Nathan looked up with a start, at the youthful voice from the near cell. Until just now, the boy within had made not a sound.
"Why ye do what you do?"
"What's that?" Nathan closed the book in his lap, and set it on the desk. He could just see the small, slumped form sitting on the cot, shaggy brown hair hanging in the boy's eyes.
"Why, I reckon it's just what I was called to do."
"But how'd ye git started doin' it? Ye don't look like you was ever -." The boy's voice stumbled to a halt, then came in a rush. "Well, a big feller like you wouldn't be no house nigra, but you got all them books at your place. I looked in 'em whilst I was there, and they got words I ain't never even seen before!"
Nathan stood and walked to the cell, his large, dark eyes regarding the boy steadily. He watched the youngster square himself to look back. The boy could only see a black man's features, as dark and smooth and unreadable as a hazelnut shell. What should Nathan Jackson see, in some scrawny white kid from the Tennessee hill country?
"Honest." Sam gazed through lank hair. No guile, no suspicion, now, just what looked like frank curiosity. "I just . . . I never met nobody like you. I mean . . . folks mostly didn't have no nigras, up in the hills. Why you a healer?"
The healer sighed, tipped his chin up, drew his shoulders to their full and considerable height. Lord only knew why the boy came up with all these questions now, but Chris wanted him talking, so talk is what they'd do.
"Well, reckon I seen enough wrong, in this world, to want to make some right. Then they made me a stretcher-bearer for the Union army, and I saw all them boys, hell, most of 'em just kids. They was all hurtin', all scared and needin' help and somebody to give a damn. So I just done what I could."
"But how'd ye learn? You study up all them books and doctorin' and such, all on your own?"
Nodding, Nathan said, "All I could do. Watch and try to learn. Wasn't like I could go to school. I was lucky to meet some folks along the way who helped, but it still ain't enough. Every day I'm breathin', I'm tryin' to learn more."
Sam took that in, turned the thought slowly. "And ye don't . . . ye don't hate nobody?"
"Hate? Sam, there's enough hate in this world. A man's got to stand up, sometimes, yes, he do. But hatin' don't fix nothin', don't build or cure nothin', or make anything better. I seen enough of what hatefulness can do. One thing I've learned is that misery don't know any boundaries, and it didn't matter a damn if a person is blue or grey, black, white or brown. My place is to do what I can to heal."
The tousled head nodded slowly. Then of all questions Nathan might have expected, Sam asked the last one.
"Doc . . . anybody ever whip you?"
Lord, that question drove deep, touched fire-edged scars that left a man's soul bleeding, long after the physical hurt had gone. Touched a nightmare of despair and rage that Nathan tried to keep locked away, although it was a door that sometimes took his whole strength to hold shut. Yet there was something in that boy's eyes . . . A depth of hopelessness that Nathan had never seen on a healthy white face.
"Yeah, Sam. Somebody did."
"What'd ye do?"
"I took it."
"I took it some more."
The boy bowed his head below his shoulders, and his voice came as barely more than a whisper.
"And the whole while, you was held to livin' in ways ye didn't want."
"That's what slavery is."
"How'd ye make it stop?"
"Why, I stole myself, Sam. I stole myself to freedom."
For a long moment, no one spoke, and Nathan caught a sour whiff from the cells. Old urine, old vomit, old misery, that no scrubbing ever entirely got out. Then the boy's shoulders rose and sank, in a sigh that seemed to come from a hollow greater than any his slight frame could hold.
"I tried that, Doc. I thought I got it done, too."
+ + + + + + +
Sam endured the hearing in stoic silence, eyes on the floor and shoulders clenched tight. All five customers who had been in the saloon gave similar accounts. All described a quiet evening, a stranger walking in, and no sooner does he speak to the kid, than a single shot blows the night to hell, and a dying man screams his life out on the dirty floor. In lieu of a coroner, Nathan Jackson gave his report of the man's death, from a single gunshot wound to the belly, given at the hands of Sam McLachlan. Nor could Chris Larabee or Vin Tanner offer less damning testimony, no matter if they wished to soften their words. No one had heard any argument, no one saw any violence or threat offered by Lew Yarbrough towards the accused. And Yarbrough had been entirely unarmed. Nor did Sam offer any slightest defense, letting a plea of Not Guilty be entered, merely as a formality. Orin Travis was an efficient man, and ruled the matter as admissible to trial well before court closed that afternoon. Jury selection would begin in a week, trial set for the third Wednesday hence. Bail five thousand dollars. Sam McLachlan was not going anywhere.
JD propped his hands on his pistol butts, and shook his head with a deep sigh. "Damn, Vin."
Walking slowly beside the younger man, Tanner only nodded. Nothing in their understanding of Sam, however limited, quite matched the image of cold-blooded murderer. One sober possibility was that the kid had simply panicked, anticipating trauma like the robbery and beating he had already endured. However, countering that was Vin's assertion - or rather, firm belief - that Sam and the recently-deceased knew each other. As a result, the youngster's continued, taut silence was both aggravation and alarm. There was too much left unknown, unsaid, undiscovered. Not even Josiah, with his paternal manner, had been able to arouse answers to a single question.
