Childers glared at Orin from his seat on the cot in the jail cell, his legs drawn up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. He was sore from being in the same cramped, balled-up position for so long, but he couldn't help it. He was too scared to move.
The circuit judge scared him. He thought for a little while, after that blond kid came and got Durning, that maybe they'd be able to blow this one-horse town, or maybe escape if Concho managed to take over. But no, Durning got away scot-free, was probably riding toward the border with Concho and laughing his head off at him, and Sherson. Lousy jerk. This whole stupid thing was his idea in the first place! Yet he gets to escape, and we're stuck here. It's not fair.
And now that judge kept looking at them, giving them what Childers was sure was some kind of evil eye. He hadn't said much to either of them, except to ask if they knew why they were in jail, and if there was anyone they wanted him to contact. Childers kept his mouth shut, followed Sherson's lead, which was to say nothing and scowl at the judge until he went away. The judge just shrugged off their behavior, had just gone back to his desk and started writing; what, Childers had no idea. And he didn't really care. He just wanted to get the hell out of this ratty little town, out of the state, and find Tims so he could wring that little weasel's neck.
At least they knew better than to throw that squealer in here with us, he thought angrily. Five seconds, that's all it would take. As it was, both Childers and Sherson heard the judge tell one of the soldiers to hold Tims under house arrest, and confine him to helping tend to the wounded at the church. Childers thought of the acid gleam in his partners' eyes when they'd looked at each other upon hearing of Tims' whereabouts. Five seconds. That's all it would take. All they needed was the chance...
But they weren't likely to get it, not with this damned hawk of a judge watching their every move. No, we're stuck here, dammit, and I'm losing sales. My wife is going to be so pissed...
And then this guy in black had come in. Jesus, and I thought the outlaws were scary. He risked a glance over at the other cell, but the guy in black - what was his name, Larabee? - was sitting as he had been all morning, with his back to them, his head down like he was holding his chin in his hands, staring at the wall Childers guessed, or maybe asleep. Probably asleep.
Jesus. Childers shuddered at the memory of all those gunslingers coming into the room, and the judge. For a second he thought that he and Sherson had had it, but everybody ignored them, which Childers found strangely insulting. And then they brought that kid in...
Childers had a thought, turned to his partner and whispered, "Hey, Sherson."
Sherson barely glanced at him before turning his gloomy face to look out the too-distant window at the front of the jail. "What?"
"Who won the bet? You remember?"
Sherson blinked, gazed at Childers in blank irritation. "Bet?"
"Yeah. You know." Childers waved one hand to where the kid had been, before. "The bet, about when that kid was going to kick."
"Oh, Christ, Childers," Sherson muttered, and scooted back on the cot, leaned his back against the wall and pulled his feet up onto the ticking.
"What?" Childers asked defensively, giving his partner a dirty look. "If I won, you owe me some money, jerk."
Sherson stared out the window a moment, then smiled. "No, you owe me money."
"Huh!" Childers sat up in surprise.
"Yep." Sherson nodded firmly. "You said he'd die in two days. I said two weeks, I remember."
Childers frowned, brought himself back on the cot, clearly vexed. "But - all right, forget it. Nobody collects."
"Ha!" Sherson laughed, a rude bark. "Makes a difference if you lose, huh?"
"What?" Childers said in a low whine. "It's - nobody collects because he didn't kick. You saw that kid, he ain't gonna die. Not from getting beat up, anyway."
Sherson shrugged. "Then I win, because I came closest to being right. Two weeks is closer to when he bites it than two days is."
Childers was about to haul off and slug his partner when they both heard a throat being cleared, noisily. Jumping, they looked up and saw Judge Travis standing in front of the bars, his face stern and cold.
"Thought you gentlemen would like to know," the judge drawled, accenting the word 'gentlemen' in a way neither man cared for, "you'll be leaving this town today. I've arranged for your transport to a facility better equipped for your punishment."
Both men gulped, but Childers tried to remain above it all. After all, this was just a stupid hick town. He knew they couldn't hold him for long.
Sherson cocked his head, peered at Travis with an air of insolence. "Why are you moving us? Afraid Durning's gonna come back and get us out of here?"
"No," Travis said simply, turning away from the bars and walking back to his desk at a leisurely pace. "I'm afraid Mr. Durning did not survive his attempt at freedom. I have his name on the list of casualties, right here on my desk."
