"Jeremy! Jeremy! Must you make me run after you like a schoolgirl?"
Jeremy Butterwick paused, sighed, and composed his features as best he could before turning to face his summoner. Cora Lejeune, Marcus Bentann's niece, was almost as tall as he and equally as slender and fine-boned: neighbors in Philadelphia, where she'd been born, had often said she was "of a French pony breed," her father's grandparents having been French Creoles from Haiti who had fled the black uprisings. She had the build of her paternal ancestors, and her father's eyes, large and soft and brown, but her mother's yard and a half of burnt-honey hair. Her light blue summer dress, its small embroidered collar fastened with a Persian brooch of seed-pearl and turquoise, brought out the latter's color.
"Yes, Cora, I'm sorry. I must not have heard you, I was thinking about your uncle's affairs." It wasn't a lie.
The girl fell in beside him, her cheeks just nicely flushed from her dash down the hotel corridor. "That's just what I wanted to talk to you about. What possible affairs could Uncle Marc have in this dusty little town? We've been here for three days now and I'm bored! I want to go back to Wichita. I don't know why he couldn't have just let me stay there, it's not as if I'd have been alone in the house, Mrs. Fleming would have stayed--" That was Bentann's housekeeper.
Jeremy smiled, and his smile was a winning one, perhaps his best feature, revealing fine teeth and putting a sparkle in his ordinarily serious blue eyes. "Aren't you at all happy to be with me?" he interrupted gently.
She blushed and looked down. "Oh, go away. You know I am."
"Well, then." But Jeremy felt the jab of apprehension nevertheless. He concealed it, as he had had to learn to conceal so much since he'd entered Bentann's household as his cousin Frank's agent. He'd been smitten with Cora since the day he arrived, but it hadn't been till almost eight months had passed that he had allowed her to see any hint of it, and almost a year had gone by before she admitted she had had a similar experience. Bentann knew of the mutual attraction and did nothing to discourage it, which, knowing what he did of the man, only tended to make Jeremy more nervous, but he had to take what he could get. Cora, like himself, had been given an excellent education; she was bright, articulate, funny, and accomplished, and he was well aware that, if he wasn't in love with her, he was about as close as he could get. He couldn't tell her of his feelings, though. He felt enough like a traitor already, being right in the thick of the plot to expose her uncle's past and bring him down in ruin. Jeremy had been planning a career in law; he knew that if it were ever proved that Bentann's fortune had its roots in Border-War plundering, the heirs of the despoiled would have the right to bring civil suit against him and take everything he owned. That would mean Cora and her two young cousins, Bentann's sons, would be left destitute. Sometimes, Franklin, I hate this job, he thought.
The worst of it was that Cora had only recently begun to confide in him that she had misgivings of her own. Not that Bentann had ever been unkind to her. He had given her everything money could buy, behaved in public and private both like a proper doting uncle. But Cora had been nine years old when she came to live in Wichita, a child with a child's keen instinctive insights, and even through her grief at the recent loss of her parents, she had sensed something not quite right about the man. She had never forgotten that, and in the years since, living in his house, often overhearing scraps and snatches of conversation, she had only become the more convinced that he had secrets best left in the dark. Jeremy hated using what she told him as a basis for his own investigations; it made him feel he was betraying her. But he had to do it, for Cousin Frank and the people of Kansas.
"You haven't answered my question," Cora broke into his broodings. "Why did we come here?"
"Mines, according to your uncle," Jeremy replied. "That's where he went this morning, out to look at some properties." Bentann had hired a horse and taken off immediately after breakfast, saying he might be gone most of the day.
"Then why didn't you go with him?"
"Cora, I'm from New Jersey! I don't know a thing about mines, what good would I be? He'll talk to the people at the mines he's inspecting, and if he's interested he'll hire an outside expert. Then, and only then, he might have some need of me. I can do much more good for him staying in town, in case there should be word about one of his properties back in Kansas."
She sighed. "I suppose so. I didn't think of it that way." A bright sidewise glance: "Have you found out anything that...well, connected with what we've talked about?"
