Too Much

by LT

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 4 - Epilogue

Part Two
Buck rode slowly toward the road back to Four Corners. He was so tired, every muscle in his body ached. He fought to keep his eyes open for if he allowed it, his eyes would close and he would fall asleep in his saddle. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. Bourbon could find her way back to town from here, he thought, and I could get a half hour’s sleep. I doubt anybody would know.

Bourbon tossed her head and nickered softly as if reading her rider’s thoughts. Buck chuckled to himself. "Okay, darlin’, I’ll stay awake." He had been the proud owner of Bourbon for seven years now and whatever she wanted, she got. He had been at her mother’s side the day his big gray was born. Chris had been with him and the moment she took her first steps and he had seen Buck’s eyes light up, Chris had said, "She’s all yours, Stud. She’ll fit you for a long, long, time." Chris had been right.

The mare suddenly stopped and Buck roused himself from his daydreaming. He looked up to see a covered wagon about two hundred yards away from him, hidden from the road by a small grove of trees. The wagon’s cargo was spilled all over the ground and Buck didn’t see anybody around it. He rode slowly toward it and as he got to about fifty yards he first saw the man. He was laying over a log, his face to the ground. Blood covered his back and Buck could tell he was dead. As he reached the man’s body, he dismounted and tied Bourbon to a tree. He checked the man for signs of life but found none. The man had been shot three times in the back. He rolled the body over but he didn’t recognize the face.

Buck walked toward the wagon to find a shovel. It was then that he saw the other three bodies. He fought the sudden urge to vomit. Three women lay on the far side of the wagon. They had been beaten and by the torn clothing, he could tell they had probably been raped. A cold fist gripped his heart and anger flared intensely within him. No woman should be treated like this! He moved forward to check the women for signs of life and in the third, he found what he was searching for. She was laying on her side and when he turned her to her back, he heard the soft moaning.

He ran his finger tips softly over her face and murmured soft words to her while he checked the extent of her wounds. She had been beaten and assaulted and then shot and left for dead as the other two women had. It was a miracle that she had survived. He slowly lifted her from the ground and started walking to his horse. He had to get her back to town soon, or she would join the others in death. As gently as he could, he got himself and her on Bourbon and he turned toward the road and town.

He wanted to get to town fast but he didn’t think her abused body would withstand the rough ride so he made Bourbon walk. He held the stranger tight against his chest, willing her to keep breathing. Of all the cruel, evil, things people did to one another in this world, raping a woman was the worst one he could think of. That’s how his mother had died. Even though she was a prostitute, she had the right to choose who and when. But the man who had killed her hadn’t agreed with that. He had forced himself on her, doing things to her that she refused to do. When she fought him off, he had gotten mad and thrown her against the fireplace in the room. She had died shortly after that. No woman deserved that kind of torture.

He looked down into the swollen, discolored face and saw the eyelids start to flicker. Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked up at him. He smiled softly, trying to alleviate some of the fright that she must be experiencing. Comprehension was slow to work its way onto her face.

"Who….are you?" she mumbled through swollen and bleeding lips.

"A friend who wants to help. I’m takin’ you into town so a doctor can attend you. My name is Buck, ma’am. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ll take good care of you." He stopped Bourbon and reached for his canteen. He gave her a small drink of water and then started toward town again.

"Where are Minnie and Tilda? Where’s Ben? They need tendin’ too." She had tears in her eyes as she remembered what had happened.

"You just concentrate on you, okay miss? I’ll take care of the others, I promise. What’s your name, darlin’?" He tried to take her mind off the atrocities that had befallen her.

"Sarah, Sarah Jenkins. Are they all…..?" She barely whispered. She looked at him for conformation of what she already knew.

"Shhhh, now, Sarah. You just rest. We’ll be back in town in just a few more minutes. Just close your eyes and rest now." He fought back the tears. That name always brought back so many memories. He didn’t have time for that now. He needed to take care of this Sarah and do everything he could to keep her safe. He had failed one Sarah, he wouldn’t fail this one.

He arrived in town fifteen minutes later. It was almost sundown and the streets were just slowing down from a busy day. Several people saw him ride in, among them JD Dunne. JD ran to get Nathan who was at the church with Josiah. Two men helped Buck get down from his horse, the injured woman still ensconced in his arms. Nathan came running and was at Buck’s side when he laid her down in the bed in Nathan’s small clinic.

"What happened to her, Buck? Nathan began his examination.

"Four of them in a wagon about two miles outside of town. Man and two other women were killed, the women all raped. Wagon was torn apart but I don’t think whoever did this really wanted anything but the women. Will she survive, Nate?" Buck hovered over the large black man with the gentle touch.

"It doesn’t look good, Buck. She’s lost a lot of blood and she’s been beaten real bad. I’ll do what I can for her." He looked up at the scoundrel and saw the tears in the man’s eyes. "Amanda won’t be back for two more days. I’ll help her as much as I can."

"Her name is Sarah." Buck said softly. "Sarah Jenkins. I promised her I’d take care of the others. I’ll be back later." He turned to go.

Nathan stood and put a hand on his shoulder. "This wasn’t your fault, Buck. Don’t take it so ta heart. You did all you could do for her, okay?"

