by Helen Chavez
Buck Wilmington was dog tired and very grouchy.
He had been in the saddle for nearly a day now, and a journey that should only have taken him a day at the most was obviously going to take at least two. The reason for the delay was Roland. The bull sauntered happily along behind him, the huge body sedately plodding along, the bulls soft, moist muzzle never more than two feet away from the tail of Bucks big grey gelding.
If Buck touched the gelding into a trot, Roland couldnt keep up he was hardly built for speed, and Roland would swiftly give up any attempt at a trot and stand, bawling loudly, while he waited for Buck to relent and return to fetch him.
The grey looked on the big beast with great suspicion, but reliable and even-tempered horse that he was, he bore the indignity of being associated with such a strange animal with resigned fortitude.
Buck reined in the grey for a moment or two and taking off his hat wiped sweat from his face. He knew that he would have to camp out for the night, and he decided the best place to stop would be Aqua Verde, a small pool that should take him no more than an hour to reach. Then he could water both horse and bull and then maybe cool off in the chill water and clean up a little.
He felt the grey shift uncomfortably beneath him and stamp with irritation. Buck sighed. Turning in the saddle he glared at Roland.
"Goddamit!! Will you stop that!!"
Roland was at it again. As he couldnt get to Buck, he had taken to rasping his rough tongue in affection over the hindquarters of the grey, who although mortified by the attention nevertheless bore it stoically.
Buck shook his head in irritation and touched the big horse into a slow walk, and Roland, happy to follow blindly, fixed his gaze on the geldings backside and wandered after the Adored One.
+ + + + + + +
Aqua Verde was a small, spring-fed pool surrounded by stunted trees that sheltered the rocky edge of the clear water and added a welcome splash of green in an arid landscape, hence the ancient Spanish name for the place.
Buck had set up camp, and after lighting a small fire he had put on coffee and unsaddled the grey. After rubbing the animal down and giving him a feed, Buck left the horse to graze he never needed to hobble the beast as the gelding would never stray from his master. He left Roland to his own devices, the huge bull following the gunman around the camp, content to stay wherever the Adored One decided to lay his hat for the night.
After having a restorative mug of coffee, Buck stripped down to his red Empire combinations and waded into the clear water of the pool, shuddering with pleasure at the icy chill just beneath the surface. He relaxed back and bobbed happily in the water, his tall, rangy frame enjoying the sheer luxury of it all, his joints easing as the aches and pains from the long ride vanished slowly.
Buck closed his eyes and sighed. Yes indeed, this was the life
He was suddenly startled as the water was disturbed, large, sloppy waves lapping against his broad chest.
"What the -?"
He opened his eyes to see Roland gingerly immersing his sorry carcass in the pool, the big bull standing chest-high in the water as he made his way over to Buck, little waves ruffling at the beasts dewlap as he waded towards the Adored One.
"Aw hell! Cant you leave me alone, you you moron!!"
Roland sighed happily as he reached Buck, the off-white hide glistening as droplets ran down his shoulders. Buck stood up, intent on leaving the pool to the bull, when a wave of water splashed Roland on his moist muzzle. He snorted.
"Dont like that, huh?"
He splashed Roland again. This time the bull shook long floppy ears as the droplets sprayed him, and spattered Buck with a shower of water.
Buck sneezed. Roland looked smug. Buck glared at the bull with mock anger.
"Soooo you think thats funny, do ya? Well, my friend, thats nothing "
He stretched out long arms and swiftly scooped handfuls of water at Roland, swamping the huge animal with large, uneven waves. This time Roland shook his head and caught Buck in a chill, drenching cascade of water. Buck yelled with the shock. He frowned.
"Why you ungrateful bag of bones you you "
Buck could swear Roland was laughing at him. Now it was war.
For the next half-hour, Buck Wilmington and a one-ton Zebu bull frolicked like young uns in the water, splashing, snorting and yelling, and before Buck knew it he was having fun. Lots of fun. More fun than he had had in years. Even teasing JD and playing noxious tricks on Chris and Ezra wasnt quite the same as acting like a five-year-old child with a new toy. He roared and yelled and howled, discovering that Roland was not only placid but obviously had some sort of bovine sense of humour as he followed Buck around in the pool and snorted gobs of snot at him, taking great pleasure in Bucks bellows of revulsion. The grey gelding just looked on with disgust.
