After a fitful night's sleep, JD lay staring at the ceiling of his bedroom. It was just past sunrise and already he was bored. If he had to spend another day in this bed, he was going to do something drastic. He wasn't sure what yet, but if Buck and Nathan thought he was going to lie around like some damned invalid, they had another thing coming.
He heard the sound of hoofbeats coming into the ranch yard, and he sat up straighter to see out the window. He spied Chris, then Buck, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan ride in. It didn't surprise JD that Vin wasn't with them.
JD almost felt sorry for the next member of the Seven who walked in his room. JD wasn't going to let him out until he got some straight answers about Vin. Forcing himself to remain patient, JD began to count the painted leaves on the wallpaper, but after one hundred and forty-seven, he gave up.
Footsteps with the unmistakable sound of jingling spurs - either Chris or Buck's - caught JD's attention. A moment later, Chris Larabee's black-clothed figure filled the doorway. There was a weariness in his posture and creases in his brow that hadn't been there a couple days ago. For the first time JD could remember, Chris didn't appear invincible. He only looked...tired.
"Mornin' JD," Chris greeted. His lips formed a smile that didn't touch his eyes and JD's unease grew.
"How was the patrol?"
"Quiet," Chris replied as he removed his hat. He moved to the rocking chair and sank into it with a weary sigh. "How're you feelin'?"
"Like I'm goin' to go crazy," JD said with more force than he'd intended.
"Gettin' cabin fever already?" Chris asked with a crooked grin.
JD knew his face reddened - he wasn't accustomed to Chris's teasing. "Yeah, I guess." He met the older man's blue eyes. "Where's Vin?" JD spied the trepidation in his eyes before he could hide it. "Has something happened to him?"
Chris scrubbed his face with his palms. "I wish I knew, JD."
"Mrs. Jordan said he left the first night we were here."
Chris glanced sharply at him. "When did she tell you that?"
"Last night. Why didn't any of you tell me?" JD couldn't hide his disappointed hurt.
"Truth be told, we didn't know what to tell you," Chris said softly. "Vin left because we agreed to patrol the barbed wire for the Jordans. He said the wire shouldn't be there for folks like you to get hurt. He was pretty mad about it."
JD wasn't certain how he should feel. It warmed JD to know Vin would be that concerned about him, but he didn't think it was right for Vin to leave. "Where'd he go?"
Chris shrugged. "That's what we've been trying to figure out." He leaned forward, his forearms braced on his dusty black thighs. "Me and Ezra saw him a couple nights ago. He was ridin' with the bunch that ambushed some of Jordan's men who were guarding the fence, too."
JD tried to swallow, but his mouth had gone bone dry. "Vin wouldn't go against us."
"I wish I could be as certain as you, kid."
Anger filled JD. "You should be more certain. Vin's your friend - you should know he wouldn't raise his gun to you."
"I want to believe that, JD, but we haven't heard from him since the night he left. And he was damned mad then."
"All of us have been mad at one time or 'nother, but none of us have gone against each other. You know how Vin is - he'll lose his temper and a little later he'll be cooled down again. He just got to have some time to think things through."
"Yeah, I know, but that doesn't explain why he's with them gunmen or why he hasn't tried to get a hold of us."
JD wanted to argue for Vin, but Chris had a good point. "What's gonna happen to him?"
Chris shrugged. "I guess that all depends on whose side he's actually on when the dust settles."
"You expectin' more trouble?"
"Yep. I just wish I knew when and where they were going to hit next."
"Maybe they seen all of you workin' for Jordans now and decided not to try anything else."
Chris smiled faintly. "I wouldn't bet on it."
JD sat up straighter and pain jabbed through him. He lay back against the pillows, cursing the damn cuts.
"You okay, JD?" Chris asked in concern.
"Yeah, just fine," he said curtly. "Damnit, Chris, I hate bein' so helpless."
"Nobody likes it, kid." Chris stood. "The important thing is for you to heal some before we head out."
"To where?" JD asked plaintively.
"I'm hopin' Tascosa." He settled his hand gently on JD's shoulder. "After I get some rest, I'll come by and see how you're doin'." He strode to the door.
The blonde man halted and looked back at JD.
"If you find out anything about Vin, I want to know right away," JD stated.
Chris stared at him a moment, then nodded. "You got my word."
JD listened to the jingle of spurs fade with Chris's departure and his sense of helplessness expanded. Vin had turned against them? No, JD couldn't believe it. Vin was loyal to a fault and had risked his life too often for all of them. Why couldn't Chris recognize what JD could see so clearly? Or was this another case of JD being too na´ve?
Troubled thoughts clouded JD's mind. Every bone in his body told him Vin could be trusted, but if Chris didn't trust Vin anymore, how could JD?
He fisted a hand and struck the mattress. Damn my foolishness for getting everyone into this mess! If I hadn't gotten wrapped up in the wire, they wouldn't have ended up in the middle of this range war. And Vin would still be riding with us.
Moisture filled his eyes and anger rushed through him like the white waters of a fast flowing river. Would he ultimately cause the Seven to break up? He remembered what it was like when that marshal had come to town. JD had watched everyone but Buck ride away in separate directions and JD's heart had nearly splintered with the loss. Would it happen again, only this time forever?
Josiah stood at the back of the small church trying not to fidget as he readied himself for the service he was about to conduct. Mrs. Jordan, accompanied by her son Justin, entered and he smiled.
"Good morning," Josiah greeted, shaking Justin's hand.
"And a beautiful morning it is, too, Mr. Sanchez. The Lord has smiled down upon all of us," Mrs. Jordan said.
Josiah's apprehension faded. "I do believe you're right, Mrs. Jordan."
She glanced around at the seats that were nearly filled with Double J hands and a few families. "It seems you'll have a full house."
"I hope I don't disappoint them," Josiah said.
Mrs. Jordan laid a gloved hand on Josiah's arm. "I don't think that's possible."
Justin led his mother to a front pew as Chris, Buck, Ezra, and Nathan entered the church. Each one had cleaned up and donned fresh clothes. Their presence surprised Josiah, but he was gratified they had come.
"If you gentlemen will find a place to sit, I'll start the service," Josiah said, his eyes twinkling.
Buck and Nathan walked toward the front unselfconsciously, but Chris and Ezra remained standing at the back.
"If you don't mind, I would prefer to tarry here," Ezra said, his green eyes darting about nervously.
"I'll stay with Ezra," Chris said quietly. "I ain't so sure God wants me in His house."
Josiah's chest tightened and he laid a hand on Chris's shoulder. "He does, Chris. He does."
Josiah walked to the front of the small chapel and began the service with "Amazing Grace." During the sermon, he preached about greed and sloth and how what each person sows he reaps. He noticed Chris and Ezra listening closely, though Ezra looked away every time Josiah's gaze met his. Josiah also noticed how intently Mrs. Jordan listened, though Justin appeared to be sleeping through most of the homily.
At the end of the service, Josiah shook hands with folks as they left. Everyone thanked him for sharing the Word and expressed their hopes that he'd return. Mrs. Jordan and her son were the last to depart.
"Thank you so much, Mr. Sanchez. I can't tell you how much it means to me to have you preach in here. My husband built this a year after we moved here. He always said we should give what we can back to Him for the blessings we receive," Mrs. Jordan said softly, her voice emotion-laden.
"Thank you, Mrs. Jordan. The honor was all mine," Josiah said.
"That was an interesting sermon you gave," Justin commented.
Josiah crossed his arms. "In what way?"
"The topic - greed and sloth. Why those?"
"Why not? We can all use a reminder now and again about the sins of excess." He smiled to ease the tension he sensed emanating from Justin. "Even myself."
"Are you sure you weren't editorializing the differences we have with the grangers?"
Josiah shook his head. "That's between you and your Maker. I only spoke in generalities and in the voice of conscience."
"Do you think we're wrong?" Mrs. Jordan suddenly asked, her gaze drilling into Josiah.
"It isn't for me to decide. That's up to someone a lot more powerful than myself."
"You didn't answer my question."
Josiah narrowed his eyes. "Yes, I did."
She studied him a moment before nodding. "I suppose you're right. Trying to do the right thing all the time has become a challenge unto itself. Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it, then I look at Justin and know that what Tom and I created is a legacy for our son and his children."
A shadow of a frown touched Justin's lips.
"Provided the son feels it's a legacy and not a millstone," Josiah said, watching the younger man closely.
Mrs. Jordan glanced in puzzlement at Justin. "Why in the world would it be a millstone?"
Justin smiled and patted the back of his mother's hand. "It's not, Mother. Mr. Sanchez is doing what preachers do best - casting out nets."
The woman eyed Josiah silently for a moment, then smiled. "Thank you again, Mr. Sanchez."
"It was my pleasure, ma'am," Josiah said.
The Jordans left and Josiah went to put out the candles at the front of the church, then he retrieved his hat and departed the peace of the Lord's house. Something told Josiah this would be the last peace he'd experience until the dispute was resolved.
The next couple days passed slowly for Vin. He was watched like a hawk with no chance to escape. The inactivity wore on his nerves, but he wasn't the only one. A couple fisticuffs had erupted between the rough gunmen and Mangus had given them an ultimatum - no more fighting or leave. As simple as that. Vin had a feeling, however, that if he picked a fight, his only option would be a bullet where it did the most damage.
So he stayed to himself, willing the time to move more swiftly, but at the same time knowing he was running out of time. The third day after the ambush on the Double J fence riders, Mangus left the camp after a word with Lomax. Vin itched to follow the leader. One look at Lomax, however, dispelled that notion. The killer eyed him like a snake staring at a mouse.
Vin had an idea Mangus was meeting with the man who paid this band of murderers and he chafed at the inability to learn who was behind all the trouble. The more Vin thought about it, the more he was convinced it wasn't the farmers. If it wasn't them, who had the most to gain? He discarded the Jordans - they wouldn't be cutting their own wire. Who then?
"Tanner," Lomax called.
Vin rose from his perch on a log and approached the weasly man. "What?"
"A few of the boys are goin' for supplies - you wanna ride with?"
Startled, Vin studied the man's close-set eyes. What was his game? "You suddenly start trustin' me?"
Lomax's laughter sounded like a mule's bray. "I ain't ever gonna trust you, Tanner, but Mangus figgered you might like to go into town."
This might be the break he needed if he ran into Chris or one of the others. "A beer does sound mighty good."
"You'll be ridin' with Hobbs, Tate, and Black Jack." Lomax aimed a dirt-encrusted finger at him. "You try anything and any one of them'll cut you down."
"Don't worry. I'm on your side," Vin reassured, hoping he did a convincing job.
"Right." Lomax's tone told Vin otherwise.
Vin and the three outlaws saddled their horses, mounted up and headed into town. As they rode, Vin studied the surrounding land, but nothing moved in the hot stillness and their journey was uneventful. Once in Anders, the four men stopped in front of the nearest saloon. Vin held back, hoping they wouldn't notice, but Tate grabbed his arm.
"C'mon, Tanner. Lomax told us not to let you out of our sight," Tate growled.
Vin smiled thinly. "Ain't that nice." He allowed Tate to tug him into the dim saloon. "You buyin' me a drink?"
Tate scowled and released his grip on Vin's arm. "Go to hell." Tate strode to the bar.
Vin grinned at his back and murmured, "After you."
With a sigh of resignation, Vin joined the ragtag group and ordered a beer. As he sipped the lukewarm drink, he leaned against the bar and studied the saloon's inhabitants. Four men played poker at a rickety table and for a moment, Vin pictured Ezra cleaning them out. It'd been nearly a week since he'd seen his companions and he wondered how JD was faring. Vin hated this not knowing.
The batwing doors were pushed open by a stocky man wearing a sheriff's badge and Vin tensed. The lawman stood in the doorway a moment, sending his gaze across the room. When the sheriff spotted Vin, his brows furrowed, and he strode straight toward him. Alarm tingled down Vin's spine.
"You must be Joe Jacobs," the lawman said.
Startled, Vin shook his head. "You got me mixed up with someone else."
The man tried to suck in his belly. "I doubt it. You're the only man I ever seen with one of them things." He pointed at Vin's mare's leg. "Your kin was in town a few days ago askin' about you."
Confused, Vin asked, "My kin?"
"Yep. A feller wearing black with a tied-down rig. Said," the sheriff paused and he seemed uncomfortable. "Said they was looking for you to tell you your ma died."
The man in black must have been Chris, but what was this about his ma dying? He sidled a glance at the three outlaws with him and noticed the suspicion in their faces. Vin had to get rid of the lawman before all hell broke loose. "Look, Sheriff, I ain't this Jacobs person and my ma's been dead for years."
The sheriff refused to let it go. "You fit his description to a T." Wariness slid across his face and his hand moved to his revolver. "You ain't hidin' something, are ya?"
Hobbs, Tate, and Black Jack moved around the sheriff in a close semi-circle.
"Maybe you'd best just be mindin' your own business, law dog," Hobbs taunted.
The sheriff's hand curled around his revolver butt.
Before Vin could move, Hobbs drew his own gun and fired in one smooth motion. The saloon erupted into scraping chairs as the sheriff collapsed to the floor, the sawdust lapping up the crimson blood that meandered through it.
Vin's eyes widened with shock and rage. "Why the hell'd you do that?"
Hobbs smiled with pure malice. "They can only hang a man once."
"C'mon," Black Jack broke in. "We need to get our supplies and get the hell out of here."
The three killers had their guns drawn and were covering the foot-shuffling men in the saloon. Would more people die before this nightmare was over?
Reluctantly, Vin followed the hired guns out the door, though he refused to remove his sawed-off carbine from its holster. Sickness rolled through him. He had hoped to curb the violence, but had only made it worse.
No one dared to confront them as they took what they needed from the mercantile, then mounted their horses and rode out of Anders. Vin turned in his saddle to look back at the silent town. He could almost see the black pall hanging over it.
Chris and Josiah rode to town in companionable silence. The midday sun had hit its zenith and was starting its descent across the blue sky that capped the barren land. A hint of sage teased Chris's nose, followed by the rotting scent of carrion. He glanced around to see the remains of a rabbit and knew the bones would be picked clean the next time he passed by. It was the way of the desert, the cycle of life and death. The strong fed upon the weak and enabled the strongest to live and bear young.
They entered Anders, surprised by the inactivity on the main street. The few times they'd come to town, there'd always been people about.
"I don't like this, Chris," Josiah said in a low voice.
Chris's sixth sense prodded him. "Yep. Something's wrong."
They dismounted and stepped on to the boardwalk. Four men came out of one of the saloons, carrying another man. Chris peered into the dead man's waxen face. It was the sheriff.
"What happened?" Chris demanded.
"Four men come to town and shot Sheriff Long," one of the men carrying the body replied.
Frowning, Chris entered the saloon with Josiah behind him. He immediately noticed the flies swarming around the fresh blood stain on the sawdust-covered floor. His skin tingled and fear rippled through him like water disturbed by a pebble.
Josiah turned to one of the loiterers. "Can you tell us what happened?"
The man bobbed his head and his adam's apple dipped up and down. "The sheriff was talkin' to these four gunmen when one of 'em pulls out a gun and shoots him dead."
"What did the gunmen look like?" Josiah pressed.
The witness scratched his bony chin. "The one who done shot him was wearin' an eyepatch. Another one was a big tall feller with cold black eyes. Then there was a long-haired feller with this sawed-off carbine on his leg. Don't remember much about the last one, though."
Chris looked at Josiah, finding his dread mirrored in Josiah's expression. Vin had been with the men who killed the sheriff.
"How long ago was this?" Josiah asked.
"No more'n twenty, thirty minutes." The man's lips thinned. "The bastards had the balls to stop at the store and get supplies afore they lit out."
"Which way did they go?" Chris demanded.
"Thanks," Josiah said, his voice even.
Turning, Chris and Josiah left the saloon and climbed back onto their horses. Without a word, they spurred the animals southward. They hoped to spot some sign of Vin and the gunmen, but after half an hour, Chris slowed his horse to a walk.
"We ain't gonna find them," Chris said flatly.
Josiah removed his hat and drew his forearm across his damp brow, but remained silent.
"Sonuvabitch. He's crossed the line, Josiah." Fury thrummed through Chris's words.
"We don't know--"
Chris tugged his reins sharply, stopping his horse. "What don't we know?" he shouted. "What kind of proof do you need?"
Josiah studied Chris, his expression unruffled. "Guilty until proven innocent? That doesn't sound like you, Chris. Especially since this is Vin we're talking about."
"Damnit, Josiah. I don't want to believe it, but it's starin' us in the face. Hell, Vin's slappin' us in the face with it."
"Listen to yourself, Chris. You've condemned Vin without hearing his side, something you wouldn't do to anyone else." Josiah's penetrating gaze unsettled Chris and the blond gunman looked away. "Tell me the real reason you're so angry."
Chris stared down the road, but his gaze was focused inward. He felt the stab of betrayal anew, the anger that Vin had left them behind when they needed one another to look out for each other. Vin had broken an unspoken vow to the group - especially Chris -when he'd left the ranch. It was that breach of trust that ate away at Chris's insides. He took a deep steadying breath. "He deserted us, Josiah. We come down here with him to help clear his name and he leaves us. Where the hell is his loyalty?"
Josiah pressed his lips together, then said quietly. "Tell me something, Chris. Where did you learn about loyalty?"
Chris thought for a moment and shrugged. "I suppose when I was growin' up."
"With your family?"
"What do you know about Vin's family?" Josiah continued.
"Not much. His ma died when he was a kid. Don't know anything about his pa and he don't have no brothers or sisters." Chris stared at Josiah as things began to fall into place. Comprehension punched the air from his lungs. "He don't know what it's like to belong."
Josiah smiled at Chris like the blonde man was his prize pupil. "That's right. He's been a loner most of his life and suddenly he has six loyal friends who won't leave him be - who are like family - and he's not quite sure how to handle it."
Chris shook his head. "And when we disagree on somethin', he takes to bein' a loner like he used to 'cause that's what he knows best."
"Only this time he got caught up in something he's not sure how to get out of, because I can't believe Vin has turned killer. That would be like a bear sprouting wings and flying."
The heavy mantle of anger slipped off Chris's shoulders, leaving him feeling less burdened than he'd been since Vin had ridden off. "You think his new 'friends' have figured him out yet?"
Josiah shook his head. "I think they're still trying to decide if they can trust him or not."
"As long as he can convince them he's on their side, he stays alive," Chris said softly, worry filling the void left by his departed anger.
"Yep. I'm also certain he'll be trying to warn us when he finds out what's planned against the ranch." Josiah brushed his mustache thoughtfully. "What do you think of Justin Jordan?"
"I'm not sure." Chris angled a glance at the big man. "What're you thinkin', Josiah?"
"I'm thinking that even though the Lord loves a mystery, I'm not real keen on them myself."
Chris waited for Josiah to elaborate, but he didn't. "We'd best head back to the ranch," Chris said. He paused a moment. "You really think Vin's on our side?"
Josiah smiled broadly. "As much as I believe the sun will rise tomorrow."
Chris's lips quirked upward. "That's what I call loyalty, Josiah."
"That's what I call faith."
Chris chuckled and the two men started back down the road. There may be a passel of unanswered questions regarding Vin, but Chris now knew Vin would have the answers when they got back together. And they'd be the right answers.