The middle-aged clerk added the box of rifle shells to the stack of supplies and grabbed the stubby pencil from behind his ear. He marked off the ammunition and scanned his shelves for the next item.
“That fellow, Tanner? He still ride with you?” he asked, his back to the customer waiting for his order.
The innocent question brought Chris Larabee’s well-honed skills as a gunslinger to attention. “Why?” he replied.
The older man stepped off the short ladder still reviewing Larabee’s order. “Had a fellow in here yesterday, asking about him. Since Tanner hasn’t been to town with you for a spell, I figured he must have rode on to some place else.”
Bowing his head over the paper and ciphering the cost of the items prevented Chris from seeing the storekeeper’s face. Was the man making harmless conversation or did he really want to hear an answer?
Not wanting to reveal his concern for his younger friend, the former peacekeeper reined in his feelings before asking “What did the fellow look like?”
The clerk looked at Chris and shook his head as he remembered the event. “Young fellow. Said he was a Texas Ranger. Didn’t know them fellows in Texas are signing children to their roster these days. He asked if I’d seen Vin Tanner, like he knew Tanner traded here. I admitted I knew the man but that I hadn’t seen him in town for several months. That quiet, young man isn’t in some kind of trouble with the law, is he?”
With the mention of a Texas Ranger looking for Tanner, the horse rancher’s plans for a hot meal and a lazy afternoon in town dissolved. Was the ranger looking to collect on the old bounty? “What did this young ranger look like?” Larabee repeated.
The clerk paused, and squinted his eyes, trying to remember. “He was shorter than you, dark hair. I think of them Texas boys as a hard lot. This man didn’t have that killed a hundred men look in his eye. At first I figured he was funning with me, claiming to ride with the Rangers. Didn’t sound like no Texan, neither. He showed me his badge; wore it under his coat, not out in the open. I told him the truth. I haven’t seen Tanner in over four months.”
The man paused like he was trying to remember more details. “Had a store full of strangers yesterday. One, a scruffy, unkempt fellow made me nervous. He didn’t buy anything. I tried to keep my eye on him in case he had sticky fingers. Didn’t find any inventory missing. Never saw him enter; just noticed him when Tanner’s name was mentioned. Seemed interested in the questions and then saw him go stand by the window after the ranger left, like he was waiting for someone. Asked him if he needed assistance but he didn’t answer. Couple of minutes later he walked out. I had other customers so I didn’t see where he went.”
The man packed the supplies into the burlap bag and kept talking. “Thought it real strange, like he was watching someone. Maybe he was trailing that lawman.”
“Did you see the ranger again? Or know which way he rode out of town?” Chris was anxious to warn Vin but reined in the urge to leave abruptly.
“Nope. Didn’t see either one. Can’t tell you what I didn’t see. Your total comes to five dollars and 39 cents, Mr. Larabee.
Chris counted out the coins and grabbed the sack. “Thanks, Mr. Tompkins.”
As he turned the door knob, the shopkeeper added, “Funny hat. The Ranger wore a funny hat. Not one of those big Mexican ones but a little one that offers no shade.
The rancher’s hand froze on the doorknob and turned to look at the clerk. “The Texas Ranger was wearing a bowler, a bowler hat?”
“Yes, real similar to this one.” He pulled a familiar shaped headgear out of a box. “Just like this one here.”
Larabee’s mind raced. JD? You said you wanted to be a Texas Ranger. That where you disappeared to? Now you hunting your friends?
The drifter melted into the crowded tavern and jostled his way to the well-worn bar. After paying for a beer, he scanned the room for a spot to quench his thirst without worrying about someone intruding on his own space. For past few weeks he traveled aimlessly, staying in some towns longer than others but always drifting. He’d lost his anchor when his wife of a few months decided she’d rather be married to the cause than accept a domestic role. She’d robbed him of his friends, his family, first; but he loved her so much that he’d travel to the ends of the earth with her. Then she dropped the bombshell. He still loved her and maybe someday the two of them would discover each other again, but, for now, that day existed only in his dreams.