Sherson and Childers looked at each other.
"We should have bet on when he kicked," Childers muttered. "Then I would have won."
"I'm moving you," Travis continued as he sat down, a dark shadow in a pool of morning sunlight, "Firstly, to protect you from the wrath of the good citizens of this town. Once word of your involvement with Concho Charles becomes public, I doubt even these soldiers will be able to keep either one of you from getting lynched."
Sherson grunted, but Childers pointed to Chris and yapped, "Well, what about him? He's worse than we are, all we did was steal some stuff. He almost ki- "
"Mr. Larabee turned himself in," Travis pointed out, folding his hands and giving Childers an ice-cold glare. "We had to chase you two down, and drag you here kicking and screaming. Makes a mighty big difference."
There was a moment's pause; then Sherson said, "Well, what about Tims? He going to jail too?"
"Mr. Alderman," Travis said, looking down at his desk and shuffling papers, "is going to suffer the same incarceration that awaits you two. The proper authorities have been alerted, and you will be taken from here this afternoon to Ridge City to await them."
"Ridge City?" Sherson asked. "Why Ridge City?"
"Because," Travis replied, rising once again and walking toward the cell with two telegrams in his hand, "that's where you will be meeting your new wardens. And I'm afraid they were very upset over having to come out here to meet you."
He handed the telegrams through the bars. Sherson snatched one defiantly. Childers took the other, looked at it for a moment quizzically.
Sherson gasped first. "Oh, my God!"
"Shit," Childers echoed, then looked up at Travis with unfettered malice in his eyes. "You son of a bitch."
Travis couldn't help smiling. "That's right, gentlemen. You've been remanded to the custody of your wives. And they know all about what you've been up to."
Sherson balled up the telegram in fury, threw it on the floor in disgust. Childers put his head in his hands and groaned.
Travis looked at the two men without a shred of sympathy. "Consider yourselves fortunate. The only reason I took this course of action is because one look at you two was enough to convince me you wouldn't last five minutes inside Yuma prison. I'm doing you gentlemen a favor. Be grateful."
Both men looked up, daggers in their eyes. Sherson snarled, "Grateful! You just wrecked our lives, you two-bit hick."
Travis' eyes glided to Sherson, unmoving and unmoved.
The quiet solidity in Travis' gaze unnerved Sherson, and he sniped, "Do you realize what this means? My business is shot! I'll be thrown out of all of my clubs! And you know what? It's all his fault," Sherson pointed to Chris. "If he hadn't beat that kid up, none of this would have happened. None of it, and I'll tell you something else. If I ever come back to this backwards shit town, I'm going make you pay for this. You and him and everybody. That's a promise."
Childers was edging away from Sherson, a little thrown by his partner's venom, but a glance at Travis showed the lawman wasn't going for his gun, wasn't going to blast them both into a million pieces. Instead he just regarded Sherson with the same steady gaze, and gave him a tight smile. It was impossible to ignore the gleam in his eye, however, as he leaned forward and whispered, in a voice that was low and calm and full of rattlesnakes:
"If I were you, son...I wouldn't bet on it."
The outside door opened just then, and Travis turned away from the cell and its two resentful occupants, contemplating their looks of startled dismay. His expression changed to a gentle smile when he saw Mary enter, and he walked to his desk and sat down.
"Orin!" Mary said joyously, taking her father-in- law's hands as he pushed his chair forward. "You'll never guess what's happened."
Orin glanced at Mary's hands over his and said lightly, "Well, I would say that you've got the hospital set up, put some coffee on at the office, and telegraphed the surrounding towns about the death of Concho Charles. But I don't think it would make you this happy."
Mary shook her head for a moment, then bubbled, "In the basement of the church - after Mr. Dwight was shot - a man came, a - "
"You did get the hospital set up, didn't you?" Orin interjected. "I want to make sure everyone's taken care of, even the outlaws. Just because a man's on the wrong side of the law, he shouldn't bleed to death in the street."
Mary's nod was fast, excited. "Yes, we set it up by the church, the women are helping, everything's fine, but listen to me, Orin!"
Orin's expression was puzzled as Mary's grip on his hands tightened.
"JD," Mary was almost crying as she spoke, but her words were measured and calm. "He's going to walk again."
Orin's head tilted, disbelief in every line of his face. "How?"
