime. You gentlemen are just passing through, I know, but take my word for it, Four Corners used to be a veritable paradise for men such as myself. I had a huge following here, it was a perfect place to base my operations. Then Larabee and his friends showed up, and I had to move my men out of town."
"And now Larabee's gone." Durning noted.
Concho nodded, still smiling. "Of course, he might come back, and until tonight I thought I'd have to content myself with a little petty thievery in the interim. But now that's changed. With Tanner in jail, and the town up in arms over Larabee's drunken rampage, well...let's just say I'd hate to be one of Larabee's men right now. They're not popular."
"And that Conklin fellow got shot, didn't he?" Sherson asked.
Concho nodded, and sighed. "That's two sheriffs in one week. The tourist trade is bound to suffer. But, once Larabee's men are driven out there won't be any law here at all."
Durning shook his head. "But what about that Travis, the judge who's coming here? I heard he's federal."
"Well, that's the beauty of this whole affair," Concho said lightly. "See, I didn't think there was anything I could do about Travis' arrival. But there's another whole day to go until he can get here, and I have over fifty men at my hideout just waiting to take this place over again. With Tanner in jail, that leaves only four lawmen, and I can deal with them very easily, if I have to at all. The good people of this town may remove them first, in which case you'll see an approach of outlaws like a plague of locusts. The judge will be dead if he sets foot near the place."
Durning crossed his arms. "So why are you telling us this?"
"Well, isn't it obvious?" Concho raised his eyebrows. "I'm giving you gentlemen a rare opportunity. I can guarantee you'll never have another chance to ransack a town that lies so helpless as this one. I can tell you're aching to bust out of those business suits, and you've all got talent I can use, so here is your chance."
Concho took another puff on his cigar as the men looked at each other. Tims backed away and rapidly shook his head. "You can count me out. I've had enough of all this."
The others looked at him as Childers added, "I'm not so sure either. You get caught, you'll probably get one of your gang to bust you out. We get caught, we're going down the river. And why should we trust you anyway?"
"Oh, you shouldn't," Concho asserted, blowing a thin cloud of blue smoke into the still night air, "But you don't have to. We don't make promises to each other, so there are none to break. I'm merely advertising, to use one of your phrases. Making you aware of what this fine city has to offer you." Durning considered this, and looked at the others. Sherson was considering it too, and Childers was wavering. Tims was still backing away, his face pale.
Concho looked at the boardwalk. "Oh, I understand. You gentlemen need an - an incentive? You give out samples, don't you? Well, here."
And Concho pulled a bag out of his coat pocket and poured its contents into his gloved hand.
"Jesus Christ!" Childers breathed, glancing behind himself quickly to make sure no one was around. A small pile of jewels glistened in Concho's glove, rubies and sapphires and diamonds, all twinkling and shimmering in beguiling colors.
"Just a sample, gentlemen," Concho said, quickly shunting the gems back into the bag. "But there's much more where that came from."
"The jewelry store?" Durning asked, an avaricious gleam in his eye.
"The jewelry store," Concho answered evenly. "By this time tomorrow, we can go in through the front door if we like. I have the word out to my men, they should be arriving all day. Not in one group, that would draw too much attention, but slowly. By the time the sun goes down again I shall own this town, and my friends will have the run of it."
Concho emphasized 'friends', a maneuver that was not lost on the men present.
Durning leaned back, stroked his chin. "What do you guys think?"
"I don't know," Childers muttered, his eyes gleaming at the bag Concho held, but his manner unsure. "It's pretty risky."
"And being a salesman isn't," Concho observed.
Sherson shrugged. "What have we got to go home for?" he asked rhetorically.
Tims cocked his head, then shook it vigorously. "Bertha would kill me."
The other men laughed scornfully. Concho said, "My friend, your wife - I'm assuming Bertha is your wife - would most definitely not kill you if you came home with a fur coat, or a diamond necklace. In fact, she might be very grateful."
There was an insidious glint in Concho's eyes as he said this, and Tims noticed it, but didn't know what it meant.
