A Friend Indeed?
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 kids eyes were closed and he didnt so much as twitch to acknowledge Bucks presence. Bucks brow furrowed in concern. He asked Nathan, "How is he?"
Nathan responded, "I think hes gonna be okay."
JD was awake but found that he was more comfortable if he didnt move around too much or open his eyes to the harsh glare of the rooms light. It was an effort to move but he resented the fact that he was being talked over like he wasnt 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 JDs 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 Id 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, didnt 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; Ill rest better in my own room, I swear."
Suspecting Buck wouldnt 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. Hes 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 shouldnt 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 JDs 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 headaches gone and hes 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 didnt have to. He stated, "Ill wait for you outside." Vin accompanied JD out the door, so Buck didnt have to worry about someone keeping an eye on the kid.
Buck asked, "Whats 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 hes telling the truth."
Still not satisfied, Buck asked, "And what does JD say happened?"
"He doesnt remember a thing about it. Nathan says that with a head injury, most likely hes not gonna remember." He continued, "You cant keep a man in jail just because you dont like him."
Buck angrily agreed. "Fine. Ill go let him outta jail. Then Ill put the fear of God into him, and escort his sorry ass outta town."
Chris grabbed Bucks 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 aint goin anywhere near that jail, or Cephus. Ill handle this." He let go as Buck turned away from him, his friends 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, Im gonna put a bullet in him. Thats not a threat; its 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 didnt think that Buck would actually carry out his threat. Still, it wouldnt hurt to pass Bucks 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 gunfighters stance. "Cephus Abercrombie. Im the law in this town. And you just shot one of my fellow peacekeepers. Im giving you one warning, and one warning only: leave this town, or I wont be responsible for the consequences."
Cephus jumped to his feet, sputtering, "It was an accident! You know that! I would never hurt JD. Never! Hes like a brother to me."
"Funny thing about accidents. There sure seem to be a lot of em when youre around. Wouldnt be surprised if the next accident happens to you." Chris didnt 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, "Aint 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. Hes 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 hed been told to leave town, so hed 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 didnt 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 kids 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 hadnt eaten anything since hed thrown up yesterday, it was not surprising. He decided to take care of his empty stomach, and followed unknowingly in Bucks footsteps.
Unlike Buck, JDs nausea returned full force when he found Cephus waiting outside for him. Cephuss eyes were wide and panicked. He spoke so fast JD could barely follow all that he was saying. "JD, thank God youre all right! You cant stick around here. Youre only going to get hurt, maybe even killed. Nows your chance, while Bucks away. Get your gear. I can get your horse ready while youre 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 Im in any danger from is you. Ive tried to be patient, I really have, but getting shot kind of gives a man reason to reconsider. I dont want or need a friend like you."
It was Cephus turn to stand, shocked. He grabbed onto JDs arm, trying to pull him along down the street. "You dont have to listen to them JD, youre 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 didnt get my message. Fine. Ill deliver it personally. The next time I see you hangin around JD, Im 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. "Its the only warning Im givin you. Youd better consider it pretty damn seriously."
Buck went to JDs side. "Lets get out of here."
As they turned to leave, JD spoke to Cephus the last two words he was hoping hed 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 didnt 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 cant figure out he aint wanted, once youve 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 dont turn and bite you on his way out of town."
JD sighed. "Its just that hes 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 wasnt so long ago that could a been me."
Buck reached across the table, placing his own hand over JDs. "That never would a been you. That Cephus, theres somethin aint right about that boy."
JD nodded in agreement. "I know it." After a pause, he continued. "That dont stop me from caring about him or worrying about him."
Buck gave a half smile as he replied, "Just shows youre a better man than I am."
JD gave a full out grin in return. "Well, its 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 JDs 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 Vins sudden appearance, but nevertheless tried to pretend he hadnt jumped damn near a foot in surprise. He casually greeted his friend. "Hey, Vin. Whats 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. "Im glad to see JDs doing better."
"Just saw him over at the livery. Didnt know he was well enough to ride."
Bucks eyes narrowed, his words sharp, his upset obvious as he stated, "Hes 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. Hed gotten JD out of one kind of trouble, but hed 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 didnt see him enter. JD was in the process of saddling his mount. Buck stood back, waiting until hed finished. He was pleased to see JD startle, his guilt evident, when Buck abruptly asked, "Where do you think youre 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 its only for an hour or so."
Buck was unmoved. "If you gotta get out, Ill borrow us a wagon, and well go out together."
JD indignantly echoed, "A wagon? I dont think so. Geez, Buck, you aint my keeper."
"No, but it sure seems like you need one."
JD was not ready to give up. "Im old enough to be mindin my own business, and Id appreciate it if youd do the same."
Buck smiled. "Mindin you is my business."
JD turned back to his horse, saying, "No, it aint." 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 Bucks grasp as he was carried off. "Put me down! Im serious! This isnt 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, "Ive 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, JDs 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, "Whyd you shoot me? I saved you!"
JD, horrified, replied, "You goddamn stupid idiot! You didnt save anybody. You just shot my best friend!"
Cephus was babbling, "He was hurting you. I know, I saw. I saved you. Its not too late. You can still come with me. We can get away. Were 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, "Ill get Nathan."