But soon the shadows began to lengthen and Buck realised he should get out of the water and dry off before the heat went out of the day. Wading ashore he stretched his long frame out on the small patch of grass and let the lingering heat dry him off, Roland following and standing contentedly only a yard away from where Buck lay.
As night fell, Buck dressed and settled down to food and a good nights sleep. His bedroll lay close to the fire, and he eased back on his saddle which doubled as a pillow, yawning noisily. He could hear the grey munching the short, sweet grass and Rolands quiet, huffing breath as the huge bull stood, dozing. The aroma of pickled grass accompanied a soft burp, and Buck smiled. The animal was nothing but a pain in the ass, that was for sure, but at least he was an amiable sonofabitch. He tipped his hat down over his eyes and began to drop into slumber, his thoughts drifting drowsily. He snorted to himself.
"Roland what kind of stupid goddamn name is that for a bull "
His eyes snapped open suddenly as the ground trembled, and he became aware of a huge bulk lowering itself onto the ground beside him and a soft, moist muzzle rubbed against his arm. He lifted his hat to see Roland settling down for the night, his enormous body neatly parked beside Buck on the side furthest from the fire. The bulls massive head reached forward to check that the Adored One was within acceptable range, and reassured, Roland once more began to chew his cud. Buck shook his head resignedly. Damn animal was crazy! But he had to admit to himself that Rolands body heat was comforting, and the big beast was quiet and gentle.
Before he could stop himself, he reached out a hand and scratched Roland between the eyes.
Roland grunted softly and bobbed his head up and down for a moment or two, eyes bugged out with pleasure. When Buck stopped, the bull leaned his head on the ground, hoping for more. Buck grinned.
"All right, stud, thats enough. You aint gettin any more, you dumb critter. Go to sleep, now. I promise youll like it when we get to Jeds place. Hes got all those tasty lookin heifers all fancied up and rarin to go, I betcha, and I know you are just gonna be one happy bull."
Buck lay drowsily, wrapped comfortably in his blanket. He glanced at Roland.
"Did you ever hear the one about the two bulls?"
Roland apparently hadnt, as his ears flicked for a moment or two. Buck shook his head.
"Well, ysee, theres an old bull and a young bull standin on the top of a hill lookin down at a right pretty bunch of heifers standin in the draw. The young bull looks up at the old bull, eyes all shinin an happy, and says, Hey, ol man! Why dont you an me run down this hill and help ourselves to one or two of them pretty heifers? The old bull looks down at the young bull, the young un so het up he cant hardly stand still, jigglin and just full of dander." Buck checked to see if Roland was listening, and was pretty sure the bull was rapt with curiosity, so he continued. "So, the old bull sighs and shakes his head. No son, he says, I dont think so. The young bull cant believe his ears. Why the hell not, ol man?? he yells, gettin real upset. The old bull just smiles. Well, boy, heres what I think we should do. I reckon we should walk down the hill and have us all of them young heifers, dont you?"
Buck chuckled with delight as he heard Roland huff to himself. The tall gunman thought for a moment and smiled, thinking how much the two bulls sounded like JD and Josiah. He turned over and relaxed. Tomorrow he would get the bull to Jeds, and he was finally free of his burden. He felt Rolands breath on his back as the animal did his usual check that Buck really was where he was supposed to be, and grinned.
"Go to sleep, Roly, you idiot."
Satisfied, Roland burped and cudded quietly, as Buck Wilmington slid into a dreamless sleep.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning, Buck quietly broke camp and saddled up the big grey, and swinging into the saddle thought about the day to come. He reckoned it would take the better part of the day to get to Jeds, seeing how slow Roly was. Maybe it would be best if he stayed the night at Jeds after delivering the bull, and head back the next morning without Roly to hold him up, Buck knew he could make it comfortably back to Four Corners around mid-afternoon, and then he could begin the job of getting back into his friends good books, although he was pretty sure Ezra wouldnt be too forgiving just yet.
Buck sighed. He knew Jed Summers would offer to pay Ezras damages, but he also knew Jed didnt have a spare dime to his name. Every penny he had went on buying the bull and improving his livestock, and the young rancher had a devoted wife with two small children and another on the way. But Jed being Jed, Buck knew the proud young man would be determined to pay his debts. Maybe Buck could figure something out before he got home.
Touching the grey into a slow walk, Buck headed away from Aqua Verde, the huge Zebu bull strolling happily in his wake.
+ + + + + + +
Zeke Barnes swore.
Today of all days, his idiot brother had decided to be one big pain in the ass and make their day worse by putting a bullet in the head of one of their two wore-out cow ponies. The reason for his baby brother Abners fit of pique was that the pony had slid on a piece of shale and twisted its fetlock, and Abner had been sent tumbling from the ponys back onto a mesquite bush, eliciting a shriek of pain and a great deal of cussin. Once Abner had hauled his somewhat punctured carcass upright he had drawn his old Dragoon and put a lead ball in the ponys brainpan, dropping the emaciated animal to the ground in a heap, the animals last, spasmodic kicks sending up a cloud of dust.
Zeke had in turn cussed out his baby brother, explaining to him in no uncertain terms that the posse chasing them for trying unsuccessfully to rob the stagecoach to Yuma, would now find it somewhat easier to catch them as they now only had one horse, and an exhausted one at that.
Abner had informed his worry-wart of a brother that as they were now into Colorado territory the posse would have given up long ago. Zeke countered that seein as Abner had seen fit to put a hole in the stagecoach guard they probably had a big, juicy bounty on their heads that everyone and his brother would be lookin to collect, and to hell with worryin how much lead they put in the Barnes brothers in the process.
Abner shut up.
So they decided to walk for a while and let their remaining scrub pony gain a little of its strength back. But as they headed towards the old spring-fed pool of Aqua Verde, they heard a noise coming from over the rise to the south-east. It sounded like someone torturing an elephant. A long, drawn-out bawl of agony, followed by an exasperated baritone voice yelling abuse at the owner of the bawl. The bawl tailed off into a hiccuping honk, and the voice swore quietly.
"Goddammit, Roly!! Get your ass movin, you big idiot! I cant wait all day Jeez, will you stop doing that!"
Abner and Zeke Barnes could hear a soft slurping sound, followed by a thwack and a grunt of surprise.
"Leave my horse alone, Roly, yhear??"
The two brothers looked at one another. The owner of the voice had mentioned a horse. But who the hell was Roly? No matter. If they could deal with the owner of the voice, the horse would fall into their eager hands and they could high-tail it and disappear into the badlands and out of harms way until the furor died down. Zeke reached into his saddle boot and pulled out his old 1866 Winchester Henry rifle, and checked that it was loaded. Finding a convenient spot behind a tumble of rocks, they ground-hitched the exhausted pony and waited for the unseen rider to come into view.
Resting his rifle on a rock in readiness, Zeke worked the lever, pushing a bullet into the breech. He aimed at the sound of the voice, knowing that from this distance he couldnt miss. In a few minutes, the rider would be dead and the Barnes brothers would be one horse richer. Zeke Barnes smiled.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmingtons temper was becoming somewhat frayed.
It was already mid-morning, and Roly had slowed to almost a crawl, the big bull becoming a little bored with just walking along and wanting to stop and graze. No amount of cajoling and pleading on Bucks part made a whit of difference, and when Buck tried to pony the bull along all Roly did was begin to wander around in circles.
"ARGH!!!" Buck let out a yell of sheer frustration. Lifting his hat he ran long fingers through sweat-damp dark hair and swore quietly. Taking a deep breath he calmed himself. Only a few more hours, and he would be free. Free as a bird. He touched his heels to the big greys sides and rode determinedly over the shallow rise, Roly ambling happily behind him.
+ + + + + + +
Zeke's smile widened as the rider came into view, although he blinked a couple of times as the weirdest looking bull he had ever seen wandered over the rise behind the big grey gelding.
"Lord 'a-mighty!" Abner's whisper made Zeke hiss in annoyance. "That is sure one ugly critter!"
"Yeah well, it don't matter Abner, cuz I might just decide to have us a couple of nice, big juicy beef steaks once we get rid of that rider and get us a horse. So shut your gape and let me do this, will ya??"
Once more, a chastened Abner fell silent.
Zeke took aim, centering on the middle of the rider's broad chest. He exhaled slowly, letting his pulse slow and then he gently squeezed the trigger.
Behind him, the gaunt pony let out a soft neigh of greeting to the horse in the distance.
"Shit!!" Zeke cursed to himself and tried frantically to rush his shot as the rider's big gelding pricked his ears and nickered back, the rider instantly tensing, hand falling to the revolver in his holster.
The echo of the shot cracked flatly in the still air and the big gelding let out a grunt of pain, cat-hopping forward and nearly unseating his rider. Zeke, now swearing loudly, worked the lever and put another round into the breech, aiming quickly. Beside him, Abner had his old Dragoon out, aiming ineffectually at the rider, knowing he couldn't hit him from this distance but willing to make the effort.
Zeke saw his target's revolver slip free of the holster even as he tried to control the obviously frightened horse, and Zeke realised he had creased the beast and missed the rider. Well, he had never claimed to be much of a shot with a rifle. He set his sites once more on the rider's chest, although the movements of the big man's horse made Zeke's aim poor at best. Snapping another shot, he was elated to see the rider's body jerk under the impact, his right hand flinging the revolver away from him in an arc as the heavy rifle bullet punched him bonelessly from the saddle. The big man sprawled on the dusty ground, tried to move once, and then was still.
"Got the sonofabitch!" Zeke grimaced in satisfaction.
But his elation soon turned to dismay as the big grey, already frightened and in pain from the deep bullet crease across his rump, became terrified as he felt his rider fall from the saddle and lie in a crumpled, bloody heap in the dirt.
Reins dangling, the gelding turned and high-tailed it at a gallop back towards Four Corners.
Zeke was beside himself with rage, and stood up, flinging down the rifle, tearing his battered Stetson from his grimy head and dashing it to the ground in disgust.
"Goddamit all to hell!!!"
Abner staggered to his feet beside his big brother, his jaw dropping in amazement.
"The damn' horse run off, Zeke! What're we gonna do now?"
Zeke Barnes had a sudden, irrational urge to punch his baby brother's rotting teeth firmly down his throat.
"Abner if you wasn't my brother, and if I hadn't promised Ma I'd take care of ya, I'd break yer useless neck!" Zeke picked up his rifle, grabbed the reins of the scrawny pony and stumped off towards the fallen man, leaving a mystified Abner watching his brother's tense back.
"Jeez, Zeke I only asked "
Muttering to himself, Abner holstered his gun and followed his brother.
When they reached the fallen man, Zeke didn't feel much better. The big bull stood mournfully over the motionless figure, blinking woefully in the sunlight. Zeke studied the huge animal for a moment.
Hmm, he thought. Seems quiet enough. Kinda stupid-lookin'.
He hesitantly walked up to the body of his victim, and the bull just stood there, watching him. Zeke toed the body, feeling it give under the non-to-gentle shove of his boot, and the scruffy outlaw grinned. He leaned down and began to unbuckle Buck Wilmington's gunbelt, avoiding the blood-soaked shirt. At least they would get an extra weapon out of it, and some ammunition.
The body didn't move as Zeke worked the belt out from under the lax frame, and Zeke looked at the man's face, covered in blood from a deep gash on the forehead.
Huh. Must've bashed his head when he fell.
Zeke was pretty sure that even if the bullet in the man's side hadn't killed him, the head wound would easily have finished the job. Abner was suddenly beside him, helping him lift the body so they could fully remove the gunbelt.
There was a soft groan.
Abner nearly jumped out of his skin, and Zeke cursed roundly. He saw the body move weakly, legs trying to curl into the bloody frame. Zeke pulled his revolver and began to thumb back the hammer, ready to pump a bullet into Buck Wilmington's prone body.
It was then Roly decided something was wrong.
The rifle shots had hardly made him blink, but the action of Buck's normally sedate and tolerant horse surprised the amiable bovine. He had heard a grunt of pure agony from the Adored One, and seen him fall from the horse in a limp, bloody heap. Roly stood for long moments, trying to make sense of what was happening, and the coppery scent of fresh blood made his muzzle twitch. Standing over Buck's body, he watched two strange, aggressive and decidely rank-smelling humans bend over Buck's unconscious form and begin to pull his gunbelt off.
