Harper's Ballad


Author: Tipper

Disclaimer: Yes, I know they aren't my creations.  But the story is mine.  So there.

Universe: OW

Parts: WORK IN PROGRESS (ie I've no idea)


Note 1:  the first part of this was from a little tidbit I wrote years ago.  I'd always wanted to develop it, and this is my third attempt at doing so.


Note 2:  Except the first, the songs are all real.  I pulled them from a variety of sources – cowboy songs, children's songs, and, of course, old English/Scotch/Irish ballads.  They're scattered throughout the whole story because I was in a weird thematic mood. I blame it on the fiddle/banjo concert I went to recently.  Lots of Irish folks songs.  You'd think there were a lot of Irish in Boston or something.  Well...it is a long way from Tipperary....


Get it?  "Tipperary?"  tee hee hee.


Yeah, I know.  Bad joke.


Note 3: This is intense. Dark. Bleak. Angsty....just warning you.


Description:  A single stranger succeeds in something where so many others have failed – he breaks up the seven.  All the boys are mucked with in this story.


Harper's Ballad


In songs you may hear his name

The one for whom dusk never came

For he still scours the western plains

Pushing through snow and heat and rains.


The gun's retort so loud and clear

The old hag's curse ringing in the ear

The silence of the knife as it slides right in

The bang of the trap as the noose tightens


Riding lonely over the trails of red

His dreams long since cold and dead

The sounds of his past leading him on

Drowning the future like a gathering storm


The gun's retort so loud and clear

The old hag's curse ringing in the ear

The silence of the knife as it slides right in

The bang of the trap as the noose tightens


No brothers stand by his side

No one he will ever call his own

He's part of the eternal desert now

With the sand and dirt, the blood and bone.


The gun's retort so loud and clear

The old hag's curse ringing in the ear

The silence of the knife as it slides right in

The bang of the trap as the noose tightens





Red, the color of wine, covered her from head to toe.  The silk collar reached her chin, and the long, curtained skirt gathered in the dirt, hiding her feet.  She revealed nothing, either in her clothes or her face.


The flowing dark tresses that had long been her signature were shorn into a light mass of curls framing her pale face, and her black eyes were cast to the ground.  With measured steps she slipped down the aisle between the crowds, either ignoring or simply oblivious to their calls and jeers. 


Rough hands grabbed her slight arms and roughly pulled her faster towards the steps of the gallows. She let them pull; resistance would be pointless.  At the top of the stairs, callused hands ripped her collar from her neck, revealing its curve, and making her feel naked.  One man's finger, roughened from hard work and filth, lasted a little longer than necessary on her white nape, brushing it softly.  Chills shattered her calm, and she jerked her head forward to get away from the touch.


Perhaps, she hoped, this was all a dream. 


The noose was fitted around her neck, and someone threw a tomato, smacking her in the side.  Unable to repress it any longer, she emitted a small cry of fear, and the hangman heard.  He related to the crowd her terror, and they cheered louder.  The noise deafened the red lady’s ears as she steeled her jaw once again. 


The hangman gripped the lever to release the trap, waiting for the nod from the Sheriff. Seconds left.  Not even. She shut her eyes, and the sound of the trap opening was the last thing she heard, echoing over the roar of the crowd.


Twenty feet away, standing in the crowd, a young boy stared unblinking.  Screams, yells and curses circled around his head, but all he could hear was the gathering storm.  His eyes lifted upwards to where a single crow came to rest atop the still swaying gallows, its black eyes seeming to stare directly at the boy.


"That's death there, lad," the man holding the little boy's hand said softly, an Irish lilt to his voice.  "He'll see her on her way."


Red fabric lifted and fluttered in the dusty breeze.



Part One


Twenty years later, that same boy's eyes measured the people of Four Corners, and found them wanting. 


He had grown tall and handsome, with wavy black hair and large brown eyes like his mother.  His lips seemed permanently curved into a smile, as if he were always laughing at something...or someone.  The silent way he made his way through town was like a cloud's shadow drifting across a sunlit valley – people shivered and frowned as he passed by, but then he was forgotten.


Dismounting from the back of a dappled gray mare, rented from someone in Dry Ridge, the man patted her hide and lifted his satchels off the back.  Slinging them over his shoulder, he walked into the only saloon in town.