"Chris sent off a telegram to that John Frame fella, in the letter," JD said. "Boone Station don't have its own telegraph office, though, so looks like it may take a while before we hear anything back." Shaking his head once, sharply, JD exclaimed, "Dammit, why won't Sam talk to anybody? They had to know each other from before, so why won't he tell us? Vin, I've hung around with Sam, and he's just not . . . not a killer! He's a good kid who's scared, that's what I think, but he won't tell us why."
Vin almost smiled at that, JD finally able to refer to someone else as a kid. Yet his humor faded as he replied, "I reckon that's it, JD. He's too scared to trust anyone."
"Well, he's gonna end up in prison or worse, if he don't wake up."
Their boot heels clumped on board walk, as both retreated into their own thoughts. A door rattled and opened before them, and Chris Larabee stepped out of the Clarion newspaper office.
"Hey, Chris," JD said, and Vin nodded greeting.
Chris returned a nod, and gusted a great sigh, shaking his head. "Well, looks like the town's getting some real news to read, now. Mary is finishing up her article on the hearing."
"What's she gonna say?" JD frowned in suspicion.
Their lady newspaper editor prided herself on objectivity and fair reporting, and for the most part got it done. However, the safety and welfare of their little town were her cause and her crusade, and murder of an unarmed man would be hard to portray with any but a black brush.
"Not much to say. Just a transcript of the testimony, mostly."
"No blood and thunder?" Vin asked, with a wry smile.
"No, not after I told her what we all have been thinking. That there's something we're missing, here. And the fact that Sam is only about fifteen years old really hit the ol' sympathy chord."
JD cocked his head at Chris and asked, "Well, what can we do, short of shaking the hell out of the kid?"
Larabee looked at JD, and a distracted frown creased his brow. "You know, that's the one thing we haven't done, yet."
Then he swung around in a swirl of black duster and strode off. JD and Vin exchanged glances, and hopped into pace behind him.
"Keys, Buck," Chris said, as he swept the jail door open.
Buck jerked his legs off the desk and a magazine slapped to the floor. "Damn, Chris, you ever hear of knocking? Keys are hangin' right there."
The others hung back, as Larabee scooped the ring of keys off their hook, and strode to the only occupied cell. Sam watched through a fringe of hair, never moving as the door jangled open.
"All right, boy, now we are gonna talk." Larabee tossed the keys back to Buck, then slammed the door behind him. In one stride he was over the boy, where he stared down in tight fury.
"Kid, I don't know what your problem is." Chris's voice came low and hard. "I don't know what you are thinking, and I can't imagine what you suppose will happen. But you are looking at prison or hanging, if you don't do some damned thing to help yourself. Do you understand me?"
Hazel eyes stared back, nothing there but some godawful mix of fear and fight and silent anguish. Once, years ago, Chris had trapped a coyote that was killing his mother's chickens, and he'd found the animal lying belly-flat at the end of the stake-chain, wearing this same feral, frozen stare.
Larabee dropped to a crouch, those coyote eyes following his. "Boy, I'm only gonna ask this once more. Who was Lew Yarbrough?"
No reply. Nor had he really expected any. So he let the other shoe drop.
"Was he your daddy?"
Breath hissed sharply, as Sam jerked back on the bunk. Now there was awareness in the kid's eyes.
"No," he whispered. Then his lips skinned off his teeth and words came in tight, measured timbres that heaved in his thin chest. "That . . . man . . . is . . . no . . . kin . . . to me."
Then his voice shot up to high, sharp edges, that slashed the leaning walls and rocked Larabee back on his heels. "Do you hear me, mister? That man was never, ever any blood kin to me! Not ever in this whole world! I am no part of who he was, and I never will be!"
In the stunned silence that followed, Chris watched as Sam turned his face away, hiding once more behind that fringe of shaggy hair. Leaning his elbows on his knees, Larabee searched for words.
"Sam . . . you've got to give yourself a chance. Hell, we are your only chance. Don't you understand that?"
The boy's head shook in negative, but not to Chris's question. "I never wanted him dead," Sam mumbled. "I never wanted - never wanted none of that. I only wanted him to -." A breath seemed to hitch in his throat, and he choked, "I just wanted him to let me be!"
Then to Larabee's horror, the kid abruptly broke down in tight, tearing sobs. His head dropped into huddled arms, and his whole frame convulsed with each strangled breath. Oh, damnation, of all possible things . . .
Chris leaned forward and awkwardly laid a hand on the boy's stiff, shaking shoulder. "Sam, for God's sake . . . Look, will you just let us help you . . . Sam?"
