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Buck Wilmington reached for his crutches and lurched awkwardly to his feet. It had been a dreadful week, but at least Chris, Ezra and Nathan were now turning into the long drive and a full day earlier than expected. Buck breathed a sigh of relief. He was both pleased and relieved to see his friends, and he had several questions for the medic.
Nathan spotted the ladies man on the porch. "Hey, Chris, you were right when you said you reckoned theyd be at your place," he observed.
"Yeah, well you know Vin and horses and JDs almost as crazy about them as he is," Larabee responded.
"I wonder what calamity has befallen Mr Wilmington," Ezra commented.
"Huh? What do you mean calamity?" Chris asked. Concentrating on his driving, rather than upon the ladies man, he had not noticed anything amiss.
"He appears to be sporting a plaster cast on his leg."
"Damn! I cant leave them alone for five minutes. If Bucks got a busted leg, Id hate to think what shape Tanner will be in. He always seems to have to outdo everyone else on the injuries front."
He pulled up by the house steps and Wilmington hobbled down to meet them. "Howdy, boys. Its good to see you back. Its been a hellava long week I can tell you."
"What happened, Buck? Where are the others? Are they all right?" Jackson questioned.
"Woah! One question at a time, Nate," Buck protested, "and if you dont mind Ill tell you everything when we get inside. Im having lots of trouble standing with this damned cast, let alone moving around."
"I am not surprised by that," Standish opined. "It appears to be a peculiarly cumbersome specimen."
"You can say that again! Ive never had a broken leg before, but I can tell you Im going to be a lot more sympathetic when I meet anyone with a busted leg in the future." He turned and limped back up the stairs with difficulty.
Ezra followed him, but Nathan stood watching, a most perplexed expression on his face.
"Whats wrong, Nate?" Chris inquired.
"I dont know. Its just that Well, Ezras right when he described that cast as peculiar. I just cant understand what Buck can have done to himself to necessitate one quite that size and shape."
"Who knows," Chris shrugged. "Anythings possible with Buck. Perhaps the nurse involved got pissed off with his flirting," he added grinning.
"Perhaps," Jackson said doubtfully.
Over a mug of coffee, Buck told his sad tale. Of course, since a lady was involved, he devoted quite some time to describing her best attributes, but the basic story was that Veronica Masterton, an auburn haired beauty, who had shown herself to be apparently impervious to Bucks considerable charms for some months, had finally agreed to allow him to escort her to a ball being held at the very swish country club, of which her father was a long time member. Naturally such a breakthrough had called for a major celebration and Buck had persuaded Vin and JD to join him in what developed into a prolonged drinking bout, after some members of Team 6 arrived. Well, Buck was fairly clear on events up to around 1am, but after that things got hazy. He did remember the other team suggesting a shift to another nightclub and JD trying to persuade him that he had had enough to drink and should call it a night, but that was it.
The next thing he remembered was waking up in his bed, in the apartment he shared with JD, and finding that his right leg was heavily encased in plaster. He had shouted out for JD, but Vin appeared and said, "Keep it down, Buck. The kids got a real bad hangover." Sympathetic to an extent since his own skull felt ready to split, Wilmington then demanded to know, albeit in a quieter voice, what the hell had happened. Vin explained that the second club had been an upstairs one, and that as they were leaving, Buck had missed his footing and had bounced down the whole flight of stairs. "The kid and I took ya to the medical centre. The doc set yer broken leg and then we came back to yer place. It was gettin pretty late by that time, so JD suggested I use yer couch. I figured it was a good notion, as the kid was real bushed, and I figured ya might need someone when ya woke up."
"So you just woke up wearing that cast?" Jackson asked.
"Yep, thats the size of it. Youd have thought theyd have kept me in overnight, but Vin said they were very busy."
"Vin seems to have been doing an awful lot of talking."
