Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: For my friends Chris and Linda birthday's. My thanks to Helen for the beta work.
"Oh my God - look!" JD thrust a wanted poster under Buck's nose.
"Damn it JD! Are you trying to put my eye out or something?" Buck complained.
"Stop complaining and look," the young easterner insisted.
Sighing dramatically, Wilmington took the yellowed paper that his friend was waving in front of his face and scanned it. Then he frowned and read it more carefully. Finally he walked to the back of the jail and looked through the bars of the one of the cells at their prisoner. He called himself Hank, he had attempted to hold up the stage, unfortunately he tried to hold up the stage JD and Ezra were travelling on. He escaped, but with no money and a bullet from Ezra's Derringer in his thigh. JD had been winged by one of the would-be bandits bullets, which had sliced a chunk out of his upper arm. It had taken Vin barely an hour to track him and with Buck's help bring him in.
"Well I'll be," Buck exclaimed. "Hello, Sam."
The prisoner wasn't quite fast enough to mask his reaction to the use of his real name, and fleeting though it was, Buck was too much of a professional to miss the flash of recognition. He grinned and looked back down at the poster in his hands.
"Sam Dawson, wanted in the state of Texas, for armed robbery, extortion and " Buck's voice, which had been light with satisfied amusement suddenly dropped and was filled with menace. " rape. Reward of $350 - dead or alive."
"I don't know what ya talkin' about," the prisoner growled.
"Don't even try it. Dead or alive - remember."
"Look my name is Hank, I ain't never even been in goddamn Texas!"
In an instant Buck's gun was in his hand. "When it comes to rapists I prefer dead - remember that before you speak again," Buck warned.
"Hey kid - I mean Sheriff, you gonna let him shoot me in cold blood here?"
JD turned away. "Ain't no one gonna shoot you, 'cause there's no one here but you an' me."
"No one? What about him?" He pointed at Wilmington.
"Who's he? I don't see no one."
"Him, the big guy, with the gun."
JD still didn't turn around. "There's only the two of us Sam."
Dawson was about to protest again when the ominous click of Buck's gun being cocked silenced him.
+ + + + + + +
JD was still recovering from his injury, Nathan needed to keep an eye on JD and be available to anyone else in town. There was no way Vin could go to Texas and when Josiah suggested Ezra, Chris just laughed.
"Send Ezra to collect a $350 reward, I don't think so preacher. Me an' Buck 'll go, you and Vin are in charge while we're gone - okay?"
Dawson was no pushover, but up against a couple of pros like Buck and Chris, he had no chance and was safely delivered after a tedious six days on the trail. They collected the reward money - which would be divided between all seven of them, $50 each, or almost two months wages.
There were altogether too many people in the seedy little town of Benson's Cross that knew they were carrying that much cash so they took a circuitous route back to Four Corners, back-tracking several times to make sure no one was following them.
By the time Chris was happy they were safe, Buck was lagging behind. He had a headache; he had real killer headache, if Nathan had been there, he would have drunk one of his willow bark concoctions willingly no matter what it tasted like. Of course, every time Chris asked how he was he just said 'fine', and when that was clearly not true he settled for 'tired'. Finding a small stream and some trees, Chris called a halt to the day's ride and they made camp. Turning down Chris' spit roast rabbit Buck rolled himself in his bedroll in an effort to get warm and tried to sleep.
Chris sat on the other side of the fire, eating rabbit and worrying. That Buck was sick was clear, that he would never admit he was ill was a given. His old friend was a proud man, he hated to be dependent on anyone, but there was more to it than just pride, it was almost as if he was afraid to be ill. He finished his meal and built up the fire, then settled down for the night - maybe Buck was just tired, and after a good nights sleep he'd be fine.
