Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of Mater amata.
When Vin Tanner stepped out of the back door of the saloon, the cold air blasted him and he realized for a second that he hadn't put on his coat.
Neither had Buck Wilmington. He glanced back at Vin, as he blew warm air into his hands then rubbed them together.
"Where's the kid?" Vin asked, his breath appearing in front of his mouth. Buck nodded toward the side of the saloon where JD had slipped out of sight around the corner, but it wasn't necessary. They both heard the boy retch.
Vin winced. And Buck nodded. They each had been through this - the first time a man takes a life in his own defense or in defense of a friend. And no matter how extreme the danger, no matter how righteous the act, it killed a bit of the one doing the killing.
What took a minute seemed to take much longer, but finally the kid's stomach settled, and he appeared, shivering, at the corner of the familiar building. Buck went over to him and put his big hand on the boy's neck, guiding him back. Vin quietly walked back with them.
JD froze when they stepped back in the room - seeing nothing for a moment but the body of the man he'd killed. And his stomach threatened to revolt again. But he was able to keep it in check. Vin picked up the boy's coat and draped it across the young shoulders - shoulders now carrying a weight they shouldn't have to.
"My notebook," JD's voice was husky. Vin picked it up off the table and handed it to him. JD quickly thrust it into one of the deep pockets of his familiar woolen coat.
Everyone except Ezra was gathered around the body on the floor. Chris Larabee glanced back at JD.
"Are you all right, son?" he asked.
"Yea," JD nodded.
Ezra shook his head and smiled. "That was an incredibly fast shot you got off, Mr. Dunne."
"Thanks," JD stammered, still looking at the body. Buck went over to the bar and got his own coat. Pulling it on, he went back to the kid, and his hand resumed its position on his neck. Chris nodded at Buck, satisfied that the big gunslinger would take care of the kid.
Buck guided him away from the body, but the boy's eyes remained, a look of . . . confusion on his face. Vin walked ahead of them, getting his heavy coat. This drew JD's gaze away.
But a strong hand on his arm halted the boy.
He looked into the kind, strong face of Josiah Sanchez. "Make no mistake about this, son." Josiah drew closer to him. "If you hadn't acted so quickly and so decisively, Mr. Tanner would be lying on this floor dead. Do you understand me?"
He did understand. He knew there had been no other option.
But it still hurt.
"Who the hell is . . . Charlie Adams?" Chris asked as though he had a bad taste in his mouth. He was squinting at an envelope he had found on the dead man.
Ezra stepped over to the corpse and frowned. "That man is not Charlie Adams."
"And how do you know he ain't?" Nathan asked hotly. "You don't know everybody in the world named Charlie Adams."
"No, Mr. Jackson, but this man isn't Charlie Adams." Slowly, Ezra eased himself down on one knee beside Chris Larabee. "Because he is Charlie Houlihan, alias Charles Adamson, alias Adam Charles - shall I continue?"
Chris' hand shot out and he grabbed Ezra's collar. "If you knew who he was, why didn't you way something? He damn near killed Vin."
The gambler's voice was cold, and his angry eyes never faltered from Chris'. "Because I didn't know he was a threat to Mr. Tanner. In fact, he is nothing more than a two-bit gambler - and a bad one at that. He changes names almost every time he changes towns because he has a bad habit of leaving before he has paid his debts."
Chris released his hold and Ezra smoothly turned to the dead man and, with disturbingly practiced hands, he searched the pockets and linings of Charlie Houlihan or Adams or . . .
Ezra shook his head and stood. "This man is no bounty hunter, gentlemen. And he is no hired gun. There is nothing here to indicate that he was in someone's employ. He must have had a personal grievance against Mr. Tanner. He had to know that shooting him in plain sight was suicide."
Josiah spoke softly. "Vin didn't have any idea who he was."
"Was he with anyone?" Chris asked.
Ezra took a long sip of a drink before answering. "No, he was sitting in with more . . . affluent . . . players. The others I have known in other circles. They were kind enough to 'tolerate' this unfortunate soul. Clearly one of us was going to rid him of his extra capital before the evening ended."
"Doesn't seem to have had much on him tonight," Chris commented.
"He was not faring well. Had Mr. Tanner not arrived when he did, he would have been hard pressed to find a reason to stay. He would have had no money with which to drink. And was already running a tab at the bar."
Nathan stood, legs stiff. "Why would he try to kill Vin right here?"
Chris shrugged. "If we knew that, we'd know if Vin was still in danger."
He stood up. "Watch his back, boys."
The boarding house was warm. In the hearth, a fire crackled and danced. JD sat on the hook rug in front of it, facing it, and pulled off his heavy boots. He let the color collage draw him in. Vin and Buck plopped on the sofa behind him. JD was glad not to have to look at them right now. He just needed to get his feet woarm. Maybe that would warm the rest of him too.
Vin lay his head back and closed his eyes. "Damn, that was close." He was actually talking to himself, but JD was listening.
"Too close," Buck echoed. "Who the hell was that?"
Vin didn't open his eyes. "I never seen him before in my life."
"You reckon he was a bounty hunter?"