"I spose he has for him. He did look after me well for the first couple of days, but then various ladies started turning up to visit, and you know how shy he is with women, so he began ringing instead of calling in. Then he told the kid that he was shifting out here this weekend to have more time with the horses. I was going stir crazy, so last night, I got JD to bring me out to join him."
"Whats JD been doing?"
"The kids been real helpful, though hes been rather quiet. Hes worrying about me, I reckon, but its odd not having him babbling on all the time."
"What about Josiah?"
"Hes been helping me with things too, but I reckon hes got a bit stressed out. Hes been trying to keep the office running with you all away. I havent been in since the accident, but JD tells me hes got to snapping at Vin a bit cos of his fooling."
"Is he out here today?"
"Nope, he said he was going to spend the day at the office catching up on paperwork."
"And how long does the doctor think youll be in plaster?"
"I dont know. Vin said he said hed be in touch in a week or so about an appointment to see how Im progressing, so I expect to hear from him any day now."
Nathan frowned. He caught Chris eye and surreptitiously gestured towards the kitchen. The pair gathered up the mugs and headed for that room, only to be followed by Ezra, who had not failed to notice the byplay and was curious as to what was going on.
"Whats with all the questions, Nate?" Chris asked in an undertone.
"I smell a rat by the name of Tanner."
"What do you mean?"
"I cant believe a doctor would make a cast like that one. I mean look at it! Its huge and a hell of an odd shape. Whats more its Plaster of Paris."
"Yeah, it does look a bit odd," Larabee agreed, "but surely Plaster of Paris would not be unusual for a cast."
"Not unusual certainly, because some hospitals still use it regularly, but the local med centre is a bit more high tech than that. They usually use ortho-glass. You remember that bright pink cast Vin had on his wrist that time? Thats the sort of thing I mean."
"I do recall poor Mr Tanner was too severely concussed to raise any objection when Mr Wilmington assured the doctor that pink was definitely the colour he would select if he was able to do so," Ezra said.
They all grinned as they recalled Vins intense embarrassment at the comments that cast had brought from their co-workers. Tanner had actually resorted to trying to paint it black, and having to work left-handed, had made an atrocious mess. It had taken days for him to finally get rid of the last traces of black paint from his person and his apartment floor had never recovered.
"So now Ive got my suspicions," Nathan stated.
"Surely even, Mr Tanner " Ezra started and then stopped abruptly. "What on earth am I saying? Who but our resident practical joker would have the temerity to do such a thing?"
"What are you guys jawing about?" Buck called.
The three trooped back into the lounge.
"Which medical centre did Vin and JD take you to?" Larabee asked casually.
"The usual one. Why?"
Nathan headed back into the kitchen, grabbed the phone and dialed. A few minutes later he was back. He locked eyes with Chris.
"Tanner?" Larabee asked resignedly.
"Looks like it."
"What are you guys on about?" Wilmington demanded.
"Buck, I just rang the medical centre. I pretended to be you and asked about your next appointment. They had no record of it."
"I told you, it isnt made yet."
"No, and whats more, theyve got no record of your earlier visit either."
"What?" Wilmington exclaimed in disbelief. "But they must have! Vin definitely said they took me there. Surely theyd have it on record."
"Im sure they would That is if you had been there. Just as Im sure they would not have discharged an unconscious patient."
Buck looked totally perplexed. "I still dont see what you guys are getting at," he admitted.
"Well, lets just say that it appears that we have some ah some good news for you," Nathan said.
"But you might not be totally overjoyed by our revelations," Standish added.
"Just tell me!" Buck insisted. He was starting to get quite concerned as to what they were concealing from him about his condition.
"What our esteemed colleague is attempting to communicate is that you have apparently been the victim of an extremely ingenious, not to say more than slightly malicious, practical joke, in all probability perpetuated by our own lovable miscreant, Mr Tanner," Ezra explained.
"Huh?" Poor Buck was still none the wiser.
"Your leg isnt broken, Buck," Larabee explained.
