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 Seventeen

Buck awoke to find Inez sitting beside him. He smiled his best smile at her, the one that lit up his whole face and drew people to him. It was the one that had drawn Chris to his side and it was the one that got him into a lot of bedrooms and made the women he left behind happy to have had at least one night with the gregarious Romeo.

"How do you feel this morning, mi amor?' Inez cooed as she ran her hand over his hair.

"I don't know much Spanish, darlin’, but I like the sound of that. What's it mean?" He took her hand in his and squeezed slightly.

"It means "my love", if that is all right with you, Senor." Inez grinned at him for she knew he would puff up like a rooster, which he did.

"I like it a lot. Mi Amor!" He started coughing. Inez tried to calm him through the spasms that racked his chest but the agonizing pain was evident. When he could finally catch his breath, he turned to her and asked, "Do ya think you could get me some water, darlin'?"

"Of course." As she got the glass and poured some fresh water into it, she said, "I thought we could use this time while you're laid up to get to know each other. That way, when you're back on your feet, you can give me a true answer to my question. Would that be all right with you?" She held the glass and gently lifted his head so he could drink.

When he was through drinking, he said, "I've never really taken the time to know any woman before, except for Sarah."

"You've never taken the time to talk to any of your women friends?" Inez was amazed.

Buck looked away from her, suddenly feeling a little guilty. He had never really thought of it before Inez asked her question, but he saw now how unfair that had been to all the women he had known. He was not going to do that to the Mexican lady before him now. "Why don't you ask me anything you want to know."

"Do you have any family and where do you come from?"

"I was born in St. Louis but I left when I was fifteen and I ain't never been back. My mother was all I had and she died when I was nine. My Aunt Maggie raised me after that along with the other ladies in the house. Well, Maggie ain’t really my aunt but she's the closest thing to family that I got besides Chris." He wanted to be totally honest with this woman.

"The other ladies in the house?"

"The bordello. I have no idea who my father was. One of a hundred, I guess. Inez, my mother was a working girl but to me she was an angel. I never once doubted that she loved me. She did her best for me and then she was gone. She was murdered. I was in the room when she was killed but I couldn't stop the son of a bitch. I remember that my mother was the most beautiful woman on earth and that I loved her very much. She used to sing to me while she bathed me and she always smelled like roses. I still miss her sometimes. Maggie, well, she was the madam of the house. She was always there for me from the earliest I can remember. She took care of me, let me do odd jobs to earn my keep. When I was fifteen, I killed a man who murdered a friend of mine. That's why I had to leave the house. I didn't want Maggie to get in any trouble ‘cause of me. I'm sorry if any of this offends you, darlin’, but it's the God's honest truth. I won't lie to you."

Inez was stunned by his honesty more than by the facts he was presenting to her. She appreciated his effort more than he would ever know. "What was her name, your mother?"

"Nicole. She had shiny black hair like you but she wore it up. She had a wonderful smile and the sweetest singing voice you ever heard. She did the best she could for me. I grieved for her a lot when she died but the others were there for me, especially Maggie. What about you, Sweetheart, you got any family?"

"My father was in the army. He was a very handsome man, I remember that. He died when I was twelve. It was very hard on my mother, his death. My mother and sister still live in Val Verde. I would imagine that they always will. My sister, Angelina, is the most beautiful woman I have ever known, both inside and out. She is four years younger than I am and I simply adored her when we were small. Now, however, she does not speak. She stopped speaking about six years ago, when she was fifteen. We never found out why."

"That’s a shame. I used to wish that I had a brother or sister. Guess ol’ Chris is as close as I got. Of course, there’s JD now. Sweetheart, was there anyone else, well, you know. Did ya ever want to get married before?" he asked anxiously. He didn’t really want to hear about her lost loves.

"No, at least not seriously. I had boys wanting to marry me when I was young but I could never see myself as a farmer’s wife. Of course, my mama said that I should get my head out of the clouds. She said I should just choose one of the suitors that came to our door but I wasn’t in love with any of them. She said that I would never marry because I never felt anyone was worthy. I don’t think that was the reason though. I always had a yearning to see more of the world. I worked for Don Carlo, Don Paulo's father but I dreamed of so much more. I miss my mother and sister but I really like it here. I like running the tavern. I like working with Ezra, what little work that he does. I have good friends like Mary and Chris and now, I feel I have a chance to be happy and content here."