+ + + + + + +
There was a chill wind as dawn broke. Buck, having slept fitfully was already awake, his head pounded and he was having stomach cramps. Despite the cold that seemed to penetrate his very bones he had to get up, and fast! Without boots he half ran, half stumbled to the nearest bushes and vomited violently. Standing bent double, hands resting on his knees, panting and feeling only marginally better he noticed his stocking feet hasn't escaped the unpleasant consequences of his rebellious stomach. Letting go a long groan he forced himself to stand, and walked slowly and stiffly toward the stream. Every muscle ached, but he needed to clean himself up and he needed a drink. Normally he would have grabbed his razor, pocket mirror and soap as he headed to the stream but he just didn't have the strength. Using a tree for support he eased himself down onto the bank and scooped some water into his mouth, rinsing and spitting before he drank. That done he pulled off his socks and dangled them in the running water as well. He squinted at the sparkling water; the morning sun seemed unusually bright, the dancing light hurt his eyes. It was this and the fact that his brain seemed to be working at half speed, which meant he didn't notice there was something wrong for some time.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee had woken to the sound of his friend being violently ill. Some people, some friends, would have rushed over to their friend so see if they could help. But Chris knew Buck too well, he was too proud and too private a man to want or even accept help. But he still worried and watched - discreetly - and waited. Seeing Buck spending so much time examining his feet puzzled Chris, but he bided his time. Eventually and very slowly and stiffly, Wilmington pulled himself to his feet. He swayed a bit and had to grab onto a tree from time to time as he moved back toward the faithful Beau. As an increasingly worried Chris watched, his old friend picked up - with great difficulty - his big saddle and swung it up on to Beau. This was too much for Chris; he had to speak up.
"Buck?" he called softly as a he approached, even sick as he undoubtedly was, sneaking up unannounced on Buck Wilmington could get you killed.
The taller man froze at the sound of his voice.
"What ya doing?"
"I'm saddlin' m' horse, what does it look like I'm doing?" Even as he spoke Buck was tightening the cinch, resting his forehead against the saddle as he did.
"We ain't in any hurry pal, why don't we camp here a spell, rest up." As he spoke Chris moved closer, only to have Buck draw his gun and swing around, somewhat unsteadily, to face him. Larabee froze, friend or no friend, you didn't make sudden moves when facing a loaded gun.
"Stay back Chris, just stay back - please," Buck pleaded.
The man before Chris looked terrible, deathly pale, but for the flush of fever in his cheeks, unshaven, his eyes screwed up as if he was looking into the sun.
"Come on now, put the gun down, you're sick, anyone can see that, you need to rest, maybe I can find a doctor near here." As he spoke Chris made a move toward his friend.
"Stop! I told you don't come any closer! I'm leaving, don't want no one following me, I'll be okay." With that he took up his horses reins and started walking backwards out of camp, his gun still on Chris.
"Buck stop, come on, you ain't gonna shoot me." Chris took a step closer.
"Stop or I'll "
"What? You'll what? You can't shoot me, we both know that, so just put the God damn gun down!" Chris was getting pissed, he knew Buck wasn't in his right mind but he had to get through to him some how.
"Yeah, well, I'll shoot Pony!" The gun swung a fraction to the right to point at Chris' black.
"No you won't, I know you - remember - you could no more shoot a horse in cold blood then you could a child, unless it was to put it out of its misery, so put the gun down - now!"
Buck wavered then, with an accuracy Chris wouldn't have given him credit for his current state, Buck put three bullets into Chris saddle as it lay on the ground, severing the cinch. Then, even before Chris had registered what had happened, Buck was mounted. What Chris didn't know was that the effort had all but caused Buck to black out, he just blindly turned his horse away from Chris and kicked. Ever obedient and willing to please, the big grey went from walk to canter and took off along the little valley.
"Shit!" Chris swore as he sprinted toward his now seriously spooked horse, whom he was going to have to ride bare back. He would find Buck, and bring him back to their camp, since he didn't have time to pack up and with no way to saddle his horse he had no way of carrying his gear.
It didn't take long to catch up to the grey, who was still moving at a steady lope, Buck hunched down over the saddle horn. Chris had to give his old friend credit - he didn't give up, and that horse of his seemed to know exactly what he wanted, because he doubted Buck was giving him much in the way of direction or leg. He was fairly sure Wilmington was still conscious and he was still armed, so - as much as he wanted to - he had to stay back and wait for the inevitable. It took a lot longer than he had expected; day had almost turned to dusk, when the figure on the saddle slumped a little lower and then lower still and finally Buck began to slide. Chris could see it happening, he spurred his horse on but he knew there was no way he could get there in time. Even as he raced onwards he watched Buck crash to the ground and lie ominously still. The very instant he hit the ground Beau stopped, his big head dropped and he nuzzled at his inert master.
+ + + + + + +
It took some time to get the unconscious Buck back to their camp and make him comfortable. His fever seemed alarmingly high, yet he was shivering.
"Damn it Buck, where the hell did you think you where going?"
"Hey pal, you awake?"
Instantly Buck made a feeble effort to roll away from his friend. But Chris put out his hand to pull him back.
"Easy big fella, relax, come on, lie back."
"No!" Buck almost shouted. "Get away from me!"