For an answer, Sam merely coiled tighter, fighting valiantly to stifle a shuddering torrent of despair, as if all the heartache of the ages fought its way through one half-grown kid. Aw, son of a bitch, Larabee, now you've really done it. Instinct slid Chris's hand around to the boy's back, where he gently rubbed soft cotton and tight muscles, just as he once had when his own son wrestled a nightmare. Behind him, outside the cell, Buck, JD and Vin made no sound. The kid wept, and Larabee closed his eyes on a clumsy prayer for help.
+ + + + + + +
One way out, one way in. Jails were simplicity incarnate. Sam watched the daily turn of things in numb silence. The food was not bad, and, thanks to sympathetic jailors, may have been better than what the average prisoner enjoyed. Fattening the murderer, came the fleeting thought, all the better to snap a neck at the end of the hangman's rope. Nights were the worst, when black walls pressed in and the shadows whispered dire promise, and mortality rose as a stifled howl in Sam's chest. Then the single lamp out by the desk seemed as the only hope for heaven, and Sam choked down the urge to shriek for - what? A friendly voice, a friendly face . . . Yet although all the seven peacekeepers took their turn as jailor, and none offered anything but unhappy looks and kind words, Sam found no reply. Nothing could be said or done to undo that one damnable act. Hell danced in gleeful anticipation, in the dark hours of predawn, and even Josiah's deep-voiced compassion brought no ease to the terror. No matter what the preacher said, he could not truly speak for God, could not remove the stain of blood from Sam McLachlan's hands. Could not blot out that man's dying screams - God! Perhaps hanging would be a mercy after all, but there was too much fondness for living left in the prisoner, to yet embrace that.
Ezra Standish. Perhaps he would be the weak spot. There was no friendliness between them, no understanding or bonds of camaraderie. Strangers, almost. Strangers enough that Sam might not feel bad, when opportunity knocked. And perhaps the gambler would be fooled by their captive's huddled withdrawal, enough to allow just a moment's laxity. Sam watched for ten days, Standish twice being posted as jailor.
On his third watch, Ezra as usual sat with a book, until a cautious rap at the door roused him. A boy from the restaurant held a covered tray, the evening meal for the prisoner, which the gambler accepted with quiet thanks. The delivery boy waited, while Ezra fished a coin from his pocket, then left. This was it.
Sam's heart leapt up into a tight throat, hammering so hard that shirt buttons must vibrate. With agonizingly casual movements, Ezra balanced the tin tray on one hand, and picked the cell keys from their hook with the other. Sam swallowed with a tongue suddenly dry, nearly strangling on dread anticipation. C'mon, c'mon, c'mon! Metal jingled as Ezra carefully shook out the correct key, and clanked it into the lock.
"Supper is served, young man," the gambler drawled, and the lock turned over with a thunderous click.
Sam dove into the creeping opening like a cannon ball, shoulder colliding with metal door frame and Ezra's legs. Standish yelled and Sam lunged up and past, slamming the tray into the gambler's face even as the youth launched into a long dive. Hit rolling on the floor beyond, scrambling as Ezra swore and shouted. Don't stop, don't stop -. Leather shoes skidded on polished wood as Sam scrambled towards the door, freedom just steps away -.
And Sam stopped. Heard the metallic snap and knew without turning what waited, felt no surprise when looking back into the small, lethal bore of a derringer in Ezra Standish's hand. Nor was there any charity in the cold, green eyes that stared back.
Between panting breaths, Ezra said, "That was a nice try, my boy. But that is all you get."
Carefully the man stepped away from the cell door, gravy and other things splotching the front of his brocade vest. The black eye of the derringer never wavered, as Ezra back-stepped around the desk, and stopped.
"I suggest you return to your quarters. Now."
Flat, metallic voice, the velvet of a gentleman's manner utterly gone. Yet Sam looked at him, swallowed, and felt the great wheel of time just . . . stop.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Standish," the youngster whispered. Strange, how thin and foreign one's own voice could sound.
Then Sam turned slowly, carefully - away from the cells. Towards the door. The bullet would hurt, or maybe Ezra could shoot well enough to make it clean. One step, two -.
"Stop, damn you, boy!"
Three steps - and Sam broke, lunged, hit the door with a full-body blow and burst past it. The youth plunged out of Ezra's full-lunged shout of outrage, the cursing such as no gentleman ever used, and into the gathering darkness. Running, now, legs pumping with no glance back, walls and alleys a jolting blur, corners careening past in a rat's maze with no design but escape. Sam ran until both lungs heaved burning cotton, and both legs stumbled on rubberized hinges. But not out of town. Not yet. They would hunt and they would search, and Sam would run right into their arms within the hour. Best to wait, hiding in crannies only the smallest creatures knew. Let them scour and swear and wear the edges of humiliation off, first.
In the silent grey hours past midnight, Sam McLachlan slipped away, a ghost passing through the patient net the seven peacekeepers sought to weave around the town. Into the desert, the far, blue hills, and from there . . . well, Sam had lived long on the high roads of Tennessee.
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