He smiled tiredly. "When's your birthday?" Buck asked, his speech slightly slurred.

Inez looked at him worriedly. "April 14th. I just turned twenty-five. How old are you?"

"I'm an old man of thirty-two. April 14th, huh? I've got to remember …" Buck closed his eyes.

"I will let you rest now, my darling. I will come back this afternoon." She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. She froze, her lips still on his skin. He was hot!

She jumped up and ran her hand over his face. He was perspiring and she could see that he was slightly flushed. His skin felt as if it were burning up. She listened carefully to his breathing and heard the rasping sound that had started to disappear. Now, however, it was back, stronger than before. She ran out the door and saw Chris sitting outside on the landing, whittling.

"Chris, you have to get Nathan and the lady doctor right away. He's burning up with the fever!" She implored between sobs.

Chris immediately dropped what he was doing and ran down the stairs to fetch Nathan and Amanda. He found them finishing their dinner at the hotel. They both looked up from their meals when he ran in. The fear on his face was readable and they both left the table to follow him without his saying a word.

Amanda got to the bed first and she could see the flush of Buck’s skin and the thin sheen of perspiration. She laid her hand on his forehead just as Inez had done not more than five minutes ago. Amanda set her doctor face in place as she looked at Inez who was hovering over Buck.

"You have to go outside now, Inez. Let us take care of him. He's very sick and we need to concentrate on him. Do you understand?" She spoke softly to the distraught woman.

Inez nodded. She leaned over and kissed Buck's lips and then she moved away from the bed and out the door. She slowly moved down the stairs and across to the church. She had a lot of prayers to say.

"Nathan, bring the thermometer over here. Then you and Chris go get a bath tub and the coldest water you can find. We have to bring this fever of his down. We'll soak him in the tub until his body cools a little."

Nathan handed her the glass tube and then he and Chris ran to do her bidding. They were too busy right now to worry but strands of despair started to creep into their minds. They grabbed a tub from the bath house and carried it up to Nathan's. Then they ran back down and each of them grabbed two buckets and filled them by the livery stable for the water was always cold there, being the deepest well in town. Slowly they made their way back upstairs where they delivered the precious water. Amanda was stripping Buck down when they finished.

Buck was tossing his head back and forth, mumbling. They all knew what was coming for him. He was becoming delirious and the pain was showing on his face.

"Don't shoot, Chris! It's me. Please Chris, put the gun down. I didn't kill ‘em, Chris! It wasn't my fault. Please Chris, listen to me. I loved them too. I would never hurt ‘em. Oh God, don't shoot!"

Chris froze at the words. He had heard them before but they hadn't stopped him back then. His eyes grew large and his jaw dropped as he listened to Buck rant on. He stumbled backwards into the table, bombarded by the ramblings of the delirious man. He turned suddenly and moved outside where the words were unrecognizable. He stood at the railing, his mind reeling back to five years ago, to that night when his world disappeared completely.

A few minutes later, Nathan came out behind him and placed a comforting hand on Chris's shoulder. "He doesn't know what he's sayin’, Chris. It's just the fever talkin’. He's not accusin’ you of anything. Don't take it so personal."

But Chris was taking it personal because that was exactly what Buck had pleaded for that night. The night Chris had committed the most despicable thing he had ever done in his whole life. He had tried to kill the only person in his life who gave a damn about him, the only person left who loved him unconditionally. Chris stared into the evening sky, seeing nothing but the saloon where he had gotten drunk. He didn't even remember the name of the town.

"Did you hear me, Chris?"

Chris turned to Nathan and with no emotion in his voice at all said, "Go back inside, Nate. Leave me alone."

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat at the table alone with his second bottle of whiskey for the night. Normally one bottle did him in but tonight, he was wired with anger and frustration. He had already scared away all but two of the saloon's clientele and the two that remained were huddled together in the corner, a wary eye kept on the stranger in the black duster. For months he and Buck had searched for the killers of his wife and son with nothing to show for their efforts. They had not found one clue as to who had ridden out to the small ranch he and his family had begun four short years ago, and started the house on fire, trapping his wife and small son inside to burn to death. As the months passed, he grew angrier and more frustrated. He wanted to ease his pain by inflicting it on the men who had murdered his beloved Sarah and Adam but there was no one. His hands shook as he squeezed the imaginary necks of his foes. He needed to lash out at somebody, it was so unfair that he was alive and they weren't. He had to have someone to blame or the fault would once again fall on his head and, this time, he would end a life, one way or the other.