"A doctor came into town this morning," Mary explained in breathless tones as Orin pulled his hands from hers and leaned back in his chair thoughtfully. "From Europe, he's treated people like JD, he says he's gotten them to walk."
Orin brought one hand up to his chin, was regarding Mary keenly. "And he can do the same with Mr. Dunne?"
Mary nodded, her eyes glowing like stars. "He's talking to Nathan right now, he wants to set up a schedule and exercises and a lot of things I think only they understand, but I had to come over here and tell you. I knew you'd be thrilled."
"No, I'm encouraged." Orin leaned forward, put his hands on the desk. "I'll be thrilled when I see the evidence of this man's words. What's his name?"
Mary glanced over at the cell where Chris sat, his back to both of them, not moving. After a moment she looked back at Orin and answered, "Thomas. Darcy Thomas, he's from Ireland."
"Ireland! What's he doing in Four Corners?"
"Well, he..." Mary looked at Chris again, began to realize something that made her scatterbrained with emotion. Her gaze was warm as she rested it on Orin and said in a soft whisper, "He told me he came here with Chris."
Orin read her eyes, looked at the cell with its motionless occupant. After a long pause, he regarded Mary and said in quiet tones, "You going back to help out?"
Mary nodded, backed toward the door. "There's still a lot to be done."
"Well," Orin said, looking at Chris as he spoke, "I think we're off to a good start."
Mary smiled at him, and quietly walked out the door.
There was complete silence in the jail for a long moment. Then Orin slowly rose out of his chair and walked over to Chris' cell, his footsteps crunching softly on the unswept floor. He approached the bars, stood there for a second watching Chris, but the man didn't turn around, still sat hunched over, his head forward and low.
Orin cleared his throat. "Chris?"
A slight movement, the head turned and looked over one shoulder, pained blue eyes under shocks of dark-blond hair. A quick glance, then back again.
But Orin had seen, and asked quietly, "Chris, did you bring the doctor to help that boy?"
More silence, thick, enveloping. Chris didn't move for a long time. Finally, a small nod.
"Can he really help him?"
Another pause, not quite so long. Then Chris stood up, as if with great effort, and walked around the cot to where Orin stood, facing him through the thick iron bars. He looked at Orin, tired eyes in a weatherbeaten face, and said in a low rasp, "If anyone can help JD, Darcy Thomas can."
Orin eyed him. "You trust him?"
A slight smile. "With my life, sir."
Orin nodded, looked Chris up and down with a face that seemed to soften, a little. "Well, for the boy's sake I hope he can help. Terrible thing to happen to one so young."
"Yes sir," Chris responded in an aching voice, almost too low for Orin to hear. "It was a terrible thing that I did."
Orin's eyes shot to Chris, startled at the humility in the hardened gunslinger's voice.
"I saw when I came in," Chris continued in a quiet whisper that was at once anguished and determined. "Broken glass. Buildings ripped up. People getting shot in the street. It wasn't just JD I hurt, and I know it. A lot of people been sufferin' on account of what I done."
Orin looked down, nodded sadly. It was true.
"But I aim to make up for it," Chris said in another voice, clearer and stronger, his blue eyes blazing as he stared unflinchingly at the judge. "Any way I can. If I have to sit in here the rest of my life, I'll do it. If JD walks again, and you don't think I've paid, I'll stay. You want to sell my goods to pay for what's been done, go ahead."
"Well, if I do that, son," Orin said softly, trying to smile although he was taken aback by the intensity of Chris' tone, "you won't have anything left."
"Won't matter," Chris said firmly, his voice breaking only a little. "Not to me."
The simple sincerity with which these words were spoken made Orin stare at Chris, stare hard as if he were trying to see through him. Chris stared back, unblinking, blue eyes welling over with grief and a tender, newborn strength.
Orin gazed back, convinced. "Jail is supposed to be an opportunity to contemplate one's misdeeds, " he said in an almost admiring tone, "Sounds to me like you got a pretty good head start."
Chris stared at the floor, nodded as his hair fell down over his face.
Orin started to step away from the bars when Chris looked up sharply, said, "Judge, wait."
"The men you hired with me," Chris said, his eyes blazing with fervor. "They been rode pretty rough the last week. They don't deserve it. If you could get them right with the town, I'd - I'd be mighty grateful."
Orin smiled, completely this time. "Don't worry about that, Mr. Larabee. Your men went a long way towards repairing themselves this morning, and I'm sure that it will continue. The rebuilding's just begun."
