It took nearly two hours to get Buck safely back to Nathan, by which time it was dark; he remained curled up in a foetal position the whole time. Jackson had warmed his bed, he had had Yosemite heat rocks in the forge, and these he wrapped in thick towels and placed in Buck's arm pits, either side of his neck and, much to JD's embarrassment, between his legs close to his groin. Then they tucked the eiderdowns and quilts tightly around him. Nathan could see other injuries but he couldn't even begin to treat most of them until he had warmed Buck up. What he did have to do was treat Buck's bare feet. They were red and swollen - except for the toes, which were white.
"You reckon he's got frost bite?" Chris asked. By now Nathan has shooed everyone but Chris out.
Nathan peered at the long feet protruding from the cocoon of bedding. "No, but he come close I reckon. He ain't goin' far on them fer a bit, that's fer sure."
Nathan then gently washed the feet in warm water and patted them dry, finally he placed three pillows under them before placing a warm rock below the stack of pillows on which they now rested. That done he re-covered them and sat down to wait. He would have to change the rocks every now and then and watch for any changes. This was going to take a long time. Nathan didn't have much experience with cold injuries, but what he did know and what his textbook told him was the most important thing was to warm the patient slowly and gently.
Buck's left ankle was alarmingly swollen and mottled with bruising but that would need treating later, right now he just needed to keep it still. He had a large gash to his head, just above the left ear, and this Nathan patiently cleaned and stitched. He noted the significant swelling around the wound. It indicated a head injury, that and the evidence the guys had see that Buck had vomited repeatedly, did not bode well. Finally he gently removed Wilmington's left arm from the covers. It was swollen and bruised too.
"It broke?" Chris asked.
Nathan ran practised fingers down the limb. "Yup, gonna need settin' too." He looked
up at Larabee. "Might as well do it now, he ain't gonna feel nothin'. I'll need help."
Chris nodded. While Chris held him under the armpit, trying not to dislodge the hot rock, Nathan gave one swift, expert tug on the misalined limb. Buck didn't so much as flinch. Nor did he stir when Nathan splinted the broken bones.
Chris looked on, not bothering to hide his worry and fear. Even though he had pronounced Buck still alive, he couldn't get over how dead he looked. He didn't seem to be breathing; though Nathan said he was, his heartbeat seemed to be only a few beats a minute.
"You ever see anything like this Nate?" he asked, as he pulled up a chair and sat down beside his oldest friend.
"No, not personally, but there's accounts in the books, an I heard about it some in the war - you?"
Chris nodded. "Back home when I was a boy, folk used t' get caught out in the winter sometimes. My grandfather used to tell us this story; seems this man got caught in a spring snow storm, everyone thought he was dead, laid him in a coffin an' everything, then - while he's lain out in the parlour in the coffin - he sits up, wide awake, asking fer a drink. Granddad always said, 'if'n youre cold an' dead, you ain't real dead until your warm an' dead'."
"Wise advice," Nathan commented. He reached out and placed his hand on Buck's pale and still cold neck, it seemed to take forever before he pulled it back.
"Well?" Chris asked.
Nathan shrugged. "It's still there, weak, very, very slow but still there. Go Chris, get some sleep, this is going to take hours, he doesnt know you're here, not yet."
Chris was torn. He was very tired, but he felt he shouldn't leave his oldest friend, after all Buck would never leave him. He glanced across at the small cot on the far side of the room. Nathan followed their fearsome leaders gaze; he suppressed a small smile.
"Youre welcome to the cot, I have to stay up and make sure the rocks stay warm."
Chris crossed the room, and began pulling off his boots. "Nate, if anything "
"I'll wake you," Jackson finished.
"Yeah - thanks."
As Nathan sat there watching for every tiny sign that Wilmington still lived, he thought about what he had told young Mrs Yates about the first time he had wanted to be come a doctor. How his master, the doctor, had never given up on the boy, even when it looked hopeless, the joy on the man's face when the boy began to recover, when he was finally reunited with his family. It was that he had wanted for himself, to feel that kind of joy, to bring that kind of joy to others.
+ + + + + + +
All night, JD made it his job to keep Nathan supplied with hot rocks for Buck. Ezra had taken to his bed, but come the morning he intended to find out who might have set a trap for Buck and why. Vin took jail duty. In the morning, having looked in on Buck, Ezra set out on his quest. By mid morning he was sitting out on the sidewalk watching the town when he saw the Senator come out; he looked happy and relaxed. Ezra's investigations had turned up the interesting information that the Senator's secretary had been asking questions about Buck around the town, and that he had ridden out of town on the afternoon that Buck went missing. He had no idea what history there was between the two men, but that there was history was very clear, and whatever it was, it was bad enough to make Buck actively avoid the man ever since had had arrived in town. That was unusual, although Buck generally liked everyone and took them at face value, when he did dislike someone - not something he did without good reason - he made it clear; he confronted them, he didn't slink about avoiding them, it just wasn't Buck. Ezra decided to see what would happen if he gave the Senator a little bit of a push.
"Good day, Senator," he announced as he came up beside the man.
"Yes indeed, Mr Standish, isn't it?"
"Yes sir. I find myself having to apologise for my fellow regulators, we were somewhat busy yesterday."
"Oh?" Keble asked, innocently. "Anything I should know about?"