The Roost smelled and looked the same as most small-town saloons. Abused tables and chairs, polished with liquor, sweat and greasy bar rags offered the patrons a place to sit, relax and share tales, short and long. Friends met to catch up on the day’s gossip and business deals were sealed. Someplace in the room a game of chance would spring up, offering the winner the spoils and depleting the assets of the losers.
Cigar smoke masked the odor of unwashed bodies following the day’s labor. The blue haze obscured the patrons from the eyes of the busy-bodies who judged anyone passing the batwings doors as less than righteous because of gambling, prostitution, debauchery and drunkenness.
“You cheated. He’s a cheat!” a voice yelled over the loud din. “I want my money back. He stole my money!” The man wanted everyone in the crowded room to hear his claim.
“Sir, I never cheat. I may possess the acumen you may strive for but I would never debase myself to your standards.” The familiar voice drifted through the cloud.
“Ya took all my money. I want it back.” The challenger refused to back down.
The crowd drifted toward the confrontation, hoping for some action to break the monotony of the evening. “What ‘cha got ta say for yourself, fancy man?” someone asked.
The hot day put everyone on edge and the shouting and yelling could be the spark to ignite the room into a brawl.
“You sat down freely. No one insisted that you play, and wager. If you possessed experience, you might have won. Now you have only acerbated a bad situation into a formidable one.” The gambler, dressed resplendently in a purple frock coat, sat royally, king of the poker table. His well-manicured hands rested comfortably on the well-worn felt, though the man’s eyes watched the challenger hawk-like.
“No one wins like that unless he’s cheating.” Feeling like he had support from local residents, the loser continued to press his issue, the top of the stairs to the dais his pulpit. “Look at his cards. He just laid down two kings, a spade and a diamond.” The man turned over his own hand. “Both us can’t have the king of spades. He cheated, just like he’s been doing all night.”
The murmur in the crowd increased, most of it ugly discussion of professional gamblers. The words ‘tar’ and ‘feathers’ circulated.
Rivulets of sweat ran down the ranting man’s face. He eyed the large pot, coveting it. He was going to win that money or else.
“Sir, you are the cheater. You are palming cards and doing it badly. You have pocketed several cards already and replacing them with marked cards from a second deck.”
“You are lying!” he shouted, kicking his chair back and reaching for his sidearm.
“Got a problem here, friends?” The familiar voice almost drew a smile from the gambler.
The taller man rested his hand over the complainer’s, trapping the smaller palm before he could draw. “Don’t need gunplay in the middle of a poker game.”
“My hands have never left the table. If one of you would be so brave as to examine his pockets, you will find the truth.” His eyes never wavered, remaining locked on the standing man’s face, reading the man’s actions before the brain formed a plan.
“No, wait. You can’t. Get out of my pocket,” he complained, trying to squirm away from prying fingers.
A handful of playing cards dropped onto the game table, most of small value. Someone else withdrew a deck from the other pocket, the same brand as used in the game.
“Better fold,” the stranger said, slightly releasing his hold on the other man’s twitching hand.
The situation diffused, the crowd returned to their conversations and drinks, ignoring the embarrassed player. The loser grabbed his deck, stuffing it back in his pocket before snatching the diminutive stack of coins remaining by his place. With one fond look at the pot, he returned the gambler’s gaze. “You, you. Humph.”
The gambler picked up one coin from the pot and tossed across the table. “Have a drink on me and remember tonight before you join another game. Hopefully you learned some experience.”
“Gentlemen, shall we continue?” His hands deftly shuffled the cardboard, looking expectantly at the rest of the table.
The other two men both shook their heads. The term ‘friendly game’ lost its appeal as both left the table and melted into the press of bodies.
“Care to join me, Mr. Wilmington? I seem to have a seat available.”
The drifter set his mug on the table where the condensation immediately wicked into the felt. “Good to see you, too, Ez.”
The two men sat in comfortable silence, watching the ebb and flow of the patrons. Gradually, the crowd thinned and Ezra broke the silence.
“Why would a gentleman such as your self squander away the evening in an out of the way village such as this when you have a beautiful wife anticipating your return?”
