Second Chances

by LT

Part 1 -3 | Part 4 - 7 | Part 8 - 11
Part 12 - 14 | Part 15 - 16 | Part 17 - 18
Part 19 - Epilogue

Part Twelve

Nathan arrived in Eagle Bend just before sunset. He had ridden hard all the way there and he immediately took his horse to the local livery and told the man working there to rub the horse down and give him some extra oats. His next stop was the stage coach office. He approached the man behind the counter and waited until he was done with the woman standing before him.

When it was his turn, he asked, "Have you seen a well dressed man today, about five ten, one gold tooth, Southern accent? He would have probably been here about one o'clock."

"Can't recall anyone with that description. My memory plays tricks though sometimes." The man held out his hand.

Nathan shook his head. He was in no mood to play games with this man. In fact, he felt like beating the shit out of the man. He needed his help though and so he dug into his pocket and dug out a gold dollar. "It's all I got, mister. Look, I'm from Four Corners. Have you heard about the seven who protect that town? Well, the man I'm looking for swindled Larabee in a card game and I would imagine that even you might know how upset Mr. Larabee is. He sent me out to try to find where the gambler went. Now, one more time, have you seen him?"

"Yeah, he was in early afternoon. He was just in time to make the north bound stage. Let me see," he rifled through some papers. "He bought a ticket to Denver. He has a lay over in Sweetwater tonight. You'd have to ride hard to make it by morning, mister."

"Thanks. Appreciate the help." Nathan turned and walked out the door. His horse would never be able to make it to Sweetwater tonight. Fortunately, Vin was on his way to Sweetwater if he wasn't there already. Ezra obviously didn't know the stage schedule or where he wanted to go when he left Four Corners or he would have gone straight to Sweetwater himself. Nathan smiled to himself. Vin would retrieve Ezra and bring him back home. Nathan would find a place to sleep tonight and go home in the morning.

A thought struck Nathan and he headed back to the livery. The man who looked after the horses was dutifully rubbing Nathan’s gelding down. He looked up as the black man entered.

"Did you buy any horses today, Sir? A real nice bay gelding?" Nathan looked around quickly but did not spot Chaucer in one of the stalls. "He got stolen out of Four Corners yesterday by a swindler on the run from Larabee and his gang."

"He was stolen? I swear I didn’t know he was stolen. You that nigra that runs with Larabee?" The livery man was wiping his hands on a rag.

"Yeah, I am. Now, where’s the horse? It belongs to one of my fellow regulators and he and Larabee ain’t too happy it got stolen."

"He’s out in the corral. You can have him Mister but," he swallowed hard and then added, "If ya find the swindler, could I maybe get my money back. I paid the thief fifty bucks fer that horse."

Nathan grinned. "I think maybe we could arrangement repayment. Hold on to him and I’ll take him back with me in the morning. Your doin’ a real fine job there. Thanks." With that taken care of, Nathan turned and made his way to the hotel in town.

Vin had stopped to let his horse drink from the stream that ran close to the road. He was about an hour out of Sweetwater. He looked up at the sun and figured he would get to town shortly after dark. He was filling his canteen when he heard the riders approaching. He stopped what he was doing and, careful to remain undercover, he made his way to the bushes lining the roadway. There were five men on horseback, headed toward Sweetwater, and Vin immediately recognized two of them. Thaddeus Ferguson, Rory's oldest brother, and George McMichael, the foreman of Ferguson's ranch, were in the lead.

Vin bit his lip, trying to decide what his next move should be. If Ezra had gone to Sweetwater, as Vin suspected he had done, then Vin had to stop the five men headed in Ezra's direction. Vin knew the stage to Denver ran out of Sweetwater and when he picked this town to check out first, he knew that he was going to find Ezra. Finding him and keeping him alive were quickly becoming Vin’s responsibility. Vin knew that the five men that had just passed him weren't gunfighters but he imagined that they were all fair shots. Ranch hands usually were. They had plenty of time to practice and plenty of opportunities to use their guns. Between killing vermin that were bothering the stock and hunting for food, cowboys tended to use their guns a lot.

Vin moved back to his horse and mounted. He was going to have to lead these men away from town, giving Ezra time to leave Sweetwater. If he could lead them far enough away and then circle back and arrive before dawn, he might have a chance of getting Ezra out of town before Ferguson's men arrived.