Chris was confused. "Get away? Why?"
"I'm sick you'll you'll get it get away from me," he gasped out desperately.
+ + + + + + +
When Buck had washed his socks that morning he's noticed his feet and ankles were covered in a spotted rash. Buck was a man who had been blessed with good health all his life. He had been hurt and injured many times - shot, stabbed, blown up, beaten up and thrown, he'd even picked up the odd wound infection but he'd rarely been ill, not seriously ill. In an age were childhood illness was common and often fatal, young Buck had only been ill once - not counting the odd cold. Perhaps it was just good luck? Perhaps the Wilmingtons were a hardy breed? Perhaps his father's family were - whoever they were. The fact that he didn't go to school, never mixed with the other children in the town had helped him avoid many of the epidemics that could wipe out a whole class. And although there was little money for clothes and toys, there had always been food on the table, a fire in the grate and clean sheets on the bed.
As a small child he had had the company of the other children in the bordellos nursery. Like many a young girl who found herself unwed and pregnant, Buck's mother had been thrown out by her 'loving' family, alone and penniless she had few options. Many girls in her position, when they entered the bordello, were persuaded to get rid of their child - if they survived at all, most would never again carry a child. Of those who refused to have the baby aborted, most gave it up for adoption or abandoned it at some local orphanage or mission. A few kept their child, paying the madam a substantial percentage of their earnings to pay for it to be cared for in a nursery. In Buck's case, the woman who cared for the children was a runaway slave called Bella and she took exceptionally good and loving care of her little charges; other children - in other houses were not so lucky. When the children were six, it was customary to send them away to boarding school. It was seen as the only way for them to have some kind of normal life, to escape the stigma of being a whore's bastard. Buck was also due to go away to school, not long after his sixth birthday, but that summer he caught scarlet fever.
Clare Wilmington never left his side for almost a week, even thought it cost her a full weeks earnings, he almost died, and it took him a long time to recover his usual strength and vigour. In his fever and delirium, only his mothers touch and voice could calm him and Clare couldn't bear the idea that he might get sick again and she wouldn't be there to comfort him. So Buck Wilmington never went away to school. Each morning, before his mother went to work she sat down with her son and taught him his letters and numbers, she made him read, anything and everything. It was a haphazard education at best, but he learned to read and write as well as basic maths, along with some history and geography.
That bout of fever was the only time, in all his nearly forty years, that Buck had been laid up ill, as opposed to injured - until now. Fever and a rash was bad, he knew that. Worse - it could be, and probably was, contagious. He could give it to Chris.
+ + + + + + +
Even as Buck was protesting and trying to get away from Chris, his strength was failing, the fight went out of him all of a sudden, he slumped down panting and spent.
"I know pal," Chris assured. "I'll risk it."
All night Chris sat beside his friend and took care of him. He added his duster and both saddle blankets to the two bedrolls, but still Buck shivered, then suddenly he'd get hot and kick off the covers. He muttered and mumbled, tossing and turning in fever-fed dreams. Chris repeatedly filled his canteen and used Buck's own large bandanna to cool his fevered brow. As dawn came up, Buck finally began to settle down.
When he did wake, he seemed disorientated. That was when Chris noted the rash on his friend's palms.
"Yeah pal I'm here." Chris slipped his arm under Buck's sweat-drenched neck and lifted his head enough to hold the tin cup to his lips. Wilmington gulped greedily at the cool stream water. "Hey, slowly," he chided pulling back the cup a little. After a while he lowered his friend back down onto a makeshift pillow.
"Yes." Having put the cup down, Larabee knelt beside him and tried to make and keep eye contact with his friend, but those deep blue eyes, usually so alive, while bright with fever, were unfocused and lost.
"Is it over yet?"
"Is what over?"
"The war pal, is it over?"
Chris' heart missed a beat, was that where Buck had been in his fever-fed dreams? The war was where they had first met, scared, still young, terrified but too proud to admit it, alone, overwhelmed and trying to maintain their decency and self respect in the face of the realities of modern warfare.
"Yeah pal, it's over, it's been over for a long time now, we won."
"We going home now?"
"Sure, we can go home now," Chris assured.
"You're going back for her - ain't you? That fiery little filly from Virginia, Sarah."
Chris couldn't help but smile; he had met Sarah on a farm, close to a battlefield. He and Buck had been sent to forage for food. Sarah had held a scattergun on them, trying to defend her family's meagre supplies. They left her alone and moved on, but when their regiment was told to make camp and take some days R&R they went back. It had taken some persuading on Buck's part, to push his lieutenant into the arms of the woman he so clearly loved, but eventually the two of them got together. Sarah's father hadn't been to impressed, despite Buck's silken tongue.
"Yeah I'm going back for her, wouldn't mind some company, if youre not doing anything."
Right then a ghost of a smile appeared on those pale lips.
"I'll be there. You two belong together. Make her happy Chris, look after that girl. Girls like that don't come alone very often."
"I will pal, I will."
Buck didn't speak again for a while and Chris thought he might go back to sleep, but then his eyes, that had been all but closed, re-opened.
"I ain't got no home, not no more, she died, there's nothing left." Suddenly his eyes seemed to focus on Chris, he sounded lost, all that Wilmington confidence and exuberance was missing. "What am I gonna do Chris? All I know how t' do is kill, I don't wanna kill people no more."
Chris' heart ached, poor Buck, he did so hate 'ugly'; he hated killing, but that was - as he said - all he knew how to do, that and raise horses. He had escaped a life as a hired gun to be a horse breeder and then lost it. And the loss of the life he truly loved was all Chris' fault. His weakness, his inability to deal with his grief had lost the ranch and condemned the ever loyal Buck to a rootless existence following him around, keeping him alive, hiring out his gun arm again.
"I'll tell you what you're gonna do, you're gonna come with me, and help me find a wife and then we're gonna go west - all three of us."
"Yeah Pal, west. We're gonna get some land, river bottomland, with sweet water and lush grazing. We - you and me - we're gonna raise horses, beautiful horses, breed them, break them and sell them, and get rich."
"Oh yeah, she's gonna cook and sew and she's gonna give me a son - you can be his Uncle Buck and we're gonna find you a good woman too."
That little ghost of a smile returned to his friend's face. "Have to be some girl to snare ol' Buck."
"Oh she will be, pretty as a picture, with those hips that sway, you know, the way you like 'um."
Buck sighed, probably remembering some long past girl with swaying hips, then he frowned. "Can't live with a girl just 'cause she's pretty."
Buck was a skirt chaser alright, but he loved all women, found their company equally attractive, no matter their looks, he would never be happy with any woman unless she was his equal.
"I know, she'll be smart and sassy and free thinking."
"I want kids, lots of kids."
"At least ten." It was clear to Chris that Buck was mixing things up, a time before they met, the war and more resent past were all intertwining in his fevered mind. When they met, Buck's mother had been dead for some time, even now he wasn't sure what his friend had done to earn his living between her death and joining the army, other than an occasional reference he made to being a lawman of some kind.
"Yeah, ten at least." His voice was getting weaker.
In the distance thunder rumbled.
"Guns?" Buck asked, believing the thunder to be artillery. "How far away?" He tried to sit up.
"Easy pal, its just thunder, war's over - remember, it's all over now."
Buck struggled to understand what Chris was saying, he wanted to believe him, he desperately wanted the war to be over, he hated it, more then anything he wanted peace.
"Fer real?" he whispered.
"Yes, for real. Now how are you feeling, tell me the truth."
"Reckon I'm sick," he admitted feebly.
It wasn't the detailed list of symptoms he might have hoped for, but for Buck it was some admission. The thunder rumbled, closer louder, and Buck flinched, as he let Chris cover him again. Chris wasn't a doctor and he wasn't Nathan, but he knew damn well that if Buck got cold and wet now, with this fever, it would probably kill him. That was when Chris made up his mind - not like this - Buck Wilmington was not going to leave this earth shivering under a bedroll in the mud. He didn't care what he had to do; they were going to find cover, a real bed, a fire and a doctor.
Much as he hated to do it, he was going to have to get Buck up on his horse. After fashioning a makeshift cinch and loading all their gear, save one bed roll onto the saddle he got ready to get them both up on to Buck's grey.
"Come on pal, time to get up." Buck didn't respond. "Buck, I need you to get up now, we need to be on our way pal," he tried more firmly, giving his old friend a gentle shake, eliciting only a groan from the sick man.
He could get Buck up on his horse unconscious, as he had the evening before, but he hadn't had any sleep and supporting Wilmington's not inconsiderable dead weight wasn't something he wanted to do for what could be a long a ride, he wasn't even sure he could do it.
"Sergeant Wilmington, time to roust out!" he commanded, if Buck's confused mind was telling him he was back in the army, maybe using his former rank could get a response.
"Wha'?" Buck pulled his head of the saddle that was serving as a pillow.
"Come on man, up, we need to move."
"I'm not feeling so good Sir," Buck tried to explain in a barely audible, raspy voice.
"I know, but Johnny Reb's coming and we need t' move out. Give me your hand." Chris reached down and took Buck's arm, pulling him to his feet, before he realised what was happening. The tall man swayed, his legs trembled and he stood there leaning heavily on Chris. "Just stay with me as long as possible, okay, just till we find some place safe."
Buck fever bright eyes seemed to focus on him, understanding and clarity, however fleeting had returned.
"I'll try," he promised.
+ + + + + + +
Getting Buck up on his horse had almost broken Chris' resolve there and then, clearly it wasn't just the fever that was causing his friend pain, every movement seemed to hurt, not that he admitted it - or anything. He just hissed and grunted as the frankly undignified process was accomplished. Once Chris was mounted up behind him, with Pony tied onto the saddle, Chris set out down the trail as fast as he dare to find the nearest habitation.
It turned out to be a long six hour ride to the outskirts of a town that called itself Eden Cross. He hadn't dared to stop on the trail, Buck had been dead weight in his arms for the last two hours, he was so tired and there was no way he could get him back up on the horse. The heat radiating off his friend's body was a constant reminder that Buck might well be sick with a deadly contagion. As much as he needed to find somewhere were he could take care of Wilmington, he knew he couldn't expose innocent people to whatever Buck was sick with, and he knew Buck would never forgive himself if he was responsible for other people getting sick. That was assuming Buck lived to even know about it. Then he stopped himself; he just wasn't going to think about the possibility of Buck dying.
Pulling up just short of the town, he made an inventory of the buildings he could see. Nothing looked promising, no isolated shacks or cabins presented themselves. The thunder, which had been following them suddenly cracked right over head, so loud the horses threw their heads and even Buck flinched. The rain, somewhere behind them, was so close now Chris could smell it on the wind that was picking up, now that the storm was close. A large saloon was the first building in the town, it stood a little way off the buildings, as Chris watched, a woman exited the back of the building and headed for the out house. Chris pushed the weary Beau down the slight slope and headed for the back of the building.
"Ma'am?" Chris called, just as the woman was about to go back into the saloon.
She turned to look at him, it was hard to tell how old she was under all the make up, but that and her dress made it clear that she was a 'working girl'.
"Livery's down the street, you want a room, you come in through the front door," she explained in board tones.
"My friend's not well I need some help," Chris started to explain.
"Sick or just drunk?" she asked
"Sick, very sick - is there a doctor in this place?"
The girl frowned and took a step toward him. "No, no doctor, Sadie does some doctoring and old lady White - but she mostly births babies, what's wrong with him?" She took another step towards him."
"D'no, so if you could go find this Sadie person, I'd be grateful." Chris didn't want her getting too close and at the same time he didn't want scare her.
The girl's curiosity evaporated, just as the first heavy raindrop fell and hit her head. "She runs the other saloon, The Lucky Star, far end of town." She was already backing up the steps to the porch.
+ + + + + + +
By the time he found the other saloon and ridden around back, the rain was getting heavy. This place was bigger than the first, a substantial structure with three floors and extensive outbuildings. Clearly the place was getting ready for the evening trade, a door at the back was open, the noise and smells coming from it indicated a busy kitchen.
"Hello!" Chris called, he was virtually trapped on Beau, if he got down Buck would most likely fall, and wet as he was, lying in the mud wasn't gonna help. There was no response to his call so he yelled louder. "Hello in the kitchen!"
Finally a small Mexican man came to the door. "What you want!" he demanded, huge cleaver in hand.
"I need to speak to Sadie," Chris called.
"Sadie very busy, you go around front, buy drink, eat food."
"No I need a doctor, I was told Sadie was the best this town has."
The man seemed to consider this; he stared at Chris and Buck for a while then gave a dramatic sigh and turned back to the kitchen.
"You wait." he commanded.
It seemed like an age before a diminutive woman appeared at the door, she eyed the bedraggled pair on the grey critically as she stood there.
"What ya sittin' there for, bring yer friend inside," she called.
"I don't think that's such a great idea, I don't know what's wrong with him, he's got a fever an a rash."
"A rash?" she asked, a clear hint of worry in her voice.
"Look, is there some place where I can get him under cover, I need a clean bed a fire and a sound roof."
"I don't know, if he's got small pox or the measles, I'm not sure I want "
"I'll pay," Chris interjected, Ezra always told them everyone and every thing had a price and Sadie, was a businesswoman after all.
"How much?" she asked.
"Show me the room," Chris countered.
The tiny woman reached into the room behind her and produced a full-length oilskin coat and pulled it on, far to long for her it trailed on the ground. She jammed a dark, wide brimmed hat on her head and stepped out into the now torrential rain, just a thunder once more roared over head. Skirting around Beau, she walked to a long low building Chris had noted but not really looked at. As he turned the horse around, all the time keeping a firm hold on Buck, he took a closer look. There were four doors and four windows, as well as two chimneys. Sadie had crossed to the furthest door, pulled out a huge bunch of keys on the end of a long chain and sorted through them until she found the one she wanted. Once the door was open she turned back, to Chris.
"We only use these when the cattle drives come to town, twenty dollars a day."
"Twenty! You gotta be joking!"
"If your friend has smallpox no one will want this place all year, and I'll most likely have to bury both of you - twenty."
"Ten, plus sheets, food, fuel, and someone to fetch and carry."
The room had a large iron frame bed, a fireplace, a bureau, a chair and a wash stand. It was a little musty but it was dry and but for a little dust, clean. Good to her word, Sadie produced bed linen, blankets, fuel, water and food. It took more time than Chris would have liked to strip Buck of his wet clothing and get him into the bed, but once it was done and he had built and lit the fire, he finally felt he had some control of the situation. This had been the worst aspect of the whole ordeal so far; he had been reacting to the situation, with no idea what would happen next. Now at least he had time to stop, catch his breath, and think.
Buck was breathing evenly, if a little fast, he was still unconscious and perspiring heavily. The rash had spread up his legs to his thighs and up his arms to his elbows. Some of the spots on his feet had turned a very dark red or even black. Chris stripped off his own wet clothes and pulled a dry shirt from his saddle bags, someone - he wasn't sure who - has taken care of the horses for him and left the saddles outside on the door. There was a knock at the door. Opening the door he found a pail, a coffeepot and a bag of coffee sitting outside. Looking around he spotted a young woman standing nervously some way further down the long covered veranda that ran the length of the building.
"Hello," he greeted softly.
"Sadie said to bring you that, there's medicine in the pail, she said to give your sick friend a spoon full every hour if you can." Chris looked at the girl, who was standing under a lantern. The lantern reminded him that night had fallen already. The girl looked young and pretty, despite her slightly too short dress with the top that fell off her shoulders - shoulders that were only partly hidden by her shawl - what spoiled the picture was her black eye and split lip.
"What happened to your face?" he asked.
The girl shrugged. "A guy got fresh, it's ok. I'll come back later and see if you need anything, put your dirty dishes outside when your done." She gave a little smile and then hissed as it tugged at her injured lip. "I gotta go." She turned and hurried across the small yard to the kitchen door. The rain had eased up and the thunder had stopped but it was still raining steadily.
+ + + + + + +"Buck are you sure about this?" Millie asked.
Young Buck smiled and then bent over to kiss the flame haired woman on the forehead. "Yeah I'm sure, without Ma well I wanna see what's out there."
"You're only 15 dear, you have a job here as long as you want it, you know that, you're family."
Buck picked up his bulging saddlebags, containing all he worldly belongings. "No m' minds made up I can't spend my life tossing drunks out of a bordello, even " He winked at the establishments Madam. " it is the best in Kansas City."
"Very well darling, take care, we'll all miss you, remember this is your home, you can always come home."
City boy Buck found he loved the wide open spaces, he had a horse and money, his mothers life's savings and he looked and acted a lot older than he was. After wandering aimlessly for a few months Buck met a man named Pete. Pete was an amiable man, considerably shorter then Buck, stockily built and with a fine thick moustache that Buck admired greatly. Pete owned and ran a horse ranch and he was in need of a general hand. Buck, who liked Pete a lot, was smart enough to know that his money wouldn't last forever, he needed to learn a trade, a trade other then brothel bouncer. So, while Pete's wife Kerry fed him and fussed over him, young Buck learnt how to rope, how to ride herd, and how to break horses. He was happy on the ranch, learning a trade, Pete even taught him how to improve his shooting. But after nearly a year and a half, Pete's older brother back in Ohio died, his widow and two teenage sons came to live at the ranch.
There was barely enough work for two, nowhere near enough for four, with great regret, Buck decided it was time to move on. So for the second time in his life he said goodbye to his surrogate family. Older, stronger, even taller, wiser, he once more set out to explore the west. So it was he found himself in the Texas town of Clear Water Creek. By now Buck considered himself a man and the first place he headed was the saloon. And, after ordering a beer he scanned the room for women, what he saw was a man in a shabby tan duster pull a knife from his boot as he approached a grey haired man from behind.
"Hey mister," Buck called casually. There was no reaction from the tan coated man. "Hey, you in the tan, I'm talkin' to you." Now the man stopped, he looked at Buck, who's gun was now in his hand. "You better be planning to use that thing to pick yer teeth - assuming ya got any teeth - 'cause if not I may have to shoot ya."
The older man, the man who was being stalked, stood, turned and drew in one swift motion. Buck was watching the knife, but he saw the movement and was impressed. As it turned out, the man he saved was equally impressed, he was the sheriff and he needed a deputy. Being a lawman appealed to young Buck. He was ambitious, proud, and idealistic, full of energy and in love with life.
+ + + + + + +
The medicine Sadie had left smelt a lot like the tea Nathan brewed whenever any of them had a fever. With great difficulty he had managed to get a few spoonfuls into Buck, though in truth most of it spilled down his face. Somewhere during the night he had napped, after two days and a night with no sleep he couldnt help it. Yet every time Buck stirred he woke - or so it seemed - his brain tuned into his friends condition. Somewhere around dawn Buck became more restless, his rash hadn't spread much further but more of the spots had darkened. Chris sat on the edge of the bed and attempted to calm his sick friend.
"Chris?" came the breathless inquiry, bleary blue eyes clearly unable to focus on the man before him.
"Yeah I'm here."
"You gotta get Beth out - please Chris go get her, save her," Buck begged breathlessly.
Chris had no idea who Beth was, but it seemed very important to Buck.
"Sure Pal, I'll go get her - as soon as you're better "
"No Chris, get her now, or it'll be too late - please." Larabee suddenly found his wrist grabbed with surprising force. "Go now."
Chris was at a loss as to what to do, he daren't leave Buck for long, there was just no knowing what an ornery cuss like Buck would or could do in his clearly confused state. As if to prove fears Buck chose that moment to try and get up.
"Come on, we gotta go get her."
There was a very brief struggle, while Chris held Buck down and his sick friend fought vainly and weakly against his hold, wearing himself out almost instantly, yet he still begged Chris to save Beth. Finally his strength was spent an he rested back on the stack of pillows - remembering something Nathan had once said about not letting someone who was sick lie flat, he had made Sadie supply him with a stack of pillows - for which he had to pay. With Buck breathing in short uneven gasps and perspiring heavily, Chris reached for the rag he'd been using to cool his friends brow. It seemed pathetically little, but it was all he could do and yet clearly Buck needed so much more.
"Beth," Buck muttered over and over again as he tossed until his strength was finally spent.
It was clear to Larabee now that he needed more help, Sadie, while willing - for a price - to give him shelter and the means to take care of his sick friend, clearly had no intention of getting close enough to Buck to be of any practical use. There was no choice, he needed help, because he couldn't lose Buck - he knew that now. Having spent three years trying to distance himself from everything that reminded him of his old life, these last few months, back working with Wilmington again had proved not only was it impossible, it wasn't necessary. He had found that having Buck around again was something he was enjoying. The memories that surfaced were - for the most part - good, happy times, fun times, times shared with his big, fun loving, gregarious friend, a man who had been as much a brother to him as any blood relative. If he lost Buck he would be plunged back into the darkness he was beginning to throw off - and this time there would be no one to pull him back from the abyss.
Youre a selfish bastard Larabee! You only want Buck to live for you. he chided himself.
Nevertheless as soon as the girl with the black eye came back he left her a note and some money, asking her to send a cable to Nathan.
BUCK SICK COME ALONE - STOP
EDEN X TEXAS
BACK OF LUCKY STAR SALOON - STOP
By his reckoning it was going to take Nathan at least three days to reach Eden Cross. He just prayed he could keep Buck alive that long.
+ + + + + + +Clear Water Creek was a boomtown as a deputy sheriff for nearly two years, Buck had gained the kind of respectability his mother could only have dreamt of. People who wouldn't have deigned to even speak to a scrawny, barefoot, whorehouse brat, actually came up to him in the street and greeted him. Little old ladies baked him pies and cakes, mothers were happy to watch him join in with their children's games. Yet he continued to be a lover of women and a friend to the towns thriving and ever-changing population of working girls. They, like the respectable women of the town - like all women - trusted him, they could see straight into his big heart and see his deep respect for all women.
One day he strolled into his favourite saloon to find a new girl, looking very self-conscious in her short dress.
"Hello darlin'," he said gently as she passed.
"Oh, hello, can I get you anything, sir?" she was a little thing, with flame red hair and sparkling blue eyes.
"Well for a start darlin' you can call me Buck, what's your name?"
Her accent was Irish, and some how Buck doubted she'd been in the country long. He didn't pry as to how she came to be alone so far from home and working in a saloon. Instead he concentrated on being her friend, and Buck being Buck, the friendship quickly became more than just platonic. More often than not, once her last paying customer was gone she would seek his more tender touch.
It was just bad luck he was out of town when it happened
+ + + + + + +
"Beth!" Buck suddenly called out. Chris, who had been dozing again, snapped awake. "Let her go, let her go," Buck pleaded desperately.
Chris was now sure that, whatever was haunting his friend wasn't some experience they shared or something Wilmington had told him about. But as the waking dreams and delirium continued he began to get some notion of the events that were tormenting Buck, who pleaded with him to let Beth go because she was innocent. Chris promised he would rescue Beth - whoever she was - and for a while Buck would settle down.
Chris continued to try and keep him cool when he was hot and warm when the chills came. He changed the sheets two or three times a day, spooned the medicine into his patient. The girl - whose name was Lilly - supplied him with food, clean sheets, fresh water, and coffee.
He had been there, in that room, for nearly three days and Lilly's black eye had gone down enough for her to go back to work. Several other girls now came to leave whatever he needed outside the door. Sadie came once a day to ask how Buck was and offer advice from the doorway. Possibly because more people were involved, possibly because no secret can be kept forever or possibly it was just bad luck - but a rumour went around the town like a wild fire, a rumour that someone at the saloon had small pox.
Chris was standing a little way into the room, Sadie was standing in the doorway, the rains had let up but it was still cold out, Chris wanted to hurry the visit up and close the door.
"Any change?" Sadie asked.
"He's still having chills, and he seems to be in a lot of pain." Chris had noted that when Buck's consciousness level was higher he some times hissed in pain when he moved, and whenever Chris moved him he would flinch.
"Joint pain, that's common with high fevers, here." She placed a small sack on the ground in front of her. "Mix the powder with hot water until it's a paste then put it in the little bag - I put several in - place it on the joint, it'll relieve some of the pain. Are you still giving the medicine?" Chris nodded. "He's lasted this long, that's a good sign. I "
+ + + + + + +Buck returned to Clear Water Creek after escorting a prisoner to find Beth in a cell. She looked so small and scared, huddled on the hard narrow cot at the back of the dark cell. When he demanded to know what had happened the sheriff - a man he liked, respected and trusted - told him the story.
"She killed a man Buck, smashed his head in with a rock."
"What?" Buck asked incredulously.
"It's true, got half a dozen witnesses that saw her, rock in her hand covered in blood, blood all over her dress, even on her face. This wasn't just anyone, either, it was old man Coopers son Andy."
Cooper was a prosperous local rancher with three sons, Andy was the youngest, Buck had thought him spoilt and arrogant, though he knew that was not a view shared by most, who thought the youngest Cooper to be a 'sweet boy'.
Buck had nodded his understanding, then moved to the cell to hear Beth's story.
"I did it Bucky" she admitted in a small voice.
"Why darlin', why?" he asked.
"He grabbed me in the alley, he wanted me there and then, but I said no. I remember what you taught me, 'I say when, I saw where, I say with who'. Thats right isn't it?"
Buck reached through the bars and gave her hair a stroke, using his thumb to brush away her tears.
"Yeah darlin', thats right."
"I didn't want him, not there, not like that, and I told him plain enough, so I did. But he said I was a whore and I couldn't say no and he weren't gonna even pay me an' nothing I could do could stop him."
It was an attitude Buck had come across often, he had tossed more than one so-called customer out of the bordello, who had had the same idea.
"He was hurting me Bucky, he pushed me down in the dirt and he was hurting me. I tried to get away, I kept telling him 'no', over and over again. Then he put his hands on my neck, I couldn't breath. I had to stop him, my hand just found that rock, I don't even remember hitting him - I didn't want to kill him, so I didn't."
Buck's heart went out to her, she was so scared and with good reason. "Did you tell the sheriff all this?"
"I did, he said I could have my say at the trial. Buck?"
"Are they gonna hang me?"