It was a silent and anxious procession that carried Buck to Nathans 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 werent 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 Bucks 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 clinics 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, "Ive 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 aint good." Nathan had been working a while before he spoke again. "I gotta get this wound as clean as I can. I need yall to help hold him down, cuz this is gonna hurt like a sonuvabitch." Chris leaned across Bucks upper body, while Vin held down his legs. At the first touch of the carbolic, Bucks 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.
Nathans voice was grim as he stated, "At least itll make my job a little easier." Finally, after what seemed like forever, he sat back. "Ive done all I can." He inclined his head toward Bucks insensate form. "The rest is up to him."
Thus began JDs 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 hed been stricter with Cephus, maybe he couldve gotten the gun away right after hed bought the damn thing. Or, if JD hadnt tried to befriend the kid, maybe he would have left town. Or, if JD hadnt been acting like a child in disobeying Nathans orders, then Buck wouldnt have ended up treating him like a child and carrying him out of the livery, and Buck wouldnt 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 Bucks bed. Someone had thrown a blanket over his shoulders while hed 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 Bucks cool hand in his own warm one. He gave it a gentle squeeze, calling out, "Buck?"
Bucks 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, hes 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 Nathans ministrations. JD waited anxiously for Nathans verdict. He asked, "Buck gonna be okay?"
Nathan reported, "Hes doing good so far." Before JD could get to feeling too relieved, he added, "But hes not out of the woods yet. We need to see how he does over the next day or so, and pray that infection doesnt set in."
JDs 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 Bucks 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. Bucks 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 friends body as he held him down. He tried to get through to Buck, telling him, "Its okay, theyre 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 Bucks cry.
Nathan anxiously asked, "What happened?"
Chris shook his head, unable to speak. He rose from his seat without realizing hed 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 wasnt 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 hed 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 hed 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 hed 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 mightve noticed Ive been a bit distracted."
Vin kept still, quietly encouraging Chris to continue.
"This past Sunday was one of those times thats 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 couldnt when I made him finally leave me, afterward, and I cant 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 cant lose Buck, too." He repeated himself for emphasis, as if somehow saying the words would make his wish a reality. "I just cant."
Vin could see how seriously Chris meant the words. He knew that Chris doubted his ability to survive Bucks death. Therefore, Buck could not die. Vin decided he had to say the words. "Buck aint 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, Bucks fever broke the next day. Slowly but surely, he began to improve. Nathans cautious optimism became a welcome declaration: "Hes 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 didnt believe him. Hed 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 wouldnt help anything.
He talked to Chris privately about it. "Chris, next to Buck, youre the person whose opinion JD values the most. Between Bucks getting shot, him getting himself shot, and Cephus bein the cause of it; well, I think JDs feeling more than a little bit guilty. Do you think you could talk to him about it?"
Chris shrugged. "Ill 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. Hed almost forgotten about the wire hed sent back when this whole thing with Cephus had blown up. The wire merely confirmed what hed suspected. He wasnt 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. Im 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.
He read: IN RE YOUR INQUIRY stop CEPHUS ABERCROMBIE WANTED FOR QUESTIONING IN RE MURDER OF AARON ABERCROMBIE FATHER stop MARSHAL BURKE TO ARRIVE WEDS stop
JD handed it back, not sure what to think.
Chris added, "Itd 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 Abercrombies 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, youd have been the first to hear it. Seems like you saved Bucks life, getting that gun away from Cephus. You didnt do anything to be ashamed of. You got it?"
JD reluctantly agreed. "I got it."
Chris stated, "Nathans been under a lot of strain, looking after Buck. Now he tells me hes worrying about you, too. Says you havent 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 wasnt 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, "Thats 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 hadnt suffered nearly enough for what hed 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 fathers murder. He should be in town come Wednesday."
Cephus paled at Chris words. Chris added, "Thought youd like to know." Chris headed back toward the saloon, satisfied that hed 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 fights probable outcome. Somewhere along the line hed 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 didnt 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 fights conclusion, Ezra returned to the isolation of the jails 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 Ezras 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 dont get it, Buck. I dont understand how anyone could do such a thing."
Buck was uncharacteristically silent. He flashed back to the horrifyingly realistic fever dreams hed 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 mightve 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 thats 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 hed started talking, he needed to finish this. "Mostly, what Chris did was spend most of his time stinkin drunk. Once the alcohol ran out, Id pick him up so he could start all over again. Ol Chris, hes a mean drunk. When he wasnt 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 Id had enough. I decided to fight back."
Buck remembered the scene as it had played out in all its horror. When Buck couldnt 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 Bucks head. Chris cursed, saying, "I swear to god, if you say one more word, Ill 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! Youll be doing me a favor. I dont want to live like this anymore. I cant." 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 wouldve been dead.
He sighed, coming back to the present. "The thing is. . ." he paused, knowing hed reached the hardest part of the story. "The thing is, I didnt really know whether or not the gun was loaded. It was sort of a game wed play. Id take the bullets out, hed 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, Id 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 hed come to losing Buck before he ever had the chance to meet him. He reached out his hand, placing it over Bucks own. "Thank you for telling me." He paused, then said what was in his heart. "I dont 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. "Youre welcome."
JD added, "Thank you for being here, for being my friend."
Buck squeezed JDs hand as he echoed his words, "And thank you for being my friend." Buck released his hand, saying, "Enough of this mushy stuff. Whats say you and I go out and kill ourselves a bear? Im sure hungry enough to eat one."
JD kidded back. "Youll 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, youre so full of shit your eyes are brown."
"Shows what you dont 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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