"Yeah, Nate, sure. I gotta go." His boots drug on the wooden floorboards as he walked out. Nathan shook his head and returned to Sarah.

JD met his "big brother" at the bottom of the stairs. He looked up into the exhausted and miserable face of the big man. He had never seen Buck look so bad except for the few times he lay fighting for his life up in Nathan’s clinic.

"Can I help, Buck?"

"Gotta go bury the others."

"I’ll get some shovels and meet you at the livery. Why don’t you get something to eat real quick. Have you eaten at all today?" JD had been working with Buck out at the house on several occasions and he knew that Buck rarely took time to eat. His friend looked ready to collapse from fatigue.

"I’m fine, JD. Let’s get back out there and see if we can find something to tell us where these folks were from. I’ll grab some lanterns. It’ll be dark soon." Buck moved off toward Potter’s store.

JD watched Buck shuffle towards the store and then he went to get some shovels that he knew Yosemite would have at the livery. He saddled his horse and a fresh one for Buck. He asked Yosemite to take care of Bourbon for Buck and then he led the horses outside to wait for his best friend. He watched the man walk towards him, head down, barely picking up his booted feet. JD’s heart went out to the big scoundrel but he didn’t know what to do to cheer him up. He remained silent as they mounted their horses and rode out of town.

The trip back to the wagon was a quick one. Buck had picked up the speed once they left town. He wanted to get the burials over with as soon as possible. He really didn’t want JD to see the brutalized bodies of the women, so he set JD to digging the graves as soon as they arrived. He carefully wrapped the bodies in blankets he found on the ground by the wagon. He said a silent prayer for each one before carrying them over to the place beneath the trees that JD had found for the graves. It was pitch black now and they worked silently by lantern light. JD kept glancing at Buck but he didn’t say anything. He instinctively knew that Buck wasn’t in the mood for anything he might have to say.

After they got the third grave dug and the body laid to rest, Buck set about trying to find something amidst the personal possessions that lay scattered on the ground. He wanted names for the three he and JD had placed in the ground. He found a letter that he knew had been meant for the girls’ parents and was to be sent when they reached the next town. Evidently, the three were sisters and they were traveling out West with Sarah’s husband to start a new life in California. The letter was full of young Tilda’s admiration for the immense country and the mountains. She wrote to her parents that she was having a grand time on the trail. Buck tucked the letter in his shirt and started toward the horses.

"Come on, Kid. I’ll stop after my ride in the morning to finish cleaning this up. I got a letter to write tonight. And I want to check with Nathan to see how Sarah is doin’," Buck said as he walked back to the borrowed horse. "’Sides, I need a drink."

JD nodded and followed right behind.

Upon reaching town, Buck checked right away with Nathan on the status of Sarah Jenkins. The healer wasn’t to optimistic. Buck grabbed a bottle of whiskey as he entered the bar and went to sit at a table by himself. He quickly wrote a letter to the same address as was on Tilda’s letter explaining that he had found the bodies and that he hoped Sarah would get well and return to them soon. He enclosed Tilda’s letter with his own and went to post it. He returned to the saloon and told Inez that he was exhausted and that he would not be joining her for the night. He kissed her softly on the cheek and then made his way to his rented room that he had not slept in for months. He took off his boots and fell on the bed. Sleep was almost immediate but it was not peaceful. Nightmares that had plagued him since Chris and he had found the burning house where Sarah and Adam had died resurfaced and he tossed and turned until dawn.

Buck arose with the sun and, although his body ached and his mind was still numb, he made his way to the saloon. Inez was already up and starting preparations for the noon time crowd that came in for her scrumptious cooking.

"Good mornin’ darlin’." He took her into his arms and held her tight. He needed to feel life and love this day after a night filled with death. "Baby, I’m looking forward to spending time with you the next two days. I’ve missed having time for just the two of us. I gotta admit, I’m tired." He continued to hold on until Inez pushed him slightly away.

She looked up at him thoughtfully. She had been so wrong about him when she first met him. She had thought him shallow and self centered but she now knew that was just a wall he had built to protect himself from others. She gently touched his face with her fingertips. He looked so worn out, even after a night’s sleep. She wanted to take him to bed and just hold him while he slept the rest of the day, but she knew he would never hold still for that. Tomorrow, she told herself, tomorrow, she would pamper him until he forgot the rest of the world existed.

"JD told me what happened yesterday. Are you all right, mi amor?" She snuggled back into his embrace, her head against his shoulder.

He sighed deeply and said, "I want to get married soon, Inez. I don’t want to waste our time together. Is that all right with you?" He kissed the top of her head.

"How about next month, Buck. Six weeks from today. Just a small affair with our family present. Would you like that, sweetheart?" She breathed in his scent and thought about the new life that was growing in her belly.

"I’d like that, Mex. You take care of the plannin’ and I’ll finish the house. I love you, Inez, I love you so much it hurts sometimes. I just want to spend my life makin’ you happy." He looked into her face and saw the love he felt reflected back at him. He gently kissed her lips and then he turned to go.

"Will you eat before he head out? I already have your breakfast waiting." Inez called him back.