“Wedded bliss ain’t all it claimed to be. Louisa and I discovered we loved each other better when we aren’t married. Maybe someday our paths will cross again. In the meantime.” He shrugged his shoulders, letting the sentence hang. “You just leave town?” Buck relaxed slightly, sharing a table with a friend.
“Mine was shortly after your departure. I envision we all did, well, all but Mr. Dunne. New law was placed in the municipality, a man with no enlightenment to the finer points of the game of chance.”
Buck laughed heartily, something he hadn’t done in weeks. “He threw you out? What about the others?”
“Misters Tanner and Larabee took their leave before the man even traversed the jail’s threshold. A doctor, complete with engraved diploma, arrived at the same time as the lawman. I left to prosper elsewhere.”
“Josiah leave with Nathan?” Buck knew he’d been drifting back towards the small town where he found six other men he’d come to think of family. “Just JD, left there, alone?”
Ezra continued to ply the small rectangles nimbly between his fingers, not wanting to dwell on the thought of having left the young easterner to the many faces of evil that enjoyed preying on the weak. He wouldn’t consider the young man without fortitude but the boy often acted before thinking out his actions.
He genuinely missed the friendly barbs and bickering of the other six men, the antics of Buck trying to teach the young Easterner, the skill of the battle with Larabee and Tanner at helm. Even the challenge of communicating with Jackson would be better than his life presently. No longer were evenings spent in physiological discussions with Sanchez. Ezra Standish would deny vehemently, under oath of any of this, but as the seven drifted apart, he experienced a sense of loss greater than he felt the many times his mother abandoned him to the care of others.
“None of us are responsible for him, Mr. Wilmington,” the gambler replied, even though he knew in his heart that each and every one of the seven was stronger united; that strength now splintered to the wind.
Buck nodded his head in agreement with Ezra’s statement but he too recognized that JD had much more to learn. Knowing the boy was left alone ripped his already broken heart and his excitement of seeing Standish tempered. Maybe he should find the kid and check that life hadn’t offered him more than he could handle solo.
“Mr. Wilmington, this establishment’s evening clientele has thinned considerably but do you sense we are under observation?” Ezra’s voice barely carried to the other man. “The young, dark-haired fellow, near the window. He’s been staring at either you or me since you sat down. I didn’t observe his scrutiny during the game.”
The larger man shifted in his chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him, a relaxed posture to those around, but upon closer observation, the man was tighter than a guitar string. “Don’t look familiar to me. Wonder why he’s interested?”
“We shall soon find out his intensions. Here he comes.” Ezra started to deal himself a game of solitaire, as a diversion to eyeing the incomer’s progress.
“Gentlemen,” the man began, his accent betraying his New England roots. “If I may interrupt your evening.”
Two pairs of eyes bore into the young man’s face, daring him to continue. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed and tried to regain his voice in face of their scrutiny. “I, I heard you mention JD Dunne. I’m looking for him and I thought you might be able to assist me in locating him.”
Betraying nothing, Ezra’s question was simple and direct, “Why?”
“I must find him before he does something he’ll regret. We met in Texas. I always wanted to ride with the Rangers, deliver some real western justice. I’m Dillon Matthews from El Paso, Texas but originally from Massachusetts. My father expected me to study at Cambridge but I wanted to see the west; be a lawman. Ranger Dunne taught me so much in the few months we were working together. He’s attempting to right a wrong, an unfair judgment the Texas courts sentenced an innocent man. Only, a nefarious employee in the courthouse changed the decree after it was signed by the magistrate and Dunne will be caring out the very deed he vowed to stop and if I can find him before hand, I have the new papers for him to serve that will guarantee the safety of the man’s he’s hunting. Only I can’t find him. I’ve been to so many small towns looking for him and can’t find the one where he said he’s was headed, a place name Passe del Norde. Only found one storekeeper that even recognized the name, in a place called Eagle Bend, only I didn’t see any eagles anywhere near there. The environment wasn’t beneficial for their habitation.”
Buck held up his hand. “Whoa, slow down boy. Take a minute and breathe.”