Chris nodded numbly, watched Orin turn and slowly walk back to his desk and sit down. Sherson and Childers, the two businessmen, were staring at Chris in dumbfounded curiosity, but he ignored them, stood at the bars and tried as hard as he could to see out the window that now showed Four Corners in full, sun-drenched morning splendor. He could see - could just make out - people walking by, sweeping the boardwalks, stopping and talking. There was a small group of people standing in the street outside the jail, pointing and talking, and Chris knew with a sinking feeling they were talking about him. Well, it doesn't matter. Maybe later it would, after JD was better and the town was fixed and people trusted his men again. Maybe then he'd care what people thought of him, but not now. Now was something else. Reflect. Repair. Regret.
And set things right.
Whatever it takes.
Chris felt the rough iron bars in his hands, turned his hands around them for a few moments, let the feeling dig into his skin. Then he turned his gaze to the outside world once more, and sighed.
The rebuilding had just begun.
+ + + + + + +
For everyone involved in the work that followed that day, time seemed to pass in a pace that was at once rapid and slow. But thinkgs were finally getting better, so no one complained.
Darcy and Nathan hurried to make the hospital area as efficient and comfortable as possible, and the others willingly helped them in that regard, with the exception of Vin, who was ordered by both Nathan and Darcy to take it easy for at least the next few days, until he'd recovered from the blood loss and injuries of that morning's fight. The trapper scowled, but Buck laughed and said he'd like to see Vin argue with two such determined-looking sets of eyes. Finally Vin grumbled under his breath, and went off to sleep, Josiah at his side to give the pale, still somewhat shaky former bounty hunter a hand if he needed it. And Darcy and Nathan turned to the work at hand. . There was a great number of injured, enough to remind Buck and Nathan of the War, but Darcy handled their injuries with such skill and compassion that any doubt that he was really a doctor evaporated like the morning dew, and the townspeople' tongues were soon wagging as much about the mysterious healer with the strange accent as they were about the black-clad gunslinger who had returned from the dead.
Chris asked Orin to give his gunbelt, hat and black duster to Darcy for safekeeping, since it was silently understood that nobody else would want to touch them. Chris' return remained undiscussed among the men, although each of them glanced at the brick jailhouse occasionally as they helped the wounded and carried water and bandages. It was an unspoken reality, that none of them wanted to deal with; the uncomfortable clash of happiness over JD's imminent recovery, and anger over the return of the man who'd injured him. They only had to look in each others' eyes to know the truth: forgiveness would be slow.
The town was still dazed and perplexed over everything that had happened, but as the men helped with repairs that first bright morning they saw that, perhaps, the little town would battle back, and survive. The soldiers were still about, flushing out hiding outlaws and leading horse-drawn carts laden with the dead and badly wounded. The undertaker shook his head, and telegraphed his brother to come help.
A few hours later enough townspeople had come to help out that Buck and Ezra volunteered to go around town, and see what else could be done. They took their leave of the hospital, and were surprised that a number of the women, and some of the men, said "Thank you" to them as they left. Maybe we won't be run out on a rail after all, Buck joked, and Ezra smiled, tired but gratified. The first bridges had been built.
There was a lot of damage in the town, but the worst sight was the one that greeted Buck down one of the little side streets: Emmie Walters, sweeping up sad little piles of broken glass and tangled ribbons in front of her notions store, tears stealing down her face as she swept.
Buck walked toward her slowly, so he didn't frighten her, and tugged his hat as he said, "Mornin', Miss Walters."
Emmie jumped a little anyway, then sniffed and wiped at her cheek as she clutched the broom. "Oh - hi, Mr. Wilmington."
"Anything I can help you with?" Buck asked with a gentle smile, trying not to let his anger show as his eyes scanned the broken window, the inside of her store jumbled and ransacked. Thought of Durning, and was suddenly glad he was dead.
"Oh." Emmie cast a forlorn look around the broken remains of her business, and shrugged. "I don't think so. I'm just..." Her slight shoulders drooped, and she sighed, a huge heartfelt sigh of frustration and disappointment. "I'm sorry, I'm being rude, and you're being so nice. This isn't your problem I guess, I just don't know what I'm going to do."
"Well," Buck said, scratching his head and looking over the broken windowpane. "I reckon you ought to get this window fixed, and clean up the insides some. I could help you with that."
