A Friend Indeed?

Beth Green

Part 3
Buck hurried to the clinic, needing to see for himself that JD was going to be all right. He was slightly out of breath, having run full tilt the whole way. He saw JD lying motionless on the cot when he walked into the room. The kid’s eyes were closed and he didn’t so much as twitch to acknowledge Buck’s presence. Buck’s brow furrowed in concern. He asked Nathan, "How is he?"

Nathan responded, "I think he’s gonna be okay."

JD was awake but found that he was more comfortable if he didn’t move around too much or open his eyes to the harsh glare of the room’s light. It was an effort to move but he resented the fact that he was being talked over like he wasn’t even in the room. He managed to push himself upright, preparing to let his visitors know that he was just fine, thank you very much. Before he could get the words out, his body strenuously objected. The throbbing behind his eyes increased tenfold; he lost what little color he had; his vision blurred; his gut churned and his lunch decided to pay him a return visit.

Fortunately Nathan had been anticipating something of the sort. He held a basin steady in one hand, the other firm against JD’s back as the young man heaved up the contents of his stomach.

As soon as the smell hit him, Josiah pointed to the door, saying, "I think I’d better wait outside." Chris and Vin hastily joined him.

When JD was finally finished, Nathan gave him some water to rinse his mouth out and a cool cloth to wipe his face. The healer gently scolded, "I did warn you against making any sudden-like moves now, didn’t I?"

JD sat slumped against the wall, his eyes closed as he acknowledged, "Yes, Nathan, you did."

The healer verbalized his concern. "I think you ought to stay here for a bit, where I can keep an eye on you."

JD denied his need for a babysitter. "No way; I’ll rest better in my own room, I swear."

Suspecting Buck wouldn’t let it go at that, Nathan blandly agreed. "Suit yourself."

As Nathan suspected he would, Buck started in on the kid. "Now, JD, if Nathan says you oughtta stay here, you should listen to the man. He’s had a lot of experience with this sorta thing."

JD tried his best to ignore the headache that was threatening to pound its way through his skull. He looked hopefully at Buck. "If Nathan thinks I shouldn’t be alone, maybe you could stay with me in my room for a bit?" JD had an ulterior motive behind his request. If Buck was present, that would assure Cephus’ absence.

Buck quickly agreed to JD’s request. By this time, the others had entered the room. Nathan shared his prescription for JD with them. "He needs to take it easy for the next couple of days. No riding until his headache’s gone and he’s able to go at least twenty-four hours with no double vision."

JD rose to leave, moving much slower than he had when he first got up.

As JD and Buck headed out, Chris put out an arm to stop Buck. "Buck, I need to talk to you a minute."

JD did not want to spend any more time in the clinic if he didn’t have to. He stated, "I’ll wait for you outside." Vin accompanied JD out the door, so Buck didn’t have to worry about someone keeping an eye on the kid.

Buck asked, "What’s up?"

Getting straight to the point, Chris said, "I gotta let Cephus out of jail."

Buck angrily shook his head in denial. His eyes narrowed, his hands clenched into fists, and his voice was deadly quiet as he declared, "You gotta do no such thing. That man shot JD!"

Chris stated, "He said it was an accident. Knowin’ that boy, I reckon he’s telling the truth."

Still not satisfied, Buck asked, "And what does JD say happened?"

"He doesn’t remember a thing about it. Nathan says that with a head injury, most likely he’s not gonna remember." He continued, "You can’t keep a man in jail just because you don’t like him."

Buck angrily agreed. "Fine. I’ll go let him outta jail. Then I’ll put the fear of God into him, and escort his sorry ass outta town."

Chris grabbed Buck’s arm and held on as the angry man attempted to shake off his grip. His body language spoke of the seriousness of his orders. He forced Buck to look him straight in the eye as he said, "You ain’t goin’ anywhere near that jail, or Cephus. I’ll handle this." He let go as Buck turned away from him, his friend’s back stiff with resentment. Still unsure as to what Buck intended to do, he added, "You hear me?"

Buck voice was low and intense. Keeping his back to Chris, he stated, "Yeah, I hear you." He took a step or two, then turned to face Chris one last time. "Do me a favor? Tell him the next time I see his face, I’m gonna put a bullet in him. That’s not a threat; it’s a promise."

