The hours crawled by. Chris talked to Buck until he was hoarse. I didn't know he could talk that much. A lot of it I couldn't hear but he seemed to be telling stories about their old times together. A couple of times he even smiled, I guess recalling some particularly funny memory.
Buck didn't move. His face didn't change. Chris' voice got panicked and he resorted to ordering Buck to wake up.
Ezra woke up as the sun shifted around to shine in the windows and the room started to warm up. He was feverish and in a lot of pain but he insisted he was well enough to get up. Nathan poured more water and more tea down him in spite of him arguin' about it. In spite of his sayin' he was just fine, Ezra was asleep again in ten minutes.
Chris ordered me to go get somethin' to eat. Not only that, he sent Josiah along to make sure I did. The roast beef sandwich at the hotel tasted like sawdust. I drank three cups of coffee though. I had to stay awake. Josiah didn't say anything while we were eating and I was glad. I just wanted to get back to Buck. No sooner had I shoveled the last mouthful into my mouth than I stood up to leave. Josiah put his hand on my arm. I stared at him, daring him to try to stop me. All he said was, "I got you something."
He held out a dime novel. I took it, flipping it around to see the title. I felt my eyes widen. "I never saw this one," I said.
In spite of everything, Josiah grinned. "Didn't suppose you would have. Not around here anyway. Chris'd make sure about that."
I met his kind eyes with my own. "I don't--"
"Thought you might want to read it to Buck," Josiah interrupted. He grinned again.
"Buck hates these things," I pointed out.
He actually laughed. "I'll bet he does. Especially that one!" At my questioning look, he went on, "He's in it. Toward the end. Who knows? The Lord works in mysterious ways. He might wake up and tell you how wrong it is."
I held the faded newsprint in my hand. "How'd you know? That I... don't know what to say to him? Chris has talked to him all day...and Chris usually don't say anythin' much. But I--"
Josiah reached out to grip my arm. "You'll know what to say when the time comes, John Dunne. Your words will come from your heart, just as Chris' have come from his. I imagine Chris has been saving those words for a long time."
Suddenly I was angry, not with Josiah but with myself. I yanked my arm free. "Yeah well, he's not the one whose words caused this whole mess. If it wasn't for me, Buck wouldn't be--" I couldn't say what I was thinking. "He wouldn't be hurt. Neither would Ezra."
Josiah's eyes sparked. "Young man, right now Buck needs your help, not your guilt," he snapped. "You don't know that Buck wouldn't have been there anyway. Or he could have got hurt in town just as easy. Doesn't make any difference how it happened. We just need to help him find his way back home."
Blackness, thick and dark as velvet, spread across the town. The street fires were tiny spots of light in the overwhelming darkness.
I took another deep breath of fresh air and turned to go back into the clinic, quietly moving past Nathan who was wrapped in a bedroll on the balcony. He finally agreed to a nap about an hour ago. Josiah was out on patrol and Vin was over in Ezra's room above the saloon catching a nap himself.
I stepped inside. Nathan had opened the windows to let some fresh air in but it was still stuffy and too warm from the afternoon sun. Chris looked up from where he sat in a chair between the bed and the cot. His tired eyes narrowed in the yellow light from the lamp. "Thought I told you to get some sleep," he growled. His voice was hoarse from talking to Buck so much during the day.
"Can't sleep," I answered honestly. I dropped into the chair drawn close to the head of the bed and studied Buck closely, hoping, praying, to see some change.
Just at twilight, Buck had started to have some problems breathing. He started panting almost. Scared me to death and Vin too. I knew by the look on Nathan's face it was bad. Vin bolted from the clinic to find Chris. Ezra woke up with all the commotion and watched from the cot with haunted eyes. This went on for about an hour with Nathan hovering over Buck, Chris standin' silent and intense in one corner, and me sure that every breath was goin' to be his last and prayin' harder than I had since my ma died.
