Part 1 -3 |
Part 4 - 7 | Part 8 -
Part 12 - 14 | Part 15 - 16 | Part 17 - 18
Part 19 - Epilogue
"I don't like the idea of putting the whole town in jeopardy but I can't see any way around it. This ain't like when we rode out to Royal's place. They're gonna be gunnin' for us and we got to protect Buck. He can't be moved. So tonight, we warn everybody in town to stay deep inside or get out of town by mornin'. Cause if we know Ezra's back, you can bet that Ferguson knows it too. I'd bet my bottom dollar that he comes for us at daybreak." Chris sat with the other five at their favorite table at the Standish Tavern. They were desperately trying to come up with a plan to shed the least amount of blood while protecting Ezra and Buck from a vengeful father's wrath.
"We're down one. We can't afford to be down another. We got ta leave Buck alone during the fight." Vin did not like leaving his friend down in bed and unprotected but he could see no way around it.
"If I know Inez, she'll be right beside Buck. He won't be alone. And Maggie will be there to chaperone." Ezra said with a grin.
They all smiled at that but none of them wanted to leave Buck and the women alone. Everyone of them swore to himself that they would be keeping an eye on the stairs that led to Nathan's. If there was any way possible, they would keep harm away from that door.
"All right then, Vin, on top of the Mrs. Potters, Josiah on top of the hotel. Ezra, you and JD by the saloon and Nathan and I will take the Clarion. JD, get some sleep. You'll be relieving Vin on lookout before dawn. Let's get out and warn the populace. Shoot to wound if possible." He raised his glass of whiskey. "To tomorrow, boys."
"To Buck and Inez. Let's keep em alive to enjoy many more days of fightin' and many more nights of makin' up." Josiah added.
"Amen, Preacher, amen." Ezra felt a surge of anger as he thought of the men coming not only for him tomorrow but for Buck who was totally innocent in all of this. And if Buck was in danger, then so too was Inez, and Ezra was determined not to let anyone near either of them.
An hour before dawn, Chris opened the door to Nathan's rooms. Buck appeared to be sleeping. As expected, Inez was sitting by his side and Maggie was drinking coffee at the table with Amanda. Chris hadn't expected to see Ezra though. He was pouring himself a cup of coffee and he held the pot up, offering Chris a cup.
Chris shook his head. "Nervous enough already. You ladies all set?"
"Chris, is there an extra gun somewhere, just in case?" Maggie looked at him, a grim mask set upon her face. She looked nothing like the bubbly vivacious woman he had known for several years now.
Chris studied her demeanor and then he glanced at Buck's coat and hat on a hook by the door. With them was his gun belt. "Use Buck's if it comes down to it. We'll be watching but " He didn't want to finish the sentence. He knew that if the gunfight was raging and one of the Fergusons slipped up this way, they might not be able to extricate themselves immediately to help. He turned to Inez. "He'll be all right. We'll take care of him, Inez."
She merely nodded. She was scared to death, not only for herself but for the man she loved and his friends as well. She felt, all of a sudden, as if her family had mushroomed over night. It now included seven men and four women right here in Four Corners and she didn't want anything to happen to anyone of them. She would do anything to keep danger out of this room.
Ezra downed his coffee and put his coat on. He adjusted his hat on his head and then he and Chris prepared to leave. Maggie came up beside him, stopping him with a hand upon his sleeve. She kissed his cheek and smiled at him.
"Be careful. You know, son, I think I just might have two adopted boys now. Ill see you when you get finished today. You're a good man, Ezra, not at all like you want people to believe."
"I think I'd like to take you to afternoon tea later today, Miss Maggie."
"Well, then, it's a date, Ezra."
His men were in place and the group of about twenty men was on their way into town. Chris took a deep breath and waited inside the office of the Clarion which Mary ran and published. He took a second to think about the gorgeous blonde he had come to love. Maybe, if he lived through today, he would pop the question. Buck confessing his love to Inez had affected Chris in several ways, including reminding Chris of what was really important in life, the ones you loved and who loved you. It was time Chris thought of something permanent. He loved Mary with all his heart which shocked him because after Sarah and Adam had died, he thought he would never love again. Thank God, he had been wrong. He nodded to himself. He would ask Mary tonight. He shoved that thought to the corner of his mind and concentrated on the fight at hand. He was ready.