“How do we know your intensions are honorable and not a ploy to use our familiarity with the territory to your own personal gain at the demise of our acquaintance?” Ezra wasn’t ready to join the stranger’s personal quest nor was he ready to point out the small town’s other nomenclature.
Buck looked back and forth between the dueling vocabularies. Between the several beers, the less than clear air and too many nights with only his own snores for company the former ladies man was tired, his head ached and he lost track of both sides of the conversation from the younger man’s mention of JD, his little brother’s name.
The bartender crashed some mugs together, making the young man jump. “Boy, your wound up tighter than a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Been right nice visiting with you but when you hear that sound you know its time to call it a night.”
“But you haven’t helped me find Ranger Dunne,” the interloper whined.
Ezra collected his cards and carefully aligned the stack before sliding them into his pocket. “I’m sure Mr. Wilmington would be more than happy to meet you in the morning to continue this discussion. Good night, Mr. Matthews.”
Dillon watched in awe as the two men left the dais. Mr. Wilmington? JD’s Buck Wilmington? His hero’s hero, right here in the flesh? He’d been visiting with the renowned lawman and still hadn’t gotten shot. Could the other man have been JD’s friend, the gambler?
Carefully laying the almost white shirt on top of his coat and vest, the man straightened the wrinkled sleeve and limp collar. His bare chest glistened in the moonlight bathing his room. He walked to the open window and looked down on the darkened streetscape, while thoughts of a happier time assaulted his memory.
For over a year, the small western town was home and he was a valuable member of the town’s success. Looking down on the deserted street he could feel the two sides warring within his heart and the reason why six months earlier he’d ridden away from this place, full of anger and driven by a sense of betrayal. The six men he admired, six men he believed were his friends, left him behind.
Buck, his closest friend, found true love and followed his new wife away from the out of the way spot to the growing territorial capital. Louisa couldn’t give up politics and Buck couldn’t give up Louisa. Shortly after the wedding, she made her feelings perfectly clear to the younger man. Buck was hers and hers alone. She wouldn’t share him with anyone, man or woman, and that included the six men with whom he worked. Buck Wilmington’s peacekeeper days reached a finale.
Chris and Vin were the next to leave. The railroad, looking after their own interests, persuaded the new territorial governor to appointment another lawman, one familiar with the uncivilized murderers and thieves threatening the area. The seven appointed peacekeepers received dutiful thanks before being officially relieved of their jobs. Larabee and Tanner left the same day, each riding off in a different direction.
Within the month, Ezra disappeared to look for more lucrative pickings. A doctor, complete with a signed degree, hung his shingle on the main street. An ordained minister erected a tent and held weekly, inspiring church meetings. Nathan and Josiah decided to move on to where their services were needed.
JD had everything he could ever dream of, until the day Buck married the former governor’s aid. Hindsight was a cruel taskmaster. The young Easterner had been the first to suggest Buck quit his tomcatting and marry the beautiful woman. Little did he know the woman hid her true skin until Buck said, “I do.”
The newly appointed sheriff, recognizing the young man’s intelligence and sense of consciousness, offered him the job of deputy. For two months Dunne held the position with tenacity, waiting for his mixed-up world to right its self.
As each member of the band of seven left, the bond dissolved until only one was left, himself. Left with nothing to anchor himself to the town, he rode away, telling the town and its ungrateful residents, “Good Riddance!” He never planned to return here just like he never intended to return to the eastern state of his birth. No man was his master and no family offered him roots.
But the past wasn’t about to let the young lawman rest comfortably. What about Casey? What about Casey Wells? Two weeks after Buck Wilmington married Louisa Perkins, JD’s girlfriend received an invitation from another aunt, her mother’s younger sister, inviting the girl to move to Colorado Springs. Aunt Sally offered her home and the opportunity to receive a formal education at Hjellian Academic School for Young Women.
Casey mentioned the letter but flatly denied to be interested in the big city. Why would she want to go to some stuffy school, wearing fancy dresses and pointy shoes? Besides, Aunt Nettie needed someone to help her run the small homestead.
