by Sarah B.
Josiah wandered through the forest on his horse and thought. And as he always did when he was alone and thinking, he talked out loud, casting his grey eyes to the red and yellow trees around him, and the faultless sky above.
Well, God, he muttered to himself as he let the horse meander through the trees, Guess you done seen the latest example of hell of earth. One of your special children too, at least Im sure she thought so. And now she knows for sure. Josiah sighed, shook his head and listened to the leaves crunching under the horses hooves. Sorry, God, but Im kind of riled at you right now. You always said all we had to do was believe, and wed get every good thing there was. Well, that poor girl believed, and all she got was dead. And Dominique Valesquez, she had a childs faith, pure and simple, and shes dead too. And I dont get it, God.
The leaves were thick on the forest floor, and the horse waded through them as if it were going through a stream. Josiah pulled the Navaho blanket he was draped in tighter around his shoulders, and said in a quieter voice, Now God, I reckon youre kind of upset at me takin a swing at that man the other day. I know you want us to hold our tempers, especially me since people seem to think Im Your deputy, but...sometimes I think maybe I got too much of the devil in me to try to keep it in. And You heard some of the things he said. Not too nice. I suppose I should have just held my gun on him, but... Josiah shrugged. Well, I guess we both know how that would have turned out.
The air was quiet, crystal clear and still, and Josiah came to a small stream whose rushing waters sounded like music in the autumn air. It was a peaceful scene, the sunlight filtering through the red and gold and still-green leaves as they clung to the trees, some letting go and floating gently to the sparkling waters below. Josiah pondered the scene a moment, trying to let in the serenity he knew had to be there, somewhere.
It wasnt working. He still felt lousy.
Finally letting out another sigh, Josiah said, God, I hope you dont mind me sayin so, but sometimes I feel that You callin me to the ministry might have been a lapse of judgment. Especially lately. Now I aint sayin its permanent, and it aint somethin Im wantin to do, but lately Ive been getting the feeling that You and me had best part ways, at least on a professional basis. I havent been doing Your reputation much good in the past couple of weeks, and its possible that Ive strayed so far off Your path that the devil aint scared to come on in anymore. If thats the case, I think Id do us both a world of good by stoppin this charade, and goin back to just bein a regular sinner.
Silence. The waters sang, birds chirped, the winds distant song. Josiahs heart was heavy, but he thought of the mans stinging words, and he felt like a fraud. Deceitful and false.
Hanging his head, Josiah carefully slipped the wooden-beaded cross from around his neck, and after looking at it for a moment in the glowing sunshine, slowly slipped it into his pocket and started for home, his soul weary, his mind troubled, and his eyes downcast so that they missed the small form scuttling among the trees, that was there one moment, and then was gone.
By the time JD and Buck made it to the jail house, a curious crowd had gathered outside, and when they saw JD someone asked, Is it another murder?
Well know in a minute, JD answered as he reached for the door.
A woman in the crowd grabbed Bucks lapel, looked at him in fright. You know - did someone else get killed?
Buck took the womans hand and politely but firmly removed it from his lapel as he said, You heard the sheriff, maam. We dont know yet.
A shouted chorus of questions was drowned out only when JD and Buck darted through the jail door and closed it behind them.
Once there, JD gave Buck an exasperated look and said, See what I mean, Buck? They all think Im stupid or something!
Buck cleared his throat, pointed to JDs desk. JDs mouth dropped open and he said softly, Oh.
A young man was sitting in a chair by JDs desk, dressed in the black frock of a priest, his dark eyes downcast, his handsome face a mask of sorrow beneath jet-black hair. Nathan Jackson, a former slave and the closest thing Four Corners had to a doctor, was sitting on the edge of the desk and talking to the man in low tones. He looked up at JD and Buck and shook his head.
Its bad. The healer said simply as JD approached his chair and sat down. Buck, JD, this here is Father Daniel. He says he was in the woods when the murder took place.