"Get me my pants, woman, or I'll go down there naked!" Buck sat on the edge of the bed. His head was spinning and he felt he would vomit any second now but his friends were going into battle and he had to be with them, no matter what. He fought to catch his breath, the pain tearing at him from deep within.
"You will lay back down, Mr. Wilmington, or the three of us will knock you down and sit upon you. Do you understand?" Amanda used her firmest tone but it was having no affect on him. He was totally ignoring her, his gaze riveted on one person.
"You don't understand, Inez, they are down there fightin' for us and they need me to watch their backs. They would do the same for me." He stood and took a wobbly step towards her. "Darlin', it's not going to work between us unless you understand that those men, theyre family. And family watch out for one another. Theyve saved my life many times because we stick together. When danger is in the air, Mex, the seven of us fight as one. That's the way it is!"
Her face suddenly went from fiery defender of his pants and guns to one of tender understanding. She slowly approached him and laying her hand on his arm, she said, "Buck, I know you want to be with them. Now listen to me closely. You would be a danger to them right now, not a help. They would be watching you, not the men they are fighting. They would be trying to keep you upright and protected instead of moving the way they must to save their own lives. Do you not agree?"
He weaved a little as he reached for the gun belt she had over her arm and then slowly, he pulled his hand back. How could she see the situation so clearly? She was just a woman! But somehow, she knew exactly what the others would do if he somehow managed to get down the stairs and into the fray. He hung his head, knowing she was right, that his friends would have to handle this one without him.
She gently took his arm and guided him back to bed. The pain of getting up had sent tremors through his frame and, as he lay shaking in the bed, she pulled the covers over him. "Hush now. Try to rest. It will be over soon and then you can rejoice with them. Shhhh. It's all going to work out just fine, mi Amor. Shhhhh."
He closed his eyes and fell into an exhausted sleep.
The foe rode into town. Chris counted nineteen of them, not a one of them gunmen like they were facing. They were ranch hands, cooks, wranglers, even a blacksmith. At the front of the group rode the Ferguson boys, Rory's big brothers. The three of them had a determined look on their faces but if one looked close, the fear was just below the surface. Chris felt sorry for them for just a second. They were going to be shooting bullets at him and his friends soon and he had to picture them as his would be killers.
Chris stepped out of the Clarion office and stood in front of the riders. He stood with his left side to them, his right hand fingering his unstrapped Colt. His face was set in its grim, deadly mask and his eyes shone with the ice that could wither a man in his tracks. His head was up, chin thrust forward, letting every last man in the group know that he was in charge.
With a strong but level voice he declared, "Turn around now. It's not too late. No one, including Rory, has been murdered so you're all free to be on your way. Once this starts, a lot of men are going to die that don't have to."
"Give us Standish and Wilmington and we'll leave. Rory wouldn't have shot no one in the back and he wouldn't have tried to rape no saloon girl. Their lying about how this all came about. We want our brother's killers. We don't want to shoot up this town, Larabee, but we will." It was Thaddeus Ferguson that was doing the talking for the whole group.
Chris noticed McMichael, the Ferguson foreman, easing his horse to the side to get a better shot at Chris. Big mistake, he thought, as he watched the man. Chris wondered where the instigator of this whole mess was. Why wasn't Saul Ferguson here with his sons? The hair began to stand up on the back of Chriss neck as the thought came to him, He's going after Buck. There was nothing the leader of the seven could do at this point in time. He had to face these men and hopefully get to Buck in just a few minutes.
McMichael drew his gun and aimed. Before he could pull the trigger, Nathan, who had been inside the Clarion Office with Chris, fired. His bullet struck just where it had been aimed and lodged in the mans shoulder, rendering him useless in a gun fight. That was the catalyst which started the roar of gunfire.
Vin aimed his rifle at the crowd below and started picking off the ill prepared ranch hands. Josiah, on the other side, said a quick prayer to himself and then he also aimed and fired. Caught in a crossfire, the men on horseback were easy targets. Some tried to run, others dismounted their horses and scattered, trying to find cover. Ezra and JD moved out of the saloon and started chasing the fleeing men down. The Ferguson men were dropping like flies.
Chris had already wounded Thaddeus and he was aiming at John Ferguson when the bullet hit right over the top of his head. He dropped to the ground, giving John enough time to jump behind a water trough. Chris returned fire at the man who had just missed him. Chris didn't miss. Another ranch hand went down. Chris saw Brad, the third Ferguson, run toward the bank, trying to find cover there. But Vin also saw him and knocked him off his feet with a well placed shot from his mares leg.
John Ferguson, from behind the water trough, spotted Ezra. This was the man they had all come for and John didn't want to disappoint his father. He crawled on his stomach to the opposite end of the trough and as Ezra and JD made their way past, heading toward the bank where most of the Ferguson men had taken refuge, John got up behind them.
Ezra stood at the corner of the bank, laying down cover fire as JD made his way to the opposite side of the banks main door. They had motioned for Nathan to cover the rear door. Suddenly, Ezra heard the distinctive sound of a trigger being cocked behind him.
"Turn around, Standish. We don't shoot no one in the back. Rory wouldn't have done what you claim he did. He was taught better than that." John had Ezra dead in his sights.
Ezra put his hands up but did not turn around. "I'm sorry about your brother but he did exactly what I said he did. He was drunk, he tried to rape Ida Mae, and he shot Buck in the back. What reason would we have to make this up? We had nothing against your brother. We have nothing against any of you Fergusons. Go ahead and shoot, I'm not turning around."
"Turn around!" John bellowed, his gun starting to waver slightly as the realization came to him that Ezra was probably right. John was closest to Rory in age and he knew that Rory had been pursuing Ida Mae for months. He had seen her turn Rory down and he had seen how angry that had made his baby brother. Rory was spoiled by both his mother and father because he had almost died at the age of two when a horse kicked him. Pa would let him get away with lots of things the other three could not do and John knew that Rory had taken full advantage of the situation any chance he got. If Rory had been drunk and saw Ida Mae accept an invitation from the womanizing gunslinger, it would have sent him over the edge, inciting him to do what he had wanted to do for a long time.
John felt the gunfighter behind him. He never heard a thing but he knew he was there. Which one it was, he didn't know. He instinctively knew that if it was Larabee, he was dead. He drew what inner fortitude he had left and straightened his gun hand to fire. He had to make his father proud of him.
"Don't do it, boy. Don't make the same mistake your brother did. You're better than that." The words were said almost kindly.
Ezra heard the words behind him and recognized the voice. He stood completely still, not giving John any opportunity to fire. John's mind raced back and forth between what was right and what his pa wanted him to do.
The muffled shot rang out and all three turned their heads towards the stairs that led to Nathan's. No one said a word. Seconds crawled by. As if in slow motion, John dropped his gun. Chris and Ezra each thanked whatever deity that had changed the young Fergusons mind. Fearing the worst, both the infamous gunslinger and the con man ran toward Nathan's. JD was just a few steps ahead of them, racing for the stairs.
Buck had heard the gunfire from down below. He tried to picture his six comrades as they moved like chess pieces, knowing who would go where and when. He kept telling himself that they were the best and that the cow hands that Ferguson had sent against them were no match for the six gunmen. He wanted to believe it so bad.
All four people inside the small clinic heard the footsteps on the stairs. Buck struggled to sit up in bed, and get his body turned toward the door. He motioned for Inez to get him his gun belt that was hanging by the door, not realizing that it was empty. She had taken two steps towards it when the door flew open and Saul Ferguson stepped inside. His gun was already in his hand and he sneered at Buck as he stepped toward the seriously injured man.
"It's your time, Wilmington. My boys are takin' care of the gambler and I've already disposed of the whore. That leaves you. Heard you were a ladies man but to be hidin' here behind the skirts of three of 'em, that's pitiful, Wilmington." Saul motioned for Inez to join Amanda and Maggie at the end of the bed.
As she took a step, Buck got to his feet. She could tell he was hardly breathing, his face was pure white and he weaved slightly as he pulled himself up straight. Pain shot through him and threatened to turn his world black. He fought it with everything left inside him.
"Leave them alone!" It was barely a whisper. Anger filled the gunfighter, adrenaline pumped swiftly through his veins. Buck had to save the women he loved if it was the last thing he ever did. Buck gathered himself and lunged at Saul. He caught the rancher by surprise but the older man recovered quickly and as Buck reached him, he sidestepped, his gun coming down on Buck's left shoulder. Buck reached for the ranchers arm as he started to go down and Ferguson struck his head with the butt of the gun. Buck sank to the floor, unmoving.
Inez and Amanda both reacted instantly. Inez threw herself on top of Buck to shield him from the ranchers bullet while Amanda flew straight at the big rancher. She went right for his head, her fingers wanting to scratch his eyes and blind him. It was all she could think to do. Her nails scraped along his cheek as she screamed for him to leave Buck alone. Backhanding her, he sent her flying across the room. He wiped at his face with the back of his sleeve and then he turned his attention to Inez.
"No! I won't let you hurt him anymore!" Inez hissed at the man who wanted to kill the man she loved.
"Get off him or I'll kill you too. You're nothin' but a saloon gal. I can kill you as easily as I did that Ida Mae. Get off him, bitch!" He reached out with his empty hand and pulled at her hair to yank her off of Buck's still form. Inez screamed at the pain but she clung fast to Buck's prone body.
"Back off or I'll shoot. Leave her alone!" Maggie pulled Buck's gun out of her skirt pocket and aimed it right at Sauls forehead. Her hand was steady and there was venom in her voice. "I said, take your hands off of my daughter, Mister!"
The vengeful father looked up at the slender, older woman standing directly in front of him. He saw the gun pointed at his head but he didn't release Inez's hair. Instead, he laughed and tried to aim his own gun.
The roar of the gun in the confined space sent shock waves through them all. Inez closed her eyes. She thought that Saul was the one who had shot but then she felt the hand in her hair release and she looked up to see the old man falling away from her, his head blown almost in two. Blood had flown everywhere. She turned her attention to the man lying beneath her on the floor.
Footsteps came flying up the stairs and Maggie turned and aimed the gun she still held at the door. JD appeared in the doorway and then he backed up slightly and said, "It's just me, Miss Maggie. Put the gun down." He sprang forward again when he saw recognition in Maggie's face. He ran to Buck and knelt beside Inez who was still covering his friend's body with her own.
Chris arrived in the doorway along with Ezra. They took in the scene, breathless, trepidation for their comrade foremost in their minds.
"Buck, oh my God, no." Chris stepped forward to his fallen companion.
Inez was crying incoherently, holding Buck's head to her bosom, rocking back and forth. JD was trying to find a bullet wound somewhere on his body but the blood was all splattered, not flowing. Maggie stood stone still, the gun still clenched in her limp hand by her side. Amanda was holding her head, sitting in the corner where she had landed. Ezra moved forward to check the body on the floor. He kicked the gun away from the lifeless man as he done with his son just eleven days ago.
Ezra then stepped to Inez and started to pull her by the arms away from Buck so that JD and Chris could check on his wellbeing. She didn't want to release him but he insisted and suddenly she released Buck and flew to his arms, burying her head in his shoulder. He held her tight, his eyes on the two men checking Buck's body for signs of life.
"He's alive, but he's barely breathing. Chris, help me get him back on the bed. Doc, are you alright?" JD saw Amanda crawling towards them.
"I've never been hit before! I never realized it hurt so much. But I'm all right. That son of a bitch hit him twice, see if he broke open the wound on his shoulder, JD." JD turned Buck over slightly and noted some blood on his back but it was nothing like the Sunday night he had gotten shot.
"A little blood but he's okay, I think. Ready, Chris?"
They lifted their lanky friend onto the bed and then stood back while Amanda inspected him. All of them stood silently, their minds occupied each with his own thoughts, until she was done. Silently she nodded to herself and then turned to the people who loved this man the most. She smiled as she said, "Hes unconscious from the blow to his head but other than that, there is no further damage. He should be fine. Inez, are you okay?"
Inez had turned to watch Amanda make her inspection of Buck but she remained enfolded in Ezra's arms for she was shaking like a leaf. She nodded to the doctor, smiling her gratitude. Chris had moved to Maggie's side while Amanda had been checking Buck and had put a protective arm around her. He hugged her to him when they knew her boy would be just fine.
"Miss Maggie, did you do this?" JD pointed to Ferguson.
"He was hurting Inez and he wanted to kill my boy. What choice did I have?" Maggie was shaking so hard, her knees wobbled and Chris had to support her weight against him.
"It's all over now, Maggie. They're fine. Your family's fine." Chris whispered to her as he held her close to him.
Two hours later, Buck finally awoke to find JD sitting beside him. He smiled at the younger man for he had not seen him since the Sunday before. He remembered waving at the young man who was riding out to get his girl, Casey, for a hayride and a night of snugglin'. Buck reached out and pulled the boy into an embrace that sent the young man's heart singing.
"I never thought I'd get to hear your voice again, Buck." He was crying as he held the big man close to him. "I love you, Buck. The world would never have been the same without you."
"How many times have I told you, no bullet's ever gonna bring ol' Buck down. Are you okay? The rest of the guys?" Buck moaned as he lay back down. "Oh God, how are Inez and Maggie? He was here, trying to kill em."
"Everybody is just fine, Buck. They were shaken up a little. I think Inez lost a little hair and the Doc got a black eye but every one else is just fine. Maggie shot ol' man Ferguson in the head. Said she couldn't have him hurtin' her family. The Doc gave her and Inez something to help them sleep for awhile but I'm sure Inez will be here as soon as she wakes up. She must really love you, Buck. She was shielding you with her body while Ferguson was trying to pull her off. She's really a feisty one. Still cant figure what she sees in you, though" He smiled, his eyes alight with mischief.
"She did that?" Buck was amazed. No woman had ever tried to protect him by risking her life before, except maybe his Mama. He choked back a tear. "What do you think of me gettin' hitched, JD?"
"You're gonna ask her to marry you?" JD stammered. He sat back stunned.
"Yeah, that's what I'm gonna do. I don't know what she'll say. She's scared that I aint gonna be true to her, that Im gonna move on again like I always done in the past. She doesn't know how special she is. She's the one I've been lookin' for all my life, JD." Buck looked so sincere that JD smiled.
"Then ask her, Buck. And keep askin' til she says yes."
Chris stood in the parlor of Mary's living quarters that sat behind the Clarion office. He had flowers in his hand that he had just picked out of Mary's garden. His hat was also in his hands as he waited for Mary to appear. Her son, Billy, had given Chris the strangest look but had said nothing to him. He had run from the room to fetch his mother.
"Chris?" Mary was stunned as she came into the room. Chris was wearing a white shirt, clean pants and a string tie. She had only seen him dressed like this one time before, when he had accompanied her to a dance.
"Mary, I'm not a fancy talker so I'm gonna just spit this out. Buck talked about a second chance and that's why he told Inez he loved her. Well, I reckon that I got a second chance when I arrived here in Four Corners and met you and the rest of the guys. So, Im tellin ya right now, I don't want to waste another minute. I love you, Mary, and I want us to get hitched. What do you say?" Chris extended his hand with the hat in it and then quickly switched to the hand that held the flowers.
Mary took two steps back and plunked herself down on the sofa behind her. She sat with her mouth moving, but no words made their way out. She was completely flabbergasted. It took almost five minutes before she could make her mind work again. Chris had stood with his arm out the whole time.
"I love you too, Chris. Yes, I'll marry you."