Buck ambled into the saloon about ten o'clock as he did every night in every town they searched. He would collect his friend, pay the bill, and lead or carry Chris to wherever they were spending the night. It had become habit and he was used to the slurred cuss words, the threats, and the violent outbursts. When things got entirely out of hand, Buck would silence Chris with one punch to the jaw and then carry him out of the saloon. As he entered, he made note of the second bottle of whiskey and the fact that it was half gone. Tonight could be a jaw breakin' night.

"Get him out of here before he kills someone, Mister. Don't bother payin' the bill, just remove him. He's one mean son of a bitch. He already threatened five of my customers and pulled his gun on two others who walked by his table." The bartender waved at Chris.

"I got him." Buck offered and made his way to stand in front of Chris. "Hey, Pard. Let's get out of here. Bed's callin' your name."

Chris looked up at the tall man in front of him, venom in his eyes. "You son of a bitch, leave me alone. I ain't goin' nowhere with you, now or ever. I know who's at fault for my family bein' dead. I'm lookin' at him."

Buck took a step back and cocked his head. He had only heard this diatribe from Chris twice before and both times had ended with Buck beating the shit out of Chris, only because Chris was too drunk to react very fast. He steeled himself for a vicious fight. But what happened next took Buck completely by surprise. Chris had never gone to this length with him before.

"You killed my boy just as surely as if you had struck the match. He loved you and you let him die! Now you're gonna pay." Chris pulled his gun and fired.

Buck felt the bullet strike his chest, throwing him backwards and then dropping him flat on his back on the floor. He couldn't move, the pain held him flat against the wooden floor boards. He could feel his blood spreading across his shirt front. He stared up in astonishment as Chris moved to stand over him. Chris aimed the gun at Buck's head, his thumb pulled back the trigger.

"Don't shoot, Chris! It's me. Please, Chris, put the gun down. I didn't kill ‘em, Chris! It wasn't my fault. Please, Chris, listen to me. I loved ‘em too. I would never hurt Adam or Sarah. Oh God, don't shoot!" Buck pleaded as his oldest and best friend, the man who had been a brother to him since they had kept each other alive in the prison camp nine years ago, aimed his handgun at Buck's head. "Chris, it's me, Buck. I didn't kill Adam or Sarah. I was with you, Chris, when they died, remember? They were my family too, I would never do anything to hurt ‘em."

Chris finally recognized the voice, the pleas coming from his friend and backed off one step. Just as he was lowering his gun, the bartender struck Chris over the head with the club he kept behind the bar. Chris dropped on top of Buck. His weight caused the pain to intensify and Buck passed out cold. The two men who had been cringing in the corner reacted quickly, one went for the sheriff and the other went for the doctor. Chris and Buck were separated and taken away.

Chris awoke the next morning in a jail cell. As the details of the night before swarmed down upon him like hornets, each tiny detail stung him with its truth. He sank lower and lower into the depths of despair. He sat upon his bed, his head in his hands, considering what had brought him to the point where he could shoot his only friend, his brother by choice if not by blood.

The door opened and the sheriff walked in. He did not say a word to Chris but instead sat down at his desk. The silence was deafening to Chris.

"Is he alive?"

The sheriff walked over to his cell but didn't answer.

"Is he alive?" Chris asked again. He was desperate to know.

"What do you care? You want to know if you're goin' to swing for murder or not, is that it?" The sheriff had a cold look in his eyes.

"He's my friend. I was drunk."

"Ain't no excuse for what you did. The bartender said the guy was just trying to take you to bed, said you were terrorizing anyone who came in for a drink last night."

"Is he alive?" Chris asked once again.

"Barely. I don't know why but he ain't pressin' charges. I'm goin' to release ya but my deputies and I are escortin' you out of the county. If I see your face anywhere around here again, I'll shoot you on sight. Do you understand?"

"Yeah. Can I see my friend first?"