He sat and she brought him a large plate full of food. She sat with him as he ate the whole thing. He hadn’t realized just how hungry he was. He remembered that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast the day before. But he wasn’t about to tell the beautiful, fiery woman before him that. She would start ranting at him about how he needed to take care of himself and he didn’t want to hear that this morning. When he finished, he gave her one more soft kiss and then he went to make his morning rounds.

Vin Tanner was good, real good. Just as Sheriff Dale Warner had thought, Vin had picked up the trail of the Braden gang soon after the posse reached the last known scene of murder. The stage coach robbery where the driver and shotgun had been killed along with one male passenger and two female passengers was just a prelude to a raping and killing spree that seemed to be heating up. Yesterday, at their homestead, a family of six, father, mother, one boy, and three girls, had all been killed senselessly. The mother and the three girls had all been raped and left to die.

Chris looked at the smallest girl, her body abused and violated. She couldn’t have been much older than ten. Chris felt the bile rising in his stomach and he turned away before he lost the contents of his stomach. He was grateful that Buck was not with them. He knew his friend would sleep with just about any willing woman but he also had a strong sense of right and wrong when it came to treating a woman with respect. It had often gotten Buck in trouble because he believed in the purity of women. He never saw the deceit or the evil in a woman. He treated all women with respect and they were never ever to be abused. Chris knew part of the reasoning behind his friend’s steadfast stand on women’s inherent good. Buck’s mother had been a prostitute but to her son, she was an angel. He had watched her being slighted and abused, unable to do anything about it when he was young. But now, every woman was under his protection. Rape was the most evil act a man could commit next to killing a woman. The rape of children would probably send Buck over the edge.

"Glad Bucklin ain’t here to see this." It was said softly and for a moment Chris thought it was his own thoughts being said aloud. He looked up to see Vin standing beside him, a look of total disgust on his face. Chris merely nodded his agreement.

"Let’s get on the road. They did this about yesterday mornin’ if I read the tracks right. Dale, when was this discovered?" Vin walked toward the sheriff who was directing his men to take the bodies back for burial.

"Lou Jensen came across the scene yesterday afternoon. He said he couldn’t stand to look at them poor kids, so he rode in to find me. That was just before you two arrived in town. These vermin are ridin’ fast and leavin’ a bloodbath wherever they go. Don’t seem to take much except lives and the women. We gotta stop ‘em and soon, Vin." Dale Warner had been in law enforcement for twenty five odd years and he had never come across such evil as this.

The posse consisted of twenty men, including Vin, Chris, and the Sheriff. Warner sent three of his men back to town with the bodies. The others all set off behind Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee. The tracks were still pretty clear, at least to Vin, and they rode at a good pace. The tracks led west and then south, away from Bitter Creek. Vin’s concentration was uncanny and the posse rode hard all day. By evening, they were close.

Buck saddled Bourbon and rode out of town toward the east. He made his circuit of the outlying areas without mishap. He was only about a mile and a half out of town, near the Engelthorpe spread, when he heard the woman calling for help. He turned Bourbon toward the farmhouse. Virginia Engelthorpe was out by the barn, waving her arms at Buck as he rode up. She ran toward him, her skirts held up so that she didn’t trip.

"Oh, Buck, I am so glad to see you. William and the other children went into Eagle Bend this morning on a buying trip. My youngest got hisself caught up in the tree yonder. Could you please help? I told him not to climb that tree, he’s too young, but what his brothers do, he thinks he can to." They had been walking while Virginia told him what was happening and now Buck could see the young boy about forty feet up in the tree, his foot caught between two branches. The child was near the top, in the small branches. Buck didn’t like the looks of things. He was way too heavy for the tree top.

"Ginny, I don’t know about this. Maybe I could ride back into town and get JD. He’s a lot lighter and spryer than me." He looked down at the pretty woman. Her eyes were begging him to help and he looked up at the small boy once again.

"He’s been up there for about two hours now, Buck. He ain’t even cryin’ anymore. Please, get him down." She grabbed Buck’s arm.

Buck sighed heavily and patted her hand. She had been one of his paramours about a year back and he felt he owed her at least this much. "Okay, Ginny, I’ll see what I can do."

He moved over to the tree and grabbed the first branch. He hauled himself into the tree and started climbing. He had to admit that it was a perfect tree for a boy to play in. The branches were large and regular, almost like a ladder. He made good progress until he got about five feet from the boy. Then the branches started to get a lot thinner and weaker. Carefully, he placed his booted feet on the next highest branch and felt it give under his weight. He shifted his right foot up to the next branch and hung on precariously with his left hand.

"Hi there, boy. You all right?" He grinned up at the frightened boy.

The boy nodded. He was a tow head and had bright blue eyes that glistened with fresh tears.

"What’s your name, son?" Buck reached up with his right hand and touched the boy’s leg.

"Adam." His bottom lip quivered.

Buck smiled encouragingly. "Well, Adam, here’s what I need you to do. When I pull on this branch, you pull your foot free. You think you can do that? And then, you and me are gonna make our way back down this tree. All right?"