"Our colleague, Mr Wilmington went missing while on patrol, we had to search for him for most of yesterday night and all day."
"How distressing, did you find him?"
Ezra kept his eye on the man as he replied. "Eventually. It seems his horse - normally a most trustworthy beast - threw him, and he unfortunately fell some distance down a gully into a swollen creek."
Ezra paused, waiting for a reaction.
"Luckily, Mr Wilmington is a rather, how shall I say, stubborn individual, and most resilient, for though he was half frozen and injured, he is still alive. Even now Mr Jackson is coaxing him back to the land of the living."
Ezra studied the man's face; he had to give him credit, his poker face was very good, but not good enough to fool Ezra P Standish. He saw surprise and anger. Well, well, well, the pigeons come home to roost, Ezra said to himself. You underestimated our Mr Wilmington, didn't you. Though quite why the Senator would want to murder Buck was a different matter.
+ + + + + + +
JD had been up all night for the second night in a row. All night he kept Nathan supplied with hot rocks from the forge ever half hour; without fail he collected the cooled rocks and delivered newly heated ones. By dawn their collective efforts had begun to pay off. Buck's heart beat, pulse and breathing rate had all improved, it was now possible to actually see him breathing, though it was still very slow. Though still pale, he was no longer blue, and Nathan said he now only needed two rocks under his armpits. Chris was now awake, while JD slept in the cot; Nathan wasn't going to leave him until he woke up. However Chris had persuaded him to take a break and have some breakfast. It was while he was sitting at the table eating and Chris was sitting beside Buck, that he began to stir.
He was hot, why was he so damn hot? Buck struggled to understand what was going on. His brain was still unresponsive and sluggish but he still tried to understand what was going on. He had no memory of the fall or his stumbling journey through the frozen wood. He just kept coming back to the fact that he was hot. Struggling with a broken arm and tightly tucked quilts he tried to push the covers off.
"Hey there pal, come on, leave them alone, Buck." Chris stood and bent over his friend, as Nathan came to the other side of the bed.
"Hot," Buck mumbled as he tried to push the covers back again.
"No you're not, come on pal, leave them alone." Chris re-tucked the quilt as he spoke.
"G' off me," Buck mumbled.
Nathan reached in and pulled out the warm rock from below the covers, he nodded at Chris, who despite his reservations removed the other one. Buck did seem to relax a little, no longer actively pushing the covers back. Nathan took his hand to check his pulse and he didn't react, but Nathan did note that his hands were still cold to the touch, so he pulled the covers back up.
"No, hot," Buck muttered, but he didn't try to push the covers off and quickly settled.
Chris looked up. "Why does he think he's hot?"
Nathan didn't know for sure, though he had read of at least one case where a freezing man tried to take all his clothes off, believing he was hot. Satisfied his patient had turned a corner, Nathan decided to leave Chris in charge and head over to Buck's room at the boarding house to get some much-needed sleep. Chris sat beside the bed and just watched. Time seemed to pass quickly, maybe he even dozed off, he wasn't sure. What he did know was that both Ezra and Vin looked in, and were happy to hear that Buck was improving.
Buck improved steadily through out the day, his breathing, pulse and heartbeat increased. Around midday he woke for a second time. Nathan had returned, unable to sleep properly until he was sure Buck would make a full recovery. The first sign that he was waking was that he yet again tried to push the covers off. Then he started to turn over and curl up on his side. Finally deep blue eyes opened, blinking at Chris, who was watching him with concern.
"Chris?" he asked reasonably clearly.
"Yeah pal, welcome back."
Chris smiled as he placed his hand on the broad shoulder before him. "Yup pal, you're home, home safe and sound." Chris watched as a small smile split the still pale and tired features.
Larabee then looked up at Nathan, who was pouring some warm water from the kettle on the stove into a mug and adding honey. He handed the mug with its warm sweet drink to Chris. Understanding what was needed, he placed a hand under Buck's neck and lifted his head, holding the cup to his lips. Wilmington swallowed instinctively when the warm liquid touched his lips, then tried to turn away.
"Come on drink, you need it." Chris made him drink some more, eventually he had drunk more than half the sweet concoction and Nathan indicated that it was enough. Putting the cup down he gently lowered his friend's head back down onto the pillow.
Chris watched as a small smile split his friend's still pale and tired features. "Thanks Chris," he mumbled, clearly loosing the battle to stay awake. "Your home .only one I ever had since Ma, thank Sarah."
With that his eyes closed, and he was once more asleep. Chris looked up at Nathan, alarmed that Buck was apparently so disorientated, but unbelievably moved by his statement about home.
"It's alright Chris, he's just a bit confused, don't forget he's got that bump on the head too." Nathan smiled reassuringly and pulled the quilt back up to once more cover the broad back that now faced him.
When Buck woke again, it was late evening, and JD was sitting beside him.
"Hello," he said hesitantly.
"Buck!" JD exclaimed, a little too loudly. "You're awake."
"Yeah, why am I at Nathan's?" Buck lifted his head to survey the room.
JD grinned. "Max threw you, hit your head and got real cold," he explained, then the grin faded. "When we found you, you were so cold we thought you were dead."
Buck frowned. "I'm alright now?"
"Well? Better I guess, broke yer arm, hit yer head pretty bad and something happened to yer feet, something to do with the cold " he saw real fear flash across his friends expressive face. " but Nate says they'll be all right, if you keep off um fer a bit," JD reassured.