Vin moved as quickly as possible and got in front of the riders before he made his way back to the road. He waited until they were in sight and then he fired his rifle. He had aimed high so that he wouldn't hit any of them for they were truly ranch hands and not murderers. They scattered and fired back at him. He shot a few more times and then, timing it the best he could, he showed himself. He knew they would recognize him just as he had them.

"Ezra, let's go!" he called out and then he mounted his horse and took off, away from Sweetwater, back towards Four Corners. He looked back over his shoulder and smiled to himself. They were following but far enough behind to prevent any shots being fired. They were also far enough behind so they never got a clear view of Vin. The men following him believed that Ezra was with him. So far, everything was going as planned.

Ezra sat in the stagecoach headed for Sweetwater and then beyond to Denver. He stared out the window but he didn't see the scenery. His mind was back in Four Corners where one of the best friends he had ever had was being placed in a coffin. He knew deep inside himself that Rory had fired the fatal bullet but still he felt responsible. Why didn't he stay closer to Buck? Why had he stopped to check on a cat? Why didn't he see Rory before it was too late? The dark scene kept playing out, over and over, in his mind. He closed his eyes and the red blood colored his mind. A tear escaped his eye and fell silently down his cheek. He suppressed the sob that threatened to escape his mouth. He reached a hand to his face to wipe away the trace of the tear.

The man sitting across from him cleared his throat. He was the only other person in the coach. Ezra had barely noticed him when he got in the stage behind him at Eagle Bend. Ezra turned his head and saw the man staring at him.

"Can I do somethin' for you, sir?" Ezra said quietly, with a touch of venom. He didn't want to be disturbed right now.

"I'm bored." The man smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "I thought we could talk for a while. Sorry to have bothered you."

Ezra looked at the man who was obviously a salesman. He was slight of build, balding, with a kind face. Ezra suspected he had to work very hard at sales for he didn't seem overly gregarious or rude, which seemed to Ezra to be a salesman's demeanor. The man looked bedraggled and tired to the bone.

"No, it is I who am sorry. I apologize. My mind is preoccupied. My name is Ezra, Ezra Standish." He reached out his hand to the man on the bench seat across from him.

"Hiram Abernathy. I sell eyeglasses for a living. Are you from Eagle Bend?"


"I'm from just outside of Denver. Haven't been home in three months. Sure am anxious to get there. It's my little girls birthday Thursday. She'll be six. I sure hope I can make it. How bout you? Got any kids?"

"No. I attempt to earn a living so to speak indulging in games of chance. I am enroute to the fair city of Denver to try my hand at the gaming establishments there."

"No home or family, huh? That's too bad. My wife and kids are everything to me. If it weren't for them, I think I’d just shrivel up and die. I hate my job but it pays the bills. Gambling sounds like a tough way to make a living. You meet some interesting people in your line of work?"

Ezra relaxed and fell into easy conversation with Hiram. He liked this little man who loved his family. "Some interesting people. I always wanted to have a family and home but I guess it's not in the cards, so to speak. You know, Hiram, the stage isn't due into Denver until Saturday."

"Yeah, I know. That's why I've rented a buggy in Sweetwater. I'm going to travel at my own pace across country to Santa Fe. I can get a direct stage to Denver from there and get into Denver Thursday afternoon. In my line of work, I get to know all the fastest ways to travel from point A to point B. You wouldn't be interested in joining me, would you? I was robbed about two months ago and I'm a little scared to travel by myself late at night. It would be free and the dust isn't so bad. What do you say?"

Ezra thought a moment and then he smiled and said, "My good man, I would be delighted to join you in your cross country sojourn. I really detest traveling by stage. I promise not to engage you in a game of chance, my friend, because I like you."

Hiram laughed and then he said, "You looked awfully sad a few minutes ago. You want to talk about it. Sometimes it helps."

"No. It's nothing you can be of any assistance with and my grief is my own."

Vin arrived in Sweetwater shortly after dark. He made his way to the best livery in town and let the boy that worked there take care of his very tired horse. Vin noticed the stage coach sitting there and he asked the boy if he knew where the stage had come from.

"It came in from Eagle Bend about three hours ago."

"You mind if I look around a bit, boy? I'm lookin' for a friend I'm supposed to meet here and I'm not sure how he was going to get here. He owns a cantankerous bay gelding with two white stockings. Would have come in this afternoon."