Who was it? Buck asked Nathan quietly, hearing the door open behind him. He didnt have to look around him to know it was Chris.
Magdelena Ortega, my sister, The young man said in a soft Spanish accent, raising his eyes to look at Buck in fathomless sorrow. She was an initiate, I was escorting her to the convent this morning when we stopped in the woods... he trailed off and turned the hat in his hands, staring at it forlornly.
Did you see what happened? Chris asked quietly as JD took out some paper and began writing.
Daniel nodded, said haltingly, We were stopped in the woods, to rest for a bit. I went to get the horses some water, and I heard Magdelena scream. When I got back I saw a - He paused, took a deep breath before continuing, I saw a big man with a knife, standing over her. When he saw me, he dropped the knife, pulled out his gun and shot at me. Then he ran away.
Did you get a good look at him? JD asked as he wrote.
Daniel gave another nod, He was big, and he wore black. He had grey hair and - and a bit of a beard.
JD frowned as he finished writing down the description. Josiah and I saw a man in the woods yesterday, that looked like that. Must be the same man.
Chris nodded in grim determination. Time to form a posse. he said darkly.
Daniel looked up in confusion. Shouldnt we wait for the sheriff? I thought you said he was coming.
JD flushed, gave Buck a quick, helpless look before clearing his throat and saying, Um, Im the sheriff. JD Dunne. Daniels eyes widened. Oh, Im sorry. I thought you were the clerk. You look so - I know. JD said tiredly as he rubbed his temple and set the pen down. Chris and Buck exchanged looks, then Chris wordlessly turned toward the door. Buck motioned for Daniel to follow, and with JD in tow the men walked back onto the porch.
The crowd was still there, still curious, but Chris ignored their mutterings and turned to Buck. Vin and Ezra?
In the saloon. Buck said, nodding his head in that direction.
Chris looked down at the boardwalk. And Josiah?
He went for a ride this morning, JD offered, then looked down the street and said, Oh, here he comes.
They all looked up and saw the large man riding along, his head down, his manner suggesting great preoccupation. Chris was about to step off the porch and inform him of what was going on when Daniel suddenly grabbed his arm and yelped, Thats him!
Chris, Buck, and JD all looked at Daniel, alarmed. Chris said disbelievingly, Youre sure?
Daniel nodded frantically, his eyes wide with terrified recognition. Thats the man who murdered Magdelena!
By this time Josiah had stopped his horse in front of the jail.
Seeing the look of stunned denial on his friends faces, the preacher paused before dismounting to ask, Did something happen while I was gone?
You son of a - Daniel spat, and took a step forward before Buck snatched at his arm and stopped him.
Josiah halted, confused. What?
Chris eyes were disbelieving as he asked quietly, Whereve you been, Josiah?
The big man shrugged. Out ridin.
Anybody go with you?
Josiahs expression grew more puzzled. No, just me and God. Why?
You mean you and the devil! Daniel hissed, glaring at Josiah with open hatred.
Buck and JD looked at each other as Josiah eyed Daniel and said, What is going on? Who are you?
You know who I am! Daniel seethed, still restrained only by Bucks arm. You looked right at me after you murdered my sister!
Josiah froze, shook his head dumbly. The crowd around them was shocked into stillness.
Mister, Im sorry anyone is dead, Josiah said in a dazed voice, But I didnt kill your sister.
Chris backed up a few steps, muttered, JD...
JD looked up at him, his shoulders slumped. He knew what he had to do now, didnt want to, but...
Slowly, he pulled out one of his Colt Lightnings and said in a halting voice, Um, come on, Josiah...
The crowd muttered. A few people snickered.
Buck saw JDs jaw set. He cleared his throat, and continued in a strong, overly brash voice that everyone heard, even if a few of them didnt quite understand it. Come on, Josiah. Youre under arrest.