"Cora, don't. He's your kin. He's just about raised you. You shouldn't say such things." And I'm a damned yellow-livered liar.
"Jeremy Butterwick," she retorted, "you're not going to trick me into thinking you're not just as uneasy as I am about some of the things that have gone on these last two years. It's just because he is my kin that I need you to validate it for me. I live too close to him. I might not see the forest for the trees. You've got twenty-two years of outside perspective, much less of preconceived notions than I do."
Preconceived notions? he thought. If you only knew. But he knew her well enough to know she wasn't going to give up. It doesn't matter what she believes, how many doubts she's had about him, how she thinks she'll react; once he's brought down and her whole world is destroyed, she'll hate me. So I might as well admit to something. "Yes," he said slowly, "I think I have. Found something out, that is. I don't have anywhere near all the details yet--" which was also true: only the mysterious Buck Wilmington could supply them-- "but I think it has something to do with where he got the start of his fortune, things he did in the War and before."
She nodded. "I always somehow guessed that might be part of it, I think. I mean, I've met my grandparents and I know they were...comfortable, but they didn't have anywhere near enough money to launch Uncle Marc in the style he lives in now. And he's been living that way, or close to it, for as far back as I've lived with him, and Aunt Rose told me he seemed to have a lot of money even when she married him, fourteen years ago. That means he almost had to have gotten his start early in the War or before, as you said, and I've heard enough about those days to know life wasn't easy then. Most people in Kansas were just farmers or small businessmen struggling to get a start. It's not as if he'd been in a gold rush, where you can make a fast fortune."
Jeremy had sometimes wondered why Bentann hadn't claimed to have done exactly that. It certainly would have deflected a lot of suspicion, including, quite possibly, Cousin Frank's. But if it had, he'd never have met Cora, and no matter what happened in the end, he knew he would always treasure his memories of living in the same house with her, hearing her laugh, watching her racing horseback over the prairie, talking with her of books and music and the theater, spinning her in his arms at the dances. Suddenly she turned to face him, putting out a hand to halt their progress. "Jeremy, I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to answer me honestly. Do you like Uncle Marc?"
He hesitated, but then decided it would do no harm to tell the truth. "No."
"All right. You're a man. You've got a wonderful education. You could go anywhere, be anything. If you feel that way, why do you work for him? Did you take an oath to cherish him till death do you part? You can quit. Why don't you?"
"Money. Food. It's a living. It's exciting. I'm crazy. Take your choice, only let's not talk about it." It wasn't merely that he wanted to prolong whatever they had. He'd thought of confiding the truth, as much of it as he knew. But he just wasn't sure how good she'd be at hiding her reactions to it. If Bentann suspected what she knew, if he, or more likely Freely, hurt her trying to find out-- No. Jeremy might be forced to betray her, destroy her position and wealth, but he wouldn't assume the responsibility for her coming to physical harm.
She watched him, wide-eyed, for a moment, and then nodded briefly. "If that's the way you feel about it," she said, "then I guess that's how it has to be." And she walked off down the hall and left him standing there.
It's better this way, he thought, watching her go. If you already hate me, it won't hurt so much when you find out the truth about what I've been trying to do. I'm sorry. But it is better, Cora.
He straightened his shoulders and continued the way he'd been going. With Bentann out of town, this would be a perfect time to contact Frank; he should be in Four Corners by now.
"I still say they both oughtta come up to my place and rest," Nathan grumbled.
"I don't need no rest," Vin insisted querulously.
"Don't tell me what you need and don't," Nathan snapped back. "You still look like death warmed over and Buck ain't much better."
"But if Ezra's right," Josiah put in calmly, "Buck must speak to these lawyers as soon as possible, Brother Nate. It's not as if he'll be doing anything strenuous. He can rest afterward."
"I'm with Josiah," Chris agreed. "All right. Vin, you go with Nathan, and don't argue about it, cowboy. Ezra, I want you in the lobby. JD, check to see the back door of the hotel is locked, then stay just inside and keep watch on it. That'll cover the only two ways anybody can get up to the rooms, unless they come in by way of the roof."