Concho sighed, pocketed the bag and waved his cheroot. "Well, I have to go. Don't look for me tomorrow, I'll be at my hideout getting things organized. But you might notice the town getting a little...hmm, let's say more colorful. Don't be alarmed, though. I'll tell them not to hurt you."
Durning eyed him. "Gee, thanks."
"My pleasure." Concho began to walk away, then turned around. "Oh, by the way, should you decide not to join me, please don't do anything foolish like mention that you know me to Conklin or Larabee's men. I'll find out, and you won't like the way you die when I do."
The men nodded dumbly. Tims turned green.
Concho gave an elegant smile. "Good evening." And melted back into the shadows.
The men watched him go, then Childers sighed. "Well, we're in it now. What do you guys think?"
Sherson and Durning looked at each other. Durning shrugged. "Three lawmen don't sound like much against fifty men."
"Yeah, but what if Larabee comes back?" Childers suggested.
Sherson made a face. "Maybe he won't."
"Even if he does," Durning added, "he's finished here. The town'll see to that. They'll tear him apart for what he did."
"Yeah." Tims gulped, then said, "Hey, I wonder how that kid he beat up is doing, anyway."
Durning paused, then began walking in the direction of the hotel as he shrugged again and retorted, "Jesus, Tims. Who the hell cares?"
+ + + + + + +
Josiah hurried to Nathan's room, dodging the curious looks of passersby as he walked swiftly along the boardwalks. No one had stopped him to ask about the shooting, and he was thankful for that; in his present state, he was unsure how he'd react to a question, or a threat.
Lamps were coming on, people were out on the street in their nightclothes whispering in huddled groups, and the sight made Josiah's stomach knot. Something was happening, it was in the air, the tide was turning against them, him and the other men. But he didn't care about that, it didn't matter to him at all in that moment if they boarded up the church tomorrow and asked him to leave. He would, and gladly, but first there was someone who needed his help. And Josiah didn't know how to give it.
It was odd, as if there was a bad charm in the air that night. Josiah's eyes flicked to the jail as he passed it, and his stomach knotted further. Vin in jail, Vin shot Mr. Conklin, why? How? Josiah knew Vin, at least well enough to know what he was capable of, but Conklin had a witness. There was something not right about that either. But Vin could take care of himself, so Josiah let it go. For the moment.
Nathan's room was just ahead. A light on, Josiah took the stairs two at a time. There seemed to be a dark cloud around the place, something pushing him away, and Josiah fought it, fought his own fear, and suddenly words came to his mind, as clear as if he were reading them at that moment:
I implore you by God, do not torment me. Crying out, in a loud voice. Do not torment me.
Josiah reached the door and put his hand on it. He swore he could feel something through the wood, an awful struggle, pain and anguish coursing through the betrayed soul of a nineteen-year-old boy. Josiah felt powerless to help, but he was needed.
Someone was imploring.
Josiah pushed the door open, and went inside.
+ + + + + + +
There was only one light on in Nathan's room, the lamp by JD's bed, and in the round glow of that lamp Josiah saw Buck hunched forward, one hand on JD's arm, the other wiping his forehead with a damp cloth. The youth looked pale, and unconscious in a way Josiah had not seen since JD first woke up the day before. Buck glanced up at Josiah, a quick glance with a world of anxiety in it. Then his eyes went back to the bed.
"What happened?" Josiah asked softly as he moved to sit in the chair on the opposite side of the bed. JD's face looked worse close up, as if he'd slid backwards from the improvement he'd been showing. The bruises looked almost black, and his face was paste-colored and twitched as Buck dabbed the cloth. He looked like he was having a nightmare.
Buck didn't talk for a moment, then in a low, dangerous voice asked, "You see that fool Conklin?"
Josiah nodded, his eyes going to Buck.
"Damn him." Buck growled.
Josiah leaned closer, laid a gentle hand on JD's head. The boy flinched away and gasped, but did not wake up. Josiah started a bit, felt a flush a guilt as he brought his hand back down.
"He's been like this since Conklin left," Buck said in a tight, distressed tone. "He won't come out of it."
Josiah nodded, sat back, didn't know what else to do. Finally he said, "You see Conklin's arm?"
Buck's expression turned to one of confusion, and he shook his head. "Why?"
"He was shot." Josiah said heavily. "By Vin."
Buck's eyes darted up, and his head came back in surprise. "Vin! What for?"
Josiah sat forward, shook his head. "I don't know, but it doesn't look good. Vin's in the jail. Conklin told me he's got a witness."
Buck shook his head, looking at JD's troubled face sadly as he placed the cloth on the boy's forehead. "Damn."
"Conklin's mighty upset." Josiah understated, "Likely he'll be askin' for our resignations come sunrise."
"Well, he can have mine." Buck said firmly
Josiah nodded, looked at JD with concern. The youth's breathing was growing more rapid and frightened, and he was muttering under his breath.
"Easy there, JD," Buck whispered soothingly, setting the cloth aside so he had both hands free. JD began to move around in the narrow bed, as if he was struggling against something.
Josiah stood up. Buck laid his hands on JD's shoulders to keep him from thrashing too much, but the youth cried out in his sleep and with his good hand shoved the gunslinger away.
Buck blinked at Josiah, startled, and the preacher leaned down to JD and said softly, "It's okay, son. JD? Wake up, now."
JD's hand went unconsciously to the black row of stitches in his hair, and suddenly he flung himself straight up in the bed, opening his eyes with a hoarse shout. Josiah caught him as he began to fall out of the bed, and Buck rapidly sat down again and placed a steadying hand on JD's back.
"Easy, JD," Josiah said gently as JD stared ahead in shock, his whole body trembling in Josiah's grasp. He breathed in huge, terrified gulps of air, and his scratched hand went from his hair to cling to Josiah in half-conscious terror.
Buck leaned toward his young friend's flushed, sweating face with its horrible dark bruise. "JD?"
The youth blinked, seemed to come back to himself. His grip on Josiah relaxed a little, and he gazed at Buck for a moment, and Buck felt his stomach drop at the blankness in those eyes.
But then JD blinked again, and said in a trembling whisper, "Buck?"
"Yeah." Buck smiled in relief, and patted JD on the back. "You were having another nightmare, kid."
Josiah eased the boy back onto the pillows. JD shook his head and ran his fingers through his black hair.
"No," he said softly, in a voice thick with unbidden tears. "No, it was..." He hesitated, looked at Josiah and Buck with uncertain fear.
"What is it, son?" Josiah asked, folding his hands in his lap, but not moving from where he sat on the edge of the bed.
JD paused. "It's bad."
"Like we haven't known bad lately." Buck commented wryly.
JD didn't smile, closed his eyes and ran his hand over them. "No, it's really bad. I..." He sighed in a forlorn way and bit his lip. "I remember what happened to me."
Josiah and Buck looked at each other. Josiah leaned forward a little and put a steadying hand on JD's arm. "You don't have to talk about it, JD."
"No, I do," the youth insisted, looking at Josiah with a mixture of fear and determination on those beaten features. "Because it's - it's about Chris."
Buck leaned forward, his mind racing to figure out how to make this as easy as possible on the boy. "What about Chris?"
"Something's wrong with him," JD said quickly, his dark eyes flashing with urgency. "He's been...I don't know, poisoned or something. You said he went to find the person who attacked me?"
Buck sat back a little, rubbed his moustache. "Um, well - "
"See, he doesn't know," JD said, alarm in his eyes as he struggled to push himself up in the bed. "He doesn't remember, it was him. Chris is the one who attacked me."
JD looked at Buck and Josiah as if expecting incredulity or ridicule over such an absurd notion, and was a bit surprised to see both men just looking at him, serious and unmoving. But the memories were tumbling out of him now, and in his excitement he let it pass.
"I remember," JD continued, settling against the pillows, his face becoming animated as he talked. "I think...I remember the bartender coming to get me, he said - he told me Chris was acting funny, and the bartender was scared about him. And I..." JD paused, pursed his lips as he thought very hard for a moment. "I kind of got half-dressed, and went out into the alley, and I found him staggering around, but he didn't recognize me." He stopped again, stared at the coverlet while his good hand brushed black strands of hair out of his eyes.