"I don't remember any of that," Buck admitted.
"Well you did hit your head real hard. Look, I'm gonna go get Nate, he's just outside talking to Ezra."
Jackson sent JD to fetch some supper for Buck, while Ezra helped him to prop Buck up in bed and get a nightshirt on him. Despite his protestations that, apart from a sprained ankle, sore feet and a broken arm he was 'fine' he was still very weak, becoming breathless at the slightest exertion. Ezra asked him again if he remembered what happened out on the trail to make Max throw him, but he had no memory of anything between leaving on patrol that day and waking up at Nathan's with JD beside him. Jackson said that this wasn't unusual, given the head injury, and he would probably never remember what happened, he didn't even remember visiting a half dozen farms, ranches and cabins that day.
Ezra sat down beside him, now he was tucked in and settled. "My friend, though you don't remember the events of the last few days, do you remember your enmity with Senator Keble?" he asked quietly.
Deep midnight blue eyes turned on to him, and it was clear he did remember - by he look of it, remembered all too well. "He's still here?" he asked, staring straight ahead.
"Yes, and " Ezra hesitated, " he seemed somewhat perturbed that you survived your ordeal."
Buck did not look at him, but his jaw worked as he tried not to let his anger show.
"There is something else," Ezra started. "On the trail, close to where you fell, Vin found gunpowder." He didn't say more, Buck didn't need the implications spelt out for him.
In response Wilmington just nodded once, then he asked. "Who knows?"
"Just Vin and myself."
"Can you keep it that way - for now?"
Ezra assured that he would, he would indeed speak to Tanner as soon as he left the clinic. Buck nodded, but he still didn't look at Standish. After Ezra and JD had left and he had eaten, Buck lay on his side with his back to the room and claimed he wanted to sleep. Eventually only Nathan was there with him, but Jackson knew enough about the man to leave him alone, besides, he was wrestling with memories of his own.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was tired, and he did sleep but not for long, waking in the small hours unable to get back to sleep. Eventually he decided he needed a drink. The pitcher beside the bed was empty so he decided to get up and get some for himself, his ankle was strapped, and his feet no longer felt numb or tingly, just a little itchy. He managed to get to a point where he was sitting on the edge of the bed, then he had to stop because his head was swimming and he felt nauseous.
"An' just where do you think you're going?" Nathan asked from the cot where he had been sleeping.
"Need a drink."
"Fine, you need a drink, you call me, don't try and get up," Nathan scolded.
"Nate I'm fine, I just need t' get m' breath."
Jackson crossed the room to his stubborn patient. "You are not 'fine' as you lunatics are so fond of saying. And if you go walking on them feet right now yer gonna do permanent harm to um." He pointed to the still red and now blistered feet. "I mean it Buck, you were this " He held his thumb and forefinger about half an inch apart, just visible in the weak lamp light. " close to frostbite. Now get them feet back under the covers and I'll bring you something to drink."
Buck reluctantly agreed, wincing audibly as he inadvertently knocked his splinted broken arm. "Damn!" he swore as he cradled the injured limb until the throbbing pain subsided again.
"You want somethin' fer the pain?" Jackson asked.
Buck shook his head. "Ain't that bad, it'll get better," Buck assured.
+ + + + + + +
The next day, JD tried to keep Buck cheerful and occupied, that was when he wasn't sleeping - which he did a lot - but in truth Buck's black mood hadn't really lifted. He tolerated JD's endless stories and company because it was easier than sending him away. Chris, satisfied that Wilmington was again on the mend, went back to work, and that meant once again entertaining the Senator. He liked the man, he was straight forward, plain-speaking and seemed to genuinely want to learn about the problems of keeping law and order in the territories. The Judge had gone back on the road, visiting various towns, dispensing justice. Vin was much cooler toward the man once Ezra had told him what he knew, and had personally assured Buck, that whatever he wanted to do about the man, he would help him; but the first move was down to Buck.
By the second evening Buck had real cabin fever, but as Nathan kept pointing out, he risked crippling himself if he walked on his cold, damaged feet too soon. Besides, now he was stronger there was something Nathan needed to discuss with the tall gunman.
It was late. Buck was beginning to get sleepy and had settled down under the warm bedding when Nathan came and sat beside him.
"You know, I patch you men up so often, I thought I knew all your scars, but the other day came across some I hadn't see before," he stated.
Buck turned his head toward the dark healer. "Hell Nate, I got s' many even I can't keep track of all of um."
"I guess. Did I tell you about Mrs Yate's twins?"
Nathan sat back. "Not much to tell in truth, but we got talking. She made me remember the first thing that made me want to become a doctor."
Tired or not, Buck was interested, and rolled over to face his friend as he began to tell the story. He told Buck everything he had told Bella Yates, and then continued.
+ + + + + + +
He watched the doctor, carefully and painstakingly clean the wounds that covered the youth. Young Nathan stood beside him, supplying clean water and taking away dirty swabs. Nathan had never see a white person whipped before, he didn't even know white folk whipped their own. Most seven year olds would have been distressed by the sight of a bone protruding from torn flesh, but not young Nathan; he watched, fascinated, as his master set the shattered bones and stitched the flesh back together. He eagerly held the splint boards in place as the injured limb was wrapped up tight. The lawman left, asking to be kept informed about the patient's progress.