Emmie turned to face him, her tiny hands still gripping the broom as she shook her head fearfully. "But I don't have any money, or any way to pay to fix things. And half of my goods are ruined."
"Aw, don't worry about money." Buck laughed, and settled his hat back on his head as he surveyed the splintered wood. "We can fix this. I'll get Josiah to come look at it sometime today."
"Oh - " Emmie smiled, disbelieving at first, but then overjoyed. "Oh, thank you, Mr. Wilmington, that'd be wonderful. How's Mr. Dunne doing?"
"Just fine, ma'am," Buck answered as he pulled back from the window and set a dazzling smile on the young woman. "As a matter of fact, I'm hopin' we have some real good news comin' about him, before long."
"Good news?" Emmie looked confused.
"Yes, ma'am," Buck replied, feeling so happy he could help Emmie and give her good news about JD that he suddenly wanted to give her a kiss. But he knew she'd probably faint, and anyway that wasn't respectable behavior, so he fought it. "Yes ma'am, we got a doctor lookin' at him, says he might be all right."
"Oh, that's wonderful!" Emmie smiled, mirroring the buoyancy Buck felt in his heart. "Well, tell him I said hello, will you? We all miss him, you know, it just isn't the same without - well - " Emmie looked down, twisted her hands on the broom for a moment, blushing, then looked up and blurted, "You know, we're all real happy you fellas are staying, just so you know. I don't know if anybody's told you yet, but we are. Real happy."
"Well," Buck leaned back a bit, tilted his hat on his head and smiled so widely his face almost hurt, "Well, thank you kindly, Miss Walters, I'll pass that along. I got to get goin', but I'll be back this afternoon with Josiah and we'll fix that window for ya, all right?"
"Sure." Emmie nodded happily and smiled again, and for a moment Buck thought that the broken store behind her, the tattered town, and all the problems and obstacles that still lay in both their paths, disappeared, and for one sweet second there was so much happiness and gratitude in that little street it made Buck want to break into a rowdy bar song. Once again, however, he fought it and tipping his hat to the slender young woman, made his jaunty way down the street in the brilliant morning sunshine, feeling light and joyous and full of hope.
And as soon as he was out of Emmie's earshot, sang the rowdiest song he knew.
+ + + + + + +
Later that day, after the more seriously wounded soldiers and outlaws had been taken care of and made comfortable, Darcy took Nathan aside and told him that before anything could be done for JD, he needed a complete history of the boy's injuries, and the opportunity to examine him more closely. Nathan agreed, and after making sure that the townspeople had everything they needed to run the area, the two men walked back to Nathan's room, every eye on them as they went.
JD was awake and restless, but didn't seem too keen on breaking his boredom by being given a medical examination. He was fascinated by Darcy, however, and his seemingly endless questions about Ireland, Europe, and living abroad kept the boy distracted while Darcy looked him over, with Nathan's help.
Darcy later remarked to Nathan that he shouldn't have been at all surprised that, as soon as they started sitting JD up and unwinding his bandages, that there had been a knock at the door, and Buck had come in, followed a few minutes later by Josiah and Ezra. Only Vin was absent, still recovering from the events of that morning.
Even without Vin, there were at least four people too many in the examining room, and Darcy herded them all onto the porch, ignoring Buck's protests and assuring them that he would let them know as soon as he and Nathan were finished, before firmly closing the door.
"Well, how do you like that," Buck huffed, crossing his arms and glaring at the door. "That doctor fella thinks he can just walk right in and take over. How do you like that."
"If it doesn't bother Nathan - " Josiah smiled, tilting his head toward the door, " - and it gets JD better, it suits me just fine."
"Hm," Buck said, one last time, before eyeing the door and saying, "Well, let's bug him anyway, just for that one table. Ezra, you got your cards on you?"
One hour and fifty-five dollars later, the door opened and Darcy came out, his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, wiping his hands on a towel, Nathan right behind him. The others all but leapt up from their game, but they didn't need to ask any questions; one look at Nathan's beaming face was enough.
But Buck had to ask, he had to hear somebody say it for real. "Well? Whaddya think?"
"I think," Darcy said as he continued to clean his hands on the towel, "that Mr. Dunne is very fortunate to have the lot of ye as friends, and Mr. Jackson in particular. Those stitches could have been done on one of those sewing machines - "
"But is he gonna be okay?" Buck asked, almost desperately.