"WHAT!!! It must be! I had to pull out of my date with Veronica Masterton because I can hardly walk, let alone dance. She was none too sympathetic either because I had to let her down on the very day of the ball. She told me not to bother her again. And, since I couldnt get my damned trousers over the flaming cast, I had to start wearing shorts, so there went my lunch date with Sue Rutherford, and my theatre date with Janey Martin, not to mention my "
"Thats enough, stud, we get the picture," Larabee said, struggling not to grin at Bucks woebegone expression as he recalled his lost opportunities.
"And now weve got to get the damned cast off," Nathan pointed out. "Perhaps I should ring the medical centre back and make an appointment for you. Theyre used to doing such things and "
"No!" Buck interrupted firmly. "I aint waiting for no damned appointment. I want the thing off now. Anyway I dont want other people learning whats happened. Id be a laughingstock. Ive been working on a couple of cute nurses at that place for a date and I need my reputation intact. All I want to do is get shook of the damned cast so I can go out and kill Vin Tanner."
"May one assume that you are not of the opinion that Mr Sanchez and Mr Dunne were co-conspirators?" Ezra queried.
"No! Well, definitely not Josiah. Hes been complaining all week about the workload hes been landed with, what with you three at that conference and then this." He gestured at his leg. "I suppose JD might have been in on it, but the whole thing stinks of Tanner."
"I agree that it does have that certain redolence. Indeed, I do not believe that you will find one amongst us prepared to argue to the contrary," Ezra opined.
They gathered some tools and set to work on the cast, with a somewhat nervous Buck threatening death or at least serious disfigurement, to anyone cutting him in the process.
After a few minutes, Nathan said, "Buck, Im afraid Ive got more news and this time it definitely isnt good."
"Dont tell me its actually broken after all."
"Nope, but what I see confirms my suspicion that your ah doctor was not a true medical man."
"What do you mean?"
"Its usual to put some kind of stocking or bandaging on the limb before applying the plaster and your attendant has overlooked that little detail."
"So? What does that matter?"
"Very little if you happen to be a Mexican Hairless variety of dog, but in your case " Nathan broke off and looked pointedly at Bucks other rather hirsute leg. "Im sorry, Buck, this is going to hurt."
+ + + + + + +
Meanwhile an unsuspecting JD Dunne and Vin Tanner were riding back to the house, at a leisurely pace, after exercising a couple of Chris horses.
Suddenly Vin pulled his mount to a halt and said, "Spit it out, JD, ya aint hardly said two words all afternoon."
"I think its time you told Buck what you did," JD said, and certainly not for the first time that week.
"Like Is told ya before, JD, I wanta wait til after Chris and the boysve seen him. Theyll be back tomorrow."
"Look, Vin, a jokes a joke, but poor old Buck has had a miserable enough week without having them all laughing at him. Hell, hes hardly been able to walk and hes been going stir crazy just sitting around."
"Nah, hes just mad about missin out on all them dates with his lady friends," Vin observed complacently.
"Well, that hasnt helped things," JD admitted. "Actually the odd thing is that some women saw it as an opportunity to smother him with their affections and turned up at the apartment. That got a bit rough, as several seemed to be under the misapprehension that they were the sole love interest in Bucks life, and we had a few nasty cat fights. Sure he was bored just sitting around the apartment, but I reckon that the main reason he wanted to shift out here was to get away from them all."
"You mean Buck is hidin from the ladies?" Vin asked, his eyes twinkling. "Hell, I never thought Id see the day."
"Yeah, it is rather out of character for him," JD agreed grinning. However, then he sobered and said, "You know it was quite odd really how quickly news of his accident got around. He hadnt dated some of the ladies who turned up for months."
"I just wonder how they could have known. Why iffen I didnt know better Id say someone must have phoned them up and said poor, old Buck was lyin in his sickbed pining for them," Vin said. "The whole thing is such a puzzle."