Billy let out a whoop for he had figured that Chris was going to say something special, dressed the way he was and the boy had hidden just around the corner to eavesdrop. He loved Chris and already thought of him as the father he no longer had and could barely remember. He had been very young when his father had died and he had filled that empty spot in his heart with the gunslinger in black. For some unknown reason, the two of them had bonded almost immediately when Chris had arrived in town and Mary had brought Billy back home to live with her. Billy ran into the room and hugged Chris around the legs. Mary arose from the sofa and she too hugged Chris. Chris's eyes filled with tears and he lifted his head and said a thank you to Sarah, for letting him get on with his life. He had never thought he would reach this day. If it hadn't been for Buck, he never would have. He held his new family tight.
Chris sat by Buck's bed and watched the big man sleep. As soon as he and Mary had made some preliminary plans and decided for the next few days to keep their engagement quiet, he had excused himself. Mary knew right where he was going and she approved.
"You talked about second chances my friend. Well, you gave me mine and I just wanted you to know that I finally took it. I asked Mary to marry me and she said yes. It's all because of you, Pard, I just wanted you to know that. Thank you, Buck. I never would have made it through the dark years after Sarah's death if it hadn't a been for you. I love you, Scarecrow, and I owe you everything."
Chris's eyes flew to Buck's face and the man who had been there with him through it all was smiling at him. Chris smiled back and they embraced each other for the first time since they arrived back at the ranch to find their world destroyed. They stayed that way for a long, long, time.
Inez arrived at Nathan's the next morning to find Josiah, Amanda, Maggie, and Nathan all sitting on the landing, drinking coffee. They all smiled sheepishly as she approached.
"Let us know if he needs any help," Josiah grinned at her.
"He's waitin' for you, child. Get on in there." Maggie motioned for her to go inside.
She hesitated, not knowing what was going on but suddenly, she was nervous. She put her hand on the knob and then turned back to look at her friends once again before entering. All of them were waving for her to go inside. She opened the door and stopped immediately. Before her, his hands clutching the back of a chair for support, was Buck. His hair was washed and combed, he had on clean clothes, even a tie. He was ghostly white but he was wearing his best smile.
"What in the world ?" She started to cuss him out in Spanish but he held up a hand to quiet her.
"Hush, woman! I ain't got a lot of time here so just hush up. Inez, you asked me a question and said when I'm back on my feet to give you an answer. Well, I'm on my feet so here goes. I've been a scoundrel and a ladies man all my life and I ain't likely to change all that much. I'm gonna make you one promise and it's got to last you the rest of your life. I promise you, I will never break your heart. Now, knowin' that my sleepin' with other women would do that, then I won't. But I can't promise ya I won't look or maybe even flirt a little, but that's as far as it's gonna go. I love you, Inez, and that's the God's honest truth."
He shifted his feet a little and grabbed the chair back with just one hand to support him. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he reached into his pocket. He pulled out a closed fist and held it out to her. She took three steps forward to see what it was in his hand. He opened his fist and revealed a beautiful silver diamond ring with a large stone in the middle and four smaller ones around it.
"This was the only thing my Mama ever bought for herself that was of any value. She told Maggie to give it to me when she died. Maggie was gonna put it in the ground with me but she thinks this is a better idea. Senorita, will you give me the great honor of being my wife?" He weaved slightly and his knees started to buckle. Inez moved quickly to hold him up.
She started to call for Nathan and Josiah but he stopped her. "How about an answer first, Sweetheart?"
She looked up at the man who towered above her. The look on his face said all she needed to know. He loved her and wanted her for his wife. She couldn't say anything but she nodded. He smiled and let out a deep sigh. He bent over and kissed her willing lips. They kissed for a long time and then he fell back from her and she called for Nathan's help.
All four came rushing in and Josiah and Nathan eased Buck back into bed. Nathan, acting like a mother hen, tucked the blankets around the man and felt his forehead for signs of fever. Then he stood back and four sets of eyes raced back and forth between Inez and Buck.
"Well?" Josiah finally demanded.