Chris gave a nod of his head and the two men parted company without another word being said. During the walk over to the jail, Chris thought a bit on what Buck had said. He knew that Buck meant what he said when he said it, but he didn’t think that Buck would actually carry out his threat. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to pass Buck’s sentiments on to young Mr. Abercrombie.

Ezra was on alert when Chris walked into the jail. Chris waved a hand at Ezra, saying simply, "Keys." A moment later, the requested item was in his outstretched hand. He then pointed toward the door, ordering Ezra "Out." Ezra wasted no time in vacating the premises.

Cephus sat slumped in the cell, the picture of despair. Chris allowed all of the anger and contempt he felt for the boy rise to the surface. He ruthlessly buried any feelings of pity. He stood menacingly assuming the classic gunfighter’s stance. "Cephus Abercrombie. I’m the law in this town. And you just shot one of my fellow peacekeepers. I’m giving you one warning, and one warning only: leave this town, or I won’t be responsible for the consequences."

Cephus jumped to his feet, sputtering, "It was an accident! You know that! I would never hurt JD. Never! He’s like a brother to me."

"Funny thing about accidents. There sure seem to be a lot of ‘em when you’re around. Wouldn’t be surprised if the next accident happens to you." Chris didn’t bother to say another word. He figured his threat was explicit enough. He proceeded to unlock the door, and stood back away from the now open cell.

Cephus nervously remained where he was. Chris encouraged him, "Ain’t you gonna leave?"

"Why, so you can shoot me for being an escaped prisoner?"

Chris gave a dry, humorless chuckle. "Now, would I do something like that?" The fact that Cephus stayed in the cell answered Chris’ question. The lawman gave a slight smile as he left, stating, "I guess you got my message." He remained outside, watching from the shadows. He was quite pleased when the kid saddled up and rode out of town.

His pleasure lasted right up until Vin came in from riding patrol next morning. The tracker reported. "Cephus left town, all right. He’s set up camp just beyond the last building. I stopped to talk to him a bit. Asked him what he thought he was doing. He said he’d been told to leave town, so he’d left. Also said he was worried about JD, so he planned to stick around."

Chris’ "Oh, hell," summed up all of the peacekeepers’ sentiments.

It didn’t take long for Cephus to make his presence known to JD.

Buck had been keeping watch, waiting patiently all morning for JD to wake up. Finally, near noon, his stomach got the better of him. He thought to himself, "The way the kid’s been sleeping, I can be gone and back before he ever opens his eyes." His stomach growled again, reassuring him of the rightness of his decision.

JD woke up shortly after Buck left. He felt like hell. His eyes kept insisting that there was two of everything. The double vision made his constant headache all the more severe. His stomach was rumbling. Seeing as JD hadn’t eaten anything since he’d thrown up yesterday, it was not surprising. He decided to take care of his empty stomach, and followed unknowingly in Buck’s footsteps.

Unlike Buck, JD’s nausea returned full force when he found Cephus waiting outside for him. Cephus’s eyes were wide and panicked. He spoke so fast JD could barely follow all that he was saying. "JD, thank God you’re all right! You can’t stick around here. You’re only going to get hurt, maybe even killed. Now’s your chance, while Buck’s away. Get your gear. I can get your horse ready while you’re packing."

JD stood, open-mouthed and aghast at Cephus’ rambling monologue. He said the first thing that came to mind. "Are you crazy? The only one I’m in any danger from is you. I’ve tried to be patient, I really have, but getting shot kind of gives a man reason to reconsider. I don’t want or need a friend like you."

It was Cephus’ turn to stand, shocked. He grabbed onto JD’s arm, trying to pull him along down the street. "You don’t have to listen to them JD, you’re stronger than they are. If you leave, you can be safe."

Their two-man tug of war was interrupted by the arrival of Buck Wilmington. Buck saw JD struggling to free himself from Cephus’ determined grasp. Enraged, Buck grabbed Cephus, easily pulling him away from JD. His follow through motion tossed Cephus to the ground. Before the boy could react, Buck was squatting next to him, gun out and pointed at his face. "I guess you didn’t get my message. Fine. I’ll deliver it personally. The next time I see you hangin’ around JD, I’m gonna share a little biblical justice with you: an eye for an eye. You shot JD, and I aim to shoot you." He kicked at Cephus, who ducked out of the way. "It’s the only warning I’m givin’ you. You’d better consider it pretty damn seriously."