Roly was deeply confused. These men didn't seem nice, not like Buck's friends, who although spending an inordinate amount of time yelling at either Buck or himself, seemed kind enough. But these two well, they were different.
But then he heard the groan. Realisation finally sparked in his dim, kind brain, that perhaps these men had hurt The Adored One. Hurt him badly. And that made Roly very, very mad indeed.
Zeke lifted the revolver and began to take aim, slowly and carefully. His last conscious thought was one of vindictive pleasure and then his life winked out in an instant as a massive head caught him under the armpit, the wickedly backward-curved horn hooking through his ribcage and smashing his ribs to splinters.
Roly grunted with anger as he hauled Zeke's weakly struggling body upwards and battered him into a nearby rock. Zeke didn't even manage a breath. The impact snapped his neck and his broken body crumpled like a rag doll. He was dead before he hit the ground.
The huge bull turned so swiftly at the noise that Abner didn't have time to run. Roly's massive bulk slammed into Abner's scrawny frame, bearing him down into the dirt where Roly proceeded to crush him to death, kneeling on the bloody wreck, pulverizing Abner Barnes into messy pulp.
Maddened by the scent of blood Roly didn't stop battering the unrecognizable thing that had once been a man for a long, long time.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington drifted into consciousness to maddening, rough, drooling, slurpy licks on his face.
He tried to move away from whatever it was and instantly regretted it. Agony shot through his side and he yelped, which caused a bolt of pain the rip through his head.
"R Roly stop it Godalmighty "
Buck opened his eyes, squinting against the glare and heat of the sun and tried to focus. His mouth was parched and he swallowed painfully, knowing instinctively he was in deep, deep trouble. A huge head swam into sight, and a pair of limpid, bovine eyes blinked at him, the moist muzzle nosing at Buck's shoulder. Buck wondered why Roly's head and horns were blood-stained, and he lifted an unsteady hand to shove the beast away. Roly huffed and took a step backwards, pleased to see the Adored One reacting to his rather slobbery attentions.
Buck realised he was lying sprawled on his back on the dusty ground, and thought for a moment as to how he got there. His body ached, his side was on fire, and for the life of him he couldn't remember why. Had Roly done something to him? He dismissed the thought almost immediately. No, the big bull wouldn't hurt a fly. But why was Roly all bloody? Whose blood was it? His head hurt so much he shut his eyes again, trying to quell the throbbing in his skull.
God, he felt sick. Attempting to roll onto his side, Buck remembered why he was lying on the ground. Shit! Somebody shot him!! He grunted in pain and his hand fell to the source of the agony and felt his shirt sodden with blood. He tentatively explored the damage, discovering to his shock that he had a bullet hole in his side, and every breath tore a ragged, painful gasp from him. He knew that feeling. Broken ribs. The bullet had skittered along his side and bust a couple, and then lodged under the skin. He could feel the lump, he realised, and groaned again. His head hurt so much
Lifting his hand to the gash in his temple, he felt the slickness of more blood. He must have banged it when the bullet knocked him out of the saddle his horse!!! Where the hell was his horse??
Raising his head gingerly he looked around. No horse. He swore. The animal must have skedaddled in fear, and Buck remembered the big grey throwing a coniption just before the slamming blow to his side. Those sonsabitches shot his horse!!!
Twisting his head he just managed to see the scrawny cow pony out of the corner of his eye, standing nervously beside something on the ground. What the hell ..? Buck's stomach roiled. That 'something' was a man. Or at least, what had once been a man. Now it was nothing more than a lump of meat wrapped in torn and bloody rags. He understood what Roly had done when he saw the other body lying in a broken heap by a rock - Roly had killed them. The big, stupid idiot of a bull had killed them to protect him Buck Wilmington.
He sighed a short, shallow hitching breath and tried to make sense of his thoughts. He had to get out of here get home. Get back to Four Corners and his friends. Yes, that's what he had to do. Once he was home, Nathan would take care of him and take the bullet out, and the rest of the fellas would watch out for him and make sure JD stayed out of trouble while he healed up.
Decision made, he now had to figure out just how he was going to get home. The pony. He had to catch the pony. Lying still for a few moments he marshaled his strength, then setting his teeth against the pain he managed to ease himself over onto his belly. He almost passed out, black spots swam before his eyes and he almost threw up but he fought on. How he did it he didn't know, but he began to crawl, frighteningly slowly, towards the thin pony.
He almost made it.
A shaking, bloody hand reached out to grasp loose reins and the pony backed off in fright. The scent of more fresh blood was too much for the maligned creature, and to Buck's horror it turned and cantered off into the jumble of rocks and disappeared.
Buck Wilmington would have happily given up right then and there. With a soft groan of pain and despair he dropped his head onto the ground, feeling sweat and blood mingle on his brow. If he didn't get help soon, he knew he could die out here in the middle of nowhere. He had to do something but what?
Stop the bleedin' might be a good idea, he thought. No use bleedin' to death 'fore you start.
Untying his bandana from around his neck with a shaky hand, he managed, after much struggling and grunts of pain, to press it against the bleeding wound in his side. Another fifteen minutes were taken up by pulling out his pants belt and rigging it around his waist to put pressure on the wound and to support the broken ribs. The effort exhausted him, and he had to lie still for a while until he recovered a little.
Now came the hard bit. How the hell was he going to get back to Four Corners?
His battered body was incapable of walking - hell, he could barely crawl, so that option was out. But as he lay there, eyes closed in pain and weariness, he felt Roly's warm breath on his cheek. Opening his eyes he saw the huge bull towering over him, huffing with concern.
Buck Wilmington grinned at the incongruity of it all. Brought to his end lying flat on his back, shot to hell by a couple of inept idiot outlaws, and guarded by the ugliest, stupidest bull he had ever seen. God, how he wished he was back in Four Corners, sitting outside the jail watching the children crawl all over Roly like some huge, living toy -
That was it!!
Roly was the answer.
Reaching out, he managed to unravel the pathetic piece of string around Roly's bloodied horns and gently pulled downwards. Roly, pleased to have Buck's attention, obligingly lowered his bulky body to the ground, groaning with pleasure as he lay happily on his brisket, legs tucked neatly beneath him.
So far so good, Buck thought. Twisting his head around once more, he discovered his gun lying in the dirt only a couple of feet away, and with a great deal of effort Buck managed to snag it and slide it into his holster. His gunbelt was still loose, so he buckled it up and then he decided he was ready.
The next few minutes were a nightmare. His battered body fought the agony that ripped through it as Buck Wilmington determinedly battled to haul himself onto Roly's broad, warm back. Inch by painful inch, he used his fast-waning strength to settle astride the huge bull. Roly flicked an ear back once or twice, especially when the rowels of Buck's spurs caught his ribs by mistake, but otherwise the animal didn't move. It was as if he sensed how injured the Adored One was, and he stayed as still as he could, Buck swearing to himself as the wound and broken ribs sent fiery bolts of blinding pain through him at every move.
It took Buck what seemed to be a lifetime to sit slumped on Roly's back, the bull's fatty hump now becoming a lifeline as Buck held onto it with grim determination. Gasping with exhaustion he waited for the pain to ease, then he touched his spurred heels to Roly's side.
"C'mon fella need ya need ya to get up " Buck's throat was hoarse. If only they could get to Aqua Verde at least, then he could quench his thirst and rest a little. He knew his grey gelding was on its way home to Four Corners, and that his compadres would come looking for him. It was just a matter of time. He just hoped to hell he lived long enough for them to find him.
He felt Roly shift and Buck clutched at the hump in front of him. Roly rose to his feet rump foremost, almost pitching Buck over his head but the wounded man hung on for dear life, knowing this was his only chance. Roly stood quietly for a few moments, wondering why on earth the Adored One was sitting shakily on his back, but the bull finally figured it was some new game. Well, he decided, that was all right by him. As long as the Adored One was close by, he was happy. He felt a slight tug on the peg in his nose and Roly dutifully turned right, heading back the way they had come.
Sitting unsteadily on Roly's wide back, Buck lifted his hat from where it hung at his back and settled it on his head - he didn't need sunstroke to add to his already considerable problems. He sat as straight as he could and touched Roly's sides once more.
"All all right, feller let's go home "
And Roly started forwards, dewlap swaying sedately as he set off towards Four Corners, Buck Wilmington hung on tightly, knowing that if he fell he would never be able to get back on. And if that happened, he knew without a doubt that he was a dead man.
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