by KT

Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.

Authors note: This is a birthday fic for Chris. I have altered a little bit of cannon, not much, just a little bit. This is not a death fic. There is mention of, but no description of, a rape. Thanks to Helen for proof reading this for me.

"DOC!" The man pounded on the door, glancing worriedly over his shoulder at the two men standing behind him. "DOC, COME ON!" He shouted again, pounding ever harder.

It was only just past five in the morning when the doctor finally opened the door, he was still in his robe, hair uncombed, eyes blinking owlishly in the harsh light of the lantern held up before him.

"What's wrong?" he asked wearily.

"This…" The lawman turned to show the scene behind him. Two men held a long plank between them; a body lay on it, and other than it was male and dark haired, it was hard to tell much about him, for he was covered in blood and filth, wearing only a torn pair of pants, even his feet were bare.

"Good God!" the doctor breathed, as he pushed past the man to examine the patient.

His hand hovered over the bloody mass on the board, then he carefully took the limp wrist hanging off the improvised stretcher. He was relieved to find a pulse, but alarmed by how slow and erratic it was.

"Boy!" he shouted into the house.

"Yessir!" Came the prompt reply from a small boy.

"Run ahead boy, open the doors to the bedroom over the kitchen, turn down the bed and lay a fresh sheet over it, then go wake up cook. You got all that?"

"Yessir," came the reply, as the boy raced up the wide staircase.

In no more then five minutes the unfortunate patient was lying on his side on a fresh white sheet, that was itself draped over a large double bed. The boy, having pounded on the cook's door and told her to make breakfast and boil some water, was now building a fire in the grate of the sick-room.

The patient proved to be a youth. It was hard to tell exactly how old he was, anything from sixteen to twenty would have fitted. His hair was thick, dark and matted with blood and dirt. He hadn't stirred once since he had arrived, even when the doctor started to clean the wounds he didn't so much as flinch.

With the fire lit and full of curiosity the house-boy stood quietly to watch the doctor at work. The boy, for as more filth and blood was cleaned away it was obvious how young he was, had been viciously beaten and whipped. His back was covered in bleeding welts, his ribs, especially on the left side, were blackened with bruising where the bones were broken or cracked. His left arm was broken just below the wrist, the yellow bone protruding hideously through the torn flesh. What he looked like was hard to tell, since his face was so discoloured, both eyes swollen shut, his lip torn, one side of his face was covered in grazes as if he had been dragged on the ground.

As the doctor worked, the distraught lawman explained what he knew. "He was found in the gutter, out back of the hotel. Who knows how long he was out there, no one recognised him."

"I would say he had been there some time," the doctor commented. "These aren’t fresh bruises."

"The kitchen boy who found him said he was out in the alley just after midnight and he wasn't there then, but he was at five this morning."

The doctor looked around at the man, he didn't know him, he was new to the job, a tall, dark, young man with a ready smile and an easy manner. But, by all accounts, he was good at his job; certainly the compassion he saw in the dark eyes, was genuine.

"Then he was left there - for he could not have walked - some time after he was attacked. Look…" He pointed to his patient’s left arm. "…here is the mark of a boot, this arm was broken deliberately, and here…"He pointed to other bruises on the same arm. "…he tried to defend himself repeatedly, but the bruises are of different ages. This boy was systematically whipped and brutalised over a period of some time."

"Will he live?" the young lawman asked.

The doctor turned back to his patient.

"I don't know, I have much to do, but most of it will be down to his strength, and God's will."

Another time, another place.

Buck sat in the saloon enjoying an afternoon beer and watching Ezra practice with a pack of cards. He had basically given up playing with Ezra, there just was no point, and in the end no fun, since he always lost. The southerner cut and re-cut the deck with one hand, first the left and then the right, then he would deal out hands to phantom players and check what he had dealt, nodding happily to himself as he looked at each hand.

"Ezra?" Buck asked. He got no response. "Ezra?" This time he was a little louder and more insistent.

"Mmmm." Came the absent-minded response.

"Don’t it ever bother you?"

"Does what bother me, Mr Wilmington?" Ezra was now making aces appear at the top of the deck one-handed.


"No, I only cheat, as you put it, when the opponent has done so first or is so wealthy it would be obscene to let him walk away with more money they he started with, and even then I only do it if I can’t beat him while staying within the rules of the game." Ezra didn’t once so much as hesitate in his card manipulations as he spoke.

"So you ain’t never cheated when ya play with us?"

"No, I do not cheat friends."

"So how come you always win?"

"Because I am a professional and you are all amateurs, with varying degrees of skill, and different strengths and weaknesses."

Buck shifted in his chair. They might not play with Ezra much but they still played cards amongst themselves, Ezra’s insight into everyone's strengths and weaknesses would be very helpful.

"So Ez, what’s my strengths and weaknesses?" he asked, trying to sound casual.

Ezra glanced up. "You Mr Wilmington? You have the potential to be a good player, but you are all too easily distracted by a pretty face."