Buck went to JD’s side. "Let’s get out of here."

As they turned to leave, JD spoke to Cephus the last two words he was hoping he’d have to say to the boy. "Cephus, go home."

JD had used up what little energy he had after that awful scene with Cephus. He laid down for a nap, and didn’t get up again until dinner time. He was quietly subdued as he shared a meal with Buck. "I was pretty harsh with Cephus."

Buck hastened to reassure him. "You only did what needed to be done. Sometimes a stray dog can’t figure out he ain’t wanted, once you’ve made the mistake of showin’ a kindness to him. It takes him gettin’ hit with a few rocks before the message gets through to him. You just gotta be careful the dog don’t turn and bite you on his way out of town."

JD sighed. "It’s just that he’s so alone." He looked at Buck, his eyes shining with his own remembered pain. "I know how that feels, when you got nothing and nobody. It wasn’t so long ago that could ‘a been me."

Buck reached across the table, placing his own hand over JD’s. "That never would ‘a been you. That Cephus, there’s somethin’ ain’t right about that boy."

JD nodded in agreement. "I know it." After a pause, he continued. "That don’t stop me from caring about him or worrying about him."

Buck gave a half smile as he replied, "Just shows you’re a better man than I am."

JD gave a full out grin in return. "Well, it’s nice to hear you finally admit it." With that little exchange, the tensions eased for both JD and Buck, and the rest of the evening passed with their usual joking camaraderie.

+ + + + + + +

The next few days passed comfortably Cephus-free. Both Buck and JD were relieved that the boy seemed to have finally gotten their message. Their fellow peacekeepers reported that he was still hanging around, but took off like a scared rabbit whenever anyone made eye contact.

The one dark spot to JD’s days was his slow recovery from his head injury. His double vision came and went. His headache, although not as bad as it had been initially, refused to go away. After three days of confinement, JD was getting a serious case of cabin fever. He was well enough that Buck no longer hovered constantly. Therefore, bright and early one morning, while Buck was entertaining one of his lady friends, JD saw his opportunity to make a break for it, and took it. He hurried from building to building, trying to keep himself concealed by the overhangs and shadows. Finally, he reached his goal: the livery stable.

What he did not know was that Vin had been out on the roof, as was his wont from time to time. He had seen JD sneaking around and thought it deserving of his attention. When he saw JD enter the livery at the other end of town, he decided to share what he had seen with Buck, who was just exiting the building next door. He eased himself to the edge of the porch roof and jumped down, landing in front of Buck.

Buck startled at Vin’s sudden appearance, but nevertheless tried to pretend he hadn’t jumped damn near a foot in surprise. He casually greeted his friend. "Hey, Vin. What’s up?"

Vin grinned. "Not me. Leastways, not right this minute."

Buck gave an appreciative chuckle as he waved his eyebrows suggestively. "Yeah, I know what you mean. I already been up a while myself this morning."

Rather than continue their verbal exchange before it descended any lower, Vin got to the subject which had caused him to drop in so unexpectedly. "I’m glad to see JD’s doing better."

"How’s that?"

"Just saw him over at the livery. Didn’t know he was well enough to ride."

Buck’s eyes narrowed, his words sharp, his upset obvious as he stated, "He’s not." Buck pushed past Vin, heading off to shake some sense into his mule-headed friend.

Vin reclined against the side of the building, happy to have done his part to keep JD out of trouble. As he watched Buck angrily stride away, he amended that thought. He’d gotten JD out of one kind of trouble, but he’d be in trouble of another sort when Buck caught up with him.

+ + + + + + +

JD had his back to the door when Buck walked into the livery, and didn’t see him enter. JD was in the process of saddling his mount. Buck stood back, waiting until he’d finished. He was pleased to see JD startle, his guilt evident, when Buck abruptly asked, "Where do you think you’re going?"

JD turned around, stammering, "Ah, well, you see. . ." His nervousness ebbed as his frustration grew. "Aw, hell, Buck, I been goin’ crazy these past few days, hangin’ around town. I gotta get out, even if it’s only for an hour or so."

Buck was unmoved. "If you gotta get out, I’ll borrow us a wagon, and we’ll go out together."

JD indignantly echoed, "A wagon? I don’t think so. Geez, Buck, you ain’t my keeper."

"No, but it sure seems like you need one."

JD was not ready to give up. "I’m old enough to be mindin’ my own business, and I’d appreciate it if you’d do the same."