Josiah and Buck looked at each other again, and Buck read his own emotion in Josiah's eyes: dread. After a few moments, Josiah said. "You recall what h - "
"I know the bartender said Chris was drunk," JD interrupted, his youthful voice full of certainty, "But there was something funny about it, I mean, he didn't even know who I was. And he looked at me like...well, like I was his worst enemy or something. I thought maybe I'd go get one of you guys to help me out, and I almost went, but then Chris tripped over something and I thought he was going to hurt himself. I put my hand on his shoulder and he just - " JD broke off a third time, shrugged with one shoulder and said in a much smaller voice. "- snapped."
Josiah sighed, looked down at his hands. Buck felt some of that old rage returning, the fury that made him want to find Chris and break him in half. He swallowed it down, pushed at it until it was just a flat, painful space in his gut, and held it there. Chris he would deal with later. JD needed him now.
Josiah patted JD's bound arm and said reassuringly, "Sorry you had to go through that, son. You've given us a scare, and that's a fact."
JD looked up at him, puzzled. "Well - don't you guys think we should go find Chris? I mean, he's out there looking for the person who attacked me, and it was him! He's - I don't know, maybe somebody put something in his drink, or you know, I've heard of some drugs they have out here? They make you crazy, maybe that's it."
More traded looks, a bit more uneasy this time. Buck edged closer to his young friend. "JD, you don't remember Chris bein' drunk when he hit you?"
JD cocked his head and gave Buck an exasperated look. "Well, Buck, I ain't stupid! Yes, he was drunk, but just bein' drunk don't make a man attack his friends! It had to be more than that, right? I mean, look at me, Chris wouldn't have beaten me up like this if he knew who I was - I mean, he broke my collarbone! Look at these bruises I got on my arm! I can't walk, for pete's sake! Chris wouldn't do things like this to a friend of his, unless he was under some kind of drug, or something. Right?"
Buck looked down, then back up at those hazel eyes fixed on Buck, so sure of Chris' invincibility. Even in the face of unflinching memory. Against all evidence, all reason. Even then, Chris was still blameless. Remarkable.
But Buck didn't answer JD's question, so the youth turned away from him, to Josiah. "Right, Josiah?"
JD gave Josiah a pleading look, and Josiah paused, looked away so he wouldn't have to deal with that stubborn hope that was looking to him for a reassurance he couldn't give.
When Josiah didn't answer right away, JD's face fell a little bit, and his eyes darted between them nervously as he said, "Did something else happen? Something I haven't remembered yet?"
Buck looked up. "JD - "
"Dammit, Buck!" JD pounded a fist into the covers, his expression rapidly shifting to one of angry frustration. "I'm sick of everybody treating me like a child. I may be - I may be beat up, but I ain't a baby. And I wanna know."
Buck sighed. Josiah ran one hand across his chin.
JD's face turned white. "Is Chris dead?"
Josiah's hand dropped quickly. "No, JD. No, he's - "
"Then what is it?" JD started to shake again, this time in impotent fury. "There's something you don't want to tell me, something about Chris? About me?" He looked at Buck, angry, insulted, imploring, his hazel eyes flashing as he spoke. "I wanna know, Buck. What is it?"
Buck looked down at his hands, folded in front of him. But he didn't know what to say.
Josiah's voice was soft as down as he spoke, and in an instant JD was staring at him with huge, questioning eyes.
"Chris knew." Josiah's eyes were steady, locked into the youth's as he talked in the quietest tone. "Not when it happened, but after. He came to me, right before he left. He was drunk, he told me so. Just drunk."
JD's eyes went wide, then back down again, and he shook his head defiantly, that black hair once more flopping into his eyes. "No, that can't be it. He - he..."
"He was very sorry," Josiah continued, praying for strength all the time. "He thought you were his enemies, people he's fought against, like Fowler and that warden in the prison. He didn't realize it was you till it was over."