Darcy stopped wiping his hands, and gave the anxious gunslinger a gentle smile. "Set yer mind at ease, Mr. Wilmington. All of ye. With enough time, and patience, and very hard work, yer young man will walk again, and run, and ride. He's going to be fine."
Buck gave a wild whoop, and enveloped Darcy in a huge bear hug. The startled physician took the embrace graciously, as the others traded smiles of relief and happiness. Josiah asked, "Can we see him?"
"Uh - " Darcy stammered as Buck withdrew, not a bit embarrassed. He straightened his clothes and coughed a bit before saying, "Oh, please. I think the lad needs a bit of cheering up after being poked at for an hour."
Nathan chuckled, and stepped aside as the men filed past them, Buck in the lead. He grinned at Darcy as the Irishman fought to catch his breath and said, "I should have warned ya, doc. Buck's about as dangerous when he's happy as he is when he's ticked off."
"I'll keep that in mind," Darcy replied lightly, and clapped Nathan on the shoulder as they went back inside.
+ + + + + + +
Later that afternoon an army wagon came, and the curious in the town came out to see the three businessmen being carted off to Ridge City. Considering what the town had been through, it shouldn't have caused much of a stir at all. Still, there was a small crowd waiting to see the men who had caused them so much grief. And throw things at them, if they were in the mood.
JD was sitting up in Nathan's bed, passing time with Buck and Ezra, when there was a soft knock on the door. Buck answered it, and all of the men were mildly surprised to see Tims standing there, a stern-faced soldier just behind him. The businessman turned his hat in his hands, and took a half-step inside the room.
"They're taking me off to Ridge City now," he said in a quiet voice. "But the judge said I could come up, and see you guys before I left. Just wanted to - to say goodbye, I guess."
"Well, how kind of the judge," Ezra said, rising from his seat and walking over to Tims, extending his hand. "Have a safe journey, Mr. Alderman. I'm very grateful for the services you rendered to us last night and today."
"Well, it was the least I could do," Tims replied remorsefully, taking Ezra's hand. "I feel just awful about what we did."
"Hey, guess what?" JD piped from the bed, his eyes bright and smiling through his bruises. "I'm going to be okay."
"Yes, I heard." Tims smiled, taking another step into the room and putting his hands on the wrought iron footboard. "That's great. Hey, look me up if you're ever in New York City. The judge has my address. If Bertha's still speaking to me, we'll take you out to see one of the burlesques."
"Oh, God." Buck laughed. "You're corrupting the boy, Mr. Alderman. That's supposed to be my job."
"Cut it out, Buck," JD said in good-natured irritation, and it was close, so close to the way it used to be. Then, flashing a small grin at Tims he said, "Sure. That'd be fun."
Tims nodded, then felt the soldier's hand on his shoulder, pulling at him a little. "Well, I guess I got to go...see you guys later, I guess. Thanks for everything."
"Just a moment, Mr. Alderman," Ezra said, pausing at the door and pulling a card out of his pocket, writing swiftly on the back. "If you're ever in St. Louis, please feel free to call on my mother, Maude Standish, at this address. She's a delightful woman, I assure you, and always eager to make new acquaintances."
"Oh," Tims said curiously, taking the card and frowning at it. "Thanks."
"She can also instruct you in the fine art of poker," Ezra said with a cagey smile, "and if your associates are any indication of the company you must keep, you'll be winning every hand you sit down to inside of a week."
"Oooh," Tims said, more interested this time, and grinned back as the soldier began to tug at him more insistently. "Gosh, thanks, Mr. Standish. I'll let you know how it turns out."
"Keep that newfound integrity, Mr. Alderman," Ezra said as the others waved from inside the room, and Tims waved back, "And I promise you it will turn out just fine."
+ + + + + + +
The saloon that night was livelier than it had been all week, and everyone owed it to the startling events of the previous twenty-four hours. People were coming out of their houses again, reassured at the soldiers patrolling the streets, and the knowledge that the judge was in town. And nowhere was livelier than the table in the corner, and its tired, happy occupants.