* * * * * * *
You dont say. Ezras Southern drawl floated lazily in the cool air of the saloon as he leaned back in his chair and looked at his companions.
Chris, who was standing next to Vin opposite Ezra, nodded. Father Daniel is sure it was Josiah. I wish he wasnt.
Oh, come on, Chris! Buck sputtered as he walked around the poker table to face his friend. You know as well as I do that Josiah aint a murderer, especially of women! Hes just not capable of that kind of violence.
Vin shifted in his chair, kept his eyes on the small stack of poker chips that he was running through one hand, over and over.
Nathan was rubbing the back of his neck and shaking his head. I dont know whats goin on, but Father Daniel, he looked ready to kill Josiah. Dont think hed be actin that way if he thought he might be wrong.
And Josiahs been riding off by himself the past few weeks. Chris said in low tones as he looked down at the floor.
Ezra cocked his head toward Nathan, Have we ruled out the possibility of seizure? Blackouts, some kind of schizophrenia?
Nathan shrugged. Josiahs health has always been just fine. It just dont add up.
Vins eyes didnt move as he asked quietly, Anybody been out to where the girl was murdered yet?
Chris looked at him. Think you can find anything?
Vin let go of the chips, slowly stood up and curled his thumbs over his belt. He looked at Chris steadily and answered, I think Id better look.
Chris nodded his approval, casting his eyes around the table. We all know Josiah didnt do this, no matter what it looks like. That means whoever did do it is still out there.
And killin innocent women. Buck said in low, savage tones.
Chris eyes met his, and they were as cold and hard as the blackest stone as he said, We leave in half an hour.
* * * * * * *
JD fidgeted with his gun, sitting nervously at the desk and occasionally glancing at Josiah, who was sitting quietly on the cot in the jail cell. Sometimes, he thought, this job really stinks.
Josiah noticed his young friends discomfiture, said quietly, Dont worry, JD. Im not mad at you.
JD gave Josiah a guilty look and blurted, Im sorry I had to arrest you, Josiah. Its part of my job, but I dont think you did it, I swear I dont.
Josiah gave the boy a rueful grin. Even though you saw me beat that man nearly to death yesterday? You dont think Im capable of violence?
Oh - well - JD cast about for a moment before continuing, Well, sure you are, but you aint no murderer! I know youre not.
Im not so sure of that, JD, Josiah sighed, leaning against the back wall and staring at the ceiling.
JD got up, came to the bars. What do you mean?
The preachers eyes never left the ceiling. We kill men all the time, JD. We take out our guns and we shoot them. Or we club them, or punch them to death with our fists. The way God probably looks at it, were all murderers. Josiah paused, gave JD a sorrowful look. You werent, until you joined us. You probably never hurt a soul till you came out here. But now youre as stained as the rest of us, God have mercy on our souls.
JD blinked, laughed a little,uncomfortable. Come on, Josiah, thats crazy. Were not murderers, were - were peace keepers. The men we shoot are bad, theyre asking for it.
But theyre men, nonetheless. Josiah said drowsily, closing his eyes.
And - JD began to feel his proud temper rising, And what makes you think I was so innocent before I came out here, anyway? I got in lots of fights. I used to beat up the bullies at the stables all the time, I just dont brag about it, thats all.
Josiah didnt respond. Damn it, JD thought, hes asleep.
The youth stalked back to the desk, sat down heavily. Everybody thinks Im a big baby, he steamed to himself. Everybody thinks Im just this greenhorn city kid who couldnt be tough if my life depended on it. JD idly rubbed the lapel of his checkered suit and thought, dammit.
Dammit, Im sick of it.
He stood up, biting his lip as he looked at Josiah. Hes asleep, I could get Nathan to watch him and say Im going to get something to eat. Then Ill go out to the woods and track down whoever killed those girls. Everybody will be impressed, and theyll never look at me like Im some twelve-year-old kid again. Never.