The injured boy took a fever, for nearly five nights he tossed and turned as much as the pillows and bolsters the doctor had wedged around him would let him. He muttered and mumbled, he called for his mother, but that was all. The doctor tended him almost constantly, turning many regular patients away unless they were an emergency - much to his wife's annoyance. He showed the ever eager Nathan how to make the poultices to draw the infection out of he wounds, and how to apply them. Nathan made it his mission to keep the boy cool. It was on the fifth night Nathan was watching over the boy in the big bed when he realised his eyes were open.
"Hello," he said quietly. "You're awake." Nathan stepped closer, as the boy looked down at his splinted arm. "Your arm's broke, the bone come through the skin, I saw it, it was kinda yellow."
Suddenly Nathan stopped speaking and looked over his shoulder as the doctor came into the room. The boy on the bed looked up at the kindly doctor, but said nothing.
"I hear young Nathan has been telling you about your arm." Doctor Morrison kept his tone soft as he knelt down next to the bed. "He is a mite bloodthirsty, but don't worry, I have set a lot of bones in my day, and I have no doubt this will heal just fine. My boy, someone hurt you very badly, but you are safe here, and you are going to get better."
The boy looked down again at his arm, then as he looked up at the doctor with a mixture of fear and relief, his eyelids fluttered and closed.
When the boy woke the second time, Nathan was right there again. He looked at him, then involuntarily licked his lips. Young Nathan leapt to his feet, and ran across the room to pour a glass of water. Once he had held the glass so the boy could drink, he ran to find the doctor. Once again the doctor assured his patient that he was going to be all right and he was safe, but still the boy was silent.
"Can you tell me your name?" the doctor asked - he got no response. "Can you tell me what happened?" No response, in fact the boy looked away. "Well never mind, maybe next time? Nathan?"
"Go and tell cook to heat up some broth for our patient."
"Yessir, I'll be real quick, don't worry."
When he did return, the boy was propped a little higher in the bed, and as he stood and watched, the doctor with infinite care spoon-fed the broth into the boy. For the next few days the boy just ate and slept silently. Not just silent, he didn't nod or shake his head, he didn't so much as smile or give any indication that he had heard or understood what was said to him. He did understand, and would follow instructions when his bandages needed changing, never once indicating that the process was painful - which it must have been - never once did he respond to his carers. Eventually young Nathan gathered up the courage to ask his master a question. He followed the doctor out into the hall.
"Mas'er doctor sir?" he asked.
"Why don't the young sir say nothing?"
"Well " Doctor Morrison began, " he has been through a terrible ordeal, and his mind doesnt want to remember it, so if he's not here, if he isn't hurt, it didn't happen. Do you understand?"
Nathan cocked his head on one side. "I thinks so sir." And in a way he did. His father had told him that even in the worst state of slavery and captivity a man was still free in his mind, that his mind could take him anywhere. Young Nathan was just beginning to understand what his father had tried to explain to him. Later that night, Nathan was sleeping on the little cot that the doctor had set up in the sick room. Suddenly he was awake, looking across he saw the boy sitting up in the bed, so he pulled himself up and padded across the room on bare feet.
Are you alright sir?" he asked, naturally he got no reply, so he turned up the lamp. Once he had more light Nathan could see beads of perspiration on the boys face and chest. Mimicking the doctor, he stood on tiptoe and reached out his hand and laid it on the boy's forehead. It felt hot to him, so he ran to the basin and poured out some water, soaking a cloth and folding it carefully he came back to the bed.
"Come on sir, lie down, and I'll fetch the doctor for you." The boy followed instructions, like he always did, allowing Nathan to place the cloth on his forehead. Than just as Nathan was turning to go he said.
Nathan turned back. "You spoke," he exclaimed.
The boy just smiled at him. The fever proved to be short-lived and not too severe. Nathan stayed with the boy as much as he could, and little by little he spoke more, though only to Nathan and only when they were alone. He never told him his name and never would tell anyone what happened. Some five days after that, it all came to an end. Nathan was in the kitchen when he heard a commotion. A woman, a tall woman in a red dress swept into the house. As Nathan followed she went upstairs behind the doctor and into the boy's room.
"Oh my God!" she exclaimed from the doorway. "Oh my darlin', my baby." She advanced into the room, and the boy sat up, tears in his eyes, for the first time.
"Ma. Ma you came back, oh Ma." He wrapped his arms, splints and all, around his mother's waist and held on to her, sobbing.
"Hush darlin', hush now, I'm here," she bent over him, running her fingers through his hair and kissed the top of his head.
Standing in the doorway the seven-year-old Nathan smiled to see the boy who had been so silent and sad come to life, to see the sheer joy on his face when he saw his mother. In the next hour the patient was moved to a hired coach and before Nathan knew it he was gone. But just before the carriage left, the woman in the red dress knelt in front of the bemused slave boy.
"My son has told me how kind you have been, how you made him feel safe. Thank you, thank you so much." She kissed him on the cheek. "Here, take this." She pressed a silver dollar into his hand.
Then Nathan watched her and her son drive away. No white person had ever spoken to him like that, not even the doctor. For the first time in his young life, someone other than his parents made him feel like he wasn't a slave.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan continued. "I used to think he was so much older than me, but looking back he never once needed a shave, so he must have been quite young. I always wondered what happened to him. By now his scars would have faded quite a bit, those ones on his back would be no more than faint lines, on a white men they would me almost invisible most of the time just like the ones on your back. But the one on his wrist, a 'V' shape, right here." He held up his own wrist to indicate where the scar would be. "That would still be quite clear, just like the one I found when I splinted your arm."