"And if they should take that route?" Ezra prompted.
"I'll be right outside the door while Buck's in the room," the gunfighter supplied grimly.
"And what am I to be doing, brother?" Josiah inquired.
"You said this Warren is checked into a room on the third floor," Chris remembered. "Look there. See if you can find anything that might tie him to what's happened."
"He's had time enough to circle around and pick up his stuff and get gone, Chris," Buck pointed out. "If I was him, and if I'd been tryin' to kill folks and knew one of 'em had six stubborn friends, that's what I'd do."
"Still," mused Josiah, "he might have left something behind, especially if he was pressed for time. I'll do it, Chris."
Ten minutes later, Chris rapped sharply on the door of Blakemore and Henneman's room. It was the showy partner who opened it. "Mr. Larabee. Should I assume that this gentleman is the missing Mr. Wilmington?"
"That's right," said Chris briefly. He put his hand on Buck's shoulder and squeezed briefly, bringing a quick surprised look from his old friend. "I'll be waitin' out here when you're finished, pard," he promised.
+ + + + + + +
"Mr. Wilmington? Please sit down and make yourself comfortable. I'm Franklin Henneman, Jon's partner. In a way, I'm responsible for your being here."
"Here? You mean in Four Corners?" Buck's mind was still a little dazed from his ordeal. "Naw. I come here all on my own. Unless you believe Josiah, that is."
"Here, in this room tonight," Henneman amplified. "Would you care for a drink?"
"I reckon I wouldn't mind," Buck agreed. He watched as the lanky lawyer went to the bureau and poured a brimming four-ounce glassful from the bottle on its marble top. When it was handed to him, he could tell by the smell that it was good stuff, even though the label had been turned away from him.
"Ezra said you all come to town lookin' for me," he said. "Gotta admit, I ain't used to folks doin' that without guns in their hands. What is it you want?"
The two men swapped glances, and Buck had an uncanny momentary sense that they were partners in more than business, that they operated much as Chris and Vin did, as he and Chris used to do. "Mr. Wilmington," Blakemore began, "would the name of Marcus Bentann mean anything to you?"
Buck felt as if somebody had punched him in the stomach. Through the roar that suddenly filled his ears, he found himself remembering his nightmare of a week ago. He struggled for air and composure as the Kansans stared at him, then saw Blakemore move toward the door. "He's not well. I'll call Mr. Larabee--"
"No," Buck got out. "No, I...don't call Chris, it's...I'm okay, just...just give me a minute..." With the self-control necessary to surviving as a gunfighter, he took a firm hold of his nervous system and forced himself to calmness. "You fellers believe in comin' straight to the point, don't you?" he asked after a moment, with a wan attempt at his usual shit-eating grin.
"I take it," Henneman guessed, "that the answer would be yes. To our question, not yours."
Buck took a quick gulp of the whiskey, draining half of it down. "Yeah. It would be. I thought...no, make that I kinda hoped he was dead."
"He's not. He lives in Wichita now." It was Blakemore who replied. "He owns about ten per cent of the business buildings in town, land and livestock outside of it, pieces of various businesses in Kansas and Colorado. He's on the Board of Directors of the biggest bank there. He's held political office, county and state level. Now he wants to move up, to the Senate."
"We--make that I--don't think he should get there," Henneman added. "We've heard rumors about his...past activities. But every time we try to run down any proof, we hit a wall. Either the people we go to won't talk, or they've moved on, or they've recently met with accidents--fatal ones."
"Ezra was right, then," Buck observed quietly. "That feller that shot at me and Vin today, it was hooked up with you bein' here. Bentann sent him. Didn't he?"
"Of course we can't say for sure. But we think so," the attorney agreed. "We think Bentann's cousin, Warren Freely, is somewhere in town. He's Bentann's--"
"Second in command. I know," Buck finished for him. "I remember him." He tilted his head curiously. "If he's here on my account, if he knows I'm here, how was it he didn't figure I'd spot him?"