Inez held out her hand and there on her finger was the diamond ring. Buck was smiling from ear to ear and all four rushed the two of them for hugs and kisses all around. Inez finally made her way to Buck's side and she knelt down beside him.
"I love you, Buck. I will be proud to be your wife. But if I ever catch you in another woman's embrace, you're going to wish you had died last week! Do you understand, Sweetheart?" Her eyes were deadly serious.
"Yes, ma'am." He smiled and pulled her to him, kissing her again. The others all cheered.
The woman stood in the doorway. She didn't know how long she had been standing there, a minute, an hour, an eternity. She wasn't in a hurry tonight. Others were serving the bar's patrons inside and the one table she was concerned with was well taken care of. She smiled to herself as she looked around the table that had been moved out onto the boardwalk for the evening. Thirteen people sat around the table and she loved them all like family. She gazed lovingly at Ezra, who was laughing at a story that Josiah was treating them to. She switched her gaze to Chris and Mary, who were sitting side by side, her hand firmly locked in his. Amanda Elder was sitting beside Josiah, hanging on his every word. JD and Casey, the young lovers, were sitting next to each other, Casey lightly hitting JD for some slight offense he had uttered. Nathan had Rain with him tonight and he was smiling at her, knowing that she would be spending the night in town. Vin was sitting slightly away from the table, his legs cocked up on the newel post. Close at hand, was Nettie Wells. Vins hand rested gently on her shoulder as she kept an eagle eye on the two youngest. Maggie, sitting beside Buck, was smiling, this evening of camaraderie partly in her honor. Finally, her gaze fell on the tall lanky man who sat just a few feet from her. His back was to her but she could hear his laughter and it filled her heart with love. As if he knew that she was behind him, he turned slowly until he was looking directly into her eyes. He stopped laughing and his face lit up with an inner glow. He smiled at her and felt the wonder and amazement that he still couldn't get over. She loved him and him alone. He held out his hand and she stepped forward to take it. He pulled her onto his lap and she swung her arms around his neck.
She whispered, "Mi Amor," in his ear and then kissed him playfully on the neck. His smile grew mischievous and he moved to bury his face in her hair. She pulled away from him slightly and then their lips met and the rest of the world melted away. The passion they felt in that kiss was almost overwhelming. Almost.
"Oh God, that's sickening. I would rather hear you two fighting then have to witness that!" JD howled.
Buck broke away from Inez's mouth and growled, "Shut up, JD." Inez's arms were still around his neck.
"Don't worry, kid, it'll only last another month or so and then the dew will be off the rose and they'll be fightin' again." Josiah winked at JD.
"Padre, you too can remain silent! I plan on making this last my whole life." Inez smiled at the ex-priest and kissed Buck again, a quick peck this time.
"Speaking of your whole life, are you really goin' to stay Amanda? What did your parents have to say when you wired them?" Mary asked, still blown away by the doctor's announcement earlier that day. Amanda had been so set in her plans when she had arrived in Four Corners. Mary wondered what had changed her mind.
"I wired them that I was needed more in this territory than in a town that already had three doctors. I told them that I had found the place that hopefully, I belong." She looked at Josiah and he patted her hand. "My father wired back that he was proud of me and that he was a little relieved. He said he had been wanting to retire but had been staying on because I had my heart set on going into practice with him. Now, he could turn his patients over to one of the other doctors in town and do the things he's been wanting to do for a long time. He said the first thing that my mother and he will do is come for a visit."
"I may spend most of my time inside my tavern with a deck of cards and thus I loose touch with some of the local gossip, but when did this happen?" Ezra held out his hand and motioned between Josiah and Amanda. "Am I always the last to know?"
"Not you too, Preacher? I suppose the next thing ya know, Vin will be announcing he's got himself a gal." JD shook his head. It wasn't even spring!
"Oh, JD, I think it's wonderful! Two people fallin' in love is terrific." Casey gave JD a frown. He could be so dense sometimes.