Pining? JD had heard more than one of the women claim that the ladies man had been pining for her, when disputing anothers right to be visiting him. JDs mouth fell open and he stared at the sharpshooter, as the penny suddenly dropped. "Not any more it isnt. You told them!" he accused, aghast at both Vins audacity and perfidy.
"Me?" Vin questioned, in wide-eyed innocence.
"Dont you flutter your damned eyelashes at me, Vin. I dont trust you as far as Bucks going to throw you when he finds out," Dunne retorted. "You did it!"
"But, JD, for someone to do that, they would need to have Bucks little black book, that he always waves at us when hes boastin of a new conquest, and you know hed never part with it iffen he was conscious," he could not resist adding cheekily, while patting his jacket pocket meaningfully.
JD was outraged. "You had no right to take that!" he exclaimed. "Its got Bucks personal stuff in it."
"Nah, its just names, addresses and numbers. Kinda like the Denver telephone book, but bout twice the size."
"Thats it, Vin! If you dont tell him about the cast the moment we get back, then I will."
"Aw, JD, that aint fair. Dont ya remember what he did to me? Is got a right to some revenge. He shouldntve told Mrs Carstairs Is keen on her, but too shy to say so." He shuddered as he recalled, all too vividly, being cornered in a storeroom by the man-hungry, middle-aged, woman, who stood two inches taller than he did and who had nearly a 60-pound advantage in the tussle that followed. "Hell, I barely escaped with my virtue intact. Iffen Chris hadnt got tired of waitin for the computer paper hed asked me to fetch for him and come lookin for me, I reckon shedve had me for sure," he observed.
That incident had happened just before Chris and the other two left for their conference and he had been trying to think of a suitable revenge for it, when he had suddenly remembered that he had never exacted retribution for the pink cast either.
At the time that he had suffered that injury, Team 7 had been very busy on a particularly stressful case and a tired and irritable Chris Larabee had firmly decreed that he would have the hide off anyone who dared to interrupt the work with foolery. Vin had complied at the time, though not because of his leaders threat, which his natural inclination was to challenge. No, his uncharacteristic acquiescence had been because the frequent, severe headaches, which he suffered for some days after his concussion, made him feel too ill to properly plan a suitable revenge. However, he had resolved that Wilmington would not escape scot-free.
He had been considering what to do, when he had come across a newspaper article about someone attempting to smuggle drugs in a false cast. He wondered if he could fake being injured and use it in some way to trick Wilmington and so he purchased the Plaster of Paris and bandaging, so as to be ready in case inspiration for its employment struck.
Then when Buck so fortuitously passed out from overindulgence in alcohol, he had had his brainwave and decided to use the stuff on him instead. Fortunately, he still had it in his jeep, so once he and JD had safely deposited an unconscious Buck on his bed and the kid had retired to his own room, Vin had slipped downstairs to collect what he needed
The plan was perfect. The false cast was a suitable revenge for the pink monstrosity and the visiting ladies would be a great retribution for sicking Mrs Carstairs onto him.
Unfortunately, JD had not been as impressed with the whole thing as Vin had hoped he would be, when Vin had slipped into his room the next morning to coach him on the details of the supposed accident. Okay, the hangover did not help his sense of humour, but he still expressed his reservations, only going along with the plan when Vin hinted that the joke was to be of short duration. When he later discovered that Tanner considered a week to be a short period of time, it was too late to betray Vin as he had already perjured himself by collaborating the sharpshooters story. However, his periodic instance that the joke had gone on too long had led Vin to decide that it was best that he remained in the dark about stage two of the scheme.
+ + + + + + +
As JD and Vin approached the house, JD said, "Hey, look theres Chris Ram! The guys are back early. Lets just tether the horses and go in to see them."
Vin felt a twinge of unease. Something was not right. "You go on in, JD. Id rather see to the horses first." He wondered whether the medic had seen the rather odd cast and had exposed the fraud.