"No horse like that here mister. Maybe tomorrow, huh?'

Yeah, maybe tomorrow. You say the stage came in from Eagle Bend? Did you see who got off?" It was worth asking.

"Nah. Didn't pay it any mind. Driver's over at the Blowin' Sage Saloon. Might ask him."

"Thanks, kid. You been a big help. Rub him down good, okay?" Vin patted his horse and then threw the boy a two bits for his help. He made his way to the saloon and upon entering, he inquired which of the men inside was the stage coach driver. One of the patrons pointed to a loud man at the bar.

Vin approached him and leaned on the bar beside him. "What cha drinkin', Pard? I'm buyin'."

The driver eyed him and the said, "Whiskey, and not the cheap stuff."

Vin motioned for the bartender to bring two. "You the driver of the stage that came in from Eagle Bend today?"

"Yeah. What you want?"

"There didn't happen to be a man with a gold tooth, all duded up, on your stage, was there?"

"Why do you care?"

"He's a friend of mine and he thinks he did somethin' he didn't do. Just want to set him straight."

"Yeah. He and a little guy, salesman I think."

"You didn't happen to see which hotel he went to, did you?"

"Don't think they went to one. The little guy said something about renting a buggy and I think your friend went with him. He told me he wouldn't be goin' on to Denver with me, changed his mind. Hope that helps."

Vin downed his drink. "Helped a lot. For the whole bottle, could you forget you saw me or your passenger today? Might be some guys comin' into town later asking the same questions and they ain't friends."

The driver sized up Vin and then nodded. "Never saw either of ya."

Vin made the rounds of every livery in town but came up empty. He couldn't imagine where the little salesman rented a buggy from. Everyone he talked to sold wagons and buggies but nobody rented them. And none of them had seen two men getting into a buggy late this afternoon. Vin had reached a dead end. There was no way of tracking a ghost buggy. The trail seemed to be at an end.

Part Thirteen

"Chris, why don't you try to get some sleep on Nathan's bed? I'll stay with him. And I promise, if he wakes up, I'll call you. You look exhausted!"

Chris rubbed the back of his neck and thought that the bed sounded mighty tempting. It was late afternoon and they had just eaten the dinner provided by Mary an hour ago. Chris had been sitting by Buck's side since then. His muscles were beginning to cramp up from sitting so long. This had been a long day already and Chris wanted to stay with Buck tonight, letting Amanda get some sleep..

"I think I just might take you up on that offer, Amanda. Be sure and wake me if he moves at all, okay?" Chris took a last look at Buck's still form on the bed and the he rose. He stretched his stiff back muscles and then pulled the blanket up around Buck's shoulders.

"He's doing good, Chris. I know looking at him like this, it's hard to believe, but it's true. His breathing is shallow but he has very little fever and his heart sounds good. He's a fighter. Another twenty-four hours and I just might pronounce him in good condition." Amanda smiled at Chris and then waved him on his way.

Chris had been sleeping for about four hours. Dr. Elder was sitting by the bed, reading a medical book that Nathan had in his room. Amanda had never seen this one before and she thought she had read them all. She was fascinated by the author's surgical techniques for repairing damaged bones. She stretched and decided a cup of coffee was in order. She put the book down and started to stand up when she noticed two eyes staring at her.

"Well, hello there, Buck. It's nice to finally meet you."

Buck swallowed and took a ragged breath. "Who … are … you?"

"I'm Dr. Amanda Elder. I operated on you. You're a strong man to survive the wound you suffered. Your lung was badly damaged and you lost a lot of blood. You have to lay very still for quite a while but I think you have a good chance of living. Can I get you some water?"

Buck nodded slightly and Amanda went to get him some water. She gave him all he wanted and then she smiled down at him. She felt his forehead for fever but found him only slightly warm to her touch. She got out her stethoscope and listened to his heart and then his lungs. The left lung still sounded full of blood but the right lung was the one that bothered her. There were sounds of fluid in that lung also and Amanda decided that she was going to have to move him into a sitting position.

"How am I ... doin’?"

"We need to get you moved slightly, Buck. I'm going to get Chris and we're going to sit you up a little so that your lungs don't fill with fluid. You don't need to be coughing right now, I would imagine that might hurt some. You stay put." She went and awoke Chris which didn't take much. He was on his feet in a second.

"Is Buck okay?" he asked anxiously.