"Amanda and I have discovered that we have a lot in common but we are going to take it very slow. Maybe not as slow as you two." He held up his glass and saluted Buck and Inez. "I don't plan on lookin' the grim reaper in the eye before declaring how I feel to the lady."
The whole crowd laughed but Mary could see the flash of pain in the eyes of all the seven men sitting around the table. Each one knew just how close they had been to being six and they all hated the feeling. Each had a part in the whole. Chris was the brains, Josiah the counselor and wit, Nathan added morality and gentleness, JD was enthusiasm and the joy of life, Vin was the eyes and ears, Ezra was the cool, the nonchalance, and the quickness of the group. Buck was the heart, however, and without the heart, the body dies. Each was an equal member, except maybe for Chris, who was their leader, but without Buck, nothing could ever be the same. Even Mary was well aware of his magic that pulled the seven men together for Chris to lead.
Amanda turned slightly towards Chris. Quietly, she said, "Do you remember what you asked me shortly after the surgery? I think tonight you got your answer."
Chris smiled broadly at her, nodded and mouthed the words, Thank you.
She smiled and her face lit up. "You were right. I do like him. He's everything you told me and more."
Chris looked at Buck with Inez still on his lap. "And now, he has everything. He deserves it all, too." Chris lifted his glass to Buck and Buck nodded.
"So Miss Maggie, you're leaving in the morning? We sure will miss you. I have to say that all of us have gotten quite fond of you. I do hope that you will come back soon for a visit." Mary extended the invitation to the woman they all felt was part of their family now.
"Thank you Mary. I can't remember when I've had so much fun. I never had a family until now. I have come to love all of you, too. However, I think it's time to get out of Buck's hair. However, I'll be back for the wedding. They just have to let me know when." Maggie patted her "boy" on the shoulder as he leaned over and kissed her cheek.
"You two haven't set a date yet?" Amanda asked.
"We have decided to wait until the house is built so we can move right in. How about you, Mary? When are we going to feast at your wedding?" Inez shifted her weight slightly on Buck's lap for she could tell he was starting to get a pain in his shoulder. "Do you need to go back to bed?" she whispered in his ear.
His face was getting pale and his eyes were weary but he shook his head. He was enjoying his first night out since the shooting. Nathan had told him that smoke was not good for him and had ordered him to stop smoking his cigars. Nathan had also told him to stay out of the saloon that was always filled with smoke. He had cringed at that but had agreed to stay out of the saloon during the evenings for a month. Thus, they were all sitting outside.
Mary smiled and looked at Chris. He half nodded and she said, "We were thinking the first of September. It won't be as hot then and Billy should be back from visiting with his grandparents. Josiah, we would like you to perform the ceremony."
"The joining of two souls in matrimonial bliss, I can think of nothing I would enjoy more. Of course, my dear lady." He smiled at both of them.
"So Buck, have you settled on a piece of land to build on?" Chris wanted to change the subject.
"We signed the papers today. Nathan let me out yesterday to go buggy ridin' with my two beauties and we found just what we wanted. It's only a hundred and fifty acres but a stream runs through it and it's got some full grown trees for shade. I ain't gonna be no farmer, just run a few horses and maybe a cow or two for milk. Mex wants a big garden though. Whenever Nathan lets me get out of bed and back on my feet, we'll get to buildin'" Buck had a questioning look in his eye and it was aimed at Chris. "I need to talk to you later, Pard. I been thinkin' that I can't afford this little woman on a dollar a day when I won't even be needin' the room and board no more."
"Been thinkin' on that myself, Stud." Chris met Buck's gaze and they both nodded. Mary turned her full attention to Chris and she knew instantly that he was thinking of going into ranching with Buck as his partner. Chris had obtained about two hundred acres just north of town but he was only using about one of those acres for his self-exile shack. She knew he had been thinking about doing something with the rest of the land but until just now, she didn't know what.
She smiled at him and nodded her approval. He smiled back and they kissed.
"Oh God, not you too! I can't take all this mush." JD shook his head.
"JD, shut up!" Buck and Chris chimed in unison.
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Continues in Too Much