Sitting at a front table, as if guarding the door, Ezra Standish looked up at the newcomer from his book.  It was just a passing glance, one that usually sufficed to measure a man for his "markability."  He took in the all black ensemble, the cold eyes and the quality of the man in moments, and promptly lost all sense of what he had been reading.  Turning back to the volume in his hands, a translation of a Russian novel by a man causing something of a sensation in Europe, he found he could no longer remember even the line he'd been looking at.  The newcomer stopped, having sensed the scrutiny.


"My name is Harper," he said, stopping to look down at Ezra and causing those green eyes to lift up again.  "It's not my real name, obviously.  However, I will tell you now that I am not a man to cross nor a man to become friends with.  I have nothing of any real value, nor do I ever plan to.  My only purpose here is to find a man, give him a message, and then leave."


Ezra arched both eyebrows, as if being spoken to in this manner were an every day occurrence. 


"Well," he said, smiling mockingly, "I wish you all the best of luck."  The smile fading as quickly as it had appeared, he went right back to his book.


The man nodded, and looked again at the bar.  Inez was watching them without hiding her curiosity.  She had paused mid wipe of a glass, and was frowning imperceptibly.  Harper gave her a small nod, then pulled out a chair at the table with Ezra.   The gambler looked up again, a crease marking his forehead. 


"I do not believe I invited you to sit down, sir," he said, green eyes taking on the quality of ice.  The newcomer ignored him, just continued to watch Inez.  She had resumed her wiping, and her frown was even deeper.  Walking to one end of the bar, she quickly said something to someone there, then stepped back to her position in the middle.  The man she had spoken too stood up and quickly disappeared out the back.  Harper smiled.


"Your barmaid has sent for help, I see," he said conversationally.  "She is a quick judge...as are you." 


Ezra sighed, gave up any further pretense at reading, and set the book on the table. 


"For a man who just told me that he does not want to make friends or enemies, you seem to have taken a strange interest in keeping up a conversation with me, Mr. Harper."


"Just Harper.  No Mister.  And you would be Ezra Standish, is that right?  Or at least, that is your current pseudonym."


Ezra froze.


"I think you can help me," the man said, "perhaps help me locate the man I am looking for?"


"Well," Ezra frowned, "it seems to me that a man who so easily knew my name would not need help."


"Oh, you were easy.  You don't hide who and what you are.  Of course, who you think you are is quite different from the reality, is it not?  I understand you are a lawman.  You dress and act the gambler and the con, but you are no more wicked than the lovely lady staring daggers in my direction from behind the bar."


A half smile appeared on Ezra's face, interested despite himself.


"So you imagine you know me?" he said.


"Oh no, I am running on pure intuition and what I've read...." Harper paused and reached into one of his saddlebags.  Ezra tensed, his right hand gripping itself into a fist.  The man gave him the chills, there was no doubt, but he had not threatened him in any way.  Still, the urge to release his derringer and kill the cobra before he could strike was almost overpowering.   Only his rational mind kept the fist in place.


Harper pulled out a small sheaf of papers, bound together by string.  Smiling, he sent an amused glance at Ezra's fist before chuckling to himself as he untied the string.  In moments, he'd turned the papers around and pushed them towards Ezra. 


The gambler leaned forward, tilting his head as he recognized the Clarion's title on several of the papers.  Gingerly, he sorted through them, discovering that this Harper had been cutting out articles about Ezra and the others and keeping them.  He smiled as, underneath several pieces of newspaper clippings, he discovered a copy of Jock Steele's dime novel.  It looked fairly worn.  Deeper still, he found articles from other papers, from other towns that they'd visited, and handwritten copies of judgment rolls from Santa Fe, from the few trials they'd attended that were actually transcribed.  The deeper he went into the man's "research," the more on edge Ezra became.  Finally, he gathered the papers together and pushed them back.


"I had no idea we were so well documented," the gambler remarked acidly.


"Yes, it is amazing, isn't it?" Harper took the papers back, and, after making sure they were neat, retied the string.  "You can find out a great deal about people with a little work."  He tucked the papers away.


At that same moment, Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington walked into the saloon. Ezra sat a little straighter in his chair, his mouth set in a firm line of disquiet, especially when he saw a glint of excitement in the newcomer's black eyes.


"Hey, Ezra," Vin greeted, glancing askance at Harper as he pulled up a chair.  "Who's your friend?"


The gambler glanced at all three men uneasily, knowing full well that Inez had summoned them for help.  Now, however, he was afraid of what this newcomer might say or do.  Chris frowned, not liking it when Ezra looked worried in front of someone new.  


"Gentlemen, your presence, while welcome, is not..." But he was interrupted.


"Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and Buck Wilmington, I presume?" Harper greeted them congenially. "Coming to protect your associate.  So it is true.  I had hoped it might be."


"Ezra, who is this guy." Chris stared darkly at the newcomer, clearly wanting an explanation.


The gambler sighed, wondering if they might have handled this better. "He calls himself Harper," he told them.  "He has apparently done some research on us.  He came here, I believe, to ask our help in locating someone."


"Oh, no," Harper smiled.  "I've found him.  Thank you Mr. Standish, you were most helpful."  The gambler's brow creased as the newcomer looked directly at Chris, "Mr. Larabee, I have a message for you...from Ella Gaines."


Chris pushed himself instantly out of his chair, Vin's hand on his arm the only thing preventing him from drawing.  Buck had stood as well, while Ezra and Vin both remained sitting.  Ezra hadn't moved.  He just stared.


"The message," the newcomer continued calmly, "is simple.  She instructed me to tell you that she is with child, and that, if you wish to see it born, you will have to come with me.  Alone.  If any of your associates try to follow you, I am instructed to kill them."  He was still smiling.


Chris eyes' had widened, his hand reflexively gripping his gun handle tighter.


"What makes you think we would believe anything that viper had to say," Buck demanded angrily.


"Oh, she did suggest Mr. Larabee might be reluctant to come with me, so I was told to find some means to ensure your compliance."  The man went for his saddlebags again, and Buck's gun cleared his holster.  Harper shook his head, not looking up, "I am not reaching for a gun Mr. Wilmington.  I do not keep them in my bags but at my waist."  He said all this while he pulled out the items he sought.


"Oh my God," Ezra breathed, recognizing the items that were placed on the table.


Josiah's cross. 


J.D.'s hat. 


Nathan's throwing knives.


"Nathan and Josiah are supposed to be at the Seminole village, left two days ago," Vin said quietly, eyes glued to the items. 


"JD went out to Casey's last night, for dinner," Buck added, still glaring at Harper.  The man continued to smile gently.


"You will find the Wells' farm untouched, although the young lady and her aunt are tied to a pair of chairs.  As for the village, I captured your men on their way back.  The village has not been harmed.  However, I can not say the same for your companions.  They need to be found, probably within the next few hours.  Otherwise, I can not guarantee they will be alive when you find them."


Ezra shivered as Chris grabbed Harper's lapels.  Dragging the unperturbed man from his chair, Larabee stuck his face in the other's:


"Where are they?"


Harper just smiled. 


"I will not ask again..." the gunslinger growled.


"Killing me won't help you find them, Mr. Larabee," the man replied coldly. "And if you try to force the information out of me, I promise you that, unless you have some magic formula to get me to talk within the next couple of hours, you won't be in time.  You need to leave now.  All of you."


"Chris...let him go," Vin said, finally standing. "I believe him."


Buck growled.  Chris stared into the black eyes of this man, dissecting them, then shoved Harper away.  The man wiped his clothes with his hand, brushing down the creases, and nodded at Vin.


"Thank you."


"Didn't do it for you."


"Oh, I am aware of that."  He stood up and sighed, brushing a hand through his black hair, setting it back in place.  "Now, here's how this works.  Mr. Larabee, if you want to save your men, then you need to come with me.  When you agree, and give me your word, I will give Mr. Wilmington, Mr. Tanner and Mr. Standish the clues with which to find their friends.  It will be up to them to figure them out in time.  In some ways, it depends on how clever they are.  I do wonder, however, if they will be able to decipher all three clues in time...."


Buck just looked at Ezra, who's jaw was tensed.  Vin stared at Chris. 


The gunslinger's eyes darkened, and he closed them.  Harper sighed again.


"Faster you make your decision, Mr. Larabee, the faster...."


"Fine.  I'll go with you.  My word.  Let's go."


"Wonderful," Harper smiled again.  He bowed and held a hand towards the door, "Shall we?"



Part Two


Chris was up on his horse, staring straight out at the horizon.  Harper sat astride his own horse, a strawberry roan, looking down at Buck, Vin and Ezra.  Without a word, he handed the gambler three sheets of paper.


"Your clues.  Good luck," he said.


"Find them," Chris hissed.  "I'll be back soon as I can." Demonstrating characteristic impatience, he nudged Solon into a good clip out of town, causing Harper to chuckle as he realized he was now the follower.  Tipping his hat at the other three, the black haired man took off after him.


Ezra hurriedly opened the first clue.  His brow furrowed, and he handed it to Buck before scanning the second clue.  He then handed that to Vin as he quickly read the third.