The boy nodded and Buck pulled the branches apart. Young Adam pulled his foot out and smiled brightly at the mustached rogue. The boy climbed down one branch and Buck grabbed him with his right arm. They looked at each other and Buck grinned. The boy was only about five years old, his two front teeth were missing, and he had a smudge of dirt on his chin. Buck’s mind flashed back to another tow headed boy, one he had loved as if the boy were his own. His name was also Adam, Adam Larabee. He held the boy close and started to take a step back down the tree.

"There’s Kitty!" The boy exclaimed happily and he reached out for the yellow tabby sitting about eight feet away in the smaller branches. The movement caught Buck off guard. Buck swayed slightly, trying to hold the boy securely while trying to find the next branch with his boot. Just as he planted his foot, he heard a snap. His foot fell out from under him as the small branch broke away cleanly. He clutched the boy as he tried to regrip the branch his left hand was on. He grabbed tight and thought he was secure when the branch his left foot was on also broke. With no foot purchase, the weight of the boy and himself was too much for his hand. He felt it slip and then he felt the first branch hit his back as they tumbled through the tree towards the ground. Even as they fell, Buck tried to maneuver his body so that the boy wouldn’t take the brunt of the blows.

As they neared the bottom, the branches got thicker and Buck’s back hit heavily against one of them. It knocked the breath out of him and the green and blue world went black. He fell sideways and Adam’s head hit the last branch before the ground. THUD! Buck heard the sickening sound seconds before he landed hard on the roots of the tree. A searing pain ran up his right arm from his wrist as he lay, trying to gulp in air. He heard a woman screaming but he couldn’t make out what she was saying. His head had made contact with several of the branches on the way down and the world spun beneath him. He felt something warm roll down his face and into his eye. He swipe at it with his left hand, his right still around the boy. He knew it was blood but it made no difference to him, it was easy to ignore just as all of his aches and pains were.

Slowly, he sat up and pulled more air into his battered body. The world came back into focus and he looked down at the little tow headed boy still held tight against his body. There was blood all over the boy’s head and face and the eyes stared blankly at him. Buck lost his breath again as he stared bewilderly at the body in his arms. Slowly, he got to his feet. He walked to Bourbon despite the pains that were running across his back and down his legs. His head throbbed and the world was spinning but he ignored all of it. The pain in his right wrist was like a fire, burning down through his fingers but he gripped the boy tightly with it despite the pain. His mind was numb and his world was reduced to the bloodied face of the small package he held firmly in his right arm. He no longer felt anything else. He clung to the small body and pulled himself into the saddle with his left hand. He didn’t feel the hands that tried to pull him back. He never heard the woman who pleaded with him to give her back her son. He simply turned the horse and headed back to Four Corners.

He looked down at the small blood covered face and he kicked Bourbon into a canter. "Hush, Adam, Uncle Buck has you. You’ll be just fine. We’ll get ya to your momma and she’ll take care of everything. Uncle Buck would never let you get hurt, now would he? Your daddy would skin me alive iffen I let you get hurt. Shhhhh. Sarah will never let me take you fishin’ again if she thinks I didn’t watch after ya."

He quickly covered ground and arrived back in town fifteen minutes later. He was still talking quietly to the body as he dismounted in front of the stairs that led to Nathan’s clinic. Slowly, ignoring the pains that shot through his body with every step, he climbed the two flights of stairs and walked down the deck to the door that led into the healer’s rooms. He opened the door and stepped inside.

Buck looked at Nathan as the black man was pulling up the sheet over the body of Sarah Jenkins. He froze, white as that sheet. "Oh God, no, no, not Sarah too." It was said so quietly, Nathan wasn’t sure he even heard the words. He looked up to see the loveable rogue holding a small boy, blood covering both of them. He rushed over to Buck and tried to take the boy from his friend. Buck was staring at the body under the sheet and holding the boy’s body so tightly that Nathan could not pry his arm loose.

"Buck, let go of ‘im. Buck, look at me! Let GO!" Nathan pulled on the big man’s arm. Buck took a step back, away from the black healer, and continued his unyielding grip on the little body.

Josiah had seen Buck ride quickly into town and stop at Nathan’s. He could tell that Buck was bleeding and that he had something in his arm but he had no idea it was a small boy. He ran up the stairs to Nathan’s and entered just as Buck took his step backwards. He backed right into Josiah’s large frame and Josiah grabbed him to keep him from falling. The pain in his back startled him and he loosened his hold slightly. Nathan took the opportunity to pull on the arm and the boy slipped from Buck’s grasp. Nathan caught the body as it fell and he carried the boy over to the bed beside the one Sarah Jenkins lay on. He quickly examined the boy and turned to where Josiah still held onto Buck.

Buck looked like a bloody ghost. He clothes were ripped. Leaves and twigs were caught in his hair. Blood ran down the white face. He was gasping for air. As Nathan got closer, he could see the sheen of sweat that covered the mustached man’s face. And then, he looked in Buck’s eyes and saw nothing.

"Josiah, bring him over to the chair. Come on, Buck. Sit down before ya fall down." He held a chair out for Buck and the tall man sat. Nathan knelt in front of him, Josiah stood behind him. "What happened, Buck? Who is this child?"

"Adam." It was all Buck whispered. He stared at the two bodies. He saw nothing else. "I let ‘em both die. It’s my fault, all my fault. Oh God, Chris, I’m so sorry. What did I do?"

"Josiah, go get Ezra and JD. We need to find out what happened. He’s in shock and hurt pretty bad from the looks of him." Nathan started to remove Buck’s coat as Josiah made his way back to the door.

Seconds after Josiah left, Nathan turned his back on Buck. He threw bucks coat on the bed by the boy’s body and then he went to the cabinets hanging on the wall to gather the supplies he would need to tend to Buck’s injuries. When he turned back around, the big man was gone. Nathan went to the door and started down the stairs after Buck but he was halted by a frantic woman on her way up to his clinic.

"Where’s my son? Did he bring him to you, Mr. Jackson? I just passed him on the stairs but he wouldn’t talk to me. Please, Mr. Jackson, is my boy alive?""

Nathan recognized Virginia Engelthorpe and then it dawned on him who the boy was. He gently took Mrs. Engelthorpe by the arm and led her back up the stairs. As he did, he looked out onto the town and saw Buck making his way to the saloon. ‘Good,’ he thought to himself, ‘Inez will take care of him until I can get back to him.’

JD saw Buck crossing the street. Josiah had just told him that Buck was apparently injured and had brought in a dead child. JD was mystified as to why Buck was alone and not at Nathan’s. The healer was like a mother hen when it came to the seven and if one of them was injured, he would never have let him out of the clinic this quickly. JD made his way to the saloon. Buck had not gone inside. Instead, he was sitting in a chair out on the boardwalk. He was staring down the road toward the edge of town. JD walked up beside him but Buck never turned his head to acknowledge his presence.

"Buck, you’re hurt. Shouldn’t you be over at Nathan’s?" JD put his hand on Buck’s arm but the man didn’t seem to know he was there. JD moved around and knelt down in front of him. "Buck, did you hear me? Are you all right, Buck?"

"I need to talk ta Chris." He still hadn’t looked at JD.

"He’s gone with Vin, Buck. Let me go get Inez for ya, okay buddy?" The man in front of JD scared him. He loved Buck like a big brother but this man was an empty shell. He stood and ran into the saloon to get Inez.

Buck struggled to his feet and limped to the nearest horse. He pulled himself up into the saddle and headed the strange horse west. He kicked the horse’s side and the horse responded, quickly springing into a gallop. Buck was out of town in seconds.

JD returned to where he had left Buck. Inez was right behind him but there was no sign of the man that she loved. They looked frantically up and down the street but there was no sign of Buck. The scoundrel had vanished into thin air.

"Inez, he couldn’t have gotten far. He looked pretty banged up. You go that way, I’ll go this. Get Josiah to help you look. I’ll get Ezra. He’ll be all right, Inez, he was just bleeding a little." JD lied to spare the woman who looked scared.

JD started down thee street and saw Josiah and Ezra coming toward him. "Have either of you seen Buck?"

"What are you talking about, kid? He’s at Nathan’s. I told you that not fifteen minutes ago."

"I know you did but I saw him in front of the saloon. He was lookin’ for Chris he said. I went in to get Inez and when we came back out, he was gone. We can’t find him anywhere."

"Now, now, Mr. Dunne. I’m sure that the big oaf just made his way back to our esteemed healer’s. If not, then he perhaps has made his way to his abode at the boarding house. Either way, there is no need to become agitated. I will personally go to check his room and Preacher, perhaps you could go with our diminutive sheriff and try to ascertain what exactly is going on at Mr. Jackson’s." Ezra flicked a bit of dust from his green jacket. He didn’t seem overly concerned with Buck’s disappearance but then he hadn’t seen Buck like the other two men had.

JD looked to Josiah and the big man of the cloth smiled and nodded his agreement. The two left to go to Nathan’s and Ezra headed for the boarding house. Ezra was actually a lot more concerned than he had let on. He had watched over the past month as Buck had lost weight. The ladies man had cut himself off from all of them it seemed. He spent all his time out at his new homestead or with Inez, which was fine since he seemed to love Inez more than anything. But, Ezra loved Inez too, as a sister, and late at night while they were closing down the saloon, she would tell him how Buck was on the verge of exhaustion and how worried she was for her future husband. Ezra had volunteered to take a few extra patrols to relieve Buck of the strain but the scoundrel had refused preferential treatment and Chris seemed to agree with Buck. Ezra also knew Inez’s secret and he didn’t want to see his ‘sister’ put under any duress at this point of her pregnancy.

Ezra got to Buck’s room but found nothing out of place which was a bit of a shock since the man was not the neatest person in town. Everything was put away, his clothes were all folded, and the bed was made. Ezra came to the conclusion that Buck didn’t spend much time in this room anymore and that Inez must be taking care of his laundry. He turned to leave and ran into Inez.

"He’s not here, is he?" She had tears in her eyes but none had fallen. She was trying desperately to be brave.

"No, sweetheart, he’s not. We’ll find him, don’t you worry." He took her by the shoulders and turned her around. "The little one needs her rest, not a lot of stress right now, so why don’t you go back to the bar and relax while we look for your man, all right?"