Nothing loath, JD swung down, tossed the reins to Vin and hastened inside. However, he came to an abrupt halt in the hall, as he heard the sounds coming from the kitchen. His three team mates were busily occupied in trying to remove the last pieces of the cast, and the air was quite blue as Buck vocally expressed his anger and discomfort, not to say pain. JD winced at the profanities flowing from Bucks lips.
Indeed, so furious did his friend sound, that JD nearly backed right out of the house again, but realized that such a move might well suggest a guilty conscience. Okay, he supposed that strictly in the eyes of the law, he was an accessory after the fact as far as the cast was concerned, but he had definitely known nothing about the sharpshooters other activities, so he figured he should have to bear very little of the blame.
Accordingly, he straightened his back and walked resolutely into the kitchen. "Hi, guys, did you have a good trip?" he asked, as nonchalantly as he could, hoping like hell his voice was not shaking.
"JD, did you know about this?" Buck demanded. He was sitting on one chair, with a leg, covered with tiny white chips, extended onto another one.
"No! Well, not exactly not all of it."
"Some of it then! What did you know?"
Normally JD would not have thought of ratting on Vin, but he considered the sharpshooter had gone too far to deserve that consideration and he definitely did not like the glint in Bucks eye that promised a particularly painful demise for the person or persons responsible for his predicament. So, he said, "I didnt know what he was planning. You were out to it when we carried you to your room."
"What exactly happened to me?" Buck asked.
"Those Team 6 idiots were mixing drinks. I tried to get you to stop drinking, but you wouldnt listen. When Vin and I finally managed to get you into his jeep, you passed out. We had a hell of a job carrying you upstairs."
"Like I said, we got you to your room and then I went to bed. The first thing I knew about the cast was when Vin woke me to tell me about it the next day. I wasnt feeling too good so I Well, I didnt find it awfuly funny, but he said it would only be a short time so I went along with him. Then he told me he wasnt going to tell you until the others were back. I kept trying to get him to tell you, but he wouldnt, and I sort of felt I couldnt be a spoilsport and say anything. I wouldve told you if Id known what else he was doing though, as a jokes a joke, but some things are private."
"Things? What things?"
"Your black book."
"What about my book?"
"Thats why all those squabbling women turned up. Vin pinched it and called them. He only told me what hed done a few minutes ago. It seems he suggested to each one that you were lying in your sickbed pining for them and so "
"Im going to kill him," Buck remarked, his conversational tone, actually making the comment more chilling than an angry outburst would have done. "Where is the little bastard?"
"Hes seeing to the horses, but but he did have some um some reasons for what he did," JD felt obliged to say.
"Mrs Carstairs and the pink cast."
Larabee looked at Ezra over Bucks head and they exchanged grins. So much for Bucks claim that boredom had driven him out to the ranch. Buck Wilmington, Ladies Man Extraordinaire, fleeing from a group of women! He was definitely not going to be allowed to forget that. Both could also fully appreciate the aptness of Vins revenge. However, Buck had not deserved the pain that they and Nathan had just had to put him through and so both figured it was only fair that Wilmington sought retribution.
"I think Ill just wait for Mr Tanner to join us," Buck said. He turned to Chris and pointed at his belt. "Do you mind lending that to me for a few minutes, pard?"
Larabee hesitated, but figuring that Buck would be aiming to scare rather than hurt Vin, because Wilmington was actually as kindhearted a man as one could find, handed it over.
Then they all crowded into the living room to keep an eye out for his approach.
Half an hour passed and they had begun to wonder whether Tanner had got the wind up and had taken off, but his jeep was in view and it seemed unlikely that he would use any other vehicle.
In truth, all of Vins instincts were screaming at him to run and he knew they were normally exceptionally reliable. The trouble was Tanners were not cowards. At least, thats what he told himself, while wondering about the validity of the assertion.