"Damn...," Buck stared at his piece of paper, then swore even more harshly at the second one as Vin traded that for his.  "Do you understand it?"


"I....Yes, they're song references, I think," Ezra said hesitatingly.


"Serious?" Vin focused on his clue, squinting a little at the curved writing. 


"Yes, though I don't know them all...do these sound familiar?" Ezra handed the third piece of paper to Buck.


The ladies' man looked at the words for a little while, before saying them out loud: "Red Nell's hero is hanging with High-Chin Bob.  I don't know...."


"You've heard the song about the Lavender Cowboy?" the gambler asked.


Buck's eyes squinted, then lit as the words ran through his head.  It was a newer song, written by someone out east.  It'd been picked up, though, as they usually are, by the hands on the trail.


He was only a lavender cowboy,

The hairs on his chest were two....

He wished to follow the heroes

Who fight as he-men do


Yet he was inwardly troubled

By a dream that gave him no rest;

When he read of heroes in action,

He wanted more hair on his chest.


Herpicide, many hair-tonics

Were rubbed in morning and night.

Still, when he looked in the mirror

No new hair grew in sight.


He battled for "Red Nell's" honor

Then he cleaned out a hold-up nest,

And he died with his six-guns smokin'...

But only two hairs on his chest.


"Oh my God.  Has to be JD."


Ezra nodded, "Right.  But I don't know the song of High Chin Bob...do you?"


Buck looked at the name, before swearing.  "Yeah, I do.  Sum' bitch.  You ever heard sung The Glory Trail?"  When Ezra shook his head, Buck sighed, "It's an old one.  High-Chin Bob comes across a mountain lion and lassoes it.  Thinking himself clever for catching it, he figures to kill it by dragging it.  For three days he tries, determined to kill the dang thing, but the cat never tires, just keep loping behind...waiting for its chance...."


Way high up the Mogollons,

Among the mountain tops,

A lion cleared a yearlin's bones

And licked his thankful chops...


"Damn," Ezra eyes narrowed, "Harper must have him tied up somewhere, up in the hills, probably near Nettie's.  Maybe even up on the hill behind her place.  When you get there, see if Nettie knows of any cat's lairs in the area, or anything that might remind her of a 'nest.'  JD's gotta be out there."


"Right," Buck shoved the paper back into Ezra's hands and took two steps in the direction of the livery before stopping abruptly.  He turned around, "Wait, what about the other two?"


"You get JD.  We'll try to figure out these other two," Vin assured him.


"On your own?"


"Yeah.  Look, if you figure one of them out, you head to where you think they are."


"Remind me again."


"One reads A rye lullaby for King John.  The other says Johnny Murphy says money is your friend," Ezra said, now holding both clues.


"Who's Johnny Murphy?"  Buck asked.


"I don't know," Ezra shook his head, "It sounds familiar but...but you should go, Buck.  Find JD.  We'll find the others."


"Lullabies...them's nursery rhymes, right?"  The ladies' man was staring at the ground.  "Like Mockingbird and Ring Around the Rosies?"


Vin suddenly smiled, "Yeah...." He grabbed the one about King John back from Ezra.


"Well, I think of something, after I find the kid, I'll get after 'em...."  Tipping his hat to them, the ladies' man frowned wryly then ran in the direction of the livery.


Vin stared at the lullaby clue, thinking about all the songs and rhymes he'd heard sung in the orphanages he grew up in.  He had been surrounded by those songs when he was little, sung by nurses and nuns that came by to tend the children, and by the children themselves when they played.  Someone always need comforting, and the strains of lullabies used to soothe them all to sleep. 


"King John...Jack's short for John, right?" he asked Ezra softly.  The gambler looked up from where he'd been staring at the last piece of paper.


"Jack?  Yes, it's a derivative form."


"Then I reckon Nathan or Josiah's hanging from a tree near Jan and Nestor's Blackbird Farm, maybe over the well up behind the house," the tracker said.  Unnoticed by either man, someone on the boardwalk near where they were talking stopped walking in order to listen.


"Where did you get that?" Ezra aksed.


"Buck said it.  Nursery rhymes.  Three of them.  King John is Jack, as in Jack and Jill went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water," he smiled.  "Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after."


"Who's Jill?"


"Doesn't matter.  Listen, the word rye is another one.  Sing a song a sixpence, a pocket full of rye, four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie, when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing...."


"Isn't that a dainty dish to set before a king," Ezra finished, nodding.  "But why a tree?"