Inez put a protective hand against her stomach and slowly nodded. Ezra’s arm was around her shoulders as they made their way down the stairs and back out to the street. She smiled slightly, thinking about how Ezra always referred to the baby as she. He had told her one night that Buck Wilmington deserved to have a dozen daughters who were all beautiful with young men constantly prowling around them. "Ezra, why would he leave like that? What happened? JD said he was injured when he came in to get me. Where would he go if not to Nathan’s?" Inez could not comprehend why Buck would choose to leave town when he was injured.

"I have no clue as to what was going through his mind, my dear. We will find him, rest assured. Now, you go rest." Ezra smiled at her with such assurance that she began to believe.

"Okay, Senor. I will trust all of you to bring him home."

Inez went back to the saloon to await word of Buck’s being found and returned to Nathan’s. The three men continued their search of town and finally came to the conclusion that the ladies’ man had left. Saul Morton had reported his horse stolen and Ezra quickly came to the conclusion that Buck had taken the roan mare. The question now was where would Buck have ridden to and how bad were his injuries.

JD was jogging to the livery when a big hand caught his arm. "Josiah, I’ve got to find him. He was hurt, bleeding more that I told Inez. He needs help!"

"I agree, son, but we have to get ourselves coordinated before we go riding off. All three of us will start searching but we need to get organized. Why don’t you go check his new house? Perhaps he rode out there without thinking." Josiah and JD had reached the livery to find Ezra already there, saddling Chaucer.

"Buck said something about talkin’ to Chris. Maybe one of us should check Chris’s shack. Maybe he headed out there." JD threw the blanket and then the saddle up onto Beauty.

"I’ll go out to Mr. Larabee’s modest abode. Josiah, why don’t you just start making circles of town, with each circumference getting larger and larger. If he was as injured as Mr. Jackson believes he was, he probably didn’t get too far a field." Ezra swung up onto his horse’s back. "My fellow compatriots, good hunting." With that he rode out of town headed north.

Larabee lay among the boulders and watched the ten men in front of him as they laughed and drank around their campfire. None of them were yet aware that their three lookouts had already been taken out. Chris had taken one with his knife, Deputy Johnson had taken another with a twist of his neck, and Sheriff Warner had taken the last out with his fist. Vin was already high up in the rocks, waiting for the signal to fire. Sheriff Warner had planned the attack with Chris. He knew what his posse was capable of and what they would have problems with. Warner tried to get one of the lawmen with each batch of civilians. Chris had three men with him, Deputy Johnson had four with him and he had four with him. Two men had stayed with the horses, attempting to keep them quiet. Vin was alone but that was the way he preferred it. He didn’t want anyone distracting him while he was trying to make the shot. Warner had given each group fifteen minutes to get into position.

Chris checked his watch and noted that they had one minute left. He looked up to check Vin’s progress and noted that the marksman was ready to fire. He looked at the man on his left. Gus was visibly nervous. He was a blacksmith, not a gunslinger and he had never shot at anyone before. Gus was checking his gun for bullets for about the tenth time, Chris noticed. Chris looked to his right and saw Bob and Seth calmly waiting for the signal for them to start firing. They were both ranch hands, loaned to the sheriff because they had both been hired guns in the past. Both men were in their forties and little could affect them at this point in their lives. Larabee knew that these two would take care of each other. He could concentrate on Gus.

When the first shot rang out, the ten men all jumped to their feet, pulling their guns from their holsters. Although they had consumed a lot of alcohol, none of them were totally drunk. They had been together for quite a while now and they worked as a team, backing each other up as they made their way to their horses. Chris aimed and fired, one of the outlaws falling, a river of red falling down his face. A loud report sounded and when Chris saw another man fall, he knew it had been Vin. Chris stood and signaled Gus to follow him. Staying as low as possible he made his way toward the string of horses that several of the gang were trying to saddle. Stupid move, Chris thought as he aimed and fired again. Another went down.

Out of the corner of his eye, Chris saw movement. He turned slightly and saw one of the outlaws drawing a bead on Gus. The outlaw fired before Chris could squeeze the trigger. Chris’s shot was a second behind. Chris felt more than saw Gus go down, blood spurting from the fatal wound to his neck. The outlaw fell forward but landed on his hands and knees. He crawled forward towards the weapon he had dropped. Chris glanced at Gus as he drew his last breath and then he calmly drew a bead on the man crawling before him. He pulled the trigger and the man sprawled, his life snuffed out.

Three of the outlaws had made to their horses and, without waiting for saddles, they started to ride bareback away from the scene of the gun battle. One man stopped suddenly and turned just as Larabee fired his second shot into the downed outlaw. He never said a word. He took note of the man before him and then spun back around and savagely kicked his horse. He caught up with his two compatriots and the three made good their escape.

The gunfire ended a minute later as Vin Tanner fired one last time and the seven villains were laying motionless on the ground. Vin made his way back down to the brigands camp and joined up with Larabee who was checking the bodies for signs of life.

"Three got away. One of them was injured, I think. Guess I’ll start trackin’ them first thing in the morning." Vin held his rifle cradled in his arm. He felt no remorse for the devils who could rape and kill innocent women and children. He looked sadly at the men of the posse who had given their lives. Besides Gus, three others had fallen to the gunfire of the outlaws.