Buck smiled. "Mindin’ you is my business."

JD turned back to his horse, saying, "No, it ain’t." He grabbed at the pommel of his saddle, preparing to mount. He suddenly found himself swept off his feet. Buck had decided to quit trying to argue with words. Instead, he simply grabbed JD and slung him over his shoulder, as easily and casually as if he were a sack of grain.

JD kicked and wiggled, ineffectively trying to free himself from Buck’s grasp as he was carried off. "Put me down! I’m serious! This isn’t funny!"

Buck continued to walk, unimpressed. His forward progress was halted by the unwelcome appearance of Cephus in his path. The boy looked half mad. What was even worse was the gun he had pointed at Buck. Before Buck could even begin to react, he felt a hot, sharp pain in his side. He had enough time to think, "I’ve been shot!" before his vision grayed, and his legs could no longer hold him up. Both he and JD fell to the ground in a tumble of twisted arms and legs.

JD had been carried feet first, so he had no idea what had happened. One minute Buck was carrying him. The next minute, he heard a shot and they both went down. He quickly untangled himself, turning to face their attacker. When he saw that it was Cephus, it made no difference in his response. His gun was in his hand, firing before Cephus could get the chance to cause any further harm. Despite the desperate circumstances, JD’s aim was true.

The gun went flying as Cephus cried out in pain. He wrapped his left hand around his bloody right hand, tears beginning to fall as he cried out, "Why’d you shoot me? I saved you!"

JD, horrified, replied, "You goddamn stupid idiot! You didn’t ‘save’ anybody. You just shot my best friend!"

Cephus was babbling, "He was hurting you. I know, I saw. I saved you. It’s not too late. You can still come with me. We can get away. We’re safe now."

Vin had come running at the first shot. He arrived at the end of Cephus’ bizarre speech. He took in the situation at a glance. Buck lay still, blood pooling around his body. JD crouched protectively over him, not giving Cephus a clear target despite his lack of a weapon. Vin picked up Cephus’ discarded gun, then was on the move, saying, "I’ll get Nathan."

Part 4

It was a silent and anxious procession that carried Buck to Nathan’s clinic. Vin and Nathan did the carrying, while JD and Chris cleared the way. Ezra and Josiah stayed with their prisoner, as they were deemed least likely to kill the bastard. Not that they weren’t both tempted. At least, with two of them standing guard, there was a greater likelihood of the boy living long enough to stand trial.

JD had worried at Buck’s lack of reaction. Although his eyes were half open, he seemed unaware of what was going on around him. JD was actually encouraged when Buck moaned with pain as he was transferred onto the clinic’s cot. At least he was still alive. God, there was so much blood. JD stood back, wringing his hands in agitation, as Nathan set to work.

Nathan probed at the wound, muttering, "I’ve got to get this bleeding stopped." Nathan hissed as he determined the path of the bullet. "Damn! It may have nicked his bowel. If it did. . . Well, that ain’t good." Nathan had been working a while before he spoke again. "I gotta get this wound as clean as I can. I need y’all to help hold him down, ‘cuz this is gonna hurt like a sonuvabitch." Chris leaned across Buck’s upper body, while Vin held down his legs. At the first touch of the carbolic, Buck’s body spasmed in agony. His groan resonated within JD, hurting deep down to his very soul. Buck continued to moan until mercifully, blessedly, he passed out. No one moved for a minute until they all saw Buck take a shuddering breath, and the next, and so on.

Nathan’s voice was grim as he stated, "At least it’ll make my job a little easier." Finally, after what seemed like forever, he sat back. "I’ve done all I can." He inclined his head toward Buck’s insensate form. "The rest is up to him."

Thus began JD’s long vigil. He was perversely glad of the headache which, at its worst, throbbed with every beat of his heart. He felt that the pain was the least of what he deserved. This was all his fault. If only he’d been stricter with Cephus, maybe he could’ve gotten the gun away right after he’d bought the damn thing. Or, if JD hadn’t tried to befriend the kid, maybe he would have left town. Or, if JD hadn’t been acting like a child in disobeying Nathan’s orders, then Buck wouldn’t have ended up treating him like a child and carrying him out of the livery, and Buck wouldn’t have been shot in Cephus’ addle-brained effort at protection.