Each refused to admit the real reason neither wanted to leave the small community. They spent the evening together arguing who had the better education.
JD’s chest hurt with excitement the next day. Would Buck be able to see what he felt in his heart? The sky was clear, the sun bright and the temperature comfortable. Nothing could ruin such a glorious day!
The new Mrs. Wilmington detailed JD’s place in the Wilmington household. Zero! Nothing! She refused to remain in such a dirty, small, culture void place. She and Buck would be leaving within the week, moving to the progressive territorial capital. Buck promised to return; JD doubted he would see his big brother again.
Seeking comfort he returned to the Wells home where he was greeted with a repeated scene. Overnight, Casey changed her mind. She refused to look the young man in the eye. “I’m going, JD. This is, it’s just too great an opportunity to miss. I always wanted to see the big city.”
“But Casey, last night you said….”
Her eyes snapping, she interrupted his plea. “Last night? Last night you got what you wanted.” Her hand swiped at the tears trailing down her checks.
Stunned at Casey’s outburst, JD stood speechless.
Casey continued “Last night, what we did, we shouldn’t have. I decided it’d be best if’n I leave for a while, see how I get along with Aunt Sally and her family.” She hung her head in shame.
JD felt his chest hurt again, only this time it was because his heart was breaking into a million pieces. “Don’t go, Casey. Don’t go,” he pleaded, reaching out to gently set his hand on her arm.
She shook it off, like trying to remove an unwanted bug. “Go home, JD. I’ll write to you but I need time to decide what to do next.” She turned abruptly and ran back into the small house, slamming the door in her retreat.
He put one foot on the wooden step but stopped. Certainly she wouldn’t leave. Aunt Nettie wouldn’t let her go. That thought bolstered his hope during his ride back to town.
Two days later he watched Buck and Louisa leave in a fancy surrey, a large trunk tied onto the back. The same afternoon, the young lawman passed Casey’s luggage up to the stagecoach driver. They ate lunch together but neither spoke. The decision made, Casey offered JD a quick peck on his cheek before boarding the stagecoach. “I’ll write, let you know where to send me a letter. Don’t look so sad, I’ll be back; in a couple of months, I’ll be back.
Their letter writing began immediately, JD returning one for each one he received. Each shared their day-by-day experiences. He’d mention how he missed going fishing with the tomboy; Casey described her teacher’s strange habits. Neither mentioned their true feelings for each other.
JD resolved to wait for the other lawmen to realize that this was their home. He would be here to welcome them back. The day his world crumbled started like most every other day since Buck, Casey and the rest left town. JD met the stagecoach daily. He hadn’t received a letter from Casey for over ten days so he expected her to climb off the vehicle, home to stay. Three businessmen disembarked but again no Casey. Like he’d done everyday since she’d left he fought the urge to ride to Colorado Springs, to see for himself that she was all right.
“JD, you got some mail,” yelled the driver as he passed a few letters to the postmaster.
The deputy grabbed the envelope, smelling the fragrance of lilacs. With eager anticipation he slit the envelope open and pulled out the thin paper.
Forgive me for not continuing our correspondence. I’m not sure how to say this so I’ll be blunt. This will be my last letter. I have decided to stay here and finish my schooling. I will not be returning. Do not wait for me and do not come here to find me. Whatever we thought we had never existed. You can do better than me. I’ll never forget our fun fishing but I don’t see myself growing old with you.
Take care of yourself.
JD gently unfolded the well-worn, dog-eared paper. He’d carried the letter with him, constantly, knowing the now faded script by heart. Did she ever think about him or had she meant to rip out his heart and toss away his feelings like so much trash?
He resigned that day, six months ago, resigned and left for Texas. The little town held too many memories. Mary Travis, Casey’s Aunt Nettie, Mrs. Potter, hell, even Abe Conklin reminded him of what he’d lost. Texas and the Rangers seemed as good a place as any to begin a new life.
Tomorrow, he’d pay his respects to Nettie Wells before continuing his hunt to serve papers to a man wanted in the state of Texas.