"Rock a bye baby, on the treetop, when the wind blows the cradle will rock, when the bough breaks...."


"Good lord."  Ezra swallowed.  "I think there is a dead tree behind their farm, a big old Douglas fir, but it hangs over the river, not a well.  But...Mr. Tanner... don't you think either Nestor or Jan might have noticed...?"


Vin frowned, "Yeah.  I could be wrong.  But then again, they could be in trouble too."


"Regardless, it makes sense. Go."


"You figger out that third one yet?"


"No...but I will.  Go.  I'll get this."


"No wait," Vin took the last piece of paper, read the words then looked up at Ezra.  "Listen, I been thinking.  It makes sense that I would know those rhymes, cause of the orphanage.  I reckon, though, that you'd not know too many, right?"  Vin searched Ezra's face, and the man's shrug told him what he needed to know.  Ezra just hadn't had much contact with other children growing up.  Vin nodded, "That's what I thought.  It also makes sense that Buck'd know those cowboy songs, since he's rode herd a number o' times.  This makes me thing that this Harper might've then had each of us in mind for each one of these.  What songs do you know?"


"I know my share of 'cowboy songs' as you put it," Ezra shrugged.


"And?  What was that you was singing in Wickes town?  A cowboy song?"


Ezra glared at him, "What a time to bring that up."


"Didn't sound like a cowboy song to me," Vin pressed.  "Sounded more like them songs I sometimes heard the women singing in the kitchens, or the harlots in the saloons."


Ezra stared at him a minute, then nodded.  "Ballads.  Though I suppose what I sang could be better described as vaudeville...."  Ezra looked at the clue again, then shut his eyes. "Truth is, even though I don't know Johnny Murphy, I do know the second half.  It's how I knew these were all songs.  Money is Your Friend is an old Irish drinking song, but I can't figure out what the rest means.  Where is he trying to indicate, the bank? The casino in Eagle Bend?"


"Sing it, maybe it'll help."


"I don't think..."


"Don't argue."


Ezra shut his eyes and sighed.  He hated this song.  It was too close to the truth about himself.  Consequently, he sang quickly, rushing it....


Of Friendship I have heard much talk

But you'll find in the end

That if distressed at any time

Then money is your friend.


If you are sick and like to die

And for the doctor send,

To him you must advance a fee,

Then money is your friend.


If you should have a suit at law

On which you much depend,

You must pay the lawyer and brief,

Then money is your friend.


Then let me have but a store of gold,

From ills it will defend;

In every exigency of life

Dear money is your friend....


"A store of gold," Ezra's eyes lit up bright as he repeated the word he'd sung.  "Johnny Murphy...Oh God...."




"He's trapped someone in the wrecked gold mine above the Seminole village.  And I know what Harper's done...."




"Because I know who Johnny Murphy is, Vin....He's a dead man."  The gambler had already started running for the livery, calling his words behind him at the tracker right on his heels.  On the boardwalk, the man who had been listening to their hurried conversation grimaced and looked to his feet.  After a moment, he straightened his shoulders and hurried towards the Hardware store.


Buck had already gotten the stable-boys to saddle Vin and Ezra's horses, so both men were soon riding swiftly out of town, riding together as far as possible.  When Vin finally broke away, Ezra barely noticed.  All he could hear was the Scottish ballad of High Blantyre ringing in his mind:


 By Clyde's bonny banks where I sadly did wander

Among the pit heaps as evening drew nigh;

I spied a young woman all dressed in deep mourning

A-weeping and wailing with many a sigh.


I stepped up beside her and thus I addressed her:

"Pray tell me the cause of your trouble and pain."

Weeping and sighing , at last she made answer

"Johnny Murphy, kind sir, was my true lover's name."


"Twenty-one years of age, full of youth and good looking

to work down the mines of High Blantyre he came,

The wedding was fixed, all the guests were invited

That calm summer evening when young Johnny was slain.


The explosion was heard, all the women and children

With pale anxious faces they haste to the mine.

When the truth was made known, the hills rang with their mourning

Three-hundred-and-ten young miners were slain.


Now husbands and wives and sweethearts and brothers

That Blantyre explosions they'll never forget;

And all the young miners hear my sad story

Shed a tear for the victims who're laid to their rest."



Part Three


Chris was deathly quiet as he slowed his horse down in order for Harper to catch up to him.  The black haired young man nodded his thanks and came up alongside.  They were only perhaps half a mile from the town, at this point, headed along the eastern road.


"Where exactly are we headed?" the gunslinger asked.


"Well, east at the moment, but we'll start heading south soon."