Despite the thoughts swirling around in his head, JD managed to fall asleep sometime during the night. He awoke uncomfortably sprawled half in and half out of his chair. JD had slumped forward, his head resting at the foot of Buck’s bed. Someone had thrown a blanket over his shoulders while he’d slept. He could see the sun just beginning its morning trek across the room. He felt the bed shift and realized that Buck was waking up. JD quickly moved to the head of the bed. He grasped Buck’s cool hand in his own warm one. He gave it a gentle squeeze, calling out, "Buck?"

Buck’s eyelids fluttered once, twice, before he looked at JD. JD rejoiced at the recognition in his face. "Hey, Buck, how you feelin’?"

Buck frowned, then replied, his voice a pale imitation of his usual self. "Like I been shot."

JD gave a nervous snort of laughter. "Well, I guess that answers my next question. You remember what happened."

It took a minute to get the words out before Buck mumbled, "Yeah, I do." Buck felt weak as a newborn calf. His right side hurt like hell. But, he was not about to admit it in front of JD. He felt the bulky bandage which had been placed over his wound. He immediately realized that was a bad idea when the increased pain caused by his action brought tears to his eyes. He took a second to blink them away. Buck began to drift back to sleep when a thought suddenly occurred to him. Forcing his eyes back open, he asked, "Cephus. He dead?"

JD paused before answering, hoping Buck would forget the question. When Buck prodded, "Well?" JD responded, "No, Buck, he’s not."

Buck winced, then replied, "I was afraid you were gonna say that."

JD hastened to add, "But he is in jail. He got hauled off right after I shot his gun out of his hand."

Buck surrendered to the darkness which was tugging at him. He managed to whisper, "Good," before he drifted off. Whether or not he was asleep or unconscious, JD did not want to think on.

A little bit later, when Nathan woke up, JD reported that Buck had been awake and aware. Nathan thanked him for the update and proceeded to examine Buck. Aside from slight moaning and twitching as he was probed and prodded, Buck slept through Nathan’s ministrations. JD waited anxiously for Nathan’s verdict. He asked, "Buck gonna be okay?"

Nathan reported, "He’s doing good so far." Before JD could get to feeling too relieved, he added, "But he’s not out of the woods yet. We need to see how he does over the next day or so, and pray that infection doesn’t set in."

JD’s prayers went unanswered. Before two days had passed, Buck began to run a fever. His periods of wakefulness became fewer and farther in between. When he was awake, he was often confused. His ramblings often took the form of nightmares. Sometimes he called out for JD; other times, for Sarah and Adam, or Chris. Chris happened to be present for one of the worst of these episodes.

Buck was lost. He was blinded by thick, black smoke. He could hear flames crackling around him. He could feel the heat of the fire as it blistered his skin. The pain in his body was nothing compared to the pain in his soul when he heard the voices. "Buck, help us!" "Uncle Buck, help me, Uncle Buck!"

He could hear them, somewhere ahead in the darkness: Sarah and Adam. His heart beat faster with fear. He had to find them! He called out to them. "Sarah! Adam!" Their cries became more frantic, which spurred Buck’s efforts to break through the blackness surrounding him. Through sheer force of will, he made his way to within a few feet of where they were. He saw a light, and then a break in the omnipresent darkness. He could see Sarah and Adam, huddled in terror. They were surrounded on all sides by flames. Buck’s horror was absolute as he saw the flames creep nearer. He tried, oh lord, how he tried to get to them. There was some sort of barrier stopping him from getting any closer. No matter what he did, he could not reach them. As he saw them, they saw him. "Buck! Buck, help us! Save us!" He threw himself bodily against the unyielding barrier, again and again, to no effect. Instead, he was forced to listen to their dying screams, to watch as the flames consumed them in their suffering, and prayed to die along with them.

Chris had been sitting with Buck, to give JD a break. He watched Buck as the nightmare took hold. He began to thrash from side to side, calling, "Sarah! Adam!" Chris easily restrained him. He could feel the heat radiating from his friend’s body as he held him down. He tried to get through to Buck, telling him, "It’s okay, they’re okay, shh." Buck did not seem to hear him. His cries grew more anxious, more panicked, as he called out for Chris’ dead wife and son. Buck gave one last cry of, "Sarah! Adam!" before he let out a gut-wrenching scream that tore through to Chris’ very soul. "No-o-o-o-o-o!"