JD quietly picked up his jacket and, casting one more look to Josiah, tiptoed toward the door.
JD thought of something, tiptoed back to the desk and slid open one of the drawers. Josiahll be bored in there, he thought. Ill give him something to read.
The youth walked silently toward the bars, slipped the worn Bible through into Josiahs cell, and hurriedly left the jail.
* * * * * * *
Some time later, Chris and Vin saddled up their horses and waited for the others to join them.
Chris was watching clouds scuttle across the sky, blocking the sun, and his tone was anxious as he looked at the faces of the townsfolk. I dont like this, Vin.
The tracker cocked his head, took a bite of beef jerky and said quietly, Me neither. But the sooner we get out there, the sooner we find the truth.
Chris nodded, turned his head as he heard a door open. Nathan strode out, leaned against a post and looked at them.
Can you handle things till we get back? Chris asked.
Nathan nodded. Father Daniels up at the hotel, and JD went to get something to eat. Reckon well keep the townsfolk off Josiahs neck till you return.
Chris lowered his head in satisfaction, heard the familiar gallop of Bucks horse. The gunslinger looked ready to go, an anxious energy about him as he reined his horse in. Ezra was right next to him, looking similarly eager.
Chris looked around him, said without a word swung his horse around, and started out.
As they headed their horses out of town, Buck maneuvered his mount to trot beside Chris and said, Say, Chris?
Hm? Chris replied in a preoccupied way.
I thought of something, about the ladies that were murdered. Might be a clue.
Yeah? Chris looked at his friend in curiosity. Whats that?
Well, one was a little girl, one was a nun, and the other was a novice. She was gonna be a nun.
Chris nodded. Theyre all women.
And theyre all...well, theyre pure, as Josiah would put it.
Chris shot Buck a sharp look. Virgins?
Buck nodded, his face dark. Were dealin with a real sick man here, Chris.
The other mans jaw set. Then we better find him before the next virgin does.
Buck nodded, and they rode on.
* * * * * * *
JD guided his horse through the thick carpet of leaves as he surveyed the woods around him. It was getting cloudy, and a little windier; A lot of the trees had lost their leaves, and the ones that hadnt were showering him and the forest floor with crumpled, dead leaves that made a soft crackling noise as they hit the ground. JD looked around and gulped; this place gave him the creeps, he really did think it was haunted; and he almost regretted coming alone.
Oh, get over it, he chided himself, sitting up a little higher and setting his derby hat back on his head. Youre tough, remember? Youre like Chris, or Vin, they never get the creeps. Nothing ever bothers them. Just keep an eye out, you never know what you might find...
JD came upon a stream, normally pretty small but now deeper and swift-moving with recent rains. He guided his horse down the side of it, thinking that maybe he could find a clue here as to who had killed those poor women. But probably he wouldnt find anything; he saw that the stream went some ways downhill, down to a sort of waterfall and a larger, rushing river beyond it. Any evidence here would have been washed downstream long ago, JD sighed. Dead end here.
He turned his horse about, trotted a little ways upstream, then stopped. He thought hed heard something, but...
Kid! Hey, kid!
JD turned his horse back around. Buck was standing downstream, waving at him.
Oh, geez, JD thought to himself as he dismounted and tied his horse. Hes going to yell at me for leaving the jail. Well, let him. At least I showed him Im not afraid to come out here on my own.
JD walked to where the landscape started getting hillier, shouted, You find something, Buck?
Buck nodded, Come on down here!
JD cursed; with the shoes he had on, hed probably slip and break his neck. Oh well...
Careful, now, Buck cautioned as JD made his way down the rocky slope to meet him.
JD finally found himself on level ground, smiled to himself in satisfaction. He looked around; it was really quite beautiful down there, the water rushing downstream, rocks and low trees all around, like a small, secluded haven of tranquility. He admired it for a second, then said, Whatcha got, Buck?