For a long time, Buck said nothing, he just starred at Nathan. Finally he said.
"I never got to thank you, I'm sorry about that, we went back when I was better, but you were gone."
Nathan slipped off the chair and knelt on the ground next to the bed, so he could speak to Buck on his level. He placed a hand on his friend's shoulder.
"You don't need to apologise, not ever. That first time you spoke you said 'thank you', and when you saw your ma, an' you were so happy; that was the best 'thank you' I could ever have. When I saw that, I was so proud that I helped you to get better, so you could see your ma again. I wanted to make everyone that happy, that's why I wanted to become a healer, that's why I learnt the healing ways of my people. Why, when I ran away I volunteered to be a stretcher bearer - because of you."
"Jesus, I don't know what to say," Buck admitted.
"I don't think this something where words are needed."
"No, maybe not. Kinda weird don't you think, that we should meet all these years later - and not even know it, not for a while anyway."
"Josiah is going to have a field day with it - fate, he loves fate."
Wilmington chucked at that, rolling to lie on his back.
"Can I ask you something?"
"I guess, what?"
"What happened to you all them years ago?"
Buck didn't say anything, his good arm came up to rest over his eyes. Finally he said. "Oh God, do you know how I have tried to forget that, tried to pretend it didn't happen?"
"Have you ever succeeded in forgetting it?"
"No," he admitted, "Not once."
"Have you ever told anyone, your ma?"
Buck shook his head.
"Maybe now is the time, maybe if you talk about it "
For a long time Wilmington said nothing, then he lowered his arm, and gave a sigh. "Maybe," he admitted.
+ + + + + + +
Buck let his arm fall away from his face but continued to stare at the ceiling. "I was a few months off sixteen, my Ma was going away for a couple of weeks or so on a 'business' trip on a river boat. I went down to the dock to see her off, then I followed the boat from the bank for as far as I could, but eventually it was getting dark so I turned back for home. I'd gone fer about half an hour when I heard a woman scream, somewhere in land, so I went to investigate."
Nathan would have expected no less from his chivalrous friend; even at fifteen, he was defending women.
"I found these four men, young, older than me, but still young, and a Negress. They were in a clearing in the woods; the men were in a kinda circle with her in the middle. They they were pushing her around, between them, every time one of them pushed her away he tore a bit of her clothing off. She was crying, pleading with them to let her go."
Nathan could well imagine the scene, had seen such things more than once.
"I told them to stop, to let her go, but they just laughed, they asked me if I wanted her for myself, told me to join the fun or walk away. I I just couldn't do it, I couldn't leave her there alone, so I tried to grab her an' run. What an idiot! There were four of 'um, I should'a gone fer help, 'cept the nearest place was near a half hour away and I didn't think they would well you know "
"They wouldn't care or want to get involved, most likely both," Nathan supplied.
Buck nodded, then continued. "The leader hit me, he was bigger then me. I was tall, but he was bigger, I was kinda skinny then " Nathan noted that Buck was hardly fat now, lean was how you would describe Buck Wilmington, but at fifteen he must have been all long arms and legs, no doubt uncoordinated like a yearling colt. " and I went down hard. Should'a stayed down, but I got up and charged in t' him. One of the others came over and held me while the leader laid in t' me, finally, while I was on the ground he stamped on my arm."
"And broke it."
"Yeah. All that time, she, the woman, was shoutin' at them t' stop, they could have her, but t' leave me alone. After he broke my arm the fight kinda wen' out a' me. They pulled me up and tied me t' a tree, thought I was gonna faint when they pulled that rope on my broke arm. Then they went back to the woman, if I looked over my shoulder I could see them, but I didn't want t' look. Wished there was some way to close my ears too, but I had t' listen, no way out of it. They they " He couldn't continue.
"They raped her." Nathan whispered. Buck nodded; tears ran from the corner of his eyes. "All of them?" Nathan asked. Buck nodded. "More than once?" Nathan asked, not really wanting to know the answer. But Buck nodded again.
There was silence for a long time after that, finally he started again. "When they were done, the leader, said he had to teach me a lesson, said if I loved slaves so much, I would have to be treated like one. He went to his horse and got a whip. The woman started begging them not to do it, even after everything they had done to her, she was still tryin' to help me. But they didn't stop of course, he ripped my shirt off and whipped me. I kept thinkin' I'll pass out an' it'll be over but I didn't. I could hear her crying; still tryin' to get them t' stop. When he was done, they untied me, made me look at her; she was naked, dirty and bleeding. They told her t' run - she tried to grab her clothes, but they snatched them back, made her run off naked.
He looked at me, I ain't ever gonna forget his face, his voice, he told me his dad was a judge, an' no one would believe me if I told anyone about what had happened. Then they all laid in t' me again. I don't remember anything much after, 'til I woke up with you watching me."
Much as he seethed for what was done, not only to the young woman, and his friend, his heart went out to Buck. For a man who cared so much about women, who had made it his life's mission to protect women, all women no matter what their age or race, to have been forced to watch and listen to a gang rape, and be helpless to stop it, must have been torture.