Buck knew this to be true. "Now I know the kid can’t bluff t’ save his life, but if he ever gets that poker face perfected he’ll clean up, him lookin’ so innocent an’ all."

Ezra gave a half smile. "Indeed, you have our young friend to perfection."

"And Nathan, now he’s just too honest to play poker, he’s got that poker face a’ all but he just don’t have it in him t’ bluff," Buck surmised.

"As your accurate observations prove Mr Wilmington you do have potential, as does our scruffy Texan friend, who sadly has so little interest in material wealth that he loses interest and then doesn’t concentrate. Mr Sanchez likewise, finds things of more and higher interest." Ezra fanned the cards out in a long line and then flipped them over using the edge of another card.

"And Chris?" Buck prompted.

"Ah yes, our esteemed if fiery leader. He relies on intimidating the opposition into not challenging him, once the opposition realises he will not shoot them, just because he loses…" Buck wasn't entirely convinced about this, but then he knew Chris a whole lot better than Ezra. "then he is just a competent player." Ezra looked up, and smiled his gold tooth glinting in the shaft of sunlight that penetrated the saloon’s grimy windows. "So my friend, would you care for a hand?"

Buck just threw his head back and laughed. "Hell Ezra, I may be dumb but I ain’t stupid! ‘Sides the stage is coming in." With that he rose and crossing the dusty floor in two strides, exited the saloon through the swing doors and was lost in the glare of the winter sun.

"No, you’re not stupid," Ezra commented to the retreating back, too quietly for Buck to hear, "nor are you dumb." With that he also rose and pushing the deck of cards into his pocket he exited the saloon.

The two men stood, or in Buck’s case leant, outside the saloon to watch the stage arrive – as was their habit – both were always looking for potential trouble, in addition Buck was looking for new women and Ezra for wealthy travellers who he could fleece - without cheating of course! There were no women; Ezra thought he detected a definite slump in his friend's shoulders. One of the last passengers off the coach was a tall elegantly dressed man, a smaller man followed him, neatly but not so finely dressed. Ezra was suddenly all attention.

"Don’t even think about it, pal," Buck warned as he detected Ezra’s interest. As they watched, Judge Travis exited the Clarion’s office, followed by Mary. The four shook hands and it was clear from the body language that the tall man and the judge knew each other well. "You don’t wanna go and get caught cheatin’ some pal of the Judge – do you?"

Ezra glared at Buck. "I told you I don’t cheat first."

"Still ain’t a good idea."

Ezra considered this was probably wise advice.

"’Sides I got patrol right now, an' you got jail duty." Buck checked his watch and without further comment, stepped off the sidewalk and away from the new arrivals as he headed for the livery.

Ezra gave one more longing look at what he saw as a potentially lucrative ‘mark’ and turned toward the jail.

+ + + + + + +

It was already dusk before Buck returned to Four Corners. It had rained for much of the day, and although now it was dry he was damp and muddy and cold. The warm glow from the saloon window was inviting but he picked up some clean clothing and headed straight to the bathhouse. Vin might be able to ride in covered in trail dust and walk straight into a meal, but not Buck. In the bath house he met Ezra.

Ezra finished first and called to Buck as he headed for the door. "Mr Wilmington, since you are yet to finish, perhaps you could drop my clothes off at the laundry along with your own soiled attire?"

"Hell Ez! I ain't yer maid!" Buck barked as he pulled himself out of the rapidly cooling tub.

"Most assuredly not - the mind reels at the very idea! But you will be going to the laundry will you not?"


"It would seem pointless for us to double our efforts."

"Why don't you take mine, they’re jist there beside yours?"

"How about if I buy you a beer?"

Buck considered that. The laundry was clear in the opposite direction to the saloon, which was why Ezra didn't want to go there - Ezra never walked any further than he had to - and he would be going anyway, hell for a free beer he could tote Ezra's stuff along too.

"Sure, why not, I'll be there in about five minutes."

When Buck did exit the bathhouse he found out why Ezra was so keen for him to go to the laundry; a fine, steady rain was falling. The saloon was on the same side of the street to the bathhouse, so Ezra could get there mostly undercover, the laundry was on the other side of the street down a side street, where there was no cover.

"I fall for his cons ‘way too easy," Buck berated himself, getting wet after he had spent so long getting clean wasn't worth a beer, but he was stuck with it now.

+ + + + + + +

The saloon, when a very damp Buck finally reached it, was at least warm and dry; Ezra saw him enter and lifted the glass of beer to show he had kept his side of the bargain.

"Ezra P. Standish, you are as slippery as an eel, you old reb you!" Buck dropped into the vacant seat beside Ezra and took his beer gratefully.

"How kind of you to join us," Ezra commented, flicking away the water droplets Buck had carefully deposited on him with a brush of his hand down the plum-coloured jacket. "I have ordered for you, I hope you don’t mind - steak."

"Sounds good t' me, bring it on, I could eat Josiah's horse!"

A peal of laughter rose from the raised area where Ezra normally liked to sit and play. Buck looked up over Standish's shoulder. For the first time he noted that the others, except for Nathan and Josiah, were all gathered around the table, along with the Judge and the tall stranger from the stage.

"What's goin' on up there?" Buck asked.

Ezra snorted. "Apparently the man we saw this morning is the son of an old friend of the Judge. He's a Senator, I believe."

More laughter ripples around the table.

"Sounds like they’re havin' fun, let’s go say howdy." Buck was already up and on his feet before Ezra could say anything. He didn't have anything against the man, other than a natural dislike and distrust of politicians - who were in his opinion the worst and most unscrupulous con men of all.

Buck, strode up to the table. "Howdy boys, Judge, ya gonna introduce me to your friend?"

"Mr Wilmington." The Judge started. "And Mr Standish, good to see you. May I introduce Senator Miles Keble, from the State of Mississippi."

And right there and then Buck changed. His whole demeanour, his stance. He stiffened, his shoulders tightened up and he stood tall. Ezra, standing behind him, saw it all, but in the poor light of the saloon and looking up at him from the tables he wondered if the others even noticed. The Senator rose to his feet and extended a hand.

"Mr Wilmington, I have heard so much about you, you and your 'animal magnetism'." The Senator winked at JD, before returning his attentions to Buck.

Buck did not take the proffered hand. He didn't even look at the Senator. "I'm gonna turn in now. ‘Night Judge, boys." And with that he turned and walked away.

+ + + + + + +

Buck had already collected his meal and was carrying it to the boarding house when Chris caught up top him.

"What the hell is your problem?" he demanded.

"My problem? I ain't got no problem, 'cept I'm tired and hungry is all." Buck shouldered past Chris and continued on his way to the boarding house.

Larabee took a moment to collect himself and try to keep a handle on his temper. Than he advanced until he was once more in front of his oldest friend.

"You know damn well what 'problem'! Why were you so rude just now? He's the Judge’s friend and a Senator, for God's sake. Hell, you would show more respect to a common whore than you just did a US Senator!"

"Yeah I would, 'cause I know them and they've earned my respect. I … don't know him. I give my respect t' men who earn it. An' I don't just give it to anyone, in fact most of the men that have it, are right here in this town - but he ain't one of them, now. Not e…" He stopped mid sentence, His face pale and drawn, Chris had never seen Buck react to anyone this way. "Now…" Buck continued, "… my food's gittin’ cold so I'm gonna go eat an' sleep." He strode on and then stopped to look back at the thunderstruck Chris. "With Josiah in Vista City and Nate out at the Yates place, you're two men short, so I'll take patrol t'morrow."

Chris was about to argue, since Buck had just come off a long patrol, but Chris had learned long ago when Buck was in this kind of mood it was best to let him be.

"What's the matter with Bucklin?" Vin asked from behind Chris.

Chris spun around. "Christ almighty! Don't go sneakin’ up on a man like that. An' I got no idea what's eatin' at him. Old Buck, when he shuts up, he's tighter than any clam." Chris gave one last look at the tall retreating frame of his oldest friend, a man he had known for twelve years but still didn't know, and shook his head. "Come on, let’s get out of the rain."

Buck put the pail of food down as he sank down on the floor behind the door. He ran his fingers through his hair, knocking his hat to the ground. Tears filled his eyes and he angrily backhanded them away. Ashamed of his reaction, angry with himself for letting the memories effect him so badly.

+ + + + + + +

Bella Yates sat up in bed nursing one of her newborn twins. Beside the bed sat Nathan Jackson, gently rocking the other newborn child in his powerful arms. Frank Yates was away purchasing a stud bull, and the twins had come nearly three weeks early. A first time mother of only seventeen, Bella was afraid and lonely, so Nathan promised to stay until her husband returned or some neighbour could come over to stay with the new mother.

"Mr Jackson?" Bella started.

"Yes ma'am."

"What made you become a healer?"

"Well ma'am it's all I ever wanted t' be from when I was very young, but bein' a slave I never thought I could have it. Mrs Yates ma'am, you should rest once you finished feedin' little Joe there."

"Please Mr Jackson, I have slept until I can sleep no more, and little Joe here don't seem to be in any hurry. Please tell me your story."

"Well ma'am, I belonged t' Mi'ser Jackson, that is old Mi'ser Jackson." He could see Bella was affected by what he said, she was born in England, had come west with her folks from Boston and married only last year, so she had no experience of slavery or slaves.

"Mr Jackson, I am sorry, I didn't want to bring up painful memories for you - do forgive me."

Nathan smiled at the essentially innocent girl he had just helped through a difficult and painful double childbirth. "No ma'am it's fine, they weren't the best of times but it did happen and it ain't no good pretending like it didn't. Like I said, I belonged to Mi'ser Jackson. Now he had a younger sister, Miss Alice, and she was married t' a doctor, Doctor Morrison. Seems Doc was down on his luck and couldn't afford t' buy his wife a new house boy, so her brother loaned me t' him."

"Oh how horrid for you," Bella commented.

"No it wasn't, I don't reckon the Doc was down on his luck, he just didn't like to see kids workin'. He might even have been an abolitionist, but he wouldn't never have told me that. Well I liked it there, no one hollering at you much, no beatings, nice dry room t' sleep in - in the house too, not in a cabin out back." Nathan sounded almost enthusiastic about it. "On day, town constable brings this boy into the house."

+ + + + + + +

When Buck awoke he was still dressed and still on the floor of his room. Beside him an empty bottle of whisky, a bottle that had been half full the night before. His meal was cold, congealed and uneaten in its pail beside him on the floor.

"Damn," he swore to himself as he forced stiff cold muscles to move, and hauled himself up off the floor.

It was still early, so he shaved himself and headed for the livery, determined to be out of town before anyone, but especially the Senator, was about. He wasn't lucky. As he walked to the barn to get Max saddled and ready he met Keble. He was watching while Yosemite saddled him a horse.

"Mr Wilmington, isn't it?" the man asked as Buck threw his saddle up onto Max's back.

Buck didn't even acknowledge his presence as he continued to get his horse ready to leave for the day.

"What is it I have done to distress you so, Mr Wilmington?" the man asked.

He was about Chris' height, narrow and angular, with dark brown hair that was just beginning to thin, his eyes was also brown, and yet they had none of Nathan's warmth or JD's life. Buck didn't say anything, he just backed his horse out of the stall and headed out, passing the Senator. Unused to being ignored, the man put his arm out to stop Buck passing him.

"I asked you a question mister, I would appreciate an answer."

Buck stopped and looked down at the hand. Then he looked up at the man. "Move it or lose it," he whispered.

The hand didn't move. And then, before he even knew Buck had moved, a gun was pointing at his face.

"You may not know me, but I know you. You don't talk to me, you don't touch me. I will be out of town as much as possible, so I don't have to look at you." He continued to stare at the man until he removed his hand and Buck walked silently past.

Yosemite shook his head as he brought the Senator’s mount to him. Having Buck Wilmington that mad at you had to be a bad thing.

"Good Lord! Is that your best mount?" The southerner exclaimed.

"This here is Gone Away, " Yosemite said of the tall bay. "He used t' be a race horse, 'cept he never did win any races. Did you, boy?" He patted the horse. "But he's still fast and he'll run all day for you. He's a good mannered horse too, won't give you no problems." The Senator ran his eye over the horse, and raised an eyebrow. "This ain't Kentucky sir, Gone Away here is the fastest horse in my livery, the only Thoroughbred, he ain't the most handsome horse you ever met, I grant you, but appearances aren’t everything."

By the time Keble was outside and mounted up Buck was long gone. As he rode past the hotel, the other man he had arrived with came out onto the sidewalk.

"Tomkins?" he called.

"Yes Senator."

"Find out everything you can about this man Buck Wilmington, everything!" he instructed. With that he was gone.

+ + + + + + +

Buck stayed away from town as much as he could, and if he was in town he stayed away from where ever Keble was. He refused to explain himself, which JD in particular found infuriating. He strode into the jail to find Buck reading wanted posters.

"Hey Buck, find anything interestin'?" he asked breezily.

"Nah, anything going on in town?"

JD sat down on the desk. "No, well except the Senator of course. Did you know he was a colonel in the war?" There was evident wonder in the youth's voice.

"A reb colonel, JD, don't forget that." Buck didn't look up from his poster reading.

"So? Ez was a reb."

"Maybe." Ezra's military career changed from week to week depending on who he was speaking to, though his ability to load and fire a cannon did point to some military experience.

"Just what is your problem with Senator Keble anyway? Damn it! You never even met him before." JD turned to face his friend.

Buck didn't look up or answer.

"He's a Senator after all." JD had been walking around like the cat that got the cream ever since Judge Travis introduced him, and the Senator had asked him about being a lawman, had even asked for his opinion.

"So what is a Senator doing here anyway?" Buck asked, side-stepping the question about knowing the man.

JD's smile grew wider. "He's on a mission from the President himself," JD explained with his customary gusto. "He's finding out about law and order in the territories." JD leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Mary said he may run for President. T' think we could be talking to, hell drinking with, a president!"

Buck did think, and the thought sickened him. That the man was a Senator was bad enough, but he could live with it. If he stayed away from him, if he didn't have to look at him, he could ignore him. But President was something else. Buck wouldn't call himself a patriotic man, he had seen too much done in the name of patriotism to claim it for himself. But the president, that was different. A man like Miles Keble couldn't be president, not ever, not if Buck Wilmington could stop it.

+ + + + + + +

"Well Tompkins? What do you know of him?" Keble sat back in a comfortable chair in his hotel room and waited for his private secretary to report his findings regarding one Buck Wilmington.

"He is well liked in the town, especially with the ladies. Some of the fathers and married men weren't so keen on him. He's considered brave and trustworthy. Apparently he is very good at looking after the young one - what's his name?"

"JD?" the Senator supplied.

"Yes JD. I cabled Washington, he was born in Wilmington, North Carolina…."

"Let me guess, no father?" Keble added sounding board.

"Indeed, father's name listed as 'unknown'. He served in the Union army from ‘61 to ‘65, became a Sergeant, was decorated twice, commended for bravery six times, wounded twice and a prisoner of war for 6 months. Served in the Texas Rangers - briefly. I haven't been able to find out much more. Sorry."

"Oh don't be Tompkins, it as I suspected, he is a nobody, a worthless, fatherless, bastard, probably some whore's brat with an axe to grind. The name means nothing to me. Maybe it was in the war? Was he ever in Mississippi?"

"Probably, his mother died in New Orleans, so he must have passed through Mississippi at some point. And may have been there in the war."

That did interest Keble, but he still couldn't place the name. But he was a politician; he was used to people not liking him.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan was headed home; a neighbour had come over to keep Bella Yates company. He was happy to be on the road home, his faithful old bay plodded on - there was no other way to describe the way the horse moved, she could put on a good turn of speed if required but never voluntarily. His thoughts went back to the story he had told her. About his six months in the doctor’s house, and the young man who had made him want to become a healer, well then he wanted to be a doctor, only later did he tailor his ambition to healer. He had told Mrs Yates it was a boy, now he thought of him as a young man. In truth he had been so young and it was so long ago he couldn't really say how old the boy was. It was an odd time, he was missing his mother, but he was happy. When the doctor - or more accurately the doctor’s wife - sent him back, his father told him his mother had been sold, his life changed and he forgot about being a doctor or healer for a long time. But he never forgot the boy who would only talk to him.

As he came into town he noticed the tall elegant stranger who strode across the street and went into the restaurant. The restaurant made Nathan realise that he was very hungry himself, so turned the faithful Rosie toward the eatery. Mrs Frazer always cooked a wonderful pot roast on a Tuesday. He was still brushing dust from his pants, as the bell over the door announced his arrival.

Keble had just joined his secretary and was waiting for the Judge and Mary. He stiffened as Nathan walked in, so much so that Tompkins turned to see what had upset his employer. Both men expected Nathan to be turned away or at the very least shown to a back room. Neither one ever expected the respectable proprietress to smile broadly at the Negro.

"Mr Jackson!" she exclaimed, "we have missed you, how is young Bella?"

Nathan positively beamed. "Twins - boys," he announced. "Mother and babies doing well."

Mrs Frazer turned to a lady at the nearest table. "Did you hear that Martha, Bella Yates had twins."

"Um ma'am?" Nathan interjected between the two women. "I think she could use some help, you know clothes and diapers, she wasn't expecting two."

"Oh Lord yes! The poor dear, don't you worry Mr Jackson, we will take care of the poor lamb. Now you must be plum tuckered out, sit man, sit."

+ + + + + + +

The two southerners watched in stunned, horrified silence. This was something almost beyond their comprehension. Before they could protest or worry about it, Mary and the Judge joined them.

"Sorry we kept you waiting Miles, have you ordered?" Orin asked as he sat down.

"What? Oh, er no, not yet." The Mississippi Senator stammered, he was still staring at Nathan, taking in his gun and the way Mrs Frazer was bringing him coffee and bread already.

"Is something wrong?" Mary asked.

"Who is the Negro over there?" Keble finally asked.

Travis didn't even look around. "Nathan Jackson, I told you about him, next best thing to a doctor, better than some doctors, and a fine lawman."

Finally the Senator looked at the elderly justice. "You mean you let a slave hold a gun and lock up white folk?" he asked.

"There are no slaves, and yes I do," Orin stated firmly, before Mary could launch some verbal assault upon his distinguished guest - distinguished and powerful. If he sent back a bad report there was the chance the Federal government would send in troops to maintain the law. "Furthermore the people of this town accept, like and respect Mr Jackson, that is democracy Senator - is it not?"

"Well, yes…that is…yes, I guess." The southern politician stammered.

"And," Tompkins started, "…he doctors people - white women, he births babies?" The ramifications of this statement were only now just hitting him.

"As I said the people around here trust him, who am I to say where they may place their trust? Now…" All the time he had been speaking Travis had had his eyes on the menu, there was no need for this, since there were only three things on the menu, ham and eggs, fried chicken and steak, plus the special - pot roast, chalked up on a blackboard. "…I will have the pot roast, what about you gentlemen?" Finally he looked up. The two southerners were still having trouble with the concept of a black lawman come doctor, but that was their problem. "Food gentlemen, we came to eat, yes?"

Travis steered the conversation away from Nathan, and back on to law and order, as they ate. Ezra came in, saw the judge and his party and turned away to join Nathan.

"You are returned Mister Jackson, mind if I join you?" he asked.

"No, pull up a seat Ezra, I'm havin' pot roast."

"An excellent choice, I will order he same." He cast his eyes over to the party across the room.