"I don't know," Henneman admitted. "Neither of us has ever met him; we wouldn't spot him either. Maybe he's changed from the way he looked when you knew him." A shrewd look: "You did know him."
Buck sighed. "Yeah, I knew him. Him and Bentann both." He shuddered. "I try not to think about them times no more."
Again that quick exchange of glances. "Unpleasant memories, Mr. Wilmington?" Blakemore guessed.
"If you'd call somethin' that gave you nightmares once or twice a month for fifteen years runnin' unpleasant, yeah, they are," Buck agreed bitterly. Then: "Why's Bentann sendin' Warren after me? This ain't the war no more and he ain't my captain. That's all past and done."
"I only wish that were true," sighed Henneman, "but as we told you, he's remade himself now. He goes with good people in Wichita, he has a lot of money, the decent women like him. He's got power, enough so that a lot of people are eager to keep on his good side. He's served as an officer of the law, in the Legislature, and elsewhere. He's respected, propertied, just the kind of man electors are expected to choose for the upper house. And he's smart enough to know that, in today's climate, if the story of his beginnings gets out, he'll be lucky if all he does is lose the seat he's trying for. It could mean disgrace, even financial ruin."
Buck snorted. "Can't say I'd mind, but what's it got to do with me?"
"You rode with him. You're an eye witness to his doings. You can testify to what he was, how he began. A man's character doesn't change that radically, not even in twenty years. We need your help, Mr. Wilmington, to make the people of Kansas, and their elected state representatives, aware of the sort of viper they're thinking of sending into the bosom of Washington."
"Like I care about the people of Kansas," Buck said, but his laugh was hollow.
"You do care about the people of Kansas, or you wouldn't be doing what you're doing in Four Corners, Mr. Wilmington," Blakemore insisted. "You care about justice. You care about seeing the innocent protected and the guilty punished. That sort of thing doesn't confine itself to a town. It covers all of humanity."
"I rode with Bentann. You know that. What makes you think--?"
"He wants you dead. Silenced before you can tell the truth. That means he thinks you have reason to want it told." Blakemore eyed him sharply. "Do you?"
Buck sighed. "Yeah. I was stupid. Just a kid. I'd just lost my ma and it wasn't pretty. I had a mad on at most of the world. Then I crossed trails with some Missouri night riders and they almost hung me. Bentann and his boys came along in time to drive 'em off. He liked how I handled myself and invited me in. It took me a while to understand what he was. When I knew, when I realized where he was takin' me, us...I tried to get sentiment up for the others to leave him." He snorted. "Damn fool stunt. Next I knew it was Bentann sentencin' me to hang. I got away and out of Kansas and never looked back. Except the dreams, and I ain't had one of them in five years, till last week." He looked up. "What is it you want?"
"I thought we made that clear," Henneman said. "Come back to Kansas with us and tell what you know. I have some influence with the current State Attorney-General. I can get a grand jury convened. We can stop Bentann, but we need your help."
Buck frowned, hesitating. "What'll he be doin' in the meantime?"
"If you're worried about your safety, we can arrange for protection," Blakemore declared. "As our only witness, it would be standard procedure not even to release your name."
"He knows about me already, he don't need you to release it," Buck pointed out. "And it ain't just me anyhow. There'd be Chris and the boys back here." He remembered his own words to Chris on the boardinghouse porch: "When I think of a kid like JD gettin' into Bentann's hands--"
"Surely your friends can watch out for one another?" said Blakemore. "We've read the dime novel about you. As long as they were warned, knew they might be in danger..."
The gunslinger hesitated. I can't leave 'em to deal with what my damnfool kid craziness brings down on 'em...I gotta be here to face the consequences of it. Chris says I got no sense of responsibility, and maybe when there's ladies involved he's right, but this ain't the same thing. "Couldn't I just give you one of them legal dep--what's the word? A sworn statement?"
"A deposition? I'm afraid not. You're the first possible witness we've been able to run down, the first Bentann hasn't beaten us to, hasn't been able to buy or scare or kill. Under the Constitution, a man accused of crime has the right to confront his accusers and cross-question them, personally or through counsel. If there were others who were willing to talk, it would be different. Your statement would only substantiate what they had to say. But our whole case would turn on you."