"You did everything you could have Buck, you didn't make it any worse, maybe having you there to beat on, meant they didn't beat on her. But I know it must have meant a lot to her, that you - a young white man - tried to stop it. Ain't many white men, even now, let alone then, there, that would have done that."
Suddenly he had a flash of insight.
"It was him, wasn't it? Keble, he was the leader?" he asked suddenly.
"Yeah, it was him. The moment I heard that voice, saw that face - he hasn't changed that much - I knew him. I tell you Nathan, I wanted to kill him right there in the saloon. But I didn't, an' I could have left it, I was happy he was goin' t' hell. Then JD said he wanted to be president. That man can't be president. So I tried to stop him."
"You threatened him, told him you'd tell the world what he did?"
"Yeah, dumb move as it turned out." Buck turned to Nathan. "I don't remember it, but Ezra says Vin found gunpowder on the trail, seems someone spooked Max deliberately."
"No prize fer guessin' who that was," Nathan commented.
Buck lay back on the pillows. "She was different, that woman. Her hair was long. Most of the slave women, they had that short hair, with them little braids or them little spiky things, 'else they tied it up in a scarf, but not her. Her hair was long, bit like Rain actually, and tied back with a red ribbon; even as she ran away, she still had her red ribbon. Most of them women wore white dresses, but not her. When I first saw her she had on a blue dress, blue like the sky, an' a white apron, with a "
"Daisy embroidered on it." Nathan finished
Buck sat up. "Yes, but how did you -?" He looked at his friend, at the look of pure rage on the normally placid face. "Nate? What's going on?"
Nathan stood up, and crossed to the door, from the hook on the back he picked up his gunbelt and strapped it on. Buck sat up further.
"Nate! Tell me what's the matter."
Nathan turned back to his patient. "Don't try an' walk on them feet yet, I'll be back Oh an' Buck."
"Thanks, for what you tried t' do fer her, it means a lot t' me, I'm sorry it cost you s' bad." Then before Buck could say anything he was gone.
"Nathan! Nate, stop!" There was no reply. "Hell and damnation!" Buck swore at the closed door. He looked around for his clothing, which, thanks to Ezra, was clean and pressed and hanging over the end of the bed. It took longer than he would have liked to pull on his pants and a shirt. What he hadn't been prepared for was the excruciating pain of putting weight on his feet, especially the left with its sprained ankle. He managed to pull on the clean thick woollen socks, but boots were out of the question. But he had to get to Jackson before he did something very rash - understandable as his reaction was, if he confronted the Senator now, it could be disastrous.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan was aware that the Senator was in the habit of dictating notes and letters to his secretary in the saloon. He had taken over - much to Ezra's annoyance and Inez's indignation - the table on the raised platform. When Nathan strode in, the saloon was all but deserted. The only occupants were the Senator at his customary table, and Ezra at the bar with Inez, counting the takings.
"You!" Nathan turned toward the Senator's table and pointed.
"What the hell do you want, boy?" he asked, clearly irritated.
Nathan seethed. "Don't you 'boy' me, you bastard!" he ground out, stepping closer.
"Look, I don't know what you think youre doing, but I suggest you change your attitude to me, you insolent upstart, and remember your place and who you're talking to - BOY!" the politician barked.
The cocking of Nathan's pistol silenced him. "I ain't your boy, nor anyone's. I am a free man, a citizen like you, and a lawman. And right now I am debating whether to arrest you or just shoot you - shooting is my preferred option."
Ezra, shooed Inez to the back of the bar where if bullets did start to fly, she would be safe. Then he crossed slowly until he was standing slightly forward of Nathan and to his side.
"Mr Jackson, is there a problem here?" he enquired.
"Stay out'a this Ezra, ain't got nothing to do with you," Nathan warned in a low threatening voice.
"This establishment is owned by my beloved mother, so I do feel if there is to be any unpleasantness within its fine walls, it is my business."
"Ezra, I'm warnin' you, stay out of it."
Keble looked to Standish. "Mr Standish, I ask you as one southern gentlemen to another, do something about this deranged person."
"Sir, I would never interfere in the estimable Mr Jackson's business, I am sure he has good reason for his actions. You do have good reason don't you Mr Jackson?" he asked more quietly.
"Oh I got reason alright, a real good reason. Now stay out of it!"
"You see Senator, Mr Jackson has a very good reason, far be it for me to interfere in Mr Jackson's affairs." Ezra, his hand on the butt of his gun, stepped back without taking his eye off either of them.
"Nate!" Buck called from the saloons swing doors. Jackson didn't look around but called out.
"Stay out of it Buck, please, it's between me and him."
Ignoring this Buck limped his way into the room, despite Ezra signalling him to keep back, he made his way around Nathan to stand between the Senator and the healer. He was facing Nathan.
"Buck, get out'a the way," Nathan snarled.
"Can't do that Pal, just can't, not 'till you put the gun down, come on Nathan this ain't the way."
+ + + + + + +
Tompkins had been sent to get some notes from his room. He came in just as Nathan raised his gun to threaten his boss; backing out he had run to the jail to get help. Inez, had like wise slipped out and roused JD from his bad. All this running in the street had woken Vin, sleeping not in his wagon - it was too cold for that - but in the hayloft at the livery. Tompkins, Chris and Vin arrived a little while behind Buck, and almost simultaneously with JD who slipped into the bar from the kitchen.
