Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One. Anything not owned by those parties mentioned in the disclaimer belongs to C. Knox Binkley.
"What the hell is going on in there?" Buck Wilmington was more curious than irritated as he heard angry voices in the livery. A split second after he noticed them, he recognized one of them. "Come on," he said, catching Vin Tanner's sleeve.
The dark interior of the livery was in stark contrast to the blaze of midday, and the men had to squint while their eyes grew accustomed to the different light.
They stood dumbfounded as they watched JD Dunne, unarmed, squaring up to a mountain of a man.
What did the kid think he was doing?
Buck ambled over to them and spoke good-naturedly.
"JD, everything ok?"
It wasn't. The boy was quivering with anger. But neither he nor the mountain seemed to notice Buck and Vin at all.
"You owe me, boy." The stranger's voice rumbled like a brewing storm.
JD looked at the ground for a moment. Buck and Vin stayed close enough to intervene if necessary.
When JD looked back at the big man, he nodded. "You're right."
With that, the kid shot a fist into the mountain's jaw, surprising him, but not making a dent.
"You little shit," the man growled, and he lunged for the boy.
Buck grabbed JD's arm and Vin made a move to restrain the big man. But the stranger had already reared back and slammed his meaty fist into the boy's face. JD would have been thrown across the stable floor, had Buck not been holding his arm. Instead the blow knocked him around Buck and damn near pulled his arm out of socket. Dazed, JD's other hand absently went to his face and his legs wobbled a bit. Buck held him up, but his eyes flashed at the man who'd hit him.
Vin got directly in the man's face. "Let's go outside. You don't want this fight." He glanced at the entrance and saw Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish. "Trust me," Vin finished.
Still, the man never took his focus off of JD.
"This ain't over, boy," he hissed.
Buck stepped up to him, getting between the man and the kid.
"Yes it is." Buck breathed back. Chris and Ezra drew closer and closed a tight circle around the stranger. And after a long moment the stranger took a step toward the door.
Then he turned and looked back at JD.
"We'll finish this - soon."
"It's finished," Chris said, matter-of-factly.
JD had steadied himself. His anger surging again, he jerked away from Buck and staggered toward the man. Buck started to hold him back, but Chris halted him with a look. The kid had something to say. His voice was hoarse.
"You will never get anything from me," he said. "Never." JD's eyes filled. "I'm not scared of you anymore."
A cold rage emerged among JD's friends. They hadn't known many details of the kid's past. And now one of those details was standing in front of them, threatening him.
"Of course you're not. You're surrounded by your. . ." he searched for a word.
"Gang." He took a step closer to JD and felt the presence of the other four closing in around him. He smiled a familiar sick smile that JD had learned to hate. "But you won't always be."
Chris Larabee grabbed the man by the collar and threw him against the wall. The horses in the livery were becoming restless with the activity and whinnied and blew in protest.
"Mister, you must really be stupid to stand there and make a threat like that." Chris pulled his gun from his holster and dug it into the man's ribs. "Don't you know we will take you apart if you are even in the same part of town as this young man?"
Vin's voice was ever calm. "Might be good for you to think about headin' on out this afternoon. I told you you didn't want to take on this fight."
The man shook his head. "I don't want a fight." He looked at JD.
"I want my son."
The cafe was bright and Josiah Sanchez was eating a leisurely lunch. It was one of those rare moments - a moment of absolute and utter peace and serenity. He sipped on the cold lemonade and closed his eyes. Life was good.
His moment was interrupted when a pitcher of ice-cold lemonade doused him.
"Holy sh - " The preacher edited himself when he looked up into the tear-filled eyes of a woman who appeared to be at least ten years older than he was.
"Oh, sir . . ." Her voice quivered as she took a step backwards. Then her foot slid on the lemonade that had puddled on the floor beneath them, and she shreiked.
Josiah reached with his strong arm and caught her.
"Oh, dear," she said softly, a tear sliding down her soft round cheek.
"I'm terribly sorry." Her face became pink and she tried to stand up - but her foot slid again, as if she were on ice. Josiah steadied her with his other hand and rose to his feet to help her regain her balance.
He walked her away from the mess on the floor and a sob hitched in her throat. "I am so sorry," she said, her eyes avoiding his. Sensing her uneasiness, he took a step away from her, releasing her.
"No harm done, ma'am." His voice was so rich - so tender.
"There's no excuse for my clumsiness." She wiped her hands on the tired apron she was wearing and chanced a look at him. "Please - I will clean your clothes. Or, I will buy you new ones." Her voice bore a slight accent. Slavic? Josiah couldn't quite tell.
His eyes smiled at her and he cocked an eyebrow, offering her his big hand. She looked bewildered for a moment, but then she tentatively let him take hers.
"I had just been thinking how hot it is and how delightful this lemonade is." A twinkle in his eye. "And I had never considered that it could be functional in any way other than . . . drinking it. But I confess . . ." He leaned over and let his lips brush the top of her hand. "I am cooler now than I ever would have been merely sipping it."