With that cry, Chris joined Buck in hell, remembering the day they came home to find the ashen burned out remains of Chris’ life. He pulled abruptly away from Buck, swallowing back the bile which rose in his throat. He looked frantically around the room, glad to see that Nathan and Vin had come running at Buck’s cry.

Nathan anxiously asked, "What happened?"

Chris shook his head, unable to speak. He rose from his seat without realizing he’d done so. He only knew that he needed to leave the room immediately, needed to get away from the all too real reminder of that hellish day.

He ran out the door and knew that he had to keep going. Rather than run, he tried to gather what little shreds of dignity he had left, and took off walking at a brisk pace. He told himself he wasn’t running away, but was unable to convince his feet of that. He eventually left the town behind, trying to do the same with the memories which assaulted him. When he was far enough out that he could no longer see or hear the threat he’d been retreating from, he propped himself against a convenient rock. He prayed for a return of his previous numbness. He had no idea how long he’d been there, but at some point he realized that he was no longer alone. Vin was standing nearby, waiting to be noticed. Chris tilted his head at him, acknowledging his presence.

Vin tentatively asked, "You wanna talk about it?"

Chris shook his head in denial. "No. Not ever. I just want to forget." Now that he’d started talking, he decided to continue. "Sometimes, these past few months, I actually have been able to forget. But, this past week. . . I guess you might’ve noticed I’ve been a bit distracted."

Vin kept still, quietly encouraging Chris to continue.

"This past Sunday was one of those times that’s always a little hard for me." Chris was clearly understating the magnitude of his difficulty. His eyes were gazing off into the distance, not focused on anything in the here and now. It was to the past that he was currently looking. He continued. "It was the anniversary of the happiest day of my life: when I married Sarah." He paused, his voice nearly breaking with his next words. "I find it almost impossible, sometimes, to live with knowing that I have to go on without her. . ." His words a mere whisper, he added, "and Adam."

Chris’ eyes shone with the pain he refused to let out. No amount of tears could heal the hole that had been torn into his very soul. He mourned in silence a time before he continued. "When I was with Buck just now, he started calling out for my wife and son. And I knew, god help me, I knew where he was. He was back to that day, three years ago."

Chris looked up at Vin. "About this one thing, I am a coward. I could not sit and relive it with him. I couldn’t when I made him finally leave me, afterward, and I can’t now." Chris was surprised to find that it had helped to talk about it. Now Vin knew the worst there was to know about him. And, he seemed to take it with his usual steadying calm. Hell, as long as he was being open and honest, he might as well go for broke. "Funny thing is, as much as it pains me sometimes to be around him, I can’t lose Buck, too." He repeated himself for emphasis, as if somehow saying the words would make his wish a reality. "I just can’t."

Vin could see how seriously Chris meant the words. He knew that Chris doubted his ability to survive Buck’s death. Therefore, Buck could not die. Vin decided he had to say the words. "Buck ain’t gonna die."

Chris nodded in agreement. "All right, then. You wanna help me up?" Vin offered a hand which Chris willingly took.

+ + + + + + +

As if Vin and Chris’ words had been a prayer that God decided to answer, Buck’s fever broke the next day. Slowly but surely, he began to improve. Nathan’s cautious optimism became a welcome declaration: "He’s going to make it."

Nathan tried to get JD to relax his vigil. JD was looking kind of peaked. His poor eating habits and lack of sleep were doing nothing to improve his own recovery from his head injury. JD stated that his headache was gone, but Nathan didn’t believe him. He’d seen him rubbing at his temples, brows pulled tight together in obvious pain. However, Nathan was wise enough to know that calling JD a liar wouldn’t help anything.

He talked to Chris privately about it. "Chris, next to Buck, you’re the person whose opinion JD values the most. Between Buck’s getting shot, him getting himself shot, and Cephus bein’ the cause of it; well, I think JD’s feeling more than a little bit guilty. Do you think you could talk to him about it?"

Chris shrugged. "I’ll try."

As he headed to the clinic to make good on his word, he was stopped by Mary. "Chris, Mr. Sims over at the telegraph office asked me to give this to you." Chris looked at the telegram heading: it was from New York. He’d almost forgotten about the wire he’d sent back when this whole thing with Cephus had blown up. The wire merely confirmed what he’d suspected. He wasn’t sure if sharing its contents with JD would help or hurt. Having nothing else to offer, he decided to share his news.

Chris was pleased to see Buck sitting up outside the clinic. JD, as usual, was keeping him company. Chris asked, "You mind if I borrow JD for a while?"

Buck nodded his agreement. "Go right ahead. I’m just sittin’ here remembering what the sun looks like." He waved a hand at JD in dismissal. "See ya later."

They walked along in silence for a minute. JD kept silent, not sure if he wanted to know why Chris needed to talk to him. Chris began, "JD, I want to show you something." He handed JD the telegram.


JD handed it back, not sure what to think.

Chris added, "It’d be interesting to know if Aaron Abercrombie happened to be a tall fella with a mustache."

JD shook his head, disgusted with himself. "Damn! Buck tried to tell me that there was something wrong with Cephus. Did I listen? No, I tried to help the kid. All I succeeded in doing was nearly getting Buck killed."

Chris pounded his open left hand against his fisted right. "That you could even think something like that is why I need to talk to you. What Cephus Abercrombie did or did not do lies strictly on Cephus Abercrombie’s shoulders. That you tried to help the kid, says nothing but good about you. What happened is in no way your fault."

JD seemed to be listening to him, so Chris continued. "If I thought you were doing anything wrong, you’d have been the first to hear it. Seems like you saved Buck’s life, getting that gun away from Cephus. You didn’t do anything to be ashamed of. You got it?"

JD reluctantly agreed. "I got it."

Chris stated, "Nathan’s been under a lot of strain, looking after Buck. Now he tells me he’s worrying about you, too. Says you haven’t been eating or sleeping right. Let me give you some advice: if you want to be a friend to both Nathan and Buck, start taking better care of yourself."

JD looked at Chris, startled. Damned if Chris wasn’t starting to sound a little like Buck with his mother-henning. JD wisely kept that observation to himself. Besides which, Chris had given him a lot to think about. It was bad enough, everyone worrying about Buck, without JD himself adding to their concern.

Chris concluded, "That’s all I got to say." He gave a two-fingered salute to JD, then headed over to the saloon. Halfway there, he reversed course, deciding to share the telegram with one more person.

He waved at Ezra, who was presently guarding their lone prisoner. Chris walked up to Cephus’ cell. The boy looked like hell. Dark circles under his eyes spoke of sleepless nights. Chris was glad. The kid hadn’t suffered nearly enough for what he’d done. Chris indicated the telegram in his hand. "Got something to share with you. Seems like the marshal in New York wants to talk to you about your father’s murder. He should be in town come Wednesday."

Cephus paled at Chris’ words. Chris added, "Thought you’d like to know." Chris headed back toward the saloon, satisfied that he’d done some good this day.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra, bored, had tried to get Cephus to join him in a game of chance to help him occupy his time on guard duty. Cephus declined and remained singularly uncommunicative. Ezra proceeded to ignore the boy, resigning himself to endless games of solitaire. After an untold number of card games, his ennui was interrupted by a commotion just outside the jailhouse.

He stood at the door, pleased that two visiting cowhands had decided to provide a little entertainment. They squared off like a couple of prizefighters and proceeded to pummel each other senseless. At any other time, Ezra would have been in the midst of the watching crowd instead of the periphery. He would have been busily taking bets regarding the fight’s probable outcome. Somewhere along the line he’d developed a damnable sense of duty which kept him at the jail, guarding a prisoner who was obviously not going anywhere. He sighed, lamenting his current lot in life. He didn’t feel quite as deprived when the two men proved to be equally matched. It took a while, but finally the last blow had been struck and both men collapsed to the ground. Ezra would have had a hard time arguing that the fight had been anything other than a draw. Perhaps the lost gambling opportunity had been for the best.

At the fight’s conclusion, Ezra returned to the isolation of the jail’s interior. His blood ran cold at the sight which greeted him. While Ezra had been otherwise occupied, Cephus had taken advantage of his inattention. The prisoner had tied a sheet around his neck and used it to hang himself from the bars of the cell. Ezra quickly ran to unlock the cell and get the boy down, knowing all the while that he was too late.

He supposed he should have been lamenting the tragic loss of a young life. However, he was preoccupied with the thought which kept running through his brain: "Mr. Larabee is going to think that I killed this wretched excuse of a man."

Fortunately Ezra’s fears proved to be unfounded. Everyone but JD accepted Cephus’ death as a tragic inevitability, especially when they were made aware of the contents of the telegram. For his part, JD found it hard to understand why anyone would want to take their own life.

A week or so later, he was talking to Buck about it. "Cephus had fought so hard to go where he wanted to go, to stay where he wanted to stay. That he would just up and quit like that. . . I don’t get it, Buck. I don’t understand how anyone could do such a thing."

Buck was uncharacteristically silent. He flashed back to the horrifyingly realistic fever dreams he’d had of Sarah and Adam. Finally, he said, "I could."

JD looked up, surprised and not a little fearful. Not sure that he wanted to know the answer, he asked, "What do you mean?"

Buck clarified, "I know you got a little bit of a peek at what it was like for me when Sarah and Adam died, when I was out of my head with fever. As bad as it might’ve seemed to you, as the one who lived through it, I gotta tell you: it was worse. Sarah and Adam, they were as much my family as Chris’. Not only did I lose Sarah and Adam, but I had to watch while Chris did his best to get himself killed. I was half crazy myself, and I expect that’s what led me to do what I did."

Buck had never told another living soul about this. Truthfully, he doubted that Chris even remembered the incident. However, Buck remembered it all too clearly. Now that he’d started talking, he needed to finish this. "Mostly, what Chris did was spend most of his time stinkin’ drunk. Once the alcohol ran out, I’d pick him up so he could start all over again. Ol’ Chris, he’s a mean drunk. When he wasn’t being cruel with his words, he was using his fists."

"I felt so damn guilty about everything, that I let him unload his anger at me."

JD wanted to stop Buck, to tell him that he had nothing to feel guilty about. He remembered Chris saying those very same words to him, not so long ago. He remained silent, sensing that Buck needed to tell this tale through to the end.

Buck continued, "Well, one day he was beatin’ on me with both his words and his fists. All of a sudden, I decided I’d had enough. I decided to fight back."

Buck remembered the scene as it had played out in all its horror. When Buck couldn’t get through to Chris with his fists, he used words. Being his best friend, he knew the words that would hurt the most. Buck suddenly found himself looking down the barrel of Chris’ gun. Chris had shoved him up against the wall, an arm across his throat, one hand twisted up in his shirtfront, the other shakily holding his gun against Buck’s head. Chris cursed, saying, "I swear to god, if you say one more word, I’ll blow your goddamn head off."

Buck wrapped his hand around Chris’, helping to steady his aim. He taunted, "You want to blow my head off? Fine! Go right ahead! You’ll be doing me a favor. I don’t want to live like this anymore. I can’t." He began to shout, his hand tightening around Chris’. "Go on, do it! Do it!" At that moment, Buck was utterly sincere. Chris was, too. He pulled the trigger. Had Buck not previously removed the bullets from the gun while Chris was embracing his whiskey bottle, Buck would’ve been dead.

He sighed, coming back to the present. "The thing is. . ." he paused, knowing he’d reached the hardest part of the story. "The thing is, I didn’t really know whether or not the gun was loaded. It was sort of a game we’d play. I’d take the bullets out, he’d put ‘em back in." He looked JD straight in the eye. "When I told him to pull the trigger, I meant it. We were both sorry as hell afterward, but it was too late. I thought on it a bit, and realized that if I stayed with Chris, I’d end up dead. So, I left."

"Not too long after that, Chris managed to sober up some. We both ended up in Four Corners, and well, here we are."

JD sat, stunned at how close he’d come to losing Buck before he ever had the chance to meet him. He reached out his hand, placing it over Buck’s own. "Thank you for telling me." He paused, then said what was in his heart. "I don’t know what to say, other than thank you for deciding to live." JD was referring to the crisis just past, as well as the one averted years ago.

Buck smiled in answer. "You’re welcome."

JD added, "Thank you for being here, for being my friend."

Buck squeezed JD’s hand as he echoed his words, "And thank you for being my friend." Buck released his hand, saying, "Enough of this mushy stuff. What’s say you and I go out and kill ourselves a bear? I’m sure hungry enough to eat one."

JD kidded back. "You’ll have to go awful far to find any bears around here."

"Hell, that just makes it more of an adventure."

The two friends rose as one, and could be heard joking as they headed off toward the saloon. "Buck, you’re so full of shit your eyes are brown."

"Shows what you don’t know. My eyes are blue."

All those who heard, reflected that things were finally getting back to normal in Four Corners.


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