Buck was worried about the kid. He'd seemed so upbeat and talkative earlier, but now he'd gotten all quiet. And he had this look on his face, like maybe he was thinking on something he didn't like. Buck crept up behind him and knocked off his cap.
"Hey! What's the matter with you?"
"Just getting rid of that ugly thing."
"That 'ugly thing' is the latest fashion in Belen."
Buck shook his head. "Whew! I'm glad I'm in Itreya then!"
JD had lightened up for a minute, but then that shadowed look came over his face again. "What's the matter, Kid? Come on. You can tell old Buck."
"I... Aw, you're going to think it's stupid."
"It can't be that bad!"
"It's just... Something about this whole thing doesn't seem right."
"What do you mean?"
"I've never heard of a dragon eating a person before except in stupid folk tales--and everybody knows those aren't true. I can't think of any dragon who'd even want to eat a human being. It just doesn't happen."
"Well these Itreyan dragons might be a bit different. Could be a more vicious, dangerous bunch."
"And you heard what some of the villagers said. This critter could be anywhere from twelve to twenty feet tall. I bet we look like a nice tasty meal to a guy that size. Didn't you say those Belenite dragons were only about ten to twelve feet?"
"There you go! Maybe they don't eat humans because we're just too big for 'em."
JD didn't point out that lots of creatures, like snakes, liked to eat animals much bigger than themselves all the time. "We should talk to the dragon first."
"WHAT?!" Buck's outburst got the attention of the others who came over to see what was going on. "Talk to the dragon? And give it a chance to roast us all but good? You're crazy, Kid!"
"But they're not just animals! Don't you want to hear his side of the story first?"
Nathan put a calming hand on JD's shoulder. "We know what happened."
"Now wait, Brother Nathan. JD had a good point. Isn't part of the Hunter's creed to seek truth? We only know the villagers' side of this tragedy."
Ezra nodded in agreement. "Hunter Dunne is correct. Shouldn't we try to avail ourselves of all the facts? Perhaps there's a good reason for this dragon's actions."
"I can't believe you! A good reason to eat a little boy? To kill two men by burning them to death? And what's this 'we' business? You'll probably be high-tailing it back to Four Corners at the first sign of a dragon--leaving us high and dry."
JD shook his head. "What if the villagers were trespassing? Or maybe he's got a grudge against them for something they did? We don't know."
"No, JD. We don't know everything. But we know the basic facts. If this dragon is as smart as the Belenite ones--and we don't know that it is--couldn't it have found another way to resolve its problem with the villagers, something that didn't involve attacking a helpless little boy?"
"Maybe he tried, maybe they didn't listen..."
"JD. Everyone we talked to said the dragon just hissed and clawed at them. It didn't talk. It didn't act intelligent. It acted like an animal."
Chris had been listening to the argument, wondering if JD was right. Maybe they were being too hasty. But then he kept coming back to how those two men died. And it wasn't them he saw burning in his nightmares. "Look, JD. You might be an expert on Belenite dragons, but you're in Itreya now. Things are different here. Some of us have been fighting monsters like this for years. We'll take care of it the same we took care of them. We hunt it down and destroy it. Sometimes it's fight or be killed. That's life, boy. If you can't handle it..."
JD glared right back at him. "I can handle it."
Chris took his attention away from JD as if the matter was done an over with and started barking orders for everyone to set up camp for the night. JD did as he was told and began unpacking bedrolls. His hands moved hurriedly with a snap of anger to them. Nobody was taking him seriously. Well...maybe Josiah. And Ezra. The two of them really listened when he talked.
JD let out an exasperated huff. He'd fight the dragon if he had to. Chris didn't have to worry about that. But what if they didn't have to? He was happy to be a Hunter, to be a part of something so noble and important--it was like a dream come true. And he really liked living in Itreya, but the Itreyans sure were stubborn people. Once they made up their minds...
He got up to go get another roll. JD kicked at a rock in his path. "Maybe it wouldn't have done any good even if the dragon could speak. Who would've listened?"
Ezra watched him with a bitter smile. "Who indeed, JD. Who indeed."
Josiah caught up with Chris just as he was about to go let Vin know they were making camp for the night. "Don't you think you're being a bit bull-headed? JD does have a good point."
"I don't want to hear it, Josiah." He made to push past the older man, but Josiah moved to block him. "Get out of my way."
"So you aren't going to at least consider what JD suggested?"
"I don't need some kid telling me how to do my job."
"Is that how it is? I didn't think you were so petty that you wouldn't listen to someone just because he didn't have the age or experience that you do. I thought you were the type to at least give a man a chance. Or is it something else?"
A cold, hard look came into Chris's eyes. "Don't go there, Josiah."
"It's because of what happened to your family, isn't it? The way those men died reminds you too much of them. You never found the goblins that killed your family so you're going to take it out on this dragon."
Chris swung at the older man, wanting to wipe that look of concern from his face. He didn't want pity! He wanted justice! And if he were honest, maybe revenge.
Josiah saw it coming. He wasn't a fool. You poke an angry bear; you're going to get attacked. But Chris wasn't thinking or he would have remembered Josiah's strength. He grabbed Chris's approaching fist in a crushing grip. It shouldn't hurt his friend too much given the man's near invulnerability, but he could restrain him as long as necessary. "I never thought you were a coward, Chris. You hide from your feelings, hoping your anger will protect you. It's made you blind, my friend. Our job is to hunt down evil and destroy it, but also to look for truth and to bring justice to the citizens of Itreya--all of them. If this dragon is a sentient being, it has as much right to justice as the people of the village. There may be nothing to this. It may turn out to be a monster that needs to be destroyed. But we need to make sure first...and you need to give JD a little more respect for his area of expertise. He was Called. He accepted. The land didn't need to Call him for him to help us. He could've just come along as a guide. That young man is one of us. Make an effort to treat him better or next time I won't just hold your hand." He released Chris's fist.
Chris rubbed his hand as he watched Josiah walk away. He'd actually felt pain from the other man's grip. Just how strong was Josiah?
Chris was startled to find the tracker standing not three feet from him. "You, too?"
"Josiah's just looking out for JD...and for you."
"Tell that to my hand."
"Can't blame all your troubles on this dragon."
"He killed those men."
"Seems so. Wouldn't hurt to find out everything for sure, though. It's part of what we do. Might want to think on it some." Vin would let him stew on what he'd said for a while. He knew one of the worst things to do was get Chris's back up real bad right now 'cause the stubborn man would just dig his heels in for sure then--especially with that vein fixin' to bust out of his forehead. Best to nudge him along and let him work most of it out himself. He'd let Josiah do all the heavy pushing for now.
A strange smell tugged Vin out of his thoughts. Was it supper time already? "I hope whatever that is tastes better than it smells. I'm starving."
Chris raised a mocking eyebrow at him, a lot of his anger dissipating at the turn in conversation. "You do remember Nathan is cooking tonight?"
"Maybe I ain't as hungry as I thought. For a man that knows so much about herbs and such for healing, he sure don't know much about using 'em for cooking. His soup tastes just like that smelly stuff he gives us for fevers."
"I think it is the same thing. Too bad Itreya didn't gift him with cooking skills."
"Yeah. But I'd rather have his healing and fighting skills. Don't think a nice stew would do much good against an angry goblin or a sword wound."
"Have to agree with you there."