God must have been listenin' to me this time. Or maybe He was listening to Josiah. Cause' Buck's breathing evened out. Nathan relaxed some and even left Buck long enough to harass Ezra into takin' more of "that vile substance" as Ez called his tea.
But Buck still didn't wake up. As the hours went on I saw Nathan get more and more worried even though he didn't say anything. Chris finally ran out of things to talk about or maybe he just ran out of energy. Anyway he just sat in the chair staring at Buck like he was daring him to wake up.
So I'd started reading the book Josiah had give me aloud. And pretty quick I realized why Josiah had been laughing. The story was about "that legendary vision in black, Chris Larabee." I read that line and thought Chris was going to choke to death before he had a chance to shoot me. Ten pages later Chris ordered me to give him the book so he could burn it. I explained how Josiah had thought it might make Buck wake up. Chris stopped, real startled like, then seemed to think for a few minutes before a grin actually crossed his face. "Yeah it just might," he said thoughtfully. He nodded for me to go on readin'.
Now I picked up the book again. We were about halfway through it and the bad guys had just kidnapped a friend of the "legendary Chris Larabee's" to force him into a gunfight with the Chief Bad Guy. The writer never explained why Chris Larabee, who at this point had shot at least four people in this book alone, would need what Ezra would call "added inducement" to get into a gunfight.
I turned the page. The friend turned out to be a Texas Ranger name of Buck Wilmington. I blinked and flipped back to the cover. Yeah, the hapless victim did have a mustache like Buck's but other than that didn't look like him at all. For one thing the drawing made "Buck" look like he was all of twelve years old. I might be wrong but I didn't think Buck and Chris had known each other when Buck was twelve.
Besides, since when do they let twelve year olds join the Texas Rangers?
Then it hit me. Texas Rangers?
I looked over at Chris, who was smirking in spite of the situation. "This true?"
Chris rolled his eyes. "You really think Buck would be taken that easy?"
"Well, no," I admitted. So far the Texas Ranger Wilmington hadn't done much but whimper and cry for Larabee to rescue him. I couldn't see Buck doin' either. "But was he a Texas Ranger?"
"When?" I was a little hurt Buck had never told me.
"Long time ago. Before I was the 'legendary vision in black'" Chris snorted.
"You were a Ranger too? 'Zat how you two met?"
"I was a Ranger, yeah, but we met before that." Chris hesitated. "We were in the Army together." He glanced over at Ezra, making sure he was still asleep, I guess. "During the War."
I felt my eyes widen. Buck had never said anythin' about that to me. I started wonderin' if I really knew anything about him.
That was a couple of hours ago. Chris didn't say much more about it. After awhile he leaned back in the chair and seemed to doze off. Ezra rolled over on his side and for a few minutes I thought he was waking up, but then he settled down again.
I closed the book and studied the cover again. "Bet that did piss you off when you read it," I told Buck. "Don't worry, Buck, no one who knows you'd ever believe this story."
I watched his face. "'Course if you don't wake up I guess I'll have to take copies of this book around to all your lady-friends so they can see the 'real' Buck Wilmington." I figured if that didn't wake him up...
I felt the tears sting my eyes again. "Damn it," I swore, wiping them away. "Damn you, Buck, you'd better wake up. I need you to wake up. I need to tell you--"
Tell him what? That I was wrong for yellin' at him like that? That I didn't mean it? Somehow I knew he knew that. But then why did he leave town? Why did he get that look on his face?
Josiah had said the words should come from the heart.
"Buck, I'm sorry," I heard myself blurting out. "I didn't mean what I said. You know that, don't ya? I'm so glad we met. I'm glad you're my best friend...my brother," I finished in a whisper. I curled my fingers around his cold hand. "I don't know why I said that stuff. It's just...sometimes I feel like...all you guys see is a kid. I get mad, but I didn't mean it. You have to know that I didn't mean it."
I whirled around at that soft southern voice. Ezra was watching me from his cot. I could feel my face getting red. "Didn't know you were awake."