"He's awake. I'm sure he wants to see you. But I also need you to help me get him sitting up more. It'll help his breathing, keep him from coughing. Grab the pillows and blankets to prop him up with."

Chris quickly gathered all the pillows and blankets that Nathan possessed and brought them out to where Buck was lying. With one of them on each side, they hoisted Buck up so that he was almost sitting straight up. He moaned, for it hurt like hell to move, but once they got him up, it was a little easier to breathe.

Chris sat down beside him, pulling the chair around so that he was looking Buck full in the face. He still couldn't believe that Buck was alive and looking at him with determination in his eyes.

"Hey Pard, does that help at all?"

Buck nodded. As garrulous as he normally was, he had no desire to say much today. It hurt to just draw the next breath and he knew he needed all the oxygen he could take in just to stay alive. So today, Chris was going to have to be the talkative one.

"JD told me to tell you that you're not done with him yet. He says he still has a lot to learn. He's a good boy, Buck, and you’ve done a good job with him. Hell, what am I talkin’ about. He's a man doing a man's job. I don't know why I think of him as a boy. He's been good for you too, hey Pard?"

Buck smiled and nodded. "Where is he?"

"They all went searching for Ezra. That irritating con man doesn't know you’re still alive. He thinks he was responsible for your death. He took off for parts unknown so the others went in different directions to find him and bring him back. They left yesterday about noon. Ezra gave the deed to the saloon to Inez before he left so we figure he ain’t plannin’ on comin’ back. Saul Ferguson is looking for Ezra too. He's out to kill the man who killed his son, no matter the circumstances. He's got a lot of men but they don't know our pain in the ass like we do."

"Denver. That's where he would go … or New Orleans." Buck coughed slightly and held his chest until the pain subsided.

Chris waited until his friend opened his eyes again. He gently wiped the perspiration off Buck's face with a cool cloth. He hated to see Buck in so much pain but it wasn't something new to him. During the time that the two of them had been together, they had each suffered injuries, some of them life threatening. This was the first time, though, that Chris had been certain that his comrade was going to die. Thank God for Dr. Elder.

"Inez stopped by. She's very worried about you. Dr. Elder doesn't want to let anyone in here to see you in case they might have a disease or something. She says just me and her so Inez couldn't come in but she was here for you, Stud. She's a special lady, a real keeper. You should tell her how you feel about her, Buck, before it's too late. She won't be left hangin’ on the tree too long before some man snatches her."

"She won't … let me get close. She's always … pushing me away." Buck gasped for air.

"I always thought you were more inventive than that. Find a way, Buck. She's got feelings for you but you’ll have to do a lot of convincing. Anyways, that can wait for awhile longer. Why don't you try to get some sleep now. I'll stay right here with you, I promise."

Chris turned at the sound of footsteps on the stairs outside. He looked at Buck and then went to the door to see who was approaching. He let out a held breath when he saw it was Nathan.

"Any sign of him?"

Nathan brushed his clothes off outside before joining Chris and Buck inside. "Yeah, he took a stage from Eagle Bend to Sweetwater yesterday. He was supposed to get the stage to Denver this morning. Vin will probably be back with him soon. I saw a bunch of Ferguson's men following me so I lost them. I brought Ezra's horse back. He'll be needing him when he gets back. I convinced the livery owner that Ezra would be repayin’ him the money he got for Chaucer or we would take it out of his hide. How's Buck doing?"

"Ask him yourself."

Nathan approached the bed and he smiled at the big man lying there. He was still amazed at the skill that Dr. Elder had shown in saving Buck's life. Nathan had been blown away with her quick hands and pinpoint accuracy in detecting all the injuries in his body. He wished she would stay here in Four Corners but it seemed she was determined to continue on to San Diego.

"Hey there Buck. It sure is good to see your smiling face again. You were literally brought back from the dead. It was amazing. Dr. Elder is a very talented surgeon. How are you feeling?" Nathan sat on the bed and grinned at Buck. He was so happy to be here with his friend, knowing that Ezra would be back soon and they would all be right where they belonged. Nathan had been a slave and when the war broke out between the states, he had run away and joined the Union Army. He had lost his entire family when he left the plantation but it was what he had to do. He had found his calling during the war but he had been alone for so long. When Chris and Vin saved him from hanging, Nathan was also saved from his lonely existence. His six companions were now family, and that included Ezra, the stubborn Southerner. Nathan had trouble with Ezra when they first met but eventually they worked out their problems and Nathan turned around Ezra's thinking. Now they were as close as the rest. He would have missed Ezra a lot and that was a lot to admit.