"Towards the border?"


"Yup," Harper grinned. "Ay the Border, the bright placid Border! It sleeps like a snake in the sun; Like a "hole" tamped and primed in good order; Like a shining and full throated gun." He stopped reciting and glanced at the gunslinger.  Chris had his head turned away, pretending not to have listened.


They rode in silence a while longer, until Chris felt calm enough to ask the next question.


"Will my men be all right?"


Harper shrugged, "Couldn't say.  They got a chance.  Depends how quick Wilmington, Tanner and Standish are....and how good their memories are."




"I did some research on your boys, Mr. Larabee.  The clues I gave relate to where they came from.  People should never forget where they came from.  Our past is what defines us, makes us who we are and sets our future."  He eyed Chris speculatively.  "Among your men, you are the only one who seems to realize that."


Chris frowned slightly, "Meaning?"


"Wilmington colors his past, making it rosier than it was.  Sanchez dwelled in the past for a while, but seems to have forgotten it now, so focused is he on all of you.  Jackson treats his past, his slavery, like a wound; he's covered it up and hopes to never see it again.  Dunne's past is as innocent as the boy.  Tanner's past keeps him running, because he doesn't know how to face it anymore.  Instead he ends up waiting for it to catch up with him on its own, which it will someday.  Then there is Standish. He ignores his past; pretending he doesn't have one.  At least, he tries to.  With every name change, he attempted to erase his past and start anew.  To some extent he was successful.  I admit, I lost him at times in my research.  Entire years are missing from my little biography of him."


Chris's frowned deepened.  He had to admit that sounded pretty accurate.  But not completely – he certainly had Vin wrong, at least. What really disturbed him, though, was the idea of this man having done such extensive research.


"As for you," Harper looked at Chris again, "black mourning clothes mark most of your outfits.  You drink to excess, the sign of a man trying to drown his pain.  Since your pain isn't physical, it must be the death of your wife and son that drives your soul to act the way it does."


Chris pursed his lips at the mention of Sarah and Adam by this stranger, his eyes hardening.  He would not rise to this man's bait.  He'd given his word, however hard it might be to keep.


"You got a point, Harper?" he asked.


"Just to tell you that I admire you, Larabee; you act the way all men should.  Also, to tell you that I understand you." Harper paused, his voice softening slightly as he looked into the low-lying hills that separated Mexico from the territories, "A long time ago, my mother was hanged for a crime she didn't commit."  He smiled serenely, as if discussing the weather.  "It set me on my current path."


"Really," Chris's voice was dryer than old paper, "and what path is that?"


"To find and kill the ones who put the noose round her neck."


"Sounds pretty simple."


"I thought so too, once.  I've already razed the town, burned it to the ground.  But," he sighed, "it wasn't as satisfying as I thought it would be."  He looked at Chris.  "I still need to kill the one who actually set her up." 


Chris just grunted. "And where might he be?"


"Closer than you think," Harper said quietly, looking hard at the other man. 


Chris frowned, glancing askance at the young man to his right...judging his age.  Twenty-three, twenty-four, maybe?  Hard to tell when they eyes were so old.  Still, Chris figured he would only have been seventeen or eighteen when Harper's mother had been hanged.  Surely he wasn't talking about him....He was still trying to puzzle it out when he realized the younger man was talking again.


"Tell me," Harper asked brightly, suddenly, his chipper tone indicating a change in subject, "when you had Ella in your sights, why didn't you kill her?"


Chris stiffened immediately, turning shocked eyes on the dark man. 


"I spoke with some of the men she'd hired, the ones you put in Yuma instead of in the ground," Harper explained. "One told me you had her...and let her get away."


Chris still didn't speak.  His pained eyes just moved away to roam the horizon.


Harper stared at him a moment longer, then shrugged.  "I tried to find the answer to that in the other stories and facts I looked up about you.  At first, I thought it was because she was a woman.  Or because she was someone whom, for a while, you cared for.  But, in the end," he paused, licking his tongue across his top teeth, "I think it is because you lost your edge."  He shook his head.  "While it is clear to me that you are your past, Chris Larabee, I think, like Sanchez, your time with those other men seems to have diluted it.  Diluted you."


"We gonna ride, or you just gonna keep spoutin' shit," the black-clad gunslinger clipped suddenly.


Harper nodded, "That was direct.  Not much of a talker, are you?"


"Not much patience either, and you're hitting its limits."


Harper chuckled, "fair enough.  I'll leave you be...for now."



To Be Continued....