The woman smiled through her tears, and Josiah realized that she had been pretty. She probably still was - but she had lived hard, and wore the struggles of the years in her shoulders and her world-weary eyes.
Who was this man with the powerful, soothing voice? The man who was
dressed like a mountain man, yet carried himself like a nobleman. This tall, strong man. Who was he?
As if he had read her mind, he introduced himself. "I'm Josiah Sanchez and I'm pleased to meet you."
"That is nice for you to say, but I wouldn't be pleased to meet me." She paused - having confused herself - then her small mouth curved into slight smile. "At least, not in the way I introduced myself."
"All the more delightful." Josiah tipped his hat. "And now, if you will excuse me, I am going take a dip at the bath house and change clothes."
The woman's eyes clouded. "I am so sorry."
Josiah shook his head. "All is forgiven." He stepped toward the door then turned back. "Would you consider . . . having dinner with me?"
"Oh," came the startled reply. "I . . . I can't." She shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry." She turned quickly and retreated into the kitchen. Josiah sighed. This woman intrigued him. But he'd have to wait before he could find out just why.
JD's eyes were wide and his lip quivered. He could hardly find his voice.
"I'm your father."
How could someone make the word "father" sound so ominous?
"That's a lie! My pa is dead. You are not my father." The boy turned to Buck. "He's not."
Buck rested a calming hand on JD's shoulder. The kid's muscles were knotted with tension.
"Yes, I am, boy. Your mother . . ." The man cut his eyes over to Ezra, as though Ezra would somehow appreciate what he was about to say. "A beautiful woman - the same black hair as the boy - and lovely eyes . . . well, you know."
He turned back to JD.
The man's voice was dripping with innuendo. "Your mama was more than a chambermaid, you know." Buck could feel JD coil in anger. Then, as if not convinced that the boy would catch the innuendo, the stranger went on.
"She . . ." He pretended to search for a word. "Serviced me and the other . . ."
"Liar!" JD screamed, suddenly bolting away from Buck and diving toward the man . . .
Vin caught the boy and Buck grabbed him from behind, pinning his arms to his sides, nearly lifting him off the ground.
"Lemme go!!!" JD screamed through his furious tears.
"Get him out of here!" Chris barked over his shoulder, still holding the man. He pressed his arm into the stranger's throat while listening to JD's screaming protests.
Once Vin and Buck had gotten the kid outside, Chris spoke in a voice that made even Ezra uncomfortable.
"Mister - I don't know what business you think you have with that kid - but it ends here."
Chris was as angry as Ezra had ever seen him. His wild eyes flashed. "It is a sorry excuse for a man that would torture a boy who is grieving over the loss of his mother."
Ezra couldn't understand why the man wasn't the least bit fazed by Chris.
"Unfortunately, you don't have any say over what happens to him." The stranger's voice was hampered not by fear, but by the pressure of Chris' arm against his throat.
And he persisted. "I have legal claim over him. He's still a minor. And I have the papers that say I can take him back with me."
"You ain't taking him anywhere." Chris Larabee breathed.
The man awkwardly reached into his pocket to pull out a crumpled document. Ezra took it from him and read to himself.
"Well -" Chris cried, impatiently.
"Well, it would appear that his story is accurate, assuming this man is the party in reference and that young Mr. Dunne is in fact underage." Ezra walked over to a shard of sunlight that cut through the slats of the livery's wall. He reread it as though somehow the words would be different if he read it in a different light. He considered the options. "I do, however, question the credibility of the document and it seems to me that it would be prudent to wire for confirmation of its authority."
"Confirmation?! It's signed by a f***ing federal judge. That's all the confirmation anyone needs." The man's eyes narrowed and he grinned defiantly at Chris. "You let me go or you'll be held in contempt of court."
A chuckle escaped Ezra's throat. "Sir, I'm afraid you are a bit confused in your understanding of jurisprudence. Mr. Larabee cannot be held in contempt of court as we are not currently IN court. He can only be obstructing justice . . ."
"Ezra!!" Chris rebuked him sharply, then he got right up in the stranger's face. "If you come near that boy, I will be right there," Chris' voice dropped to a growl. "And you won't stand a chance."
What had been blistering anger was evolving into devastating grief. JD's protests gave way to heavy sobs. Buck kept a steady, comforting hand on the boy's neck. Squinting, Vin looked down the busy midday street. No one in Four Corners needed to see JD's grief. Not like this. Vin caught Buck's eye and nodded toward the bathhouse. Understanding immediately, Buck steered his young friend to the quiet structure. No one would be there this time of day.
"It ain't true, Buck," JD repeated.
"I know, son. I know." He walked him into the musty room and they sat on one of the rickety benches. Vin stood outside the door in the event that the stranger rejected the advice Chris Larabee had no doubt given him and decided to set out after the kid.
Big sobs rocked JD's shoulders and he could hardly get his breath. Buck's own eyes were stinging in empathetic emotion . . . he remembered losing his own mother . . . amid whispers and innuendos. He did the only thing he could. The only thing that had offered him any relief, and he wrapped his big brother arms around the kid, pulling him into a strong embrace.
And Buck Wilmington grieved with him.