~~ Deliverance ~~

by TJ

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

The early morning was cool and quiet, almost as if the universe understood the need for dignified surroundings on the day of departure.

On the steps of the church, Sanchez stood with a tear stained William Spencer. In the distance, they watched Buck settling Virginia onto her horse, and the young man hid the agony of his heart behind the preacher's large shoulders. Josiah stood proudly fulfilling his promise to Ginny.

Above the livery, Nathan stood on the balcony of his clinic nervously chewing on his bottom lip as he looked down on the couple.

Beside Jackson, the gambler's emotional state was clear in his posture. He, too, was observing the two people below. Swallowing hard, Ezra raised his chin high in the hair as he took in much needed air to calm his reaction.

On the opposite side of the street, Vin Tanner stood with JD, watchful, in silence, as Wilmington mounted up and took hold of the tether to Ginny's horse.

Standing at the door to the exchange, Larabee tipped his hat as his oldest friend turned the animals towards the edge of town.

Virginia had wanted no good-byes today.

One by one, she had said her farewells yesterday and asked that the peacekeepers not come to see her off. She was content, as each, in turn, had agreed to her terms.

Then came the endless quiet tears that William had shed. They had been the worst. Unable to restrain herself, Virginia had added hers as well. When her brother had finally left, the young woman was exhausted, both physically and emotionally.

Those moving moments she had shared with seven strong men had been so much for her to bear. Ginny was glad of her request yesterday. She had known that her strength could not sustain a replay two days in a row. Today, she would go quietly and calmly from their lives. Perhaps, not as she had entered, but still on her terms, after all…

And so… They would honor her request… being silent, but there wasn't a man among them who could stay away.

Buck glanced up and back, offering Nathan and Ezra a brief nod.

The rogue glanced at Larabee again as he stepped into the street. The two men understood enough about the other to know they were both hiding behind conveniently built walls.

To William, Wilmington tipped his hat, sending a reassuring nod and smile.


Spencer stifled his tears on Josiah's shoulder, not wishing his sister to hear his lament. He wanted to be brave for her... to let her go, showing the courage that she expected… But, it was so very hard… More difficult than William had ever imagined. Glancing up as Ginny passed them, his emotions became unchecked and he stumbled inside the church. Out of sight... but never out of mind.

Sanchez sucked in his own breath as he watched the horses pass. His eyes closed briefly, his chin rising skyward, signaling his prayer. Josiah's smile offered strength to the riders before he turned to fulfill his promise to Virginia. Her brother would need a great deal of his time.

At first, JD tried to hide his face, or at least the emotions visible there. Yet, even that wasn't much use. He, too, had promised his strength in the face of this turmoil and the kid was bound and determined that he would show her that as she rode out of his life.

Wilmington acknowledged the conviction in Dunne's eyes as the horses trotted by, but suddenly, his dark blue orbs averted quickly from Tanner's unusually strong stare. Curious, unable to read what he had seen in the man's face, Buck thought back to the poem Vin had construed, seemingly from thin air, that first night in the saloon…

With the dawn comes deliverance… Release from the cares and burdens of the world…
Forgiveness for all that may be wrong… Salvation for those who must persevere… and go on…

Glancing back at his traveling companion, Buck couldn't help but wonder what 'deliverance', Virginia Elizabeth Spencer had brought to each of the peacekeepers of Four Corners, in ten short days.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

A mile out of town the young woman drew them to a halt. Her eyes closed and she breathed deeply of the fresh air. Buck's questions had been silenced with the wave of a hand. Many minutes passed without any movement and the rogue seriously wondered if she was having second thoughts. His doubts however, were put to rest when she announced the direction in which they should travel.

Wilmington offered his skeptical words and they were halted as quickly as the horses had been. "There's no turning back now, Buck," she affirmed her conviction. "When you go back… it will be without me…."

The pause was deafening, and so emotional charged that the ladies' man could find nothing more to say. They moved off quietly at a steady pace.

They rode north most of the day.

Several stops for food and water had broken the drudgery of the ride. Virginia said very little and Wilmington allowed her the time to reflect.

Once more, without warning, the young woman drew them to a stop. Her strength having failed, she could travel no further. The rogue could see it in her expression. He'd watched the fatigue growing for many miles, yet he was determined to let her make the decision.

As darkness fell, Buck prepared some supper. He sat beside the fire and watched the young woman sleep. Having curled up in her bedroll almost immediately, Ginny had been that way for several hours.

Several long hours…

Too much time… for him to think…

"Buck…" a soft voice interrupted his thoughts.

In some strange way, he was more than grateful for suspension of wayward musings. "Hey there, beautiful," he answered, slowly moving towards her.

"How long did I sleep?" she struggled to a sitting position.

Settling on the log behind her, the ladies' man assisted her up. "Sun went down… oh, probably three hours ago."

Straightening her attire, she sighed, trying to smile. "Guess… I was tired."

"Reckon that long ride on top of your… illness. You earned a nap… don't you think?"

Virginia felt for the canteen and, retrieving it, she undid the cap and took a long drink.

"You up for some supper?" Wilmington offered. "Inez sent along some beef stew. Mighty tasty if I do say so myself."

Her answer had been a cautious 'yes' and she did manage to eat half of what Buck served. After several tries, the rogue gave up insisting she 'choke down' a little more.

They exchanged few words as Wilmington cleaned up and then excused himself to 'relieve a little pressure'. Finding the humor in his words, Virginia used them herself a short while later. As they wandered the short distance back to their camp, Miss Spencer stopped and took a deep breath.

"You alright, Miss Ginny?"

Turning on his arm, the young woman reached up and touched his cheek. She hesitated, reluctant to ask yet determined that she should. Her question would wait no longer, "what happened, Buck?"

The rogue frowned. "What? …I ain't gettin' your meanin', Ginny. What d'ya mean, what happened?"

Relinquishing his face, Virginia pulled both of his hands to his chest. Her head bowed to join them and she took in another obstinate breath. "You never let any of this in, do you, Buck?" her words were restrained and quiet. "The day I met you… I could hear the emotion in your voice. I upset you more than you could admit… and then… all those feelings disappeared." Turning away from him, Miss Spencer pressed her back onto his chest. "But, they came back… the day after the rain fell…."

Wilmington instantly realized what Virginia was talking about. He licked his lips nervously, glancing away… wanting to walk away, yet knowing he couldn't. "Is that… that why you picked me, Ginny?" he asked apprehensively. "Because I wouldn't let… couldn't tell you…?"

Quickly turning back to face him, Miss Spencer cut off his question, her fingers on his lips. "There are many reasons why… why I chose you, Buck Wilmington. I don't need my eyes… to see what's in here," she covered his heart with the other hand. "Nor do I need your words to tell me… more than you want me to hear."

Virginia's words oozed with emotion the rogue rarely experienced, and if the moment had been anywhere else… if the lady had been any other… he would have leaned down and kissed her right then and there.

The passions of his heart and soul… the truth that most people overlooked in him… In that instance, like a beacon in the night, Wilmington understood that Ginny saw all those things far too clearly... and that compelled his want… far too much…

Instead of acting on his desire, Buck pulled her fingers from his lips and kissed them gently. He caressed her hand, glancing away in a desperate attempt at distraction.

After a moment, the ladies' man tucked Miss