JD was asleep, in his own room at last. Darcy declared that the boy would heal faster in his own surroundings, and he and Josiah had helped JD back to his place earlier that evening, again using the back ways so JD wouldn't be gawked at. The youth's room, like any teenage boy's, was a wreck, and musty from being unused for almost a week, but, undaunted, Buck and Nathan had cleaned the place up some, and JD seemed to relax visibly when he was finally settled in his own sheets and blankets. Nathan mixed him a tonic in case the boy had any pain, but that wasn't a problem at all; JD was yawning even before they were done settling him in, and was asleep five minutes later. Nathan and Darcy both volunteered to stay with the youth for a while, and no one argued. The two men were clearly tired, and Nathan seemed fascinated by Darcy's knowledge, and seemed to want to talk to him on subjects the other men knew would bore them to tears. So they left them alone, and went to the saloon.
Once there, it was no surprise that soon Ezra had a lively poker game going, and the place was bright with noise and activity. It was as if a pall had been lifted from the gambler. Ezra's anger and gloom were gone, at least temporarily, and he positively sparkled.
The clock chimed ten-thirty when Josiah, who had been very quiet, folded his cards, leaned forward and said in a low voice to Ezra, "Have the others meet me in the church sanctuary in an hour and a half. Vin too, if he's up to it. We got some things that need discussin'."
Ezra glanced up from his hand, saw the look of dark worry in Josiah's eyes, looked back down at his cards with cool disdain. "You mean concerning Mr. Larabee?"
Josiah nodded. "Gotta lot of things to clear the air over. I'd rather do it now than later."
Ezra made a face, looked Josiah up and down. "Then I take it you are going to talk to our onetime associate?"
Josiah picked up his coat, said simply, "Yep."
Buck hadn't been paying attention, had been studying his cards, and when Josiah walked around the table asked, "Leaving so soon, Josiah? I thought you'd want to celebrate till at least midnight."
"Long night, Buck," Josiah said as he pulled his coat on and walked by the gunslinger for the door, his eyes on the red brick building across the street. He turned his head back to the table for a second, paused as he looked into Ezra's eyes, into the hatred for Chris he saw there. Then he turned and added, "And I'm afraid it's about to get a whole lot longer."
+ + + + + + +
JD's room was silent and still, except for the two men sitting in wooden chairs by a small table in one corner, watching the third one curled up in the narrow bed fast asleep. A single oil lamp, turned very low, provided dim light, and in it Nathan studied the mysterious Irishman who had come out of nowhere and promised miracles. He liked Darcy, and wanted to trust him. If what he said was true, there would be no home for JD, no fruitless journey to San Francisco, no wheelchairs. He would get his life back. It was almost too good to be true.
They had sat in that room for three hours, sometimes in silence, sometimes in whispered conversation. Now they simply regarded the night in contemplation, quietly, the calming afterglow of an unbelievable day. Nathan looked over at Darcy, who was gazing at JD as the boy lay sleeping on his right side, fringes of black hair falling over his bruised face, over the black stitches and fading welts. Nathan tried to decipher Darcy's expression, and decided he couldn't. It was sad, but a little frightened and angry too. It was a mixture Nathan remembered seeing on his mama's face when she looked at some people after they got whipped. That was the closest thing he could think of.
The window behind them was open, a light breeze blew in. A horse and wagon went by, soft hoofbeats in the summer darkness. Nathan stirred in his chair and asked quietly, "Mr. Thomas?"
"Hm?" Darcy answered, taking his eyes reluctantly off JD to face Nathan.
"Did you say you and Chris came here together? That you brought him here?"
Darcy blinked, then nodded, propping one elbow on the table and leaning his head on it as he spoke. "Mm-hmm. Yes, I did."
"Well, pardon my askin', but why? I mean, did he tell you what he did? Why he was runnin'?"
Darcy sighed, nodded again, his eyes softly focusing again on JD. "Yes, Mr. Jackson, that he did. Although I didn't know the depth of it till today."
Nathan's eye turned a little harder and he shook his head as he regarded the sleeping youth in front of them. "Goes a lot deeper than that. He nearly killed that boy. I heard there were bounties on his head. I thought maybe you were here to pick up on one."
"No, Mr. Jackson," Darcy said with a small smile as he looked down and smoothed out his coat. "I have enough in monetary means to sustain me. My interest in Mr. Larabee is simply to help a fellow human bein' find peace, and return him to his friends."
Nathan leaned forward onto the table, glancing quickly to JD to make sure he hadn't awakened the youth. "Well, yeah, but why? I mean, why make it your problem? You saw what he did to JD. I ain't so sure his friends want him back. Buck and Ezra sure don't."