"What way is there Buck? You know there is no justice for my people, especially in Mississippi, this is what he deserves." Nathan growled.
"Yeah he does, I wanted t' kill him with my bare hands as soon as I knew who he was. Wanted to, but I didn't, 'cause that would hurt me more then him. He's a Senator for God's sake, you kill him, they ain't gonna never stop chasin' ya us, 'cause I wouldn't let ya go alone."
"Ain't askin' fer yer help Buck." Nathan's gun didn't waver.
"I'm in it, like it or not, and you know it. Please listen to me Nate, put, the, gun, down. I'll testify, to all of it, I promise " Back looked over Nathan's shoulder. "Chris 'll arrest him, and I'll file charges, I swear."
"What charges?" Chris asked calmly from the door.
Nathan's eyes acknowledged his presence, but that was all.
"Rape and assault, maybe attempted murder as well," Buck supplied.
"Serious charges, can you substantiate them?"
"Good enough. JD?" Chris called out, having seen Dunne come in from the kitchen.
"Arrest the Senator."
"Sure Chris." JD didn't stop to question the orders, if Chris said do it, that was good enough for JD.
"Don't move JD," Nathan warned. JD looked over to Chris for a lead, where Vin, standing behind Chris gave him a signal to stay put.
"Nate this is wrong, you know that, it isn't your way," Buck pleaded.
"You don't understand, that woman, that dress, it was her "
The moment Buck mentioned the blue dress, Nathan could see her, her flowing hair, and Buck had been right, it was just like Rain's, tied up in the red ribbon his father had found one day, snagged on a bush. He had kept the ribbon safe for two years, waiting to give it to the woman he married. Her blue dress was a gift from her former mistress, given when the young woman was married and moved away. The daisy on the apron was put there by her from scraps of thread, gleaned from doing the mistresss sewing. Nathan had sat at her knee outside their cabin on summer evenings and watched her sew it in.
Now it was Buck who had a flash of inspiration. "You mean the woman, she was your ?"
Nathan nodded. "Same place, same time, same attack, same dress, hair, apron. It was her."
"Buck?" Chris asked.
Before he answered, Buck looked to Nathan to get permission, and receiving it, spoke, but didn't take his eyes of Nathan. "The Senator here was one of the men who raped Nathan's ma, them that caused her t' kill herself."
Instantly Vin and Ezra pulled their guns and levelled them at Keble.
"Can you prove it?" Chris asked.
"I was there."
"Buck tried to stop them," Nathan added. "And he was whipped for his trouble, beaten half to death."
Chris knew of the scars on his old friend's back, but had never asked about them, and Buck had never volunteered the information. But he accepted it at face value, nodding his acknowledgement.
"Please Nate " Buck stated again and then stopped as a wave of pain from his damaged feet hit him. He paled, went grey with pain in fact; it was more pain than he could hide.
"Buck, get off them feet, before you cripple yerself," Nathan scolded.
"No, not until you put the gun down, please Nate, she wouldn't want this, not this way. She must be very proud of you, I always believe my Ma is watching over me, reckon yours is too. Look at you, lawman, healer, respected member of the community. She must be real proud I reckon. How will she feel when you're runnin' fer yer life? When the headlines say 'Negro lawman murders US Senator', and they will say that, all they'll see is a white man killed by a black one. Think what it will do to yer people. It won't bring her back, it won't get her justice."
"He is right, Mr Jackson, they will not see the terrible injury done to your mother, they will just use it as an excuse to further wrong your people," Ezra said in a soft slow voice.
Tears ran unchecked down Nathan's cheeks. "He killed her Buck, just as sure as if he'd put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger, he killed my mama."
"I know, and he will pay, but legally. Nate?"
Finally the gun wavered and lowered. His mission accomplished, Buck's resolve to remain on his feet failed, and he reached out a hand to find a chair. Missing the one he was aiming for he crashed to the ground as Nathan snapped out of the daze he had been in and ran to him.
"Ezra, JD, arrest the Senator, Vin keep an eye on the other one." Chris ordered as he too moved to help Buck into a chair.
Suddenly, from nowhere - or so it seemed - the Senator produced a derringer, just like Ezra's.
"Now lets all just calm down," he ordered, brandishing it wildly at the two approaching lawmen.
Nathan had already pulled off Buck's socks and was examining the blistered and swollen feet. Buck, despite his normal stoicism, flinched as Nathan probed the blisters that had burst. "Damn fool," he muttered to himself.
When the Senator pulled his gun everyone froze.
"I don't doubt your mother suffered some terrible ordeal, but I had nothing to do with it, nor did I harm Mr Wilmington," he stated.
"I was there, you bastard, I remember you, I remember as if it was yesterday, yer face, yer voice, I remember it all." Buck's voice was thin and hard with pain.
"You, what kind of witness are you, a killer for hire, a lothario, with a reputation as a scoundrel, a fatherless bastard. How are you gonna remember what happened twenty-three years ago?"
"Who said anything about twenty-three years?" Chris asked coolly.
The Senator was momentarily flustered, than his eyes locked on Buck. "Well he did, the other day."
"I said 'more than twenty years'," Buck corrected. "But it was twenty-three, almost exactly, as it happens. It was you, of that I have no doubt, you don't forget the man that made you listen to that, and than flays the skin off yer back. And you know it - otherwise why try t' kill me by spooking my horse?"
