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Part 4 - Epilogue
The day had dawned gray and overcast. A light rain was falling when Chris arrived at the bottom of the hill. Just over the rise was his old homestead. He stopped the big gray mare and sat rigidly, head down. Without lifting his head, he could smell the smoke, he could see the charred remains of his home, he could hear the screams of his wife and child as they burn to death inside the house he had built for them. He remembered racing over the hill that day, Buck right behind him, to find that there was nothing left of the life that they had both cherished.
He didnt want to ride over the hill again to find another person that he loved dead. He knew deep in his soul that Buck was there, waiting for him. Waiting to crumble his world once again. And this time, he didnt know of anyone that could keep him from his self destruction.
The mare moved of her own accord and before he realized it, Chris was atop the hill, looking down at the piece of land that once upon a time, had held all his hopes and dreams. Now it reeked of death and nightmares. The skeleton of the home he had shared with Sarah and Adam stood before him. He stared at it, not wanting to move forward and not wanting to let his eyes wander to the tiny fenced-in area that held the hand painted markers over the graves of his loved ones. He knew thats where he would find Buck.
The horse smelled the scent of her master and she whinnied, impatient to go to him. The man who had hand fed her as a foal, taking the place of her mother, needed her and she walked toward him. She was not about to let the man on her back deter her from her mission in life, to protect the man who had raised her.
Chris found he could put it off no longer and finally, his eyes found the little graveyard. There, laying on his wifes grave, was his friend. Bucks hand was stretched out toward Adams grave. He had no hat or coat. He was soaking wet. And he was motionless. The mare stopped at the fence and Chris climbed slowly from her back. He took a tentative step toward the opening in the rails, followed by another and then another until he stood over the handsome ladies man. He could see blood caked in Bucks hair. The hand that reached for Adam was purple and swollen. Chris stood, looking down at the body of his long time companion, his heart in his throat. He was afraid to touch the body, so sure that he would find cold dead skin beneath his hand.
"Why? Why now, when everything was just coming to the happy ending? Oh God, Buck, what am I going to do without you? You stupid son of a bitch, why did you leave me?" Chris fell to his knees and pulled the body of his brother into his lap. His tears mixed with the rain drops and fell silently down onto Bucks face. He gently caressed the face that he had known for almost fifteen years now. "Im gonna miss you so much, Pard."
As his fingers touched the face of his friend, comprehension slowly grew until the reality of the situation hit him like a brick. The skin he was touching was warm and although it was pale, the skin did not have the gray pallor of death. He leaned over Bucks face and felt the hint of warm breath on his cheek. He held Buck closer to him and looked to the heavens, thanking whoever had watched over his old friend, sparing him from the grip of death.
He gently slapped Bucks face and called his name. "Buck. Come on, its time to wake up, Stud. Its time to go back home, back to Inez. Shes waiting for ya, Pard. For some unknown reason, she loves ya. Come on now, its time to git goin!" Chris stopped his dialog for a moment, listening and watching for some sign that Buck was coming to. Taking a ragged breath, he tried again to wake up the ladies man. "Buck, we gotta ride, its getting late. Wake up, Buck!"
Nothing! Not one little flicker of an eyelid, not a curling of the fingers, nothing. Chris didnt know how badly Buck was injured but he did know that the man in his arms needed to be dry and warm and soon. As gently as he could he hoisted Bucks limp form up. The scoundrel was several inches taller than Larabee and several pounds heavier but the urgent need to get his friend out of the cold rain gave Chris the strength of three men and he got Buck up on the mare. He mounted behind him and, holding tight to his oldest friend, Chris slowly made his way back to town.
Upon entering Eagle Bend, Chris searched the street for a doctors shingle. He spotted the sign and made his way to the clinic and home of Doctor Willard Beacon. Chris eased himself off of the mares back and then pulled Buck down beside him. The doctor had noticed Chris ride up and he came out to assist the dark gunfighter in getting Buck inside.