"I'm alive." It was all Buck had to say to answer Nathan.

Nathan nodded and Buck closed his eyes. He was asleep in seconds. Nathan got up and went to the table where Chris was sitting. He poured himself a cup of coffee and the two men sat and talked about what Nathan had found out and about the way Ferguson's men were following each of the seven.

Part Fourteen

Amanda was sitting outside on the landing when Inez came up the stairs with their supper. The beautiful Mexican had made them all burritos for their evening meal and she had even brought Chris a bottle of his favorite whiskey. She smiled at the doctor as she reached the top of the stairs.

Amanda put down the book she had been reading and gazed at the sultry woman before her. She saw emotions raging in Inez's eyes that were very conflicting. She saw fear, sadness, hope, and love, all swirling around together. Amanda raised an eyebrow and made a snap decision.

"You must be Inez."

"And you must be the doctor that saved Buck's life. Gracious, Senora. I have sent my thanks to God for sending you. Now I thank you for being here when he needed you." Inez set the tray of food down and gave Amanda a quick hug. "How did you know who I was?"

"From Buck. He was calling out your name earlier when he was asleep and when he awoke, I asked him who you were. He grinned and said you were, now let me get this just right, the most irritating, amazing, cantankerous, beautiful, loving woman he had ever met. I think he also mentioned that you were Mexican. I figured you had to be Buck's Inez."

Inez smiled shyly. She looked Amanda in the eye and asked, "He really called out my name in his sleep?"

"Is that so hard to believe? He's obviously in love with you and I can see why. You were right up there with Chris and JD during his ramblings." Amanda smiled broadly at the woman in front of her. "Why don't you go in and sit with him while the three of us eat this delicious smelling food?"

Inez's eyes popped open. Chris had told her that nobody was getting in to see Buck for fear of infection or disease. The rest of the seven were not even allowed in. But now, the woman doctor before her was giving her the chance to be with Buck, to see for herself that he was going to be all right. "Are you sure?"

"Go on in and send the guys out. I'm pretty sure he would like to see you."

Inez didn't hesitate. She opened the door and walked straight to the bed where Buck lay sleeping. Nathan and Chris watched her go to Buck, never saying a word. They exchanged a glance and both walked outside, leaving her alone with the man she loved.

She sat beside him on the bed and for a few minutes just stared at his sleeping form. He was reclined slightly, resting against a stack of pillows. His breathing was shallow and raspy, his face was pale, dark circles surrounded his eyes. She thought he was the most handsome man she had ever known.

Buck began to moan in his sleep, the pain he suffered with each breath evident on his face. Inez moved up closer to his head and she leaned forward and kissed his cheek, her hand caressing his face.

"Callate ya. Everything will be just fine, mi amor. Shhhhh. I'm right beside you, my love," she whispered down at him.

Buck ceased his cries and a slight smile crossed his face. He turned his head into her hand and sighed. She kissed his forehead and stroked his hair. She stayed that way for several minutes.

"Inez, is that really you, darlin'?" He asked with his eyes still closed.

"Yes, Buck, it's me. Are you in much pain?"

"Not now. I thought I had died and an angel with your voice was taking me away." He opened his eyes and looked right into her face. He smiled broadly.

"It's just me. The doctor was gracious enough to let me see you. Ezra had told me that you were dead. I … " She stopped, tears falling down her lovely face. "Then Mary told me that the woman doctor had saved you and my life began again."

"Oh Inez, God, you are so beautiful. I find you absolutely amazing, do you know that?" He coughed and waited until the pain passed. "I admire the way you handle yourself, the way you handle me." He closed his eyes and took a ragged breath. "Sweetheart, I want you to listen to me for a minute, okay? I know you are gonna find this hard to believe, but I have fallen so completely in love with you I can't think straight when I'm around you. It's true. I think I could spend the rest of my life just watching you."

Inez was totally silent. She simply stared at Buck, at his eyes, his lips. She wanted so much to believe him. Could he be telling the truth? Finally, she leaned forward and kissed his lips. It was ever so soft a kiss but the emotions of hope and love were completely conveyed to the man beside her. A new tear fell down her cheek as she pulled away from him. Still, she didn't say a word.