He delayed as long as he could, rubbing the horses down and feeding them, but knew he was only putting off the inevitable. He could not hide from Buck forever. In any case, he comforted himself, Wilmington would be handicapped by his cast, so hed never be able to catch him. So, he finally began to walk warily towards the house, his heart thudding in his breast.
However, for all his caution, he could still have fallen into Bucks trap, had not Nathan inadvertently moved a curtain. Realizing that he was under observation, and not trusting his friends one inch, Vin started to back away.
Seeing his prey starting to flee, Buck burst from the house, flourishing the belt and bellowing, "TANNER! IM GOING TO TAKE THE SKIN OFF YOUR SCRAWNYARSE!"
Vin Tanner ran. He was not going to let an enraged Wilmington, clutching a belt, catch him if he could help it. He did not really believe that Buck would use the belt on him, but he was not stupid enough to put that theory to the test. However, it was a bit worrying that Buck was showing a surprising turn of speed for such a big man.
The other five eagerly watched the pursuit from Chris porch. "Ten dollars on Mr Wilmington," Ezra offered.
Nobody bothered to respond. They all knew Standishs preternatural ability to successfully judge the probable outcome of a contest of any sort, and figured calling the outcome of a race would be an easy challenge for him. No, if Ezra was putting money on Buck, then Tanner was clearly doomed.
However, then Vin completed two circuits of the barn at high speed and actually appeared to be pulling ahead. They watched him take a quick glance over his shoulder, and not seeing his pursuer, do a sudden skid turn into the barn.
The ploy might have worked had not his treacherous friends all pointed at the barn entrance as Buck rounded the corner.
The ladies man slowed, tipped an imaginary hat to the group, and grinned. Then he strolled purposefully into the barn.
Tanner was cornered. The watchers all knew there were no ground floor windows to allow his escape. However, they had reckoned without Vins determination.
As Buck disappeared, Vin appeared at the outside opening of the hayloft. He headed for the edge, his intention clear.
"No! Tanner, dont!" Larabee shouted, but it was too late. The foolhardy sharpshooter leapt from the loft, just as Buck, apparently anticipating just such a manoeuvre, reemerged ready to collar him. Unfortunately, Wilmington was exactly on the spot where Vin was attempting to land.
While the others looked on in horror, somehow the agile Vin twisted in the air and thus avoided the disaster that they anticipated. However, in concentrating on avoiding landing on top of Buck, he failed to make his usual surefooted landing. Instead he hit the ground hard. There was an audible cracking sound and Vin yelped in pain, toppling forward onto his hands and knees, where he remained head down.
"Shit, cowboy, what the hell have you done now?" Larabee shouted frantically, rushing to his aid, the others hot on his heels.
Buck was already on his knees, one large, supporting hand on Vins shoulder, as he tried to ascertain the extent of his injuries.
Seeing the familiar black boots and trousers appear in front of him, Vin raised pain filled eyes to Chris face, said "I aint gonna do that again, cowboy", and fainted.
Nathan quickly checked him over and said it was safe to lift him. Buck carefully scooped him up and headed for the house. Vin was already stirring as the ladies man gently placed him on to a bed. "Dont worry, slick," Buck said kindly, "Ive got you."
"H-Hell, th-thats whats worryin me most, Bucklin," Vin managed.
The medic then continued his examination and was soon able to report that justice had been served and the sharpshooter was now the possessor of two broken ankles. "Youll be in bed for a while after this escapade," he pronounced, "and for once youll have no option, but to stay put."
"Thems the breaks, junior," Buck smirked, waving his little black book, which he had retrieved from the sharpshooters pocket, at him, "but dont you worry none. Ill call on Mrs Carstairs for you. Im sure shell be only too glad to offer her nursing services."
"Dont ya dare, Buck! Chris, stop him! Ez! Someone!" Vin appealed desperately.
However, his pleas fell on deaf ears as his chuckling friends followed Buck out of the bedroom.
He was doomed.
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