"Then I'll tell you all about it, and you can talk for me."
Blakemore shook his head. "Hearsay. It wouldn't be admitted."
Buck shook his head, fighting it. "No. Look, I've been a lawman, I know anythin' I say to you don't go no further than this room. But if I go back, if I testify--I done some pretty bad things myself when I was with him. I was green and mad but I know that ain't an excuse. I could just as easy end up gettin' hung myself."
"We'll get you immunity in exchange for your testimony," Henneman offered.
I don't want this, Buck told himself desperately. I've spent the last twenty years tryin' to forget them days. I ain't a coward, I can face dyin', I just don't want to have to tell it all again. I don't want to remember no more.
But I do remember. I can't help it. Maybe if it hadn't gone no further than that dream...but these two guys comin' all the way out here to talk to me, Warren maybe prowlin' around, I know it ain't finished. It won't never be finished. Even if I don't testify now, I'll never be able to quit lookin' over my shoulder, 'cause Bentann'll never believe I might not, some day.
And I don't really want a sonofabitch like him gettin' sent to Washington, do I? A man with all that blood on his hands, makin' decisions about how this country gets run? Maybe even gettin' to be President one day?
"I got a job here. Responsibilities. I got friends that need me."
"Nobody's saying you can't come back," Blakemore pointed out. "I don't say you won't lose some time, weeks, maybe even several months. But once it's over and Bentann gets what he deserves, you'll have your life back, and better, safer, than it is now. Yours and your friends' as well. And you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you've done what may be the greatest service of your life--a service not merely to a single town, but to your entire country. Think of that, Mr. Wilmington. Think how very few men can look back on their lives and say that of themselves."
"That don't matter to me." Buck threw down the last of the whiskey, jumped up and paced across the room. But Chris and the others...JD...
"I need to think on this," he said slowly. "I need to talk it over with my partners. They'd have to know anyway why I was havin' to be gone so long."
Henneman seemed about to speak, but Blakemore stopped him with a lifted hand. "Of course. We realize it has to be a shock to you, having all this pop up in your life after such a long time. And from what little we overheard before your friends went racing out of town earlier, you've had an...interesting day anyway. I doubt from the looks of you that you even stopped to get anything to eat before you came up. Go and get some food. Discuss the whole question with your friends. Sleep on it. We couldn't leave any earlier than tomorrow afternoon in any case."
Buck suddenly realized that the whiskey he'd consumed on an empty stomach was calling loudly for food to follow it, as whiskey often does. And that he was tired, no, make that worn out. He felt like he'd been "rode hard and put away wet," as Vin might have said, or maybe "throwed and sat on by a tall horse." He wasn't used to having to face such complicated decisions. Always in his life till now, things had been pretty straightforward. A friend to help. A job to do. A lady to court or not court. It scared him a little, to think that words of his could have such wide-ranging effects. He had to know he was doing the right thing, and he just wasn't equipped to make the decision on his own.
"Yeah. All right. Thanks. I'll let you know." He turned toward the door and paused with his hand on the knob. "This ain't...an easy thing for me to say," he confessed. "I sorta thought them six pards of mine was about the gutsiest people I ever run up against. But you two...takin' these risks, doin' all this, just on account you want to make sure Kansas gets the right kind of Senator...I want you to know. Whatever I decide, I reckon you've got us whipped."
Chris turned as he came out, and Buck heard the breath catch in his throat. "What the hell? Buck, you look worse than you did when we found you out on the road. What did they--"
"--Chris." It had been a long time since Buck had interrupted his friend in the middle of building a rant. And there was a note in his voice that stopped the black-dressed gunfighter cold. He stopped speaking, took a second look at his old friend and shut his lips.
"Chris," Buck went on, "you remember me havin' that dream just before me and Vin left for Sumner?"
"I remember." He could see that Chris was wondering what that had to do with anything, and then he saw the connection come together. "My God. Two lawyers from Kansas. It's Bentann, ain't it, Buck?"