"Do you think you could ever believe me, sweetheart?" Buck barely whispered the words to her.

"I don't know. I want to say yes but I'm afraid of you, of what you could do to me. Maybe, we could ..." She stopped herself. What was she saying? She couldn't give in to him! He loved all women, not just her. Still! "Do you think you could ever spend your whole life with one woman, Buck? I mean never flirting with another, never touching another, never taking another woman to bed! Unless you can tell me yes with all your heart than I can never succumb to you, mi querido canalla. I want you so badly but I know I would die a thousand deaths if you turned your back on me and went on to another woman. I refuse to be another notch on your bedpost. I love you, Buck, but that is not enough. I need trust and respect. I need to be loved too."

Buck didn't know what to say. He wanted Inez so bad that it was a physical pain, not in his groin as it had been with some other women, but in his chest, his heart. He had always run the other way when a woman mentioned love to him. He had never felt the need to stay put before, to permanently place his boots under one bed. But now! He had loved three women in his life. His mother, who had died violently in front of him when he was nine. Maggie, his adopted mother, had been taken from him when he was forced to flee after killing a vicious john when he was fifteen. And Sarah, Chris's wife, who had been killed by a vengeful woman who wanted Chris for herself. She and Adam had been family to him and their deaths had been a terrible blow. He had felt such sorrow and guilt, such soul wrenching isolation, after each of these women had been eliminated from his life that he had vowed to himself that he would never put himself through that pain again. But now, here sat Inez and she was asking him to love only her for the rest of their lives. He swallowed.

"Inez … I've lost everyone that I have ever loved … even Chris. I want so much to have you and children and a home but … dammit, Sweetheart, I'm afraid of the pain that seems to come with that commitment. I do love you, I swear I do, but if I lost you like I did the others …" His face proclaimed the fear he felt.

Inez leaned forward and kissed his lips lightly. She ran her hand over his face so lovingly, he cried out for the pain it caused was tangible. She bit her lip.

"When you are on your feet again, mi tesoro amor, then we will try and see if we can believe in one another's heart. I want to be yours, to trust you implicitly. You think about what I said, what I asked you. I will come back tomorrow if it's okay with the doctor."

She stood to go and he reached out for her hand. He held it as if it were his life line, not wanting her to ever leave him alone again. He wanted so much to bind his life to hers. He didn't want to be alone anymore, and it was all because of her. His eyes begged her to stay, stay forever beside him. Finally, he let go.

As her hand touched the doorknob, he cried out softly, "I need you, Inez!"

She hesitated but didn't look at him. She was crying as she opened the door and made her way past the four people sitting on the landing, for Mary had joined Chris, Nathan, and Amanda. She ran down the stairs and across the street.

The four were stunned. What could Buck have said to her that would cause her to run away like that? All four of them were aware of the feelings shared by Buck and Inez even if they, themselves, weren't. Chris and Mary were in agreement that their friends were perfect for each other. Inez was the only woman Chris had ever met who could stand toe to toe with his big friend and knock him down a peg or two. She definitely had his number and she was good for him. Plus, she was an exceptional woman, both in brains and beauty. They loved each other, if only they could get past all the extraneous emotions surrounding them.

"I'm going after her, Chris. She probably needs to talk right now. Maybe you should go see about Buck?" She stood and ran after Inez.

She found Inez sitting on a rock at the edge of town, staring at the setting sun. She quietly approached her friend and sat beside her. Mary gently put her arm around Inez's shoulders and hugged her close.

"What did he do, Inez? Did he say something to hurt you?"

Inez turned bloodshot eyes to her best friend. "He told he loves me, that he needs me, but that he's afraid of loosing me. And I believe him, Mary. Pretty stupid of me, huh?"

Mary sat in stunned silence. She had not been expecting this revelation. She didn't know what to say to her. It was the moment they had all been hoping for but now that it was out in the open, she was totally shocked.

"What did you say to him?"

"I told him that I love him too, and that when he gets on his feet that we will try to trust each other's heart. I have never seen this side of him before, Mary. He was so honest, so open with his feelings. I can never leave him now. I need him too. Tell me I'm not being totally foolish to believe him, Mary."

Mary smiled at her friend and shook her head. "You are not being foolish, Inez. It's about time you two saw what's been obvious to the rest of us for months now. You love each other and you belong together. I'd say that you should be smiling right now, not crying. He loves you and you alone. Chris told me that he has never looked at any woman the way he looks at you. Buck is probably the sweetest man I know. He's got a big heart and until he met you, he had no one to fill it. Let him love you, Inez. I don't think you will ever regret it!" Again she hugged Inez.

Mary knocked on the door. She needed to talk to Chris about this situation with Buck and Inez. Nathan answered, a worried expression on his dark face. The news woman smiled at him and nodded. He smiled back and, without asking any questions, he went back inside. Chris came out onto the landing to sit with her for awhile.

"How's he doing, Chris?" She hadn't been allowed in to see her lover's oldest friend yet and she was very concerned for him. Mary had a special place in her heart for Buck, for he was the one who had saved Chris from himself four years ago. Buck was almost always fun to be around and he could make Chris smile. Mary was also grateful for that.

"He's so weak, Mary. He can hardly breathe, he's not eating anything, and Dr. Elder says his good lung doesn't sound too good. What happened with Inez?"

"He didn't say anything to you?"

"He was asleep when we went in. Any little exertion will knock him right out, he's got no reserves right now. So?" Chris gave her a look that said, Out with the truth right now!

"I still can't believe it myself but I guess he told her that he is in love with her, that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, but that he's afraid of losing her." Mary waited to see Chris's reaction to her news.

Chris bowed his head and closed his eyes. He bit his lip and didn't say a thing for several moments. Finally, he raised his head and looked at Mary, letting out a held breath.

"Say something!" she implored.

"I've known Buck Wilmington for goin’ on sixteen long, hard years, Mary. He's been head over heels in love before, but it never lasted more than two weeks. Always before, once the magic of the chase died down, he'd see the lady for who she really was and he'd move on, a little wiser I always hoped."

Chris shook his head slightly. "I've never seen him work so hard to gain a woman’s attention like he has with Inez. Several nights, when we were doing the last check of the town, he told me that he wants to settle down here. He’s even talked about starting a family. I see the way he looks at Inez when he thinks no one else is around. There's a tenderness there that I haven’t seen in him since … He loves her, Mary. I have no doubt about it and I guess neither does he. I'm glad he finally came out and told her. I just pray it's not too late for them." A tear ran down his face.

"It's never too late to tell someone you love them, Chris. He's going to make it, I just know he is. Look at how far he's come since the shooting."

"I wish I could be so sure. It’s just that I have a very bad feeling about this wound, Mary. I hope Dr. Elder has some more magic up her sleeve. Those two deserve a chance. She's the only woman I ever thought could stand up to him and make him behave, other than Sarah that is. Sarah could stand toe to toe with him and back him down, now I see that in Inez too. They'll make a great team, just like … well, you know."

She smiled adoringly at him, then moved closer and kissed him passionately.

They broke apart as they heard weary footsteps climbing the stairs. They turned to face whoever was coming up towards them. They waited expectantly when they saw it was the tracker.

"Did you bring Ezra home with you, Vin?" Mary asked.

Tanner slowly shook his head. "I missed him by a couple of hours and then it took me until afternoon today to find out where he went to. He and some salesman hired a buggy and traveled to Santa Fe where they could get an immediate stage to Denver. Ezra wanted to get away fast if he partnered with a salesman. He always says the only thing they’re good for is their wallet. No sense my following after, fella that gave them the buggy said they were gonna travel hard to get the two o'clock stage today."

"It's alright, Vin. I know some people in Denver. I'll wire them and have them meet the stage when it arrives. We'll get him back. You look exhausted. Come on, I'll buy you some supper. Take care of Buck, Chris. I'll see you later." She smiled at Chris as she linked her arm with Vin's and headed back down the stairs.

Vin turned and as Chris was going back inside, he asked, "How is Bucklin?"

"Hangin' on, barely."

"Tell him howdy for me."

Chris nodded and went inside. His mind was filled with the news Mary had imparted to him concerning Buck and Inez’s conversation. Somewhere inside him, he felt a warm glow begin and he smiled. He knew Buck better than any person alive. He knew all the pain and suffering that Buck had endured in his lifetime. To know that his friend had finally found love, it completely warmed his soul.

He walked to the bed where Buck lay sleeping and he whispered, "You finally did it, Scarecrow. You made it to the place you always dreamed of finding. Hang on, Pard, it will only get better from now on."


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