Disclaimer is stated fully in Part One of this story. Any aspect of the story which does not belong to those named in the disclaimer, belong to C. Knox Binkley.
The big preacher looked down at his shirt and smiled. Sticky, wet lemonade everywhere. He was already pulling his shirt off when he made his way through the back door of the bathhouse.
Soft sobbing. Soft voices.
Josiah tentatively made his way across the room to the bench where JD sat with his head hanging. Buck was sitting beside him, patting him on the back. Buck glanced up at Josiah, his eyes inviting the preacher to join them.
"What happened?" Josiah asked, pulling a bench over and sitting across from JD.
The boy looked up slowly, about to speak, but a sob interfered. Josiah frowned at the red welt forming across the kid's cheek and the eye that was swelling shut. He brought his big hand up to JD's chin and gently turned his face to get a better look.
"Who did this, son?" Josiah asked, although he sensed that the boy's tears weren't for his injury.
"Gray . . ." JD began. "Grayland Adams."
It was evident that Buck hadn't heard this information yet.
"How do you know him?" Buck's voice was very kind.
JD sniffed and he bit back the next sob. He looked at the ground again.
"I used to . . . work for him." He corrected himself and his voice became hard. "We . . . used to work for him. My mother and I."
He turned an angry eye to Buck. "But she never . . ."
"I know, kid." Buck did understand exactly what he was feeling. And JD read that in his friend's expression.
"Buck - I don't mean that your mama . . ."
Buck hooked an arm around JD's neck. "I know that. Don't worry about it."
Josiah was taking in the conversation and got the gist of what was going on.
"How old were you when you worked for him?" Josiah asked.
"I was too young to work the first time we lived there. Then we went back when I was twelve or thirteen. We were having trouble making enough money to live on, and Mama thought he'd hire us. And he did."
Josiah lowered his voice. "Did he ever hurt you, JD?"
The kid's eyes flashed. "Why?"
Buck jumped in. "You said you weren't afraid of him anymore. Why were you afraid before?"
JD looked confused. "I don't want to talk about this."
"JD . . ." Buck pressed.
"No! " JD jumped up. "Look, what do you want me to say? That he's evil? That he's a mean son of a bitch? Well, he is. But you've seen him. You know that already."
He started taking long strides toward the door. Buck grabbed his arm to halt him, and JD winced as he felt the growing ache in his shoulder. The big man released him immediately and JD's hurt eyes met his friend's. His lip quivered. And he left the bathhouse.
"What do you want from the boy?" Chris Larabee's voice was little more than a hiss.
"That's between me and the boy."
Chris' eyes flashed and a maniacal grin crossed his face. "You really don't get it, do you? You're not ever gonna see him."
"That's for the courts to decide."
Vin Tanner stepped closer to the stranger. He spoke evenly.
"What did you do to him?"
"I don't understand."
"He said he wasn't afraid of you anymore," Vin explained. "Why would he have been before?"
A haughty laugh. "He was a slacker. He didn't want to work. I . . . encouraged him, that's all."
Ezra ceremoniously strolled to the center of the livery, like a lawyer making a sweep of the courtroom.
"Clearly, you underestimate our knowledge of the personality traits of Mr. Dunne. There is no more diligent worker among us. I can conjure up many appropriate monikers to describe the lad . . . and 'slacker' certainly isn't one of them." Ezra's drawl had a bite to it. "Now, perhaps you would care to restate your response to Mr. Tanner's question."
"I'm not telling you anything."
With that, Chris Larabee's fist connected with the stranger's jaw.
Still he didn't respond. Chris resumed the hold he'd had on the man, his forearm pressed against the stranger's throat.
"Vin." Chris' mood changed to a sarcastic congeniality. "Didn't you see him assault JD?"
"Yea, Ezra and I both did."
"Indeed I did. That was after he attempted to separate the boy from his wallet."
The stranger squirmed. "Oh, you can't possibly pull that off."
Vin smiled. "The kid'll have a shiner to show for it."
Chris turned the man around and bent his arm behind his back. "A man like this is a threat to our townfolk."
Ezra grabbed the stranger's other arm and trained his pistol on him. "I think incarceration is the only recourse for this blight on humanity. And as hired peacekeepers for this community, it is our duty to rid the people of any threat."
"You said it, Ezra," Vin smiled.
"You certainly did," Chris said as he pushed the man out of the livery.
The stranger struggled as they led him to the jail. A few of the people in town watched, but on the whole seemed disinterested. Mary Travis stepped out of the Clarion office, her eyes questioning Chris. He shook his head slightly, and she nodded her understanding. He'd tell her later.
They reached the jail and the mountain of a man tripped on the stairs. Chris hauled him up and dragged him inside.
"You're making a mistake," the stranger said as Chris shoved him into the cell. The lock clicked and he shook his head. He spoke in low tones to Chris.
"The harder you make it for me, the harder I make it for him."
Chris' expression never changed. "Mister, if I hear you make one more threat about that boy." His voice became little more than a growl. "And I will put a bullet between your eyes."
The man opened his mouth as if to reply.
But thought better of it.
JD was packing - quickly. The emotions of the last hour were driving him to reckless action. He frantically threw a few things into his worn suitcase. He hadn't brought much with him when he'd moved out here. He wouldn't take much back with him.
He was cussing at his empty underwear drawer when there was a knock on the door.
"JD . . ."
"Leave me alone, Buck."
Not only did JD not want to answer a bunch of questions, he was embarrassed that he'd broken down so completely in front of his friends. He just wanted to leave. He needed answers.
And he needed to get away from Grayland Adams.
"Come on, kid. Let me in."
"Just . . . go away." JD was exasperated. He knelt beside his bed and reached under it for any stray items that may have taken up residence there.
"I'm not leaving." Buck's voice was more insistent.
Damn, he was stubborn.
But JD was, too.
He picked up his stack of dimestore novels. Why the hell had he thought life would be any different out here? He felt so stupid. He wasn't meant to have a decent life. He flung the books across the room.
"JD, open the damn door."
The kid angrily opened it and wordlessly resumed his packing. Buck stepped in, acting like he wasn't shocked to see JD leaving.
"Where're you going?"
JD didn't answer. He opened the bottom drawer of the ancient bureau and pulled out the assortment of odds and ends he'd gathered over the last year and dumped them on the floor. He picked up a bandana and held it out for Buck.
"This is yours," he said. Buck took it and looked it over. He handed it back.
JD was puzzled, but he kept going through things. Buck squatted beside him and started handing him things.
He picked up a deck of cards and chuckled.
"Your first deck of marked cards." Buck set them on the bed. "Just don't use them with anybody bigger than you."
JD looked up at him, about to speak. But didn't. He was hanging by a thread.
Buck just sat with him. And he scanned the belongings of this young man. This kid who'd won over even Chris Larabee. A kid whose life had been upheaved too many times. And he'd be damned if he'd let this . . . Adams fellow disrupt it again.
And if he hurt JD, he'd kill him.
Buck saw the glint of metal - silver - under a handkerchief. He pulled it out.
Wordlessly, he handed it to JD.
And the boy's eyes filled again, as he fingered the necklace and remembered the sweet woman who'd worn it his whole life. He thumbed it open with a bit of difficulty, and saw the tiny portrait of a baby.
He showed it to Buck. Buck nodded and cocked an eyebrow. He understood the boy.
JD's voice was little more than a whisper. "I have to know, Buck."
"Don't try to stop me."
"I won't." Buck leaned closer. "But let me go with you."
JD was shocked. He knew what to say if Buck tried to talk him out of it. But he was taken aback that his friend would be willing to pick up and leave with him. For a moment the pain diminished a bit. He did have a family.
He had a brother.
He looked up at Buck and slowly nodded. His mouth forming a "thanks" but the emotion preventing any sound.
Nathan Jackson stepped into the cafe for a late lunch. He was so tired. What he needed was sleep. But with two people recovering in his rooms, he'd have to settle for food.
He stepped over to a seat by a window, only to find the wooden seat damp and the table as well.
"Oh, Sir," said a woman with a slight accent. "I'm sorry. I spilled lemonade here and have just mopped it up. I'm afraid your clothes are wet now."
"No harm done, ma'am." How dear his eyes were. "I can sit over there." He gestured to a table at another window, and walked over to it.
"Thank you, Sir." The woman smiled and took his order.
He was halfway through his meal when Chris Larabee walked in, Ezra Standish on his heels.
They sat across from Nathan, uninvited, but it was assumed. Chris was fuming. Ezra was relieved to have a respite from his intensity. He turned to Nathan.
"You look tired, my friend," Ezra said.
"I am." Nathan leaned back in his chair and took another bite of his toast. "Long night."
"If only people would have the courtesy to be ill during the day."
Nathan grinned. "It'd be nice if it worked that way." He glanced down at Chris' hand and frowned at his scraped knuckles. "I can put something on that."
"Nah," Chris said. "It's alright."
Ezra explained. "We've had a visitor." He paused to give the waitress his order. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure," he said to the woman. Chris eyed her, suspiciously.
"I arrived yesterday." The hint of her accent was intriguing. Even more intriguing was how anxious she was. "What can I get for you?" She asked quickly.
"The special," Chris answered.
Ezra however took his time. "I'll have the bean salad. But please do not add any pepper." He leaned over to Nathan. "I must speak to you about what could be an ulceration in my digestive tract."
Nathan paused in mid-bite.
"Forgive me," Ezra caught himself. "I will refrain from this conversation until we are all finished eating." He turned back to the waitress. "That will be fine."
"So tell me about this 'visitor'." Nathan said as the woman walked back to the kitchen.
"Not here." Chris spoke quickly, his eyes following her. "There are too many coincidences."
He didn't know the half of it.