"I don't want to tell this but the once, Chris," Buck told him. "I ain't sure I'll have the strength. We didn't none of us stop to eat when we got back, and it's gettin' late. How about we have some food sent up to Nathan's place so him and Vin can hear it too."
Chris looked at him searchingly for a moment, the way he used to do sometimes when Buck had gotten into some kind of trouble, and then nodded. "I guess if anybody's got a right to decide how it's to come out, you're the man. Let's go collect Josiah and Ezra and JD."
+ + + + + + +
Vin was resisting Nathan's fussing with his usual stubbornness when his friends trooped up to the clinic. "Damnit, Nathan, I ain't sick, I ain't wounded, and I ain't stayin'!"
"You're still dehydrated. You stay put and drink this."
"It's salt water. It's s'posed to be bitter."
"Why do I gotta drink salt water? Salt water's what they got in the ocean."
"You gotta drink it because your body lost salt as well as moisture. You want me to go and fetch Chris? He won't be happy with you for yankin' him away from them attorneys' door when Buck's on the other side of it and there's somebody out there lookin' to kill him."
"No need, Nathan, I'm here," Chris announced as he stepped over the threshold. "Vin, drink the damn salt water." The tracker skewered him with a blazing blue-eyed glare but knew there was only one man in their company more hardheaded than himself. Growling under his breath, he accepted the cup Nathan had been trying to force on him and drank, making disgusted faces that would have fetched a laugh from JD if he hadn't been so concerned about Buck. He had never seen the boisterous, life-loving gunslinger look so shaken except when one of them was hurt.
"All right, everybody, get comfortable if you can," Chris went on. "Nathan, there are supper trays comin' up from the café in a little while. Buck wanted all of us to be together. He's got somethin' he needs to say."
The healer blinked, then took a second look at the mustached man. "Buck? You hurtin'? You look--"
"--Worse than when you found me out on the road. I know. Chris already told me. It ain't nothin' you can fix, Nate." Buck sank wearily into the best chair at the foot of the cot where Vin lay, feeling about two hundred years old. JD picked up a stool and set it alongside him, his hazel eyes filled with worry. The kid's devotion touched Buck deeply. He knew he was scaring JD, but he couldn't seem to help it. I wish you knew how much it helps, havin' you here, he thought. It's mostly thinkin' of you, of Bentann maybe tryin' to use you to get to me, that makes me know I gotta tell this. You all got a right to know, so you can protect yourselves.
I just hope...I hope you can all still stand to be around me, after you know...
Nathan was bustling around, mixing up more salt water. "Josiah? Did you find that fella with the eyepatch?"
"No. If it was him out by Ship Rock, he must have circled back to town while we were tending to Buck and Vin. His room's been cleaned out, and Charlie at the desk says he didn't pay his bill. He must've sneaked out the rear door so nobody'd be able to tell us which way he went."
The trays arrived shortly, bringing a welcome conclusion to an interval of strained small talk. For a while all seven men busied themselves with their food. Buck found that regardless of his stomach's demands, for him it was about as pleasureable as eating sawdust. He was relieved when the others began putting theirs aside and he had an excuse to stop trying.
He knotted his hands together between his knees and looked around at them. His oldest friend, his four newest ones, and the kid who had become a little brother to him. "Fellas," he began, "I got some things to tell you, and I hope you'll all just let me talk and not ask no questions till I'm done, 'cause I got a feeling once I get started I won't wanta stop. It ain't easy for me to admit, but there was a time in my life, way back, when I done some things I ain't proud of. I'd hoped I was done thinkin' on 'em and payin' for 'em, but it looks now like I was wrong, and you all got the right to know about 'em." And he fixed his eyes on the floor between his feet and told them, in a quiet monotone, about his mother's death, and Bentann, and the way they'd met, and the raids, and how he'd left, and about what Bentann was doing now and how Henneman and Blakemore wanted him to go back to Kansas and help them expose the man. It wasn't till he had finished that he dared to look up again.
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