Darcy returned Nathan's look. "What about ye?"
Nathan paused, leaned back in his chair and sighed, a long, drawn-out, exhausted sigh. "There's a good man in there, someplace. Saved my hide, got to admit that, and I reckon he'd do it again. Knew he had a bad side, just...never thought I'd see it like this."
Darcy nodded sympathetically, said softly, "One man's brutality to another. Sickens me every time I see it."
Nathan looked at his new friend, a little surprised at his understanding. Then he said, "Reminds me of the war, of bein' a slave. Ain't no reason to it, no justice. An' JD's just a kid."
Darcy looked at Nathan over the table. "Ye were a slave, then?"
Nathan nodded, his eyes turning dark and bitter. "Too long ago to care about, till something like this happens. Then it just stirs it all up again, how it felt to watch one man kill another and not be able to do nothin' about it."
Darcy nodded slowly, the pipe at his lips.
Nathan hunkered back in the chair, his expression growing steadily angrier as he studied JD's bruised face, the black stitches, the still-red cuts and abrasions. After a moment he shook his head in disgust. "Told Josiah once I had some questions for Chris when he got back. Things I always wanted to ask a man who would do that to a fellow human bein'."
Darcy nodded again. "I'm sure ye have a lot to say to Mr. Larabee."
"You got that right," Nathan said hotly as he leaned forward, his eyes kindling as he spoke. "You see how bad that boy is messed up? Four days ago he wasn't even awake. Three days ago he didn't know where he was. And up until this afternoon, he thought he was gonna be crippled for life. Yeah, I got some things to say."
Darcy cocked his head toward Nathan, the pipe still in his mouth. "So when are ye goin' over?"
Nathan paused, blinked, stared at Darcy for a moment. Then he shook his head and leaned back in the chair.
"Can't do it now," he said firmly, fingering his cigar and staring at it. His voice became tight as he spoke, as he struggled to control it. "Do it now, I just might forget myself. I'd look at Chris, see JD's broken ribs, that bleedin' wound on his head. I'd hear him, that first night when he was screamin' an' tryin' to hide cause he thought we were gonna hurt him. Cause he thought I was some bad man from the Boston coal docks."
"Ah, sweet Jesus." Darcy sighed, gazing at JD mournfully.
Nathan shook his head again, slow and sure. "I can't waste time bein' mad at Chris now, JD needs me bein' calm and together, not bustin' with rage. And right now I couldn't talk to that man about what he did without wantin' to tear him apart. But one of these days, when JD's gettin' better and don't need me to be strong for him no more? That man's gonna hear from me, Mr. Thomas."
Darcy looked at him, and saw the age-old fire burning in Nathan's eyes as the former slave stared at him in bitter earnest.
"I promise you that."
Darcy stared back at Nathan, and the other man was surprised to see not an argument, not fear or recrimination in those soft Irish eyes, but...compassion? Agreement? Nathan was about to ask about it when there was a soft knock at the door, and both men looked toward it curiously.
After a moment, the door slowly opened and Ezra walked in, his normally unreadable manner visibly tense.
"Good evening, gentlemen," he said in a low voice when he was close enough. He regarded JD and said in similar tones, "How is Mr. Dunne?"
"Just fine," Nathan responded, clearing his throat and getting up so Ezra didn't have to speak any louder than he had to. Noting Ezra's agitated manner, he said, "What's up with you? Why're you so nervous?"
"Mr. Sanchez has gone to visit with our mutual friend," Ezra said, in tones that suggested strongly that he didn't approve. "He wants us to meet him in the church when he's through."
Nathan looked at JD, then at Darcy.
"I'll watch over the boy till you return," Darcy whispered with a wave of his hand.
Nathan nodded, leaned over his chair and picked up his coat. He paused to glance at Darcy and said, "He wakes up, you know where the tonic is."
Darcy nodded confidently.
"All right." Nathan sighed, putting his coat on and preparing to follow Ezra out the door. Shaking his head at Darcy he said forebodingly, "Hope you knew what you were doin', bringin' Chris back here, doc. He ain't in for an easy time, by a long shot."
"Nor should he be, Mr. Jackson," Darcy said grimly as he looked at the slight form dozing in the small bed, barely visible in the low, guttering light. "Nor should he be."
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