"No. He's alive, I want to keep him that way."

"Would you give him a note from me?"

The sheriff got a pencil and paper from his desk and handed it to Chris. Chris thought for a moment and then wrote:


I don't know if you can ever forgive me for the terrible damage I have done to you and us but I am truly sorry. I know things have to change. Meet me in Porterville. I'll wait for you.


He handed the note to the sheriff. The old man took it and laid it on the desk. He returned to Chris's cell and opened the door. He handed Chris his gun and hat.

"I'll go. Just please, give Buck the note." Chris walked out the door and got on his horse. He rode out of town and stopped by a river. He sat on the bank, his gun in his hand. He had two choices and he didn't know if he could do either. One, he could kill himself and remove the danger that he was to society. Two, he could rein in his temper and never again sink to the depths he had gotten to last night. As he closed his eyes and fingered the revolver, he saw Buck's face. His longtime friend was smiling at him as he said, ‘Come on Pard, lets get out of here.’ Chris broke down and cried for an hour. Then he picked himself up and rode on to Porterville.

He waited for a month and then moved on.

+ + + + + + +

Chris went to the door and knocked. Nathan opened the door, a look of concern on his face. His sleeves were rolled up and the front of his shirt was wet. He looked weary.

"I have ta be there for him when he wakes up, Nate."

The healer placed his hand on Chris’s arm compassionately. "He slipped into a coma twenty minutes ago. He may never wake up, Chris."

Inez was just coming up the stairs. She heard what the healer had said. She walked straight to him and with her chin held high, she said, "He will come out of this alive. I have no doubt about it, Senor. He has too much to do and too much to live for. He will not give up."

Chris and Nathan stared at the beautiful Mexican who stood proudly before them. She was so positive and they wanted to believe her so badly. They nodded and Nathan went back inside. Chris turned to Inez and held out his arms to her. She stepped forward and he held her that way for a long time.

Part Eighteen

Three days later, Chris sat by the bed of his oldest friend. He had slept very little in the past few days and it showed clearly in his face. Large dark circles surrounded his eyes and his face was pale. His eyes were half closed, watching the face before him for signs of the man's return. The tiniest flicker of an eyelid caught his attention.

"Come on, Buck, it's time to wake up. You've been sleepin' long enough."

The blue eyes before him slowly, hesitantly, opened and in seconds a look of recognition spread across the patient's face. He tried to smile but couldn't. He had absolutely no strength for anything but breathing.

"Welcome back, Scarecrow. We've been kinda worried about you. We thought maybe you were slippin' away from us." Chris smiled and then turned serious. "Before the others get back, I need to say something to you that should have been said five years ago. That night I … shot you. Buck, no amount of apologizin’ will ever fix that night. I know that but if you could maybe forgive me …"

"Buck, I was drunk and angry and I took it out on my only family. I tore us apart with that shot and I’ve suffered for it ever since. I would give anything to have us back the way we were when Sarah and Adam were alive. But it ain't to be. Nothin’ can take away what I did to you. I lost somethin’ precious that night. I lost your trust in me, I lost you. God, I wish there was a way to mend that."

Buck stared at him long and hard. "Why didn't ... you ... wait for me? You ... didn't ...even come … to see if ... I was … alive or not. You left ... me there. Why?"

Chris was stunned. He had never thought of the shooting and its aftermath from this angle before. Buck was upset about his abandoning him? Chris thought about the note and the way the sheriff was acting that day. "Buck, I wanted to be by your side. I never would have left you like that but the sheriff wouldn't let me see you. Said he was afraid I'd kill you. I wrote you a note, left it with the sheriff. And I waited for you for over a month. You never showed."

"Never ... got …a note. Thought … abandoned me." He coughed slightly, then he took as deep a breath as he could. "Ain’t nuthin’ … ta forgive."

Chris sobbed. "I loved you like a brother. You were the only one left and I took out all my pain, anger, and frustration on you. I'm so sorry, Buck."

"Me too, Chris. I missed ya."

Nathan walked in and the conversation was over.

The large brougham stopped at the edge of town before proceeding. Ezra wanted to look at the place he had called home for over two years now. It was a bittersweet sight. He held Maggie's hand as they proceeded down the main street of town to the Sheriff's office. He hesitated. Now that they had arrived in Four Corners, he was not so sure that this was a good idea. He looked at Maggie and she nodded at him.

