The Bull

by Helen Chavez

Chapter 4

Nathan Jackson was a worried man.

He carried on saddling his big bay, mentally checking off his medical equipment for the umpteenth time, hoping to God he had all of the stuff he needed if … no, he corrected himself, almost shamefully … when they found Buck Wilmington.

He heard Josiah grunt with effort as he swung the heavy Mexican saddle onto the back of his sturdy sorrel, the big man otherwise silent as he tightened cinches. In the opposite stall he could hear Ezra talking quietly to Chaucer, and Nathan couldn’t stop a lurch of concern for the gambler.

Ezra had risen from his sickbed, still pale and shaky from the after-effects of the desperately painful headache … and what was more, Nathan was surprised to learn, the normally self-serving and dedicated non-participant in anything remotely strenuous did it without complaint for once.

JD could be heard talking to Yosemite outside the livery stable, the young sheriff taking charge of the wagon the big blacksmith had loaned them, knowing that they were going to look for one of their own. Nathan could hear the subdued panic in JD’s voice, and glanced over to the exhausted horse in the end stall, now munching tiredly on sweet hay.

Buck’s grey gelding had cantered into town an hour earlier, sweat-covered and bleeding, with what looked like more blood on the saddle. Buck’s blood, they were certain.

While Nathan and Yosemite had cared for the wounded beast, the remainder of the seven had quickly decided the best course of action, which was for Chris and Vin to stay in town as they were still not fit enough to ride, and for the others to go looking for their missing compadre. JD could drive the wagon they would surely need for bringing Buck home … the splashes of blood on the saddle were considerable, and Nathan secretly knew Buck could well be dead from blood-loss. Dear God, what would they do without Buck …

Swallowing the fear, Nathan swung into the saddle and joined his friends.

Chris and Vin were waiting for them, Chris still hobbling on his damaged foot and Vin with his arm in a sling, easing his broken ribs.

The black-clad gunman looked up at Josiah as he rode over to the two men.

"He was headin’ straight for Jed’s, Josiah, an’ Buck isn’t one for strayin’ unless there’s a pretty gal around … and I sure as hell don’t think he’ll find one out there. It’s a pretty lonesome trail." He hesitated, and Josiah could see the pain in the green-gold eyes. Chris took a deep breath and continued. "You find him, Josiah. Find him an’ bring him home, y’hear?"

Josiah nodded and set his broad-brimmed hat on his head.

"I hear you, Chris." The big preacher turned to go, then stopped for a moment, settling his azure gaze back on Larabee. "Y’know … we’ve been pretty hard on Buck these past few days, what with the saloon and Vin and all, and it wasn’t his fault … any of it."

Chris ducked his head, and Vin could see the muscles working along his jawline.

"Yeah, I know," Larabee acknowledged. He ran a shaky hand through his hair, his gut churning at the thought of Buck not being there any more … and of how his last words to him were full of anger and pain.

Vin looked at his two friends and raised his good hand to stroke the soft muzzle of Josiah’s big sorrel.

"Well, I reckon we all got a lot of apologisin’ to do when he gets back, huh, fellas?"

Josiah nodded.

"You got that right, Vin. We owe him a lot, and not just apologies." He turned his gaze once more to Larabee. "Have faith, Chris. Ol’ Bucklin’s tougher ‘n hell, you know that better than any of us. We’ll find him."

And before Chris could answer Josiah turned his horse and touched the gelding into a trot along the street out of town, Nathan and Ezra in his wake with JD driving the wagon, his little bay tied onto the tailgate.

Vin and Chris watched helplessly, both of them fretting at their uselessness and wanting to be with their friends. Vin dropped a hand on Chris’ black-shirted shoulder.

"They’ll find him, cowboy. An’ they find him alive, too, I just know it."

Chris’ eyes narrowed in the glare of the sun.

"I sure hope so, Vin. I sure do hope so …"

With that he settled himself down in his chair in front of the jail to wait.

+ + + + + + +

Roly was pretty happy, all in all.

He was heading back to the nice place where the Adored One and his friends lived, where he had a regular supply of good food, lots of attention from the little humans that seemed to enjoy clambering about his big frame, and he had the constant companionship of the Adored One - although right now, Roly thought, Buck was too darned quiet.

The huge bull could feel Buck’s long frame sprawled on his back, arm clutched tightly around the hump over Roly’s withers, and Roly vaguely understood that if he tried to hurry Buck would slide from his back and fall onto the ground. Why that would happen, exactly, Roly didn’t understand, but he could smell the scent of blood constantly, and it made the big animal uneasy for some reason.

For a while there Roly had felt Buck gently touch his sides and urge him forward and the beast was happy to oblige, knowing Buck wouldn’t do that unless there was a need for it, but for a while now the Adored One had just slumped silently on Roly’s broad, comforting back. That was strange to say the least, Roly thought. He could also feel a long arm dangle uselessly down his shoulder, swaying limply with every step Roly took.

But Roly just kept on walking because the Adored One hadn’t told him to do otherwise – and whatever the Adored One wanted, the Adored One got, as far as Roly was concerned. His muzzle twitched. Water. He could smell water. Roly was thirsty from his activities of the morning and his pace quickened imperceptibly, and to his relief he heard a small groan from Buck. But then he felt the man’s body shift and the arm tighten convulsively around his hump, and instinctively Roly slowed his pace. If the Adored One wanted him to go slowly … then that was exactly what he would do, even if he was desperately thirsty.

It took the big animal the better part of an hour to reach the shade and coolness of Aqua Verde. By the time he ambled slowly into the shade of the trees he could feel something warm trickling down his side, and smelled fresh blood. The Adored One was bleeding, Roly figured, and he felt once more the churn of anger. Someone had hurt the Adored One, he remembered. He couldn’t quiet recall who, but he knew that he had been very angry and he had leapt to the defence of the Adored One without hesitation.

The pull of the clear, cool water drew him on and he was eager to slake his thirst, but as he reached the sloping edge of the pool and dropped his head to drink, he felt once more the shift of the lax body on his back.

The Adored One was going to fall …

An arm tightened almost painfully on Roly’s hump and this time a deep groan of agony was ripped from the wounded man on his back.

Instantly Roly raised his head in alarm. He couldn’t let him fall. No, the Adored One was sitting on his back for a reason, and it was Roly’s job to keep him there, he was sure. Backing up awkwardly because Zebu bulls aren’t really built to go in reverse, Roly gently wandered back up the slight incline and ambled carefully to stand under the biggest tree by the spring-fed pool. It was shady and cool in the heat of the day, and despite his thirst Roly stood still. The man on his back settled once more, and Roly heard a soft, feverish voice.

"G … good bull … good Roly …"

The bull’s long, pendulous ears flicked happily at the sound of the voice, and he was content to stand and make sure the Adored One was safe and secure on his back, although he was dimly aware that Buck was now very sick. He could feel the heat emanating from the wounded body, and he was certain that if Buck fell from his back he would die. Quite how he knew, he wasn’t sure, but his instincts made him stand perfectly still so Buck would be safe. Burping, he brought up a ball of cud and began to chew.

For a long time Roly stood quietly under the tree, feeling Buck slump more and more on his back, and the Adored One didn’t speak to him again. Roly began to get lonely and concerned. He was thirsty and tired, and Buck Wilmington, Holder of the String and Person whom he Adored, was very, very still indeed. Roly was confused. And when Roly was confused, he did one thing that made the Adored One incredibly mad.

Roly began to bawl. He bawled long and loud, each repetitive castrato bellow echoing in the still heat of the day.

But Buck Wilmington didn’t move at all.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah, Ezra and Nathan had spread out, each of them combing the trail to Jed Sommer’s place. JD kept the wagon on the trail and he could see Nathan far to his left and Josiah heading through the brush on his big sorrel away to his right. He glimpsed Ezra’s red ducktail coat ahead of him as the gambler checked out the rough road before the wagon destroyed any evidence that could be useful. JD fretted. Ezra wasn’t the best tracker in the world, and he felt as though it should be himself out there looking for sign, but Josiah had decided otherwise. JD sighed. Perhaps the big preacher was right after all, as Ezra had a highly developed sense of self-preservation and caution was part and parcel of the man. Both Nathan and Josiah wanted to be mobile and ready in case of trouble, so that left JD in charge of the wagon.

But the young man was all chewed up inside. Buck was out there somewhere, hurt … maybe even dying … JD swallowed. He didn’t want to think of that. No sir, Buck Wilmington was alive, he just knew it.

But his thoughts were interrupted as he saw Ezra halt and wait for them, Chaucer’s ears pricking forward into the distance.

Ezra took off his hat and rubbed his eyes. The headache was returning thanks to the sun’s glare on the dusty ground, and he was beginning to secretly wish he had taken Nathan’s advice about not joining the search party. Taking a fine lawn handkerchief from his pocket he wetted it with water from his canteen and wiped it over his face, letting the cool cloth rest over his eyes for a moment. Feeling a little better, he was on the point of dribbling more water on the kerchief and draping it over the back of his neck when he heard something.

Very, very faintly, he heard a sound not unlike the one made by a horse thief who had once made the fatal mistake of trying to purloin his beloved Chaucer. The thoroughbred had neatly side-stepped the oaf’s clumsy lunge for his bridle, lifted a back hoof and placed it with devastating power and breathtaking accuracy in the man’s groin. The noise now repeating itself faintly but regularly in the distance sounded almost exactly the same as the miscreant’s strangled bellow of pure agony.

Ezra turned, squinting against the sun as Josiah and Nathan came to join him, JD following behind in the wagon.

"You all right, Ezra?" Nathan could see the pain on the gambler’s lean face.

But Ezra lifted a finger to his lips, signalling his compatriots to be quiet.

"Listen …"

JD brought the wagon to a halt and silence fell, only punctuated by the occasional creak of leather or jangle of a bit.

The noise came again, wavering in the slight breeze that had sprung up from the west. Nathan’s eyebrows raised.

"Sounds just like that feller Chaucer kicked in the unmentionables that time."

Ezra nodded.

"Exactly. But I know it can’t be that particular gentleman as he now resides in Yuma prison, so it must be something else."

Josiah’s face cleared.

"It’s that damn’ bull! I’d know that bawl anywhere!"

Nathan looked at him.

"You sure?"

Josiah grinned.

"You try havin’ the thing tied up outside your window for a day and see if it don’t drive you to drink! It’s the bull all right, and it’s comin’ from Aqua Verde!"

They all looked at one another. They knew that the big bull would not be parted from Buck if his life depended on it, so it followed that wherever the bull was, they were sure to find Wilmington. The spring was a few miles from the main trail, but Buck might just have headed in that direction to rest up for the night, or to water his horse and the big Zebu.

JD gathered up the reins and lifted his foot off the heavy shoe-brake, turning the two-horse team towards the monotonous bawl in the distance.

"So? What are we waitin’ for??"

Josiah turned his big gelding, azure eyes alight. Touching the sorrel into a lope he led the way through the brush towards Aqua Verde, and, he fervently hoped, a still-living Buck Wilmington.

+ + + + + + +

The bawl became louder and louder as the four regulators saw green trees and small pool ahead of them, and Ezra squinted through the fading haze of early evening as he sat at an easy lope on Chaucer’s back. He could just make out the shape of the huge bull under one of the trees, the monotonous bawl beginning to sound hoarse and dry. He screwed his eyes up tighter … there was something odd about the indistinct shape of the big beast …

"Good Lord! It’s Buck!"

They touched their horses into more speed, JD trailing behind, trying hard not to wear out the team or wreck a wheel in the coarse brush.

Roly stood stock-still under the biggest, most sheltering tree around the waterhole, his head raised and emitting the most ear-splitting honks that Ezra had ever heard, although the animal was obviously very tired, his normally moist muzzle now dry and roughened.

And there, sprawled limply on the bull’s broad back, was Buck Wilmington.

Nathan decanted from the saddle before his big gelding came to a stop, yelling at JD to hurry up and get the wagon set up. Ezra and Josiah ground-hitched their mounts and ran towards Roly, ready to ease Buck’s limp body from the bull’s back.

But all Roly could see were more men intent on harming the Adored One. Stopping his inexorable bawling and careful not to dislodge the precious cargo on his back, he lowered his head and snorted threateningly. Ezra and Josiah ground to a halt and stepped back in alarm.

Buck hadn’t moved in a long time, and Roly didn’t want any more harm to come to him, especially from more humans. He saw the big, dark man take a few steps towards him and he tossed his head gently, and Nathan decided it would be wise to keep his distance for now.

JD trundled up in the wagon, hazel eyes wide with shock at the sight of Buck Wilmington’s limp frame, bloody and filthy, draped on the bull.

"Nathan! We got to get him down off there! Why the hell ain’t you doin’ somethin’ - "

"Hush up, boy!" Josiah’s voice was a low rumble. "Damn bull thinks we’re gonna hurt Buck!"

The four men stood back, wondering how the hell they were going to get Buck and Roly separated with no damage to either themselves or Wilmington. Hell, Nathan couldn’t tell if Buck was even still alive. The tall gunman’s head hung on one side of the hump, his hat having fallen off, and dark, blood-stained hair shadowed his face. More blood stained his side and had trickled down to mark Roly’s fish-white hide. But Nathan was relieved to see the makeshift bandage strapped around Buck’s ribs. Buck had been alive and kicking when he got on the bull’s back, that was certain. He could also just make out the fragile string in Buck’s lax hand. But he knew he had to get to Buck somehow, and he couldn’t think how the hell they were going to do it without endangering themselves. Looking at Josiah and Ezra, he knew they were also thinking the same, and without saying a word Josiah turned back to his sorrel and slid his Winchester rifle from its saddle boot.

JD blinked in surprise, his fear for Buck over-riding any logical thought process.

"What are you gonna do?"

Josiah’s mouth set grimly.

"I’m gonna have to shoot the bull, JD."

"WHAT??" JD looked back at Buck. He was so still, it made JD’s heart miss a beat in terror. "No Josiah, you can’t! What about Buck? What if you miss? I mean, what if the bull falls on him - "

"JD, we’ll have to take the chance. We can’t wait any longer … look at Buck, son." Josiah’s blue eyes were gentle. "He’s hurt bad, JD, and we just can’t wait around until the animal thinks we’re not gonna do any harm, now can we?"

JD was in a quandary. He had always got on with the huge bovine, even feeding Roly the lucerne hay he had purloined from Yosemite, and the gentle beast had enjoyed a scratch from the young sheriff.

"Let me try." JD looked up at Josiah, seeing the look of doubt on the big preacher’s face.

"Let him, Josiah. Lord knows what damage might occur should the bull fall the wrong way, and after all, the beast does know him." Ezra was thoughtful, watching how Roly’s ears flicked forward at the sound of JD’s voice.

Josiah looked over at Nathan and saw the big healer shrug. Hell, anything was worth trying if it meant no more damage to Buck. He rested the Winchester on his shoulder for a moment as he weighed up the pros and cons. He sighed.

"All right, son. But if he starts gettin’ uppity then I’ll have to drop him where he stands. If I have to do that, then I want you fellers to get Buck out of there as quick as you can."

As Nathan and Ezra fanned out to one side, ready to dash in and catch Buck as the bull toppled, JD began to move forward as Josiah settled the rifle in the fork of a branch to steady his aim. The big man was a good shot, but he knew he had only one chance at this – if he missed or just wounded the bull, God only knew what the crazy animal would do.

"Stay out of my line of fire, JD!" Josiah tucked the rifle butt in the hollow of his shoulder and sighted in on the space between Roly’s eyes.

JD Dunne began to walk slowly but confidently towards Roly, his voice low, the words soft, the young man trying to keep the hitch of panic out of it.

"Hey, fella … remember me? JD … I brought you all that tasty grub that time, remember? It was pretty good, huh? Now why don’t you just relax and let us take care of Buck there… he’s hurt bad, you know, and Nathan here’ll be able to patch him up good as new …"

Josiah began to exhale slowly, letting his pulse slow so it couldn’t affect his aim, and his index finger tightened gently on the trigger of the Winchester carbine.

Roly watched the figure of the young human walking towards him, his voice soft and gentle. He let out a warning snort and his head bobbed threateningly. But even as he began to lower his head and use his bulk to protect the Adored One, Roly’s few active brain cells began to work overtime. The voice … it was familiar … where had he heard it before? The tone in the young man’s voice was friendly, and Roly had been starved of friendliness for the past few hours. And didn’t this young one hang around with the Adored One? Buck Wilmington, Holder of the String, appeared to be protective of this strange-hatted youth.

"JD! It’s not going to work, son! Get out of the way - " Josiah’s voice was velvet-rough, strained in its urgency. Nathan and Ezra took a couple of hesitant steps forward, preparing to dash in and lift Buck’s body away from the bull as it dropped into a kicking heap as Josiah’s bullet ploughed into its brain.

Roly’s ears twitched in recognition.

"Wait!" JD held up a hand. "I think it’s all right!"

He moved closer … and closer … and his shaky hand reached out and gave Roly a tentative scratch on the forehead. For long seconds, nothing happened … and then Roly let out an explosive groan of pleasure as his head began to bob up an down in delight.

There were hefty sighs of relief as JD let the big bull relax, now rubbing both hands over the massive – albeit blood-stained – head, and Roly snaked out his prehensile tongue to lick his arm. He stood for a few moments, letting Roly get used to his presence, all the while looking desperately at Buck for some sign of life. But when he began to ease the string from Buck’s limp hand, JD’s heart leapt as he heard a soft groan.

"Buck! Buck, you’re alive!!" When JD touched Buck’s hand, he felt the warmth of life in the bloody skin.

As the others carefully approached, trying hard not to startle the big beast, JD saw Buck’s dark head stir. It lifted and hazy cobalt eyes, reamed with pain, stared back at him in amazement.

"That … that you, JD?" Buck’s voice was a fevered whisper.

"NATE! Get over here!!"

Strong hands lifted Buck from his back, and Roly was on the point of barging forward to see what these strange men were doing with the Adored One, but the young human was holding his nose-string and Roly could no more fight against the string than harm Buck. But the youngster was very kind to him even though Roly could feel the waves of fear rolling off the lad, but not in fear of Roly – oh no, it was fear for the Adored One, and therefore Roly stood quietly, knowing these humans were caring for Buck and not attempting to hurt him.

The next hour was hard on the big Zebu. There was a lot of fussing and cursing, mostly to do with Buck, and the massive bull stood quietly with JD, the young man soothing him with a voice that wasn’t too steady itself. JD had taken him for a drink at the pool, but once Roly had slaked his thirst he pulled gently to get back to Buck, even though JD tried to wash the blood from Roly’s off-white hide. By the time they got back to the shady tree, Nathan, Josiah and Ezra had lifted Buck into the wagon, the big gunman heavily bandaged and looking ghastly. But he was alive, and that was all that mattered.

With Buck safely ensconced in the wagon and Nathan sitting beside him, making sure he came to no more harm, Josiah swung into the saddle of his sorrel.

"Jed’s place is nearest – Missus Sommers’ll be happy to take care of Buck, I reckon, and we can deliver the bull while we’re at it. JD, you drive the wagon – and take it easy, Nate don’t want Buck jolted, y’hear?"

JD clambered onto the wagon seat, casting a worried look at his surrogate big brother lying warmly under blankets in the cooling evening. It would take a couple of hours to get to Jed’s ranch, and the young man fretted privately that Buck wasn’t strong enough for the trip, but he knew in his heart that they had no choice. Buck needed care and rest, and he needed it as quickly as possible.

"JD …"

The deep voice was hoarse.

JD reached down and clasped the sweat-damp hand that reached up to him shakily.

"Hush up, Buck! Don’t you worry now, you’re gonna be safe and sound soon as we get to Jed’s, and you can rest up." JD smiled although he felt far from happy.

Buck’s blue eyes tried to focus on JD’s face above him in the gloom, attempting to make out the features of the young man.

"Good … good to see you, JD. Take care … take care of Roly for me … the stupid sonofabitch … saved my sorry hide …"

JD’s face softened.

"Yeah … I know. Don’t worry … Ezra’s takin’ real good care of him …"

Behind the wagon came a tumble of distinctly ungentlemanly swearing.

"Dammit!! Mr Sanchez, could you please do something about this … this … beast of Satan!" JD heard a sultry slurp. Chaucer stamped in irritation. "Oh Lord …" There was a spate of soft curses as Ezra tried valiantly to remove Chaucer from Roly’s all-too-damp affections, and JD grinned as he imagined the damp cow-licks marring Chaucer’s elegant chestnut rump. "Mr Sanchez, I don’t see why – goddammit, will you stop that!!!" Slurp, slurp. "Aw hell! Josiah??? Josiah!! If you don’t take charge of this disgusting creature, I swear I’ll … I’ll …"

"Ezra?" Josiah’s deep tones rumbled in the darkening night.

"WHAT??" The dismay in Ezra’s voice even made Nathan smile.

"Shut up."

Nathan and JD heard a painful chuckle from the wagon-bed.

"Animal magnetism, Ez … that’s what it is … goddamn animal magnetism …"


"Mister Wilm’ton, Mister Wilm’ton, riders comin’!! Real fast too!!"

Buck Wilmington opened his eyes and eased himself a little more upright in the chair on the porch of Jed Sommers’ ranch-house and looked at the speaker.

Jedediah Sommers Junior, aged seven-and-three-quarters, looked wide-eyed at Buck and waved an eager hand at the shimmer of horsemen in the distance.

"They’re comin’, Mister Wilm’ton, me an’ Sam’l seen ‘em! We did, honest!" Jedediah indicated his four-year-old brother standing beside him, thumb in mouth, still overawed by Buck’s presence even though the big gunman had been residing at the ranch for the past three weeks as he recuperated.

Buck grinned and winked at the two youngsters.

"Well, boys, I guess you did! You go tell your Pa they’re comin’, huh?"

Jedediah nodded, Samuel echoing his brother’s actions solemnly, thumb still firmly stuck in his mouth. He turned to go and fetch his father from the barn, then stopped for a second.

"’Are you goin’ home, Mister Wilm’ton?"

Buck nodded.

"Yep. I’m all healed up thanks to your Momma’s good cookin’ son, and I’m sure gonna miss all that fussin’ she does. A fine lookin’ woman, your Ma."

Jedediah grinned back, brown eyes all a-sparkle.

"When Sam’l gets sick, Ma makes him drink cod liver oil. Awful nasty stuff, Mister Wilm’ton. Tastes like boogers."

Samuel nodded sagely in agreement.

"Landsakes, Jedediah Aaron Sommers, will you stop bothering Mister Wilmington and go tell your Pa we got visitors! An’ take Samuel with you!" Kate Sommers emerged from the ranch-house door with a plate of warm biscuits still wrapped in a flour-cloth.

Buck’s eyes crinkled appreciatively.

"Miz Sommers, you sure know how to spoil a man! I reckon I’ve had to let out my belt a couple of notches these past couple of weeks, but I ain’t complainin’!"

Kate Sommers looked down at him and frowned thoughtfully for a few moments, remembering how sick and hurt he had been three weeks earlier, when Josiah Sanchez had hammered on their door asking for their help. With Jed’s help they had carried him into the house and bedded him in the boys’ bedroom. For the next few days Buck had fought a high fever, and Nathan Jackson hovered and worried, while other members of the seven flitted in and out of the room like forlorn shadows – none more so than that dear young sheriff, John Dunne – JD, they called him, she remembered. Kate had become very fond of all seven of them over those weeks, and although only in her middle twenties herself, mothered them like an old broody hen. Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee turned up after a few days, still sore but desperate to see their friend, and she had made sure they were all fed and watered, enjoying the company now Buck was on the road to recovery.

Buck eased himself to his feet, side still achy but mending, the scar in his hairline pink with healing skin. He turned to Kate, now watching the bunch of six riders, and noticed the fetching glow on her face from the heat in her kitchen, and the unconscious grace of her strong body as he hand rested on the rise of the child in her abdomen. Lord, look at her! Prettier than a June day. One day, Buck Wilmington, you’ll get yourself a fine-lookin’ woman and a couple of boys like Jedediah and Samuel. One day …

And Buck’s big heart lurched as Sarah and Adam came into his mind.

He turned to watch his friends ride into the yard, and his moustachioed face split into a huge grin as he saw the big grey gelding, saddled and ready, led by a cheerful JD Dunne.

"Hey, Buck! Ready to go home?"

"Sure am, JD, though I tell you I’m gonna miss this fine lady an’ these boys here!"

"You ain’t gettin’ her, Buck, she’s spoke for, so stop tryin’ to turn her head, y’hear?"

Jed Sommers strolled smiling across the yard from the barn, a tall man in his early thirties, hazel-green eyes sparkling with pleasure as he saw his wife blush at Buck’s charm and innocent twinkling eyes.

Buck grinned at the young rancher who had taken him into his home and made him feel part of a family, if only for a short while. But then, he thought, maybe I got myself a family already … and he took in the six men in front of him, seeing the relief and pleasure in their eyes, knowing he, Buck Wilmington, was going home with them safe and well.

"Well, Jed, I’ll tell you now if I’d seen her first I’d’ve hogged-tied her an’ married her m’self!" Buck stuck out a fist and Jed shook hands with the big man. "Jed … I don’t know how to thank you for takin’ me in. It’s an honour to know you and your family."

Jed looked into clear cobalt eyes and nodded.

"You’re always welcome here, Buck, you know that. You and all of your friends." He smiled. "An’ the boys’ll be wantin’ to hear more stories about huntin’ bad guys and suchlike. It ain’t every day you get the Magnificent Seven comin’ to the house!"

Jedediah and Samuel had been enthralled at the tales told by Ezra and Buck and the stories of far-off lands and great myths and legends coming from a drowsy Josiah as he sat on the porch with JD, waiting for Buck to heal.

Buck nodded and turned, tipping his hat to Kate who blushed again, and crouched down to say goodbye to Jedediah and Samuel, the boys finally throwing arms around him for a hug. Standing up, he took the reins of the grey from JD, running his hands over the big gelding and checking him out. Apart from a long, healing gouge on his rump the big animal was in fine fettle and snorted softly at his master, lipping affectionately at Buck’s sleeve.

Satisfied that all was well with the horse, he hesitated for a moment, then looked back at Jed. The tall young rancher smiled his soft, slow smile.

"He’s in the north forty if you want to go say goodbye. I turned him out with a bunch of heifers."

Buck swung gingerly into the saddle, feeling his side pull a little, but the pain went as quickly as it had come. He looked at his compadres.

"Fellas …"

Chris grinned at his oldest friend.

"Go, Buck. We’ll wait."

"I have fresh coffee and biscuits straight from the oven if you fellers are hungry," chipped in Kate Sommers. Murmurs of pleasure came from the rest of the Seven – Kate was a fine cook, and her biscuits were melt-in-the-mouth.

Buck turned the big grey and headed north, touching the gelding into a lope as he headed out to Jed’s north pasture.

+ + + + + + +

The sun set the slow trickle of water a-glimmer in the small creek that ran pure crystal water from the distant mountains, providing Jed Sommers’ burgeoning herd of cattle with cool shade amongst the trees that grew along the bank.

Buck let the big grey wander happily towards the small bunch of cattle he saw in the distance, dozing in the shade of cottonwoods, tails flicking in the mid-day heat. He sat easy in the saddle, letting the motion of the horse soothe his mind.

His first conscious memory after coming around from the fever was of comfort and care. Instinctively he had known his friends were there, and for the first terribly weak and sore days of healing they had talked to him quietly, telling him everything that had happened as he didn’t remember much, and how things had worked out. Then had come the apologies … soft, heart-felt apologies, all of them realising how close they had come to losing Buck Wilmington just because he took their blame to heart. Blame he had not deserved.

Buck grinned to himself.

Still, at least Jed didn’t have to pay for the repairs to the Standish Tavern, and Ezra had heaved a sigh of relief that he wouldn’t have to wait a lifetime for the money, as he would have done if Wilmington had had to fork out the cash.

JD and Josiah had found the fly-blown carcasses of Zeke and Abner Barnes, and after the boy had finished heaving his guts up, they had managed to find enough proof of identification and then hauled what was left of the bodies back to Four Corners, where the substantial bounty on the two miscreants would more than fund Ezra’s repairs. It still wouldn’t stop Ezra bitching about it for a year and a day, Buck knew, but at least the gambler wouldn’t be out of pocket.

What was left had gone to Jed Sommers, Buck had decided, seeing as it was his bull that had brought the villains to book.

Buck reined in the grey and pushed back his hat, squinting in the bright, clear sunlight. Jed would use the money wisely, if the small herd of heifers was anything to go by. This was Jed’s pride and joy, this little bunch of white-faced heifers, sired by one of the first Hereford bulls brought into the country. Blocky and sturdy, they nevertheless carried the wildness of their Texas Longhorn dams and their wariness at the approach of the rider sent them moving uneasily away into the trees. But one animal remained. The bright sunshine set the off-white hide glistening, and the hump on the beast’s withers wobbled as the huge bull turned to look at the new arrival.

Buck sat for a moment, watching Roly, seeing how at home he seemed here in the Colorado hills. He hadn’t meant to do anything but check that the big bovine was all right, but he found himself walking the grey over to a fallen tree and dismounting, leaving the big horse ground-hitched as he sat down on the tree.

Roly blinked for a moment. The scent of the human was familiar as it wafted to him on the gentle breeze. It meant companionship, comfort … and scratches. Lots and lots of scratches. He decided it was time to say hello, and tried to remember who this human was whose presence drew him like a magnet.

Buck watched Roly with renewed wonder. The massive animal glistened in the sun, muscles rippling under the fine-haired hide, dewlap swaying majestically like the well-bred aristocrat he was. He didn’t see anymore the ugliness of the hump, the ungainly, slow walk of the beast … Buck realised Roly was magnificent. In his prime, the animal was the epitome of masculinity.

The bull drew close and the moist muzzle twitched in slight recognition, limpid eyes studying the tall man. Buck reached out a hand to let the bull smell it, unafraid.

"Hey, Roly. How are you, ol’ pal?"

Recognition hit Roly like an express train.

The Adored One!! It was The Adored One, Buck Wilmington, Holder of the String!!! Except, Roly remembered, his new master had taken away the string and the nose peg, telling Roly no self-respecting bull had a peg in his nose. Roly didn’t understand, but he didn’t mind. It felt nice not to have the blasted thing stuck through the cartilage of his sensitive nose. But the tiny thought disappeared in a moment as Buck began scratching Roly’s massive head, centring on the spot … ohhh, right there … just … just … there!! Behind his poll, exactly between the huge, floppy ears. Roly almost squirmed with pleasure, his head bobbing ecstatically. His beautiful and sultry heifers assuaged other needs in the big animal regularly, and they would even lick his hide with rough tongues on occasion, but none of them scratched him like this! He let loose a soft grunt of delight.

"Feels good, huh?" Buck scratched harder, seeing the hazy pleasure in the bull’s brown eyes. He carried on for a couple of minutes and then stopped, grinning as Roly nuzzled impatiently at his sleeve. The bull sighed when he realised no more scratchies were forthcoming, but was satisfied just to stand over Buck as he sat on the tree, listening happily as Buck began to talk.

"You’re somethin’, else, you know that Roly?" Roly blinked, mystified. He didn’t know what the Adored One was saying, but it sounded nice. "Dumb critter you may be, my friend, but you did a brave thing out there when you saved my ass." Buck scratched Roly along his jaw, and the animal leaned into his touch, eyes bugging. Buck’s face softened. "I didn’t think you had it in you, feller. You stopped ‘em shootin’ me and then you tried to keep me safe …" Unable to speak for a moment due to the lump in his throat, Buck tugged one of the enormous, pendulous ears in affection. He knew the bull didn’t understand what he was saying, but Buck Wilmington was not a man who shunned those who did him a good turn. "Thanks Roly. Thanks for everything."

A long, prehensile tongue crept out and swiped at Buck’s face, leaving the usual trail of frothy goo on Buck’s moustache.

"Aw, shit Roly!! That’s disgusting - "

Buck swore and Roly listened. Things were back to normal, the bull thought, sighing with pleasure.

After a while Buck stood up, knowing he had to go or it would be dark before they reached Four Corners, but he halted for a moment as he saw the big bull watching him trustingly. Roly had always trusted him implicitly. Looking around for a moment to check that no-one was watching, Buck suddenly flung long arms around Roly’s massively muscled neck and gave him a full-blown, Patent Wilmington Bear-Hug.

Roly sighed again. The Adored One was fit and well and still cared for him, and all was right with the world in Roly’s opinion.

Breaking off the hug, Buck slapped the bull on the shoulder while blinking back tears.

"Now git, you moron! Go back to your ladies, they’re waitin’ for ya … and you know you never keep a pretty lady waitin’. It ain’t good manners."

He caught up the reins on the grey and swung into the saddle, Roly still watching him.

"Go on now! Don’t you worry, I’ll be back to see you next time I’m headed this way, you know that."

And as Buck uttered the words he knew the truth of it. He would return in the spring to see Roly’s first calves, and it brought an anticipation to his heart that had not been there since he and Chris began their horse-raising venture so many years ago. Hell, he might even save a little money and buy a couple of cows. Jed wouldn’t mind letting him turn ‘em out with ol’ Roly next year …

He looked back at Roly, standing now with head raised, scenting the breeze. He was Lord of all he surveyed, Buck thought, as he saw the huge bull slowly turn and head back to his small band of heifers now standing at the tree-line waiting for him. He watched as Roly sauntered in his unhurried way, and grinned.

"Remember, Roly ol’ pal … do just like I told you. Walk, don’t run …"

He gazed at the magnificent backdrop of the mountains and scented the sweetness in the air. It was good to be alive, fit and healthy, and in the prime of life, and to have the ladies fall all over themselves to keep a man company. Animal magnetism certainly has its uses, he thought.

Sighing in satisfaction, he smiled.

Well, if you got it, flaunt it, that’s what I say …

And touching the big grey into a lope he set off to rejoin his friends.


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