They gently laid him on a bed and between the two of them, they removed his rain soaked clothing. Buck never moved, never moaned, never flickered an eyelid. He seemed beyond unconscious. His lips were blue, dark circles under his eyes shown angrily out from the ashen skin. As they revealed his body from beneath the layers of wet clothing, they both grimaced at the numerous black and purple contusions that covered the scoundrels skin. Two, on his back, were particularly worrisome to the old doctor.
The door to the exam room opened and a woman came into the room, carrying a wash basin and a bucket of steaming hot water. She smiled wanly at the man in the wet clothing and, after setting down the items she carried, she made her way to the gunfighters side.
"Why dont we let my husband work on your friend. You need to get yourself dried off or youll catch a fever and wont be any help to him. Come on, now, I think I can find something for you to wear." She tugged at Chriss arm and with a last glance at Buck, he followed the slight built woman out of the exam room.
Twenty minutes later, having changed into some of the doctors clothes and eaten a quick bowl of stew, Chris made his way back to Bucks side. The doctor had splinted his broken wrist and bandaged the cut on the big mans head and leg. Buck had not flinched a muscle during the doctors ministrations.
"How is he, Doc?" Chris ran his hand over his old friends forehead, feeling the fever that was now evident.
"Done all I can. He seems to have a real bad head injury and there aint nuthin can be done for that except wait. What happened to him, anyway? Looks like he got the tar beat out of him." The doctor was putting things away. Obviously, he had repaired all that he could. The rest would be up to Buck.
"They told me he fell out of a tree trying to save a little boy who was stuck. That happened two days ago. Hes been out in the open ever since. Whys he so still? Shouldnt he feel some of what ya been doin to him?" Chris stared down at the inanimate features on the face of his life long companion. Fear gripped Chriss heart and he felt tears welling up in his eyes. He took a deep breath and quickly swiped at the offending moisture.
"Two days ago? The man should be dead. Dont rightly know whats keepin him goin but hes still breathin. Hate to say it, but he might be brain dead. Means his brains been scrambled too much to work any of his body but his body dont know hes dead. If thats the case, aint nuthin anybody can do for him cept wait for his body to join his brain. Sorry. Ya can sit with him. Ill leave the two of ya alone."
The doctor turned and had his hand on the doorknob when he heard the man in black say in a low, angry tone, "I aint given up on him. I want someone ta stay with him. You git back here and dont you leave til I get back. Im goin to send a telegram." The doctor shivered at the venom in the voice and turned around to stay with the critical man until his friend returned.
Chris walked quickly down the street. The fear and anger that radiated off of him sent townspeople scattering to stay out of his way. He made his way to the telegraph office and stormed the clerk.
"I want to send two telegrams to Four Corners. I aint got time to write em down so you better be quick. First one, to Nathan Jackson. Say, Nate, bring wagon to Eagle Bend. Dont bring others but found Buck. Hurry. The next one should be sent to Mary Travis. Mary, Sorry wont make wedding. Found Buck hurt but alive. Chris. You got both of those?"
The bespectacled man nodded, gulping at the same time. He quickly sent the telegrams. Larabee went back to the doctors office and stayed by his friends side. No one tried to make him leave.
It was nearly noon the next day when the wagon rolled into town. Three people sat in the seat, eager to find out how badly Buck Wilmington had been hurt. Nathan had seen the tall man before he vanished from Four Corners but the ladies hadnt. The healer knew the man had to be in serious pain. He also knew that Bucks state of mind had been precarious when he up and left without a word to anyone. He had tried his best to keep the spirits of both women up but he hadnt been too successful.
Inez was a nervous wreck, her mind finding all the worst scenarios for why her beloved Buck would run off when he was injured. Mary tried to calm her, tried to reassure the woman that her future husband would be just fine and that nothing had changed between the two but she knew in Inezs condition, that she was having trouble believing it.
Nathan urged the horses forward and stopped when he came to the house where the doctors shingle swung in the wind. He had gotten down and was in the process of lifting Mary down when the door opened. Three heads turned to see Chris standing on the porch, his face set in a grim mask.
"No, Senor, no, hes not dead, is he?" Inez immediately suspected the worst. Her heart broke and she burst into tears.
Chris moved quickly forward, his hand going to Inezs arm. "No, hes not dead, Inez. Hes inside. Hes badly hurt but hes alive." He wrapped his other arm around the blonde woman who thankfully wrapped her arms around her betrothed.
"How bad is he, Chris?" Nathan reached up and lifted the petite raven haired beauty down from her perch.
Seeing that Nathan still had a protective arm around Inez, he squeezed Mary tighter to him. "Hes real bad. Im not gonna sugar coat it, Inez. He hasnt come to yet. Hes got so many bruises and cuts on him, its hard to see normal skin. His wrist is broken and so are some ribs. He was out in the rain and cold without a coat so hes taken a chill and fever." He glanced down at Mary, taking a deep breath before continuing. "The doc thinks hes " He couldnt say the words that the doctor had spoken so callously the day before. He refused to believe that his friend would never wake up. "The doc says hes got a real nasty head wound. Said it might take a while for him to wake up." He reached out to the courageous Mexican woman. "Hes gonna need your strength to help him find his way back. He needs you real bad now, Inez."
"When we get him back home, all of us will be there to help him. I need to see him, Chris." She turned up her stubborn jaw, a determined light in her eyes. Chris had seen the look before. The night they had thought that the fever would take a weakened Buck away from them forever, Inez had been the one to tell them that Buck would survive because he had too much to live for. Chris hoped that still held true.
"Well be inside with him, Chris." Nathan turned, and keeping his arm around the determined woman, lead her into the house.
"Is he that bad off, Chris?" Mary turned sad gray eyes up to him.
"Yeah. The old cuss of a doc doesnt think hell make it back home. I dont know, Sweetheart. He hasnt even twitched a muscle since I found him."
"Where did you find him, Chris? You seemed like you knew right where to look?"
The dark gunslinger dropped his eyes to the ground, remembering the scene by the burnt out house. "He was layin on their graves, like he was tryin to protect em. I was sure he was as dead as " Tears sprung from his green eyes.
Mary held him close. She gave what comfort he would accept. She knew if Buck died, she might lose him and she wasnt willing to give up the love they had found with each other. Neither spoke. They simply clung to one another.
Inez broke away from the black mans reassuring arm and made her way to the bedside. She gazed down at the man who had stolen her heart on that hot summer day when he had taken up the challenge that the young don had pressed upon him. He had taken up the sword and never looked back, fighting the arrogant Mexican for her right to live free. He hadnt expected anything in return for the terrible wounds that the sword had inflicted upon him. He had done it simply because he couldnt stand to see any woman enslaved or harmed by a man. Buck Wilmington had defended her that day and in doing so, had captured her heart completely. It had taken a tragedy for her to reveal to him how she felt but, once the words were said, the two of them had not looked back. They loved each other completely, there was no doubt in either mind.
Now, here he was again, on the brink of deaths door and she was determined that he would not leave her to raise their child on her own. She was going to bring him back to her and their baby. She could not fail. She reached out and tenderly touched his pale face with the dark circle under his eyes.
"Im here now, mi amor. I love you and will not let you get away like this. Do you hear me, Buck Wilmington? We are going to be married and raise a family in the house you have built for me. I will not let you go!" Inez laid her head on Bucks chest and cried. Her hand found the black hair and she gently ran her fingers through the silky strands. "I love you. Dont leave me, Darling, please dont leave me."
When Chris and Mary walked in, Inez was still softly speaking encouraging words to her fiancé. Nathan was nowhere to be seen. Mary quietly approached her best friend and put a protective arm around her shoulders. She looked down at the still, pale, face and tears fell from her eyes. What was there to say? She wouldnt lie to the woman and tell her that Buck was going to be just fine. She had no way of knowing that. He looked like death warmed over at the moment. His handsome face was pale, almost translucent except for the dark dreadful circles under his eyes. His breath came in short quick gulps of air and rattled ominously in his chest. But the symptom that caught Marys attention was the stillness of Buck. The man was the most animated person she knew, his face the most expressive. Unlike Chris, most of the people in town could read Buck Wilmingtons face like a scene in a quiet pond. All the details were there for those who took the time to study the mustached face. For the most part, the ladies man was happy go lucky, enjoying life and dragging others into his web of exuberance. At times, he was deadly serious, his normally blue eyes black and lethal. The times when he was miserable were the hardest on everyone who knew him. At these times, it seemed the darkest eclipse imaginable had occurred upon the land. Mary knew that his death would bring with it the bottomless pit that Chris and JD would never find their way out of. She found herself praying to a God she no longer trusted.
Nathan came back in the room and pulled Chris to the side. "I just talked to the old fool who calls hisself a doctor. Dont worry, Chris, well get him back home and Amanda will see to him. Tell me what exactly you found and how did he react to your movin him."
Chris told the healer everything he could remember. He emphasized the fact that Buck hadnt made a peep at any time. Not one single moan or grunt, no whimper or hiss. He seemed to be gone, his mind no longer connected to his body or the pain his body was in.
"I seen men act like that during the war. Their minds couldnt take the blood and gore anymore. They just shut down. Chris, some came back, strong as ever. Yad never knew they took a break from reality." Nathan tried to cheer the dark gunslinger but his words had the opposite effect.
"And some didnt. I seen it too, Nate. Some of em was lost for good." Chris tried to hide the pain from the women. They didnt need his memories of that awful war and the men who had been crippled by it.
"Thats true, Chris, but this aint exactly the same. Its old memories thats botherin him right now and hes got a lot to come back to. Hes tough and strong. Hell be back."
"God, I hope so, Nathan. I hope so." Chris walked over to Mary and pulled her away from the Hispanic woman. "I need to talk to ya, Sweetheart."
Mary gave Inez a quick hug. "Ill be right back." She followed Chris outside to the big front porch. She stood in front of the handsome blonde, her head cocked expectantly.
"I just wanted to say how sorry I am about today, the wedding I mean. I know how much you were looking forward to it. Its just, Buck well, hes special, ya know. I couldnt turn my back on him. Sides, it wouldnt seem real if Buck werent there with us. It dont mean that I dont love ya, cause I do. And I want to marry you as soon as possible. But not without Buck being there."
"I understand, Chris. Please, dont worry about the wedding. It was silly anyway, considering Ive already had the big wedding. I love you, Chris Larabee, you and all your baggage. Well wait until Buck is up on his feet and then well have just the family there to watch."
Suddenly, Mary was filled with trepidation. Was Chris backing out of everything? Had she lost him? Hesitantly, she asked, "What do you mean, no?"
"We aint waitin another day, Mary. Will you marry me?" Chris took her hand in his and gazed intently into her eyes.
"Darling, I love you. I already agreed to marry you."
"I mean today, with Nathan and Inez and Buck as our witnesses. Ill drag a preacher here right now if you say yes. I dont want to wait any longer. I want you for my wife and Billy for my son. Well, will ya?" Chris was so serious that Mary gasped.
It took mere seconds for her to agree. "Yes, lets get married right now. I love you, Chris Larabee. I love you so much!"
Chris ran off the porch. He turned as he ran, "Ill return in a few minutes. Go tell Inez and Nathan and get yourself ready, Mrs. Larabee." With that he was gone.
Chris returned fifteen minutes later, dragging a half dressed preacher behind him. The man was middle aged, balding, bespectacled, and laughing as he struggled to keep up with the lawman from Four Corners. As soon as everyone was settled in front of the bed that Buck lay on, the preacher began his speech. Chris only half listened. He smiled at his bride and said the appropriate "I do" but his mind was racing back to another wedding, another woman, and Chris smiled when he realized for perhaps the first time, Sarah would approve. The two women would have been good friends. They were both strong, intelligent, women with good hearts and lots of patience. Suddenly, he realized that everyone was staring at him and he grinned, grabbed Mary and gave her a big kiss. He then turned to the man on the bed.
"We did it, Pard. With your help, I made it to this day. And Im gonna see you to yours. You hear me, Buck Wilmington. Your day is coming."
The four companions sat and watched Buck Wilmington breathe. They had no idea how to help him. They barely spoke to one another but they touched each other, giving one another the comfort and support that each would need in the coming weeks, or months. Nathan could not predict how long Buck might stay in this state of nothingness, not really living but far from dead. He explained to them all that he was resting, his mind and body too overwhelmed with pain and tragedy to function right now. And, he hoped, Buck would awaken when he was ready to cope with all that was going on around him, both present and past.
"Miss Inez, why dont you try to rest for awhile. You havent slept since Buck left Four Corners. You look plum worn out." Nathan moved to kneel in front of her, his large brown hands on top of her delicate ones.
"No, Senor, I can not leave him. He may need me." Fresh tears found their way down her cheeks. She was exhausted, her muscles ached. But, she couldnt leave the man she loved so deeply.
"Nathan, let me talk to her privately." Mary moved to where the dark healer knelt. He looked up at her and she smiled weakly. He got up and moved to get himself yet another cup of coffee. Mary sat beside her best friend and put both arms around her. "Inez, you have to think about the baby. Youll lose it if you dont take care of yourself. You have to rest. Buck wouldnt want you to risk harming his child, now would he?"
Inez met Marys cool gray eyes with her fiery brown ones. Slowly, she shook her head. "I guess you are right. The little one has needs too. Alright, Ill lay down for awhile. Will you and Chris stay with him?"
"Of course we will. You have our promise. There is a settee in the next room. You wont be far away and we can wake you if anything happens." Mary accompanied the distraught woman to the adjoining room and covered her with an afghan when she was settled.
When Mary reentered the room where Buck lay, Nathan was waiting for her. "Mary, is something wrong with Inez? I need to know what you said that made her change her mind so quickly. I dont wanna be watchin out for her and Buck if I dont have to."
Mary understood Nathans concern. Maybe it would be best if he was aware of Inezs condition. It wouldnt be a secret for long anyway. "Only to ease your mind, Nathan, although I dont believe its my place to break the news." She looked pointedly at Chris. "Inez is pregnant. She has already talked to Amanda about it. I just reminded her that the baby needs her to stay healthy and that Buck would insist she rest if he knew, which he doesnt. She was going to tell him yesterday but obviously she never got the chance."
Chris was still amazed. Buck was going to be a father! In all the time he had known Buck, only one woman had ever accused him of fathering a child and she was lying about it. They had even talked about it one night out under the stars when such things could be discussed. Buck had always figured he wasnt capable of having children because he sure had given it every chance. He really wasnt one to protect the woman or himself and he had been with hundreds of women, Chris figured.
"I just cant believe it, Mary," he exclaimed. "After all the women hes been with, shes the one to get pregnant!"
"Must be fate sall I can say. Shes the right one and God works in mysterious ways. How far along is she Mary?" Nathan was amazed also but his instinct was to prevent a miscarriage if at all possible.
"A little over three months, I think, Nathan. She said it was due in February. Until the past few days, shes been doing just fine with it. She didnt even have much morning sickness. What do you think, if she rests will the baby be all right?" Now Mary was getting scared for her friend who just three days ago had been so full of joy. It wasnt fair that Inez loose both Buck and the baby.
"This sure aint good for her but if we can get her to rest a lot and if Buck wakes up soon, she should be just fine. Can you imagine the look on Bucks face when he finds out?" A huge smile broke out on the dark face and it was joined by two others.
"He deserves a girl, is all I can say. Just wait til he has to defend her honor from boys like him." Chris shook his head and walked over to the bed where Buck lay insensate. "Pard, did ya hear what Mary said? Youre gonna be a father. Now is not the time to check out on us, big dog. Ya wanna be around to raise that child of yours, dont ya? Come on, Buck, wake up."
The lanky regulator didnt move. He was lost in a blackness so complete, nothing penetrated it. It was a pit where no pain or pleasure could find him. It was where he wanted to be, a place where he could just be himself with no one depending on him, where no one would leave him.
The following morning, Chris saddled his horse. He had arose early in the morning and sat by himself on the doctors front porch. He had come to a decision by the time Mary, Nathan, and Inez had awakened.
Nathan walked down the sidewalk to where Chris was tightening the cinch. "Ya gonna be gone long?"
Chris looked up at the tall black man and half smiled. "No. Gonna go pick up the horse Buck borrowed. Best we return it to Four Corners. Plus, I got some explainin to do. Why dont you get the wagon ready. We should get home while the suns shinin."
Nathan nodded. Mary had told him where the dark gunslinger had found his oldest friend. There was nothing that Nathan could say to his friend that would make the trip to the burnt out ranch and back any easier.
Mary appeared on the porch as Chris mounted Bourbon. The gray horse bobbed her head but Chris was almost as familiar to her as her master. She was ready to take him where he wanted to go. Chris looked at his new wife and he sighed.
"Ill be back shortly, Mary. I have to do this. I hope you understand." Without waiting for a reply, he turned Bourbon and headed out of town.
He arrived at the ranch he and Sarah and Buck had tamed just a short eight years ago. The roan mare Buck had absconded with when he rode out of Four Corners was still tethered in the tall grass by what used to be a corral. The horse raised her head and whinnied at Bourbon as they approached. Chris got off Bourbon and slowly walked up to the strange mare. Somehow, Buck had managed to tie her to a small log which she could move enough to get food but not get away. Musta been instinct, Chris thought as he released her. He quickly found the discarded saddle and blanket. He threw them back onto the mares back and then tied her to the grays saddle. When he was done, he slowly turned towards the gravesite.
With tentative steps, he made his way to the foot of Sarahs grave. He stood, head down, his hat in his hands. After several long minutes, he took a deep breath.
"Its been a while Sarah but aint been a day when I havent thought of you and Adam. I tried my damnedest to join the two of ya but ol Buck, he just wouldnt let me. Guess he knew somethin I didnt."
A tear fell silently down his cheek. "I still love you, Sarah, but I found I needed another. I fought it for a long time but she has a way about her and she got under my skin. I love her, Sarah. Shes a strong woman, like you were. Shes got a fire in her that burns bright. I hope I can help her keep that fire goin cause shes got a lot of things to do in her life still. Youd like her, Im sure of that. And shes got a son, same age as Adam. His name is Billy. Dont know why but he took a fancy to me right away. I guess I needed him too. Anyway, Im gonna try to make a go of it with Mary and Billy. Please forgive me for this, Sarah, but I think Buck was right. I think Mary and Billy are my future and I gotta let ya rest in peace now. I wont forget the two of you, I swear to God I wont. I married her just yesterday and I got to get back to her fore she starts ta worryin. Good bye, my beautiful Sarah." He turned and walked to the edge of the grave site. He turned back to the wooden cross. "By the way, Sarah, Bucks gonna be a father soon. Knew that would make you happy. Ill see you and Adam again one of these days hopefully. I love you."
As he mounted the gray, he felt a weight lift from his heart and he knew that Sarah was delighted, not only for him but for her big brother Buck as well. He smiled and turned both horses back to town.
Mary was waiting for him when he returned. She looked apprehensive as he made his way toward her and he smiled, trying to relieve her fear. She smiled back.
He dismounted, noting the wagon was loaded with hay and blankets. "Come here, Mrs. Larabee. I think I could use a hug."
She ran into his arms.
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