Chris looked at Gus and shook his head. He hated to see innocent lives lost anywhere or anytime. Gus had been a good man and he had been willing to help stop the devil’s own. He deserved a hero’s burial. Sheriff Warner knelt beside the body of his friend and then he looked up at Chris. Tears fell down his weathered cheeks. He didn’t say a word.

Early the next morning, the graves for the seven had been dug and the burials were complete. Four of Warner’s posse were taking the four bodies back to Bitter Creek. Vin and Chris were saddling their horses. The sun was just making it’s way up in the rosy sky.

"I’ve got to get back, Vin. Do what ya can for Warner and the rest." Looking at the horse that was loaded with Gus’s body, he added, "Watch yourself, Pard."

"Yeah. I’ll be back Sunday by noon. Wouldn’t miss the weddin’ for anything. You watch yourself ridin’ home." Vin put a hand on his friends shoulder. He squeezed just enough to let him know he was glad it hadn’t been him laying there on the ground.

"See ya Sunday." Chris mounted and rode for home.

Chris Larabee rode into Four Corners about just before noon. He slowly walked his black gelding down the street. He glanced around him, the hairs on the back of his neck on end. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but he knew in his gut that something was direly wrong. He searched the boardwalks for any sign of the seven . He spotted none of them. The feeling got stronger. He dismounted in front of the saloon and made his way to the batwing doors. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the dim interior. None of his friends were inside, not even Inez or Ezra. The feeling crept into his gut and it clenched tightly. He turned and started toward the Clarion office. Mary would know what was going on. He had taken twenty steps when he saw Nathan coming towards him from the bottom of the stairs. He waited for the big black man to get to him.

"What’s goin’ on, Nate?" He took a deep breath and waited impatiently for the healer to fill him in.

"Let’s go back inside, Chris."

"No, Nathan, tell me now. What’s goin’ on?"

"Buck’s missing. It’s all very confusing and kinda complicated. He came into town yesterday mornin’. He had the Engelthorpe boy in his arms. The boy was dead and Buck was beat all to hell. He brought the boy to me. Nothin’ I could do for him so I was gonna start on Buck’s injuries. I turned my back for a second and he disappeared. I was gonna go after him but the boy’s mother showed up and I had to deal with her. Anyway, JD saw him outside the saloon and went to get Inez. By the time he and Inez got back outside, Buck had stolen a horse and took off. We haven’t been able to find him yet. The guys have been searching since noon yesterday, barely stoppin’ when it got dark. I don’t think even Vin coulda found his tracks."

Chris was shocked at the tale that Nathan had just told him. It didn’t make any sense. Why would Buck have the Engelthorpe boy’s body in his possession and where did he go. There had to be more to the story. Just as he was about to ask Nathan more questions, they noticed Josiah riding into town. He was noticeably alone. He stopped dejectedly in front of them and dismounted.

"Anything at all, Preacher?" Chris asked as Josiah tiredly made his way to where they were standing.

"Not a sign of him. I need a drink. We need to reevaluate the whole situation." He led the way into the saloon and Josiah grabbed a bottle, Nathan the glasses on the way to the back table where Chris and the rest of the seven usually sat. Josiah sat heavily, disheartened at the loss of their beloved scoundrel.

Drinks were poured and then Chris looked at the two men before him, worry clearly apparent in his green eyes. "I want to hear everything that’s been goin’ on since Vin and I left. There has got ta be more to this story. Don’t leave anything out, no matter how small."

Nathan tossed the whiskey down in one gulp and shook his head. "Buck ain’t had a good week. First he found a wagon with two dead women and a dead man. One of the women was alive but too far gone for anyone to help. And then he tried to rescue the boy from the tree. Mrs. Engelthorpe said he was way up in the tree, he had just got ahold of the boy, when the branch broke out from under him. They fell a good distance. The boy musta hit his head on the way down. Died right away but Buck got hisself up and, still holding on to the boy, he pulled himself up in the saddle and rode hard into town with the body. Wasn’t nothin’ I could do for the boy. I was just pullin’ the sheet over the woman he had brought in the night before. I guess it was too much for him. He said, I let ‘em both die. It’s all my fault. All he did was try ta help ‘em out, he didn’t do nothin’ but try ta help." Nathan shook his head, remembering the look of absolute devastation on Buck’s face when, still holding the boy’s body, he watched Nathan pull the sheet over Sarah’s body. Suddenly his head snapped up. "Oh, my God, Chris, the woman’s name was Sarah and the boy was Adam. Seeing you, it just dawned on me what he meant." Nathan instinctively put a hand on the gunfighter’s arm.

Chris stared at Nathan, in shock at hearing the names once again connected to death. He drew short, quick, breaths. He was as still as a statue. His mind raced with thoughts of the fire and finding the bodies of his wife and son in the ashes of what once had been a happy home.

"It all makes sense now. JD said Buck was looking for you as he sat outside the saloon, just before he disappeared. He’s mixing things up in his head. He thinks he killed your family all over again, Chris. Where would he go to look for you? We already checked your shack."

Chris dropped his eyes to the table top and he slowly let out a big sigh. Where would Buck go? Sarah and Adam both dead, again! Buck must be in such pain emotionally. Chris knew that Buck had always felt guilty about his family’s deaths. He, himself, had contributed to that belief, blaming Buck on several occasions when he was drunk out of his mind. He had needed someone to blame and since they couldn’t find the one responsible at the time, Chris had turned the blame to someone who had stayed beside him through the whole ordeal. Well, almost the whole way. Chris refused to think about the reason for their split so long ago now. Chris had thought that when they had discovered that it was Fowler and Ella Gaines responsible for his family’s murder that Buck had let go of that blame. Evidently, he hadn’t.

"I need a fresh horse, Josiah. I got to go tell Mary that I can’t make the wedding. Meet me outside the Clarion." He got up to leave.

"You know where he is, Chris?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah. Tell the others to stop lookin’ and tell Inez I’ll bring him back. I need to go alone, though." With that he walked out into the sunlight.

Chris walked slowly, hesitantly, into the office of the Clarion newspaper. Mary was hard at work and didn’t look up immediately. Chris watched her, his heart heavy with the news he had to give her. He was sure she already knew about Buck’s disappearance. He also knew she would be upset but trying to be strong for her best friend. He took a step toward her and she looked up. Tears sprang to her eyes as she immediately stood and rushed for his protective arms. He held her tight, breathing in the sweet scent of her. They stayed that way for several minutes before either of them spoke.

"Mary, I’m sorry. I’ve got to after him. He saved my life so many times, I can’t abandon him now when he needs me." He tightened his arms around her.

She pushed away from him slightly and he thought she was upset about the wedding being cancelled. He prepared himself mentally for the barrage she was about to throw at him. Instead, he found her almost pleased, not disappointed at all.

"Do you know where he is? Inez is so worried and in her condition, she needs some good news, Chris! Please, tell me." Mary’s face was alive with hope.

"I have a good idea where he might be. He thinks that Sarah and Adam died all over again. He’s got to be at the old ranch, Sweetheart. I can’t think of anywhere else that he would go. Nathan says he appeared to be hurt bad, probably a head injury. I’ve got to go alone, Mary, I hope you understand. He’s hurtin’ in his mind as much as in his body and I don’t think he needs Inez or JD askin’ a lot of questions right away. Just tell her I’ve gone to get him and we’ll be back as soon as we can. I’ll take care of him." He kissed her tenderly and then he smiled at her. "I promise, we’ll get married as soon as I get back. I feel terrible about the wedding, Mary, but Buck…."

"I know, Darling, I know. I wouldn’t want you to stay and leave him alone. He needs you now. I’ll take care of Inez. Send word when you find him, okay?" Mary smiled slightly at the man she had come to love more than anything else in the world over the past two years. She reached up and touched his face.

He took her hand and kissed her palm. "I love you, Mary Travis, with all my heart. The past needs to be dealt with right now but believe me, I am going to marry you real soon. I’ve got to go. Take care." He turned and took the four steps back to the door. As he reached for the doorknob, he turned back to her. "What do you mean, in her condition? Is Inez sick?"

Mary hung her head. She hadn’t meant to let that slip. It wasn’t her place to tell anyone before Inez had a chance to tell Buck about her pregnancy. "She’s pregnant. Chris, Buck doesn’t know yet. It’s her place to tell him so please, don’t say a word to him. She was going to tell him today but she never got the chance. Just find him and bring him back to her, then she’ll be fine and so will the baby. She loves him so much, Chris, I don’t know what will happen if she loses him."

Chris’s mind flashed back to the way Buck used to hold Adam when he was so tiny, he almost fit in the palm of the big man’s hand. Buck had been so tender and caring with Adam. He had loved that boy almost as much as Chris had. He had stayed around Eagle Bend, finding any job he could, just so he could visit with Chris and his family every Sunday. He had taught Adam how to tie his shoes. He had taught the young boy how to fish. He even taught him how to spit. Chris remembered finding Adam curled in Buck’s arms, both sound asleep in the hayloft. Sarah had looked at the protective way Buck was holding her son and declared that as long as Adam’s Uncle Buck was around, their son would never want for anything. Well, neither he nor Buck had been around when Fowler came to call. Sarah and Adam had both perished that night. Thinking back with a clearer mind than ever before, Chris reckoned part of Buck had died that night too.

"I’ve got to go, Sweetheart. He’s got to survive for the baby’s sake. I’ll wire as soon as I can." He was out the door in the next second, his back stiff, his jaw set. Nothing would keep him from finding his oldest friend in the world, the man who had stuck with him through every conceivable joy and tragedy Chris could imagine. Now that the shoe was on the other foot, Chris would not let him down.

Josiah stood outside the newspaper office holding the reins to Buck’s mare. Chris looked up at the big gray horse and a tear fell slowly down his cheek. He walked up to her and patted her neck gently, his cheek against her face. "Both Buck and I were there when she was born, Preacher. He’s loved this horse from the beginning. You gonna help me find you master, Bourbon?" The horse nickered softly as if in answer.

"I figured he’d be needing her for the ride home. God speed, my friend." Josiah handed the reins to Chris and watched as he mounted and swiftly rode away from Four Corners and the life that all seven of them had made there.


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