Vacant Chair

Standard Fanfic Disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law. These aren't my characters. I'm just borrowing them for, um, er, typing practice. Yeah, that's it, typing practice. They will be returned (relatively) unharmed to their original owners, or at the very least, suitably bandaged. Unless their original owners don't want them back, in which case I'd be happy to take them off their hands. This story was originally published in the fanzine Let's Ride #12, from Neon RainBow Press.

Vacant Chair

Magnificent Seven

by Susan M. M.

Buck glanced around the saloon. The drifter was a tall man, dark-haired and blue-eyed. "Sure is quiet tonight."

Chris harrumphed. "JD's out of town."

Buck smiled at his friend. "Boy does have a tendency to ramble on at the mouth, don't he?" Especially compared to Chris, who said less in a week than most men did in a day.

The blond gunslinger nodded and returned his attention to his whisky.

Ezra left the card table and wandered over to join the other two men.

"Tired of cheatin' at solitaire?" Buck asked him.

Ezra sighed melodramatically. In a mellifluous baritone, he complained, "The dismal weather has kept all the sheep to their pens." Glancing around the nearly empty barroom, he added, "No one to shear."

For a second, a hint of a smile almost appeared on Chris' stern visage.

"And where is our illustrious young sheriff?" the gambler inquired. His accent bespoke magnolias and riverboats. "I've not seen him in a day or two."

"Rode out to Miz Nettie's place t'other day. Sparkin' Casey," Buck explained. "What with the rain and the flash flood, guess he decided to stay there until things dried out."

Ezra's green eyes glinted mischievously. "So much time spent alone with an innocent young maiden. Do you suppose our intrepid young upholder-of-the-law will do the honorable thing by the lady?"

"Hell, Ez, JD's too doggoned wet behind the ears to know how to be dishonorable with a lady. Besides, Nettie's there to chaperone 'em." Buck took another slug of his beer. Nettie Wells was more than capable of taking care of herself and her niece. Anyone who crossed the skinny old biddy would probably wind up on the wrong end of a pitchfork, or, more likely, her Spencer carbine.

Vin raised his hand to signal the others to stop. The long-haired young man dismounted from Peso and knelt to examine the tracks.

Reining Chaucer to a halt, Ezra glanced up at the telegraph wires. They looked perfectly normal. However, with the wires cut closer to town, they were useless. "They always cut the wires."

"Of course they do," Chris growled, annoyed by the stupidity of Ezra stating the obvious. "They don't want the sheriff in the next town to know what they're up to."

"Speakin' of sheriffs, shouldn't ours be back by now? Maybe I ought t' ride out t' Miz Nettie's after we catch these desperadoes," Vin suggested.

"Flash flood did a lot of damage," Josiah pointed out. "JD might not be able to get back yet, or maybe he's helping Miz Nettie set things to rights."

"Could be," Chris agreed, although he, too, was beginning to be a bit concerned about how long JD had been gone.

Vin pointed east. "They went that way." He remounted Peso.

"Let's ride," Chris said.

Josiah and Vin urged their mounts forward.

Ezra took one last look at the telegraph wires. "They always cut the wires," he repeated softly. "And the telegraph company always puts them back up. Perhaps I should invest in the company that manufactures the wires."

"Ez, you coming or not?" Josiah called back to him.

The gambler dug his heels into Chaucer's flanks and hurried to catch up with the others.

Josiah worried when he saw the vultures circling ahead. Clicking his tongue, he urged Deuteronomy from a slow walk to a quick trot. When he found the two half-gnawed corpses – a man and a horse – he swore.

The vultures pecking at the two bodies flew off at his approach.

Although the ex-preacher wasn't half the tracker Vin was, he had no trouble recognizing the paw prints next to the corpse as belonging to coyotes.

"Not JD," he prayed. "Please, Lord, don't let it be JD." Fearing what he might find, he dismounted slowly and approached the man's body.

The vultures and coyotes hadn't left enough of his face to identify. Josiah breathed a sigh of relief when he didn't recognize the black clothes the man was wearing; he knew JD didn't own a suit like that. And the hair, although straight and dark, was much shorter than JD's.

Josiah removed his hat. "Lord, be gentle with this soul You've called home. Comfort the ones he left behind. And thank you, Lord, that it ain't JD." As he replaced his hat, he turned and got a better glimpse of what was left of the horse. Inhaling sharply, he broke the Third Commandment. If that wasn't Milagro, he'd eat his hat.

Reluctantly, he examined the horse. There was no doubt. Brown gelding, black mane, black stockings… definitely a bay… Milagro. His former owner had named him Milagro, Spanish for miracle, because he was so dumb it would be a miracle if the beast could find his feed trough without help. It was definitely JD's horse and JD's gear. He took a second look at the corpse.

The size and build matched JD.

Nettie had a strong mother-hen streak in her. She might've given the boy some of her late husband's clothes to wear, especially if his own were rain-soaked. And since he'd ridden up to court Casey, he might have gotten his hair cut in town before he left, or let Nettie trim it for him. And the boy was a good enough shot that it was unlikely anyone would've been able to steal his horse.

"Damn." Josiah knelt on the ground beside the body and wept.

to be continued ...