"Have you met our esteemed guest?" Ezra asked.

"Esteemed? Why esteemed?" Nathan looked over his shoulder at the two strangers.

"The little piggy one is Tomkins, he's the private secretary. The tall one is Senator, no less, Miles Keble from Mississippi."

"Mississippi, that explains a lot," Nathan commented with a snort.

"I see you are likewise unimpressed with the company."

Nathan looked back at Ezra. "You don't like him?"

"He's a politician, ergo he's a con man and a liar."

"Takes one to know one?"

"Exactly! What has he done to alienate you, my friend?"

Nathan chuckled and shook his head. "He's a rich white man from Mississippi, do I need another reason?"

Ezra frowned. "What about me?"

"You ain't rich, 'sides, you're from Louisiana."

Ezra sat back and looked at the man they both disliked and distrusted. It was rare for he and Nathan to agree on anything. But now he thought on it, they both had reason to dislike rich, powerful southerners. Buck too was a southern boy, oh he had lost the accent and fought for the north, but he was born and bred south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Ezra would stake his reputation on that. So the three southerners didn't like or trust their fellow countryman, while the three northerners (or rather two northerners and a westerner, for even though Vin was a Texan, and Texas had been in the Confederacy, you could never call Vin a southerner) liked him. He wondered how Josiah would react to the man if he were there.

+ + + + + + +

Later that day Keble observed Buck watching the blacksmith shoe his horse. He still didn't recognise the man, and yet something nagged at him; not the name, that meant nothing, but he felt there was something familiar about the voice, maybe even the walk, and tall. Men as tall as Wilmington weren't that common, he tried to think of the tall men he had crossed swords with.

Buck had managed to get Mary Travis alone that day and quizzed her about the Senator’s chances if he did indeed run for president. 'Good' was her reply, southerners voted for southerners, and he was a southerner northerners could accept and vote for. More than that she thought he was serious about his candidacy, possible for the next election, in two years time. Apparently Mary thought he was wonderful too, witty, charming, clever, intelligent. Buck wanted nothing more than to tell her what he knew, what he had seen, experienced, but he didn't.

He spent the day wrestling with his conscience. Should he just go on ignoring the man or to try to warn him off, to in effect blackmail the man. Blackmail was a crime, but he wasn't sure it counted if you didn't ask for money, or try to make someone commit a crime. But Buck Wilmington never surrendered, he didn't back down and he didn't walk away, Don Paulo had learnt that lesson, so in his own way had Chris. And he would be damned if he would now!

As Yosemite put new shoes on Max, Buck knew he was being watched. The same stubborn pride that stopped him backing down, made him want to take the lead now. With Max newly shod, he was ready to go out on patrol again - having swapped with a grateful Ezra. So, leading the faithful grey behind him he set out across the street to confront his nemesis.

+ + + + + + +

"We need to talk," Buck stated quietly, but with an unmistakable edge to his voice.

"Indeed, what do we need to speak about?" Keble asked, feigning indifference.

"Vicksburg, more than twenty years ago, winter it was." Buck waited for the Senator to work it out. At first he didn't seem to remember. "Think, you'll get there, I don't know where the others are, or what they're doing, I sure as hell ain't gonna go lookin' for 'um. But you, I got you right here, right now - so listen. I don't give a fuck about you, you're goin' t' hell, that's good enough fer me - now. There was a time I wanted t' kill you myself, slowly, but not now. Now I know yer ain't worth the time nor the trouble. But, you wanna be president. Now that changes things. You ain't fit t' be president of an outhouse. I hear you stand fer president, I tell Mary and any other paper I 'kin find about Vicksburg! Got me?" Still the man didn't seem to remember. "I'm goin' on patrol, if'n yer smart, you'll be packed t' go on the noon stage t'morrow when I git back."

With that Buck mounted up and rode out of town. Miles Keble stood and tried to remember what he was doing in Vicksburg twenty odd years ago. He was living there then, that much was true. His father was the judge; they lived in a fine house just outside the town. He was at college, Harvard, studying law most of the time. Winter, Wilmington had said winter, so he concentrated on the Christmas vacation, some twenty years ago. Wilmington had said 'others', so whatever it was he had done to so enrage the young Wilmington - for Tompkins reported that the man was some four years younger than himself - it was something he had not done alone. And then it hit him, and had anyone been watching the Senator then they would have seen him pale and even stagger slightly at the memory. How had he forgotten, he asked himself.

For some time he just stood and tried to decide what to do. Then he strode over to the sheriff's office where he had seen Larabee earlier.

+ + + + + + +

Buck made no effort to get home early; he took his time, checking every homestead, shack and abandoned building on his route carefully. The sun was getting low as he headed for the town; Max was ambling along on a long rein, sensing his master was in no hurry. They were passing through Archer’s Pass, the trail dropped away to the left down a wooded, rock-strewn slope to the creek. Suddenly there was an explosion, and a flash of light right in front of the faithful Max. Good natured steady and trusting horse that he was, as used to gunfire as he was, Max was still a horse, and a creature of flight. He reared and turned away from the sudden noise and light. Lost in his own dark memories and letting Max take him home, Buck was unprepared for this sudden violent movement, and was thrown from the saddle. After hitting the hard ground, he fell over the edge to roll and tumble down the slope. For a few seconds he was aware of his descent, he even tried to stop it, but then his head hit something, and he was aware of no more.

Miles Keble descended the slope carefully, seeking his prey, intent on finding out if he was dead, determined to hasten his journey to the 'other side' if he wasn't. It had taken some quick thinking and ingenuity on his part to take out Wilmington and hopefully make it look like an accident. He had engaged Chris in a discussion about patrols and what routes his men rode. Chris obligingly showed him a map and pointed out Buck's route. Once he had a spot picked out he emptied gunpowder from several cartridges and filled an oilskin bag with it. Buck was riding a circular route, so he rode out to intercept him as he headed home. The powder-filled bag he placed on the track and covered it with dust leaving a trail of powder to his hiding place. Then he waited; it would be an act of educated guesswork as to when to light the fuse trail, but he had handled his fair share of powder in the war. In the end it worked out perfectly.

When he reached the bottom of the slop he finally spotted Wilmington. He was in the creek, the strong current had washed him away from the bank and he was now resting over a bolder in mid stream. Slumped over the rock, his face just inches from the water he looked dead, the side of his face stained red with blood. Keble wanted to check he really was dead, but that would mean wading into the river, he didn't have a change of clothes, and was unwilling to strip off and wade into the freezing waters, swollen with pale blue mountain melt water. Besides he had to get all the way around the town and approach it from another direction, so he couldn't be implicated in the 'tragic accident'. He still had to remove all evidence of the explosion on the trail. As he stood and watched he noted that the creek was rising rapidly, soon the water would cover Wilmington's face. If he wasn't dead now, he soon would be. Satisfied that Buck Wilmington had interfered in his life for the last time, he left.

+ + + + + + +

No one was particularly worried when Buck had not returned by nightfall, he had been avoiding the town for days, his insistence on riding all the out of town patrols, taking much longer than needed each time. Max, scared by the explosion, had turned around and was retracing the route home, the long way, didn't return to the livery, alone, until after midnight. Only then did the remaining regulators realise that there was more to their tall friend's absence than his current black and uncharacteristically unsociable mood. Vin was on night duty in the jail, he had been dozing when he heard a strange banging. On investigation it turned out to be Max, saddled, sweated up and nosing the livery doors to try and get in. It took only a few minutes to rouse Chris, Nathan and JD; Ezra wasn't asleep, and quickly abandoned his card game. Leaving Nathan in town and equipped with torches, Vin and Chris headed back the way Max had come, JD and Ezra headed up the trail from the other direction.

The noise and commotion brought Keble to his hotel window; he hadn't been able to sleep. He watched the other peacekeepers mount up and leave. Noting the time, he smiled, there was no chance they would find him alive now, the river and the cold would have done its work, if the fall hadn't.

+ + + + + + +

Buck had come back to consciousness suddenly. The icy water washed over his face, and the moment he couldn't breath his brain snapped him awake. Spluttering, he struggled to get his face out of the water, pushing himself up, ignoring the sudden pain as he did, in his instinctive need to keep breathing. Suddenly he lost his balance and fell back into the river, which quickly swept him away. He was still acting on instinct, the need to breathe, to keep his head above water, as he struggled to grab hold of anything to pull himself to safety. His left arm did not seem to work properly, yet his need to gain safety overrode the pain, as he made a desperate grab for an overhanging branch. Fingers numbed with cold and slick with water slipped on the moss-covered branch, but he was determined and managed to get his right hand on it as well. Summoning every ounce of his legendary reserves of strength he pulled himself along the branch, all the time the fast flowing waters trying to drag him away. But he made it, finally collapsing onto the bank, his feet still in the icy water.

He had no concept as to how long he was out, and when he did regain consciousness again he was disorientated, with no memory of how he came to be lying in a freezing river or where he was. He knew he needed to get home, but where was home? It was where Chris was, he knew that. Was Sarah there, he wondered? No, Sarah and Adam were dead, but Chris was there and the kid. He could see him, little short guy, with black hair and an eager face, always talking nineteen to the dozen - what was his name? Slowly, painfully he pulled himself to his feet, instantly his head swam and his stomach rebelled. Clutching a tree to support himself he recovered and looked around. It was dark, but a strong moon shone, illuminating the scene with a strange silvery light that reflected off the frosty ground like a million diamonds. Knowing only that he needed to get home he started out for the town. But in reality he was heading in the wrong direction, away from the town.

His left arm throbbed, his right ankle was painful, he could barely put weight on it, and was forced to hold onto trees to help him as he stumbled on. For how long he went he didn't know, all he knew was he had to stop every now and then as his stomach rebelled repeatedly. Twice he found himself on the ground, with no memory as to how he got there. As he stumbled on he began to get colder and colder, shivering continually, his disorientation became more extreme, and he forgot he was trying to get home and began to think he was still in the war, wandering through enemy held woods, desperately trying to get back to his own lines. He was shivering continually yet stopped to pull off his boots, for despite the freezing temperatures, his brain, confused by cold and concussion, told him his feet were hot. Shooting pains in his feet competed with the throbbing of his ankle, removing the boots was painful but he barely noticed, and now in just his old grey socks, he stumbled on.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Vin met JD and Ezra just over halfway around the patrol route. They had found nothing. By now it was nearly dawn. On Chris' instructions they made camp, brewed coffee, ate some biscuits and jerky while they waited for full daylight. Then they split up again, this time spreading out either side of the track to search for signs. It was nearly midday when Vin suddenly stopped. He had been walking the track leading Peso behind him when he dropped to his knees and picked up a handful of the dusty soil and smelled it, inhaling deeply. Ezra came up behind him, and dismounted.

"Mr Tanner, do you now possess canine qualities, can you trace our missing friend by scent?"

Vin stood up and held the soil out to Ezra. "What do you smell?" he asked.

Ezra leaned back to avoid the proffered hand and its dirty contents. "I would hazard a guess at dirt, but I have no intention to get close enough to find out."

"Damn it Ezra, I'm asking you. What do you smell?" Vin shoved the handful of dirt under his nose one more time.

Ezra leant forward and dutifully inhaled the soil's aroma. Vin was right, something didn't smell right. He inhaled more deeply.

"Gunpowder?" he asked the Texan.

"Right! Though I's imagin' things." With that he moved to the side of the track and looked down the slope, eventually his keen eyes spotted something and handing Peso's reins to Ezra he quickly set off down the steep slope. As Standish watched he pulled himself up short on a tree and examined a branch. Looking back up at a bewildered Standish he called to him. "Go get Chris an' JD!"

"What have you found?" Standish called back.

"Fresh-broken branch. There's a few here, must be where he went over, I'm goin' on down."

It was a good half hour before Ezra and the other two joined him by the river, they decided to search each bank, JD and Chris taking the close bank, and Vin valiantly wading through the icy water to reach the far bank. Ezra returned to the track and kept pace with them from above, leading all four horses. It took some time, but eventually Vin found evidence of someone moving through the wood, staying close to the water, occasionally being violently ill and favouring one leg. Chris and JD crossed over to his side to join the search. It was Vin who found the boots. The short winter day was already drawing in and it was getting dark again. They were thinking about having to re-light the torches when JD spotted a dark mass on the ground.

There, under a tree and curled in a tight ball was Buck Wilmington, pale, almost blue, unresponsive, he didn't appear to be breathing. Chris dropped to his knees beside his oldest friend and placed his finger to his cold neck. He felt nothing.

+ + + + + + +

Chris looked up at the other two; the look on his face was pure desolation. He didn't say anything; he didn't move his hand, he just looked at his best friend and Buck's surrogate kid brother. They all knew what he was 'saying', they were too late.

"No!" JD wailed and dropped to his knees. "He can't …he can't…please, Buck," he pleaded, clutching at the sleeve of his fallen friend’s jacket. Vin also dropped, he placed his arm around JD, unable to find any word of comfort, unable to even comprehend that Buck was gone.

Suddenly Chris felt something, a beat under his fingers, just one, but he felt it. "What the…?" he exclaimed, bending over Buck. "Pal, are you still with us? You stubborn cuss, come on, give me a sign."

Vin and JD held their breath as Chris pulled Buck's shirt back and laid his ear over Buck's chest. He lay there a long time, then he suddenly sat up.

"He's not dead!" he shouted. "I felt a heart beat, and a pulse, it’s very slow but I felt it, come on, we have to get him warm."

JD didn't react for a moment, it was as if all his birthdays had come at once, then he leapt to his feet pulling off his heavy jacket and shouting to Ezra somewhere above them. They wrapped him in their coats and with the help of ropes tossed down by Standish they pulled Wilmington's inert form up the steep valley side. Once on top Vin insisted they strip him of his cold damp clothing before wrapping him in all four bedrolls. Chris sent JD into town to get Nathan. At first he had protested, wanting to stay with his 'big brother' but Larabee pointed out he was the lightest and had the fastest horse.

Nathan was waiting, he just knew when they found Wilmington - and he had no doubt they would find him - his services would be needed. He told JD to get a wagon ready with blankets and quilts and lots of straw. He went to Yosemite and filled two metal buckets with hot coals, these were placed (with lids firmly in place) under the wagon’s bedding to warm it. Sending JD on his way, Nathan set about making his room ready to receive the patient.

JD drove the wagon with all his considerable talent, strength and endurance. He met the others coming down the track, Buck, swathed in bedrolls, lay on a travois pulled by Peso; next to him, also under the covers, was Vin, who knew that shared bodily warmth was Buck's best bet until they could get him safely warmed up.


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