"So now you're blaming me for acts of God? This is laughable."
"I found gunpowder on the trail, right were Buck wen' over," Vin confirmed.
"And you rode out after you got me to show you Buck's route," Chris remembered, standing up to face the man.
JD had now moved closer, standing on the other side of Chris. Buck made a move to stand up but Nathan stopped him, finally focusing on the present, his present; healing people, making sure the man who tried to save his mother wasn't crippled because of what he tried to do. While Vin remained in the doorway with Tompkins, the other three ringed the corner platform, Chris in the centre, JD to his left, Ezra to his right.
"I have a weapon, similar to that one, if not identical. You have but two shots, you will only be able to get off one shot, than you will die," Ezra cautioned.
"You can't kill Buck or Nathan, they are safely shielded, so who is it to be?" Chris asked.
"What did we ever do to you?" JD added.
All the time the three of them were advancing on the man, and as they did, the tiny gun swung wildly back and fourth.
"Derringers are notoriously inaccurate you know; if you are going to use it, I do suggest you keep it still." Ezra was now standing close to Chris, about to mount the steps.
"Or you could miss, than you'll be dead and we'll all still be alive." JD was now also close to Chris as all three began to mount the steps.
"You can't prove anything, I'm a US Senator!" he backed up a little more, heading toward the window. "You can't prove it - who the hell is gonna believe the testimony of some kid, more than twenty years after the event? No one, thats who! Look at him, hardly a model citizen. Who the hell would believe him?"
Buck was about to defend his own honour when Nathan, kneeling at his feet, put a hand on his knee.
"He isn't worth your breath," he whispered.
Buck smiled down at him, and nodded. They had both accepted that 'getting' Keble, wasn't worth their lives, or their freedom.
The other three lawmen were now mounting the steps. "Put the gun down Senator, there is no way out of this, just put it down and come quietly," Chris spoke slowly, in quiet, measured tones.
"You have no authority over me, stay back!"
The gun was again waving wildly, and by now his back was against the window. He glanced over his shoulder to see his hired horse standing patiently outside. An escape - he could just mount up an ride away, back to Washington and Mississippi, back where he was safe, where he could do what he wanted without jumped up negroes and cocky bastards interfering. He suddenly kicked out with his left boot shattering the window. Before anyone could stop him he had leapt through the broken window. Vin, grabbing Tompkins by the scruff of the neck, ducked out of the saloon and back onto the sidewalk. The sudden crash had startled the horse outside; Gone Away skewed around to stand up against the water trough. As Keble crashed to the ground outside the saloon, his only thought was to get to the horse and away. Heedless of his many cuts he half stumbled, half fell toward the already startled horse. Not seeing the water trough he fell over it, crashing headfirst to the street with his feet still hooked over the edge. In the darkness the palsied and much maligned Gone Away kicked out at the strange object that had suddenly invaded the vulnerable space between his legs. There was a sickening crack before the horse skipped away from the thing that had scared him.
Vin let go of Tompkins and gun in hand ran to the fallen Senator.
"Nate!" he shouted instinctively.
Nathan looked up at Buck. "Don't move, I mean it, do not move," he warned.
It was a superfluous warning. Buck had no intention of walking ever again at that moment, but he obediently nodded at Nathan as he turned to go. By the time he got to Keble, the man was lying on his back; Vin had lifted his feet of the water trough. By the light spilling out of the saloon and the street fires, he could see the man's eyes were open, he was gasping for breath, his eyes moved one or two times, as if he was searching for something, then there was one last gasp and he stopped moving. Nathan knelt down beside him; by now the other three were watching from the broken window. He checked for a pulse, there was none, nor any discernible breathing or heartbeat. As he ran his hand over the man he found a huge dent in his skull big enough to get his fist in. Satisfied that man was dead, for no one could survive that kind of head injury, he stood up and shook his head.
"What the hell is goin' on?" Buck demanded from behind everyone.
JD turned back. "He's dead, looks like his horse kicked him."
"Good, always knew that horse was good fer something," he commented, in too much pain to be polite or diplomatic.
Chris came out onto the sidewalk, and looked down at the body. "JD, go find Yosemite, get this off the street. Ezra, go and make sure Inez is alright, Vin " He looked up. "take Mr Tompkins back to his hotel room. Mr Tompkins?"
"Yes sir?" the secretary answered nervously.
"How you explain this is up to you, so long as you keep our names out of it, are we clear?"
"Very, Mr Larabee sir."
"Nate, you and me better see about getting that big lug in there back in bed."
Considering the prospect of carrying the not inconsiderable bulk of one Buck Wilmington, Chris shook his head and said out loud. "Where is Josiah when you need him?"
Suddenly out of the gloom came Sanchez's big chestnut. "Right here, what's been going on?" he asked looking at the dead body and the ruined window.
"Just puttin' out the trash," Chris said ruefully.
"Cleanin' up the neighbourhood," Vin added.
"History," said JD.
"And chivalry, Mr Sanchez," Ezra added.
Nathan finally stopped staring at the dead eyes that stared up at nothing. "Justice, my friend real justice."
"And fate!" came Buck's dismembered voice from the saloon.
A smile as wide as the Grand Canyon split Josiah's face. "Ah, Fate! My favourite lady. Knew she'd be along!"
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