"My apologies, Mr. Dunne. I didn't mean to eavesdrop on a private conversation."
I shrugged, looking down on Buck's hand tightly clasped in my own. Then I realized what Ezra had said. "What do you mean, 'he knows'?"
Ezra shifted and winced painfully. "I mean exactly what I said. Mr. Wilmington knows how you feel about him. I hazard a guess we all know how you feel about him."
"Then why did he leave?" I burst out.
Ezra's eyes drifted to Chris' sleeping form. He frowned. "I would imagine your impassioned commentary roused some demons that Mr. Wilmington was unready to face."
Shoot. What is it with everybody these days? Chris and Josiah and now Ezra. All of them talkin' in riddles. Can't anybody just spit out what they're thinkin'? I did. I felt that sick feelin' in my stomach again. Yeah, I did. And that's how all this happened.
Ezra got quiet again and when I looked back he was asleep. Well, he looked like he was asleep anyway. Chris hadn't moved during the whole conversation.
Neither had Buck.
I looked at him again and suddenly I was mad. Madder than I'd been in the saloon. Madder than I'd ever been at anybody. "You big dumb..." I couldn't think of a word bad enough. "Cowboy!" I finally exploded. Well, if Chris hated it maybe Buck did too. "If you don't wake up so I can tell you I'm sorry, I'll...I'll...make you wear my hat at your funeral!"
I slammed my mouth shut. I couldn't believe I'd even thought about his funeral, much less threatened him about it. "Buck--"
"Boy, kid...you're right nasty when...you get riled."
My head jerked up at the sound of his voice. "Buck?" I whispered.
"First you read me...that...piece of shit. Then you threaten to hand it all over...town...now you're gonna...make me face my Maker in...that hat?" His eyes fluttered, then slowly opened.
"Buck!" I yelled.
Chris jerked awake. "What's wrong?" He made a flying leap over to the bed. I'm not kidding, he looked like a squirrel. He saw Buck's eyes open and seemed to just melt, dropping down to sit heavily on the bed. He put his hand on Buck's shoulder. "You bastard," he muttered fondly.
Buck just grinned sleepily. "Didn't mean to scare you." His eyes never left mine.
I could hardly talk, I was so relieved to see his eyes open and see that stupid grin and hear his voice. "You didn't scare me," I denied. I leaned closer. "You kinda worried Chris, though," I said, quiet-like like I was telling him a big secret. Anyone looking at Chris could tell he'd been worried.
Heck, I'm pretty sure I wasn't foolin' anybody, either.
The door opened and Nathan stumbled in, rubbing his eyes. "Everything okay in here? I thought I heard..." He got to the bed and saw Buck was awake. "Buck?" All of a sudden he was back in healer-mode, feeling for Buck's pulse and listening to his breathing and looking in his eyes. I knew the danger was over even before I saw the relieved grin appear on Nathan's face. "About damn time you woke up," he scolded softly.
I gripped Buck's hand tighter and sat down on the edge of the bed. For some reason I felt really tired all of a sudden. But a good tired.
Buck was going to be okay.
I had my big brother back.
Late the next evening:
When Nathan came back after getting something to eat he shooed me out of the clinic, mutterin' about how he had enough problems on his hands with Buck and Ezra down, he sure didn't need me collapsing underfoot too. He'd let Ezra go with Vin to get a hot meal. Ez had dutifully returned to the clinic (although I think it was more cause he was worried about Buck than for fear of Nathan). He was curled on the cot in the corner, pretending to be sleepin'. I know he was playing possum though cause he kind of snorted when Nathan said that and he opened his eyes and winked at me.
I took one last look at Buck. He'd been sleepin' peacefully for a couple of hours. His face was turned away from me, hidin' that huge ugly wound, and I was glad I couldn't see it. The memory of what it looked like when Nathan had finally got all the blood sponged away and the light hit it would haunt my dreams for a long while to come.