JD's eyes studied the coverlet, his eyebrows together in wracked confusion. "Well, then he - he still didn't - did he get me to Nathan's?"
"No," Buck said, in a voice as low and soft as he could manage. "Me and Nathan did that."
JD glanced at him, frowning, then looked back at Josiah. His expression was shifting, still clinging to shreds of optimism, but confused. "Well, where was Chris?"
Buck felt the anger rise again, shoved it back down. "He went home. To sleep it off."
JD blanched, for just a moment, then he stared at Buck and Josiah in a way that reminded Buck of the first time JD awoke after the accident; his eyes were glazed, terrified, like a trapped animal's.
"No," JD said firmly as he shook his head. "No, that's - that's wrong, Chris is - he helps people, he doesn't just - just beat them up and leave them in the street, I mean, not m - not any of us, we're his friends. He...he wouldn't..."
JD's words hung in the air, the wavering astonishment in them searing Buck like a red-hot knife. He knew he was witnessing the shattering of JD's most fondly held illusion, that Chris was perfect, and it killed him to have to see it. Josiahcould almost hear the pedestal cracking, crumbling, falling to the earth with a deafening crash. He looked at JD, drew close when he saw the horrified betrayal in those gigantic hazel eyes, on that battered face. JD flinched away from him, then immediately looked ashamed.
Without looking at Buck or Josiah, JD asked in a voice choked with tears, "Did Chris really leave town?"
Josiah gave a solemn nod. "He had to. Too many folks around here want him hung."
JD's head came up sharply, and he stared at Josiah open-mouthed for a moment. Then he said, "Conklin. He - he had my badge on."
"Yeah." Buck cleared his throat, "He's kind of - taken over, temporarily."
JD seemed to shrink against the pillows, grow smaller as he pondered this. Finally, after a long moment's silence, he whispered, "I'm not sheriff anymore?"
"It's just for a while," Buck hastened to reassure him, and a sudden memory came, the first time Buck went to see JD after the boy had taken on the job, a cocky smile, utter confidence, I don't care what you say, Buck, I still ain't changing my hat.
Buck winced at the thought, glanced at JD. The boy looked devastated.
Then JD laughed, a bitter chuckle, and picked at the coverlet. "Well, I guess that makes sense. I mean, who ever heard of a crippled sheriff, huh?"
There was a thickness to those words, a weight of sorrow that Buck had never heard in JD's voice before, and he realized with a wrench in his gut that JD was thinking a lot of things he wasn't about to share. Wrong things.
Hurriedly, Buck edged his chair closer and tried to sound cheerful. "Now, don't go talkin' like that, JD. This is just for the time bein', see? You'll be up in no time, and - "
"Oh, save it, Buck." JD turned to Buck, and he looked years older. "Just...I want to be alone, all right?"
Buck looked at Josiah, who lifted himself off the bed and asked, "Nathan should be here soon. Would you mind if we sat with you till then?"
JD's eyes returned to the coverlet, and his face was flushed with emotion. He blinked several times, as if fighting back tears, then said, "I don't care, I just...I don't want to talk any more. I'm tired."
Buck nodded numbly, and was amazed at how awful he felt for JD. He felt angry too, a hot anger against a world that would gut somebody's hopes like that. It made him want to hit somebody, and he got up to walk it off by opening a window. On the way he kicked something on the floor and looked down. There, a few inches in front of his boot, Buck saw a ragged dime novel, thrown on the floor in haste a half hour before, when he'd come in and found Conklin standing at the foot of JD's bed and JD looking like death itself. An obviously much-loved book, torn and used, a six-shooting hero blazing on the cover in a world that had existed once for JD, but not anymore. Not anymore, forever.
Buck looked up at JD, but the youth hadn't moved, kept picking at the coverlet, fringes of black hair hanging unheeded in his eyes, shut off from his friends and the world. JD's heart was broken into a million painful pieces, and there was nothing Buck could do.
Except tenderly pick up the book, and the other books that were scattered forgotten on the rough wooden floor, minding their ripped covers and half-falling-out pages, and gently place them on Nathan's desk, before going on his way to open the window.
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