Oh - Buck grinned, started walking downstream, Sorry, kid, almost forgot, its so nice down here. You find anything?
No, JD admitted sadly, Not yet, but we gotta keep looking, Buck, or Josiahs a goner for sure.
Yeah, I know, Buck shrugged, then said, Hey, lookee there.
JD looked. Someone had diverted the stream, a long time ago it looked like, by piling rocks in the stream bed, forcing the water to turn. There was still a bed there, about three feet deep, kept dry by the rock wall but made muddy by the recent rains.
Buck hopped down into the stream bed, motioned for JD to follow.
You sure about this, Buck? JD asked uncertainly. He could see where the bed veered down sharply about twenty yards ahead, into a wide hole, probably where the water pooled at one time. Wheres Chris and the others?
Aw, come on, kid, Buck teased, I thought you were so worried about being tough.
JD considered, didnt want to look like the kid everyone thought he was. So he jumped into the bed.
Buck pulled his gun and walked forward. It was darker down there; they were in a small valley of dirt walls and moss, and it was getting creepier. JD didnt like it, and was about to tell Buck so when he heard a womans scream, and his blood froze.
Shit! Buck cursed, and began to run down the sloping stream bed. Come on!
JD yanked his guns out and started running, cursing himself when he realized that the stream bed was slippery, and he was having trouble keeping traction. Buck was running faster now, and JD tried to keep up, but just before the dropoff he slipped, and with a strangled cry plunged down into the deep hole.
An excruciating pain shot up JDs left leg as he slammed into the ground at the bottom of the hole, and he let out a moan. For a moment he lay there, too stunned from flying through nothingness to land hard on cold earth to do much other than breathe. Then he tried to move, and it was agony.
Oh, damn, he thought, damn, damn, and he started to panic. He opened his eyes, found himself lying on his back, staring into gloomy darkness, the only light the opening of the hole fifteen feet above his head. He tried to turn over, felt another horrific bolt of pain course up his leg. Broken? Shit, he thought as he pictured Chris face when he found out JD had screwed up again. Shit.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, JD very slowly sat up, looked up at the hole and shouted, Buck!
His voice echoed a little off the high walls, but JD kept his hazel eyes on the circle of light above him, and Buck did not appear.
Oh, great, JD thought, he ran on ahead, probably didnt even see me go down. He felt for his guns, thought, I can fire a shot, but they werent in his holsters. Then he remembered he had them in his hands when he fell...JD looked around, didnt see them. Damn.
JD sighed, took a deep breath, and hoped his friend could hear him. Buck! He tried again, sweeping his eyes up the side of the hole until they reached the top, I know youre going to kill me, but I think I broke my -
He stopped. Froze. Started shaking.
Someone was at the edge of the hole, looking down at him, but it wasnt Buck.
It was himself.
JD let out a noiseless scream, thought I hit my head, Im dreaming.
The person standing at the top of the hole looked just like him, his mirror image. Even the hat -
I - JD stared at the nightmare apparition, felt himself trembling from cold and confusion and a deep, nameless fear, but still he stammered out, I - I hurt my leg.
The other JD just looked at him, his face a mask of indifference.
Whats going on? JD whispered, clutching the dirt beneath him for no reason he could think of. He looked at the bland face of the youth who was him, that wasnt moving or talking but was regarding him with satisfied malevolence. JD felt himself going cold and hot all over, and his heart was pounding within him, as if it wanted him to run; but JD could barely move.
The figure walked away.
Hey! Now JD was really panicking, what hed just seen couldnt be real, but it seemed to be, and suddenly he was more scared than he had ever been in his life. Hey! Where are you -
He heard a sound he didnt recognize, like somebody kicking rocks over, paused. His heart thudded in his chest, and he struggled to breathe.
Suddenly a small trickle of water fell on his hand. JD went numb, looked up.
And saw a steady stream of ice-cold water gushing into the hole, on its relentless way to filling to the top.