I wanted to stay in the clinic. I tried arguing with Nathan but it didn't work. Didn't help any that I couldn't stop yawnin'. Nathan seemed sure that Buck would sleep through the night so I figured I might as well do the same.
On the way back to the boarding house though, I took a detour.
Chris was in the saloon, sittin' alone at a table with a glass and a bottle in front of him. The bottle was almost full. I hesitated, then grabbed a clean glass off the bar and slid into the seat across from him. Chris looked over at me, then grinned a little and poured me a shot. I nodded my thanks.
"I need to ask you somethin'." I took a sip of the whiskey, to give me courage I guess, and tried not to wince. God that stuff is terrible.
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Yeah?"
"You may think it ain't none of my business." I felt my face grow hot. "Okay, it probably ain't none of my business, but I'd really like to know."
Chris didn't say anything, just sipped his drink and eyed me steadily. I'd just as soon have faced every desperado we've gone up against than faced down this man. But I needed to know.
"You said...you were afraid--" Chris' green eyes flared and I quickly substituted "You thought Buck might have left for good, after what I--what I said."
"JD," Chris started, looking kind of guilty
I held up a hand to stop whatever he was going to say. "Let me finish, okay? This is important to me." I took a deep breath. "Did Buck ever leave you?"
There was silence between us while I tried to figure out if I could dodge under the table faster than Chris could draw and shoot. But the silence lasted so long I stopped worrying about Chris killin' me and just figured he wasn't going to say anything.
Chris finally sighed. He stared down at his glass, not drinkin, just turning it around and around on the table. "You mean, did I ever drive him away?" His voice was quiet and calm and just a little sad.
Make that a lot sad.
I stammered 'cause, truth to tell, that was what I was askin', of course.
I looked up. Chris' eyes met mine, clear and green and sincere. He smiled a little at my face. "You thought I was gonna say yes, didn't you, kid?"
I started to say somethin'--I really don't know what--but he was looking down at the amber liquid in his glass again and when he spoke his voice was real far away. "There were a lot of times if he'd any brains he would have got away from me. And I might even have thought he did. But lookin' back now, Buck never really left. He might have backed off--gone somewhere else for awhile--given me some rope--but he was always around somewhere, ready to pull on that rope before I could use it to hang myself."
"But," I started. What he said sounded right, but-- "Buck said when the two of you met up here he hadn't seen you for a long time--"
Chris almost laughed. "Three months."
"And he didn't know you was here--"
"He said that, huh?" No question, Chris was laughing. He drained his glass and stood up, signaling that our talk--such as it was--was over. "JD, I'm willin' to bet Buck always knew where I was. And I know where he was. Same place he is now."
Chris just grinned that half-smile of his and reached over and knocked my hat onto the floor. Just like Buck would have done. Then he turned and walked out of the saloon.
I just stared after him. What did that mean?
I took a last gulp of my drink.
God, that stuff really is terrible.
I shifted around in the rocking chair. It was actually Ezra's chair but he had volunteered to leave it in Buck's room during "Mr. Wilmington's extended period of recuperation." With a pillow in the seat it was a heck of a lot more comfortable than a straight chair.
"JD, you don't have ta baby-sit me, ya know," Buck said, leaning back in the bed with difficulty. His two broken ribs were high up, near the back. I had a cracked rib once. Hurt like a son of a gun. Buck didn't complain even though I noticed he was real careful not to breathe deep. The white bandage covered the jagged wound on his head, but blue, black and purple bruises shaded the whole left side of his face.
"I'm not babysittin'," I pointed out. "Just enjoyin' your company. You mind?"
It was Buck's first night back in his own room--Nathan had finally given up trying to keep him in the clinic. But the healer was determined Buck wasn't up to "socializing with his various paramours" as Ezra had put it. So yeah, I was babysittin'. But truth be told, I was enjoyin' being with him. There'd been too many hours there when I was scared I'd never get the chance to talk to him again.
But I didn't know how to tell Buck that. We had a lot we needed to talk about, me and him, but I just didn't know how to start.
"You look like a man with a powerful lot on his mind," Buck said suddenly.
Startled, I looked up to meet his eyes. They were warm and accepting. I couldn't hold the gaze for long.
"I was just wonderin'," I stalled, looking around the room.
Buck let out a deep sigh, then winced and shifted uncomfortably. I opened my mouth but before I could say anything, he did. "JD, I'm sorry."
My mouth slammed shut. He's sorry?
Buck looked at me with a hopeful expression on his face. I was still too stunned to say anything. He looked away. "The other night, in the saloon...hell, you were right, Kid--JD. I shouldn't've been raggin' you about the beer--"
"Buck!" I had to interrupt cause this just wasn't right, damn it. Buck wasn't the one who should be apologizing.
Buck just went on as if I hadn't said anything at all. "You're a man, Ki--JD. A man shouldn't have to account to another man for his doings."
He was trying so hard not to say "Kid".
"Buck!" I practically shouted this time. "Just shut up!"
Buck's eyes widened.
Okay, well, that was one way of getting a word in edgewise.
"You don't need to apologize," I said, more quietly now. "You were just being...you." Suddenly I remembered what Chris had said that night in the saloon and almost unconsciously I repeated it. "Can't fault a man for being what he is."
Buck kind of chuckled, then grabbed his ribs. "And when it comes to you I'm a mother hen, JD. I know that."
"It's not just you," I heard myself saying. "It's Chris, Vin...all of you guys. You think I'm a kid." I felt my face getting hot. "Can't blame you when I act like I did in the saloon, blowing up like that." I met his eyes with my own finally. "I'm the one who's sorry, Buck. I don't ever want you out of my life. You're my best friend...my big brother."
Buck was looking more and more uncomfortable. He really hates sentimental moments I think, less'n it's a pretty lady he's getting' sentimental with.
"Can you forgive me?"
"Oh, hell, Kid, there's nothing to forgive," Buck said roughly. He didn't seem to realize he'd said "Kid" and I very carefully kept my smile from showing. Funny how that word wasn't bothering me anymore.
"Nothing to forgive!" I retorted, waving my hand at his body stretched out in the bed. "You call this nothing'?"
"JD," Buck sighed patiently. "What happened in Devil's Finger wasn't your fault. I knew better than to go out there this time of year with all the rain hereabouts anyway."
"So why did you?" I asked. "Were you that mad at me?"
Buck traced a patch on the quilt with one finger. "Wasn't mad at you at all," he finally said, refusing to look up. "I knew you didn't mean it. Leastways I hoped you didn't mean it. I just needed...sometimes a man just needs space to think. In a way I'm kinda like Vin, I guess. I do my best thinkin' out under the stars." He finally looked at me. "JD...when I--when any of us--call you Kid, it's not meant as a put-down. It's just..." he sighed again, looking frustrated that he couldn't think of the words. "You're--oh, hell, you're going to hate this--but there's something innocent about you--"
"Innocent!" I exploded.
He grinned shakily. "Said you'd hate it. Just shut up and let me finish, okay? There's something pure and...good...about you. Something the rest of us have lost somewhere. I just don't want you to lose it too soon. That's all I meant."
I shook my head. I didn't understand what he was saying. Innocent? Me? Heck I've killed people. Pure and good?
Maybe that knock he'd took to his head had scrambled his brains more'n Nathan thought.
Looking at him, I knew the conversation was over for now. Buck obviously didn't want to say any more, and he was hurtin', I could tell. I let it drop. He's not mad at me for what I said in the saloon. That's what's important. We can talk about the rest of it some other day. Maybe I'll even tell him I don't mind being called "Kid" so much.
On the other hand, maybe I won't.
There was a knock on the door and Chris stuck his head in. "You two doing okay?" He looked at Buck and hastily added, "I was just passin' by."
Yeah. Right. Chris has just happened to pass by three or four times since we brought Buck back from Nathan's. He's not fooling Buck or me.
He'd brought Buck's medicine from Nathan with him. Nathan was out at the Sumner place, Mr. Sumner had gotten gored again by one of those Texas Longhorns of his. Buck drank the stuff down with no objection and only a little curling of the lips. He must have been hurtin' bad. He doesn't put up the fuss Ezra does but he usually manages to say something about how bad that tea tastes.
Chris stayed a few more minutes and helped me get Buck situated more comfortably in the bed. Then he left, giving me a slight grin. He and I both knew he was gonna come by when Buck was asleep and sit with him; he and Nathan had already ordered me to get a good night's sleep "for a change". Buck'll be pissed about the "baby-sittin'" but by the time he wakes up and figures it out tomorrow mornin' it'll be too late for him to do anything.
You're not the only mother hen around here, Buck.
Thinking of Chris made me remember something. I looked over at Buck's dresser, at the little drawer underneath the mirror. "Hey, Buck?"
"When you was missin' that morning...before Ezra got you back into town, we came in here--" I stumbled to a stop, realizing I was telling Buck we'd broke into his room. Well, not really broke in since Chris had a key, but I didn't know how Buck would feel about what we'd done.
Didn't seem to bother him, actually. "Yeah, Chris told me. So?"
"Chris opened that drawer, over there," I pointed. "He just took one quick look, and it was like whatever he saw in there, he knew you were coming back. That you hadn't meant to leave for good."
Buck was studyin' me with those dark blue eyes that usually seem so carefree but can see all the way to my soul. "Did you think I'd left for good?"
"No," I denied. "I mean, not until he...not until I realized he thought you..." I trailed off, feeling my cheeks burn. God, I wish I had just kept my mouth shut. I looked down at the quilt and absently traced one of the patches with my finger.
I looked up. Buck was smiling gently. "Go look in the drawer."
"You mean it?"
"It's no secret, Kid. Go look."
I probably should have protested, that would have been the "gentlemanly" thing to do. But hell, I ain't no gentleman and neither is Buck, for that matter. I got up from the rocker and scrambled over to the dresser.
There was only one thing in the drawer: a small wooden box about ten inches square, with a tarnished brass lock and hinges. I didn't touch it, just looked over at Buck. "What is it?" I asked. "Chris didn't open it or anything--"
"He didn't have to." Buck interrupted. He grinned. "He knows I'd never leave that box behind...not if'n I had a choice. He and Sarah--and Adam--" his face shadowed for a minute as he said the names--"gave it to me. I'd just had an old cardboard box before. It was fallin' apart, had ta wrap string around it to keep it together."
I frowned. "Is there anythin' in it?"
He grinned again, sleepily. Nathan's tea must be takin' effect. "Oh, yeah."
"What?" Okay, I was being nosy.
Buck was quiet for a long minute, then he sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "Pebbles," he said finally.
"Pebbles. You mean like rocks?"
He shook his head. "No, not like rocks. Pebbles."
And suddenly I knew what he was talking about. Josiah had been talkin' one night, out on the trail, telling one of his parables. This one had been about a man who as he walked through life picked up pebbles to remind him of where he'd been, the things he'd done, the mistakes he didn't want to make again. He put the pebbles in his pockets. One day the man got caught in a flash flood and instead of drownin' him because of the weight in his pockets, the pebbles helped anchor him to the bank and kept him from being swept away.
As Josiah's stories went it wasn't one of his best. I remember Vin frowning like he was trying to figure out how the man kept from drowning, and Ezra just rolled his eyes, but not where Josiah could see. I remember though, that Buck looked kind of thoughtful, and that Chris had looked at him and smiled.
"You got some pebbles yet, JD?" Buck asked.
I thought of my ma's Bible and her locket. And then I looked at him, at my self-appointed big brother and guardian angel.
And I nodded. "Yeah Buck, I think I do."
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