"He was a damn fool to think he could get away with shooting a man in cold blood in a room full of witnesses." Vin sighed.
"Must've had a death wish," Buck said.
"He didn't want to die." Vin raised up at the sound of JD's husky voice. The kid went on, never looking back at his friends. "I saw his eyes. And he wasn't wanting to die." Buck noticed that when the boy took a deep breath, his shoulders trembled slightly. "He was . . . shocked. He wasn't even mad at me. He was just . . . shocked."
Buck kept his voice low and steady. "Maybe he was shocked that he missed Vin. Maybe that shocked him more than getting shot did."
Vin's easy voice slipped back into the conversation. "He could be right. You know, there's no way he was gonna walk outa that saloon - even if he had killed me. Someone would have taken him out. And he had to know that. He could've waited til I was alone. Caught me in an alley . . ." Buck could hear the uneasiness in the tracker's voice as he explained what an easy target he was. "But he decided to sit in the middle of that room, in front of all my friends, my hired gun friends, and kill me."
Vin leaned forward and rested his hand on the kid's shoulder. "But
you got to him first, JD." He paused for a moment. "I owe you my life."
"I shot him in the back." JD nearly whispered it. "Chris said . . ."
"No," Vin interrupted, gently. "That ain't what he meant."
Buck spoke up. "He's right, kid. You didn't shoot someone running away. You shot a killer who was gonna kill your friend. You had to defend him. And you did."
"You did good, kid." Vin's own voice was husky.
"It ain't nothing like I thought it would be."
Buck shook his head. "It never is, kid."
"I remember tellling Chris I didn't want to leave . . . because I hadn't shot anybody yet." A nervous chuckle escaped the boy's throat. "God, I was stupid."
Buck and Vin looked at each other. Why did it have to be JD that got the shot off? More of his innocent world was slipping out of his grasp.
And they couldn't do anything to stop it.
But maybe they could help him through it.
Chris Larabee pulled his heavy collar up against the night chill. The town was buzzing with the story - no doubt the embellishments had begun. JD would be a hero in the morning.
He was surprised at how clear-headed the kid had been. His aim was true and the shot blazingly fast. All the makings of a legend. But Chris had meantit when he'd told JD that he wasn't the type. Only he hadn't meant it in quite the way the boy took it.
JD Dunne had a tender heart. He was sensitive. Not the type to develop the cynicism of the true gunfighter. Not the type to become hardened to other people's pain and suffering. Chris smiled. He remembered another young man he'd known who "wasn't the type." And he'd grown up all right. Buck was still an idealist. He still loved life. Oh, he'd learned to fight - in self-defense, in defense of his mother, in defense of his friends. But he hadn't become callous.
Well, thank God for that, because that was maybe the only hope Chris Larabee had left. He had once loved life like his friend did.
Maybe he could again.
JD lay in his bed, the lamp beside his bed glowing softly. He pulled up another blanket to fight the chill. He picked up the worn, dog-eared dime-store novel that he'd left on the bedside table that morning. He started to read.
But only for a moment.
Suddenly the words of the lively story caused him to feel . . . disgust. How could Wild Bill Hickok stand over a dead man and gloat? Or say something clever? Hadn't he bothered to look in the man's eyes? If he had, he wouldn't be making some joke out of it.
JD lay the book back down and closed his eyes. This was nothing like he'd expected. He supposed he should be glad that he'd saved Vin. And he was glad Vin was all right. But he had taken a life.
Blood on his hands.
What kind of man was he becoming?
He was glad his mother couldn't see him now.
Just last year, she had thanked God for her good boy. She was planning Thanksgiving dinner for him and for the others who worked there. His "other" family. And she was excited that she had almost enough money for college.
She never liked it that he read those stories about the West. But he not only read them, but he moved out west right after she died.
What a disappointment he had become!
The rap on the door startled him.
"C'min. . ." he said.
Chris Larabee appeared in the doorway, his hat in his hand. The famed gunslinger paused before entering. JD sat up quickly, the heavy quilt still wrapped around his shoulders. At the boy's nod, Chris came in.
"Are you all right?" Chris' question was sincere, though not emotional.
JD nodded, but his response was not convincing.
Chris slowly sat at the foot of the bed. "You did good, son."
"Thank you . . ." Still the voice was unsure.
"You saved a man's life tonight."
JD looked at the floor.
Chris lowered his voice. "And you also took one." JD's eyes shot up and he held Chris' gaze. Chris continued. "Tomorrow everyone in town is gonna make a big deal about it, and you're gonna be called a hero."
"I don't feel like one. . ."
Chris reached up and put his hand on the side of the young man's face. "And that's what will save you, son." JD's eyes questioned him. "As long as you hate having to take a life, you will be a good man. Your heart will stay in one piece. And you'll be able to look at yourself in the mirror - and like the man you see there." Chris lowered his hand and sat back a bit. "Hold on to that, JD."
JD nodded, and his idol stood, put on his hat, and went back to the door.
"Mr. Larabee?" The kid spoke tentatively.
Chris stopped and turned around.
Chris Larabee put his hand to his hat to salute the kid . . . who had just become a little bit more a man.