"Let's get it over with, Ezra."

He climbed out of the coach and had just turned around to offer Maggie his hand when a voice behind him drew his attention.

"Ezra! Oh my God, we've been lookin' everywhere for you. You all right?" JD grabbed him in a big bear hug.

"It is good to see you too, Mr. Dunnee. I am just fine. Obviously you didn't look in Santa Fe." Ezra pulled himself away, feeling a little uncomfortable with the public display of affection.

"I was in Santa Fe, Ez, but the man at the hotel said you had checked out. Said you caught the stage to Denver but you never showed up there. Mary had people checking for you." JD was grinning from ear to ear, which Ezra found interesting considering his ‘big brother’ had died just nine short days ago.

"Glad to see ya back, Pard." Vin joined the two and held out his hand. Ezra shook it with enthusiasm. "Did JD give ya the good news?"

"What good news, Mr. Tanner?" The gambler gave the Texan a questioning look.

"Let me tell him, Vin. Ezra, Buck ain't dead! He's awful weak but he's still breathin'!" JD was hopping around like a puppy glad to see its master come home.

"That, JD, is probably the cruelest hoax you could perpetrate on a friend!" Ezra's eyes turned black with rage.

Vin stepped between JD and the gambler. "No, Ezra, the boy’s tellin’ the truth. Mary and Josiah came up with a lady doc just before Buck passed on and she saved him. Just saved him again when he got an infection and fever."

"I ...He's alive?"

"That's what they said, Ezra. Now help me out and introduce me to these friends of mine." Maggie was poised to exit the brougham.

"I am so sorry, Miss Maggie." He held out his hand and helped her to the ground. "Miss Maggie, this is JD Dunnee and Vin Tanner. Boys, this is Margaret DuBois, Buck's Aunt Maggie."

Both men were stunned. The woman who had stepped out of the expensive carriage was almost regal in appearance. She was dressed immaculately considering she had just come cross country from Santa Fe. Her hair, a rich auburn color, was piled neatly on top of her head in the latest fashion. She had sparkling blue eyes and a perfect face. She didn't look more than forty years old but, JD knew, she had to be over fifty. The young man thought he was the only one beside Chris that Buck had ever told about Maggie and he certainly hadn’t described her like this. And he had never mentioned that she was rich.

"Glad to meet ya, ma'am." Vin held out his hand.

Maggie took it and shook. She smiled at him and he almost blushed. "I feel I know you already. You're the tracker. Buck has a great deal of respect for your skills. He once told me you could shoot the eye out of a gnat at fifty paces."

Vin laughed and any tension that was present vanished. Maggie then turned her attention to the young man standing beside Vin.

"JD, his letters are always filled with your exploits. How is Casey? That is your young paramour’s name, isn't it?"

"She's fine, ma'am. Buck told me about you too but he never said you were so, you’re gorgeous!" JD was still staring.

"Would you like to see him, Maggie?" Another voice came from behind them and all four turned to see Chris Larabee approaching.

"Chris!" Maggie hurried toward him and they hugged each other tight. "You must be so relieved to still have him with you. I know I am."

"Yes, ma'am, I am. He's hurtin' bad but he's still kickin'. He will probably tell you it's just a scratch but we were already pickin' out the church music. I'll take you to him." Chris held out his arm and Maggie took it, beaming a smile up at him that would light up a room. Chris had always thought that Buck had gotten her smile by osmosis or something. They were so similar in their dispositions and outlooks on life, he sometimes forgot that Maggie was not Buck's real mother.

Buck lay on the bed in Nathan’s clinic, propped up by pillows, slowly chewing the soft boiled eggs that Inez was feeding him. He swallowed and then grinned at her as she eased another spoonful into his mouth. He had only started on foods yesterday, surviving on broth and water before that. Buck was slowly gaining some strength back but he still used most of it just to breathe. He did manage, however, to keep enough in reserve to hold onto Inez's hand. He wanted her beside him whenever he woke up and he even reached for her in his sleep. He seemed to fear her vanishing on him. Subconsciously, he was completely attached to the fiery Hispanic already.

Inez had found herself doing all the talking for the past two days, telling him all about herself and her life. Any little anecdote she could remember about herself, she shared with him until he fell back asleep, which was often. He seemed to enjoy all her stories and would encourage her with a look she was learning meant, ‘I want to know all about you’.

"All done?" Nathan asked, coming up to stand beside the bed. "Do you want a bath?"

Buck nodded but Inez shook her head and Nathan was learning to submit to Inez's opinion when it came to Buck. The healer looked at Inez and said, "Maybe later. Josiah is waiting for me to go to dinner. I'll see you in an hour or so, Buck. Make sure he don't get out of bed, Inez." He smiled warmly at the devoted woman and went out the door.

Buck turned his head to the beautiful woman beside him and whispered, "Mi Amor."

Inez beamed at him and stroked his hair. She bent over to kiss his forehead, savoring the coolness of his skin. Suddenly, they heard a commotion outside. They both turned their heads to the door but no one came in.

"I'll see who it is. I think Josiah, Nathan, and Amanda are still out on the landing. I didn't hear them go down." Inez got up to see who had come up the stairs but Buck did not want to let go of her hand. "I'll be right back, Sweetheart. I promise."

He let her go and closed his eyes. He was so tired all the time. He couldn't catch his breath and every time he did, it hurt so much he wished that he could stop breathing for just a few minutes. He found himself wanting Inez to be with him all the time and he wondered if he was being fair to her. She had other things to do, he knew that, but he was afraid of life without her now. He imagined that he would get over this feeling when he got stronger but he was scared right now. Did she love him or just feel sorry for him? Right now, he didn't care. He needed her.

Inez walked out the door to see Josiah giving a man in a bright red coat a big bear hug. She couldn't believe her eyes or her ears. She stared dumbfounded at the gambler's back.

"You're crushing me, my good man." Ezra whined slightly and then, when Josiah released him, he said, "I missed you too, Preacher. In fact, I missed all of you. I am truly sorry I ran out on you all again. I guess I have a proclivity for taking the easy way out. Somehow, the thought of seeing him laid out in a pine box scared the living daylights out of me. I know now that it wasn't my fault but it sure felt like it when I left."

"No one blamed you but you, Ez. Not even Chris." JD ducked slightly as Chris swung out a hand to cuff the boy.

"Did you miss me too, my friend?" Inez asked quietly from behind.

Ezra turned and grabbed her in a big hug, lifting the slender woman off of her feet. "You most of all, my wondrous Mexican beauty. How are you?" His face softened as he realized where she had just come from. "Are you okay?"

She smiled and her face lit up. "He loves me, Ezra. And he's going to live. It's all I need." She said it softly so that only he could hear her. As far as she knew only Nathan, Chris and Mary were aware of all that Buck and she had discussed. She knew that the other men were well aware that she had been spending most of her time inside with Buck but she didn't think they were aware of all the emotions that were being tossed around inside.

Most of the men found themselves smiling at Ezra and Inez. They knew that Buck and Inez were finally a couple and all of them were pleased as punch about it. They all had their fingers crossed that Buck would not screw it up, for they all loved Inez. She was fiery, emotional, fun loving, and most of all, kind. She treated all of them to a ray of sunshine every time she smiled at them and they loved her for the warmth she brought into their lives.

"He finally told you? What did you say?" Ezra was on the verge of pure joy. What a day this was turning out to be.

"I said I loved him too, but that he had to give them all up if we were going to make it. When he's back on his feet, he must give me an answer. Am I kidding myself, mi amigo?" She looked at Ezra expectantly.

"I will personally hog tie him and make him see the light if he so much as hesitates at the correct answer, my dear." Ezra beamed at her, giving her another little hug along with a mischievous grin.

"I'll squeeze the shit out of him if he glances at another woman, Inez." Josiah joined in.

"He'd be the biggest fool in the land if he ever cheated on you, Miss Inez!" Nathan gave his two cents worth.

"I agree with the healer, ma'am," Vin added.

"I know he loves you more than anything else he's ever found in his life. And he knows what I'll do to him if he screws this up. We're all delighted for the both of you, Senorita." Chris kissed her cheek.

"When did Buck and Inez stop fightin?" JD was totally lost. His best friend and mentor had changed right before his eyes and he never knew? What was the world coming to if Buck Wilmington settled for one woman? JD could not fathom it.

Almost like Moses parting the Red Sea, Maggie stepped forward, the men moving silently to let her approach Inez. She stopped in front of the sultry woman and sized her up in one quick glance. "I'm Buck's Aunt Maggie. And I will be absolutely delighted to come to the wedding, my dear." She held out her arms and Inez walked into a welcoming hug.

Chris eyed the two women that his friend Buck loved most in the world and smiled approvingly. They would be a few minutes. Chris grabbed Ezra by the arm and led him into Nathan's room. Chris approached the bed and saw that Buck's eyes were closed.

"Are you awake, Buck?" He saw the big man nod. "I got someone here who wants to see ya. Come on now, open your eyes."

"You big reprobate, I hear you're attempting to abscond with my establishment’s manager!" Ezra had humor in his voice as he spoke.

Buck slowly opened his eyes and smiled at the gambler. "Ez, you're back. Good ta see ya. Wanted to thank you for savin' my life in the alley." He took a minute to catch his breath. Just saying those few words seemed to exhaust him. "I woulda died back there if you hadn't come with me that night. Don't know how I missed that little son of a bitch but I did.."

"I felt as if it was I who had let you down, Buck, and it was the worse feeling in the world. I am so glad that your early demise was fictitious." Ezra sighed and cleared the air of the heavy emotions floating around them. "Now, what is this I hear about you and the lovely Miss Resillios. When did you find the intestinal fortitude to profess your unending love for the beautiful senorita?"

"If that means when did I find the guts to come clean with her, I guess it was when I was given a second chance. She had to know how I felt before it was too late. Funny thing, Ez, she feels the same way. We're both scared shitless," he paused to gather some air into his damaged lungs, "but I think we just might make it." He closed his eyes again and moaned with the pain that came with a deep breath.

"You just lay still, Buck. I think it's absolutely wonderful for both of you. It will take everything that you possess to make it work but you might just pull it off, my friend. You two are perfect for each other whether you know it or not. I’ll wager the whole town will be treated to fireworks the night you two finally get together. What do you think?"

Buck smiled at that thought. He liked that image and he nodded slightly.

The door opened and both Inez and Maggie stepped inside. Inez immediately went to Buck's side, taking his hand in hers the second she got to him. He squeezed, knowing who it was without looking. The look on her face was one of tenderness and love. She leaned down and whispered something in his ear that made him smile.

Ezra's heart was touched as was Chris's by the demure display of affection between the two. Both men watched their best friends come alive with the love they had discovered and it felt right to everyone involved. Chris knew that Buck had some horrendous fights ahead of him for Inez was even more volatile than Mary, and Chris fought with Mary almost every day. But Chris also knew about the sex that followed the fights when the lovers made up. Knowing Buck, those times would be something magical for Inez and his friend both.

Ezra felt a little of Inez slip away from him. He had been her confidant and best friend. Now her time would be Buck's and it saddened him for just a few seconds. He had known she would never be his so the somberness passed quickly and he smiled warmly at the two of them. Suddenly, he remembered the other woman in the room.

"Mr. Wilmington, there is someone else you need to say hello to. I have your Maggie here with me. We stumbled upon each other in Santa Fe. I'll tell you the story some other day."

"My Maggie?" He struggled to open his eyes again.

"I'm right here, baby. We both thought you were dead and we came to see your grave. I guess that will have to wait. You know I have quite a wedding present waiting for you, boy. You let me know when you need it, okay?" She reached out and touched his face. His smile was one of pure joy and contentment. Maggie always smelled like home no matter where he lived and he breathed in the scent of her.

"Soon, Maggie, soon. I love you." With that he fell deep asleep.

"What have you got for him, Miss Maggie?" Ezra was perplexed. Inez was too but she would never ask right out like Ezra did.

"A big wad of money, my friend. He can use it to build the two of you a home." She smiled tenderly at Inez who was stunned. "Come, my dear, let's go have tea. I'll tell you all about it." She held out her hand and the two women left Nathan's, headed for the hotel dining room.

Chris pulled Ezra away from the bed and said bluntly, "We have trouble brewing. Ferguson wants your hide and, undoubtedly, Buck's too. We gotta make some plans."

Ezra looked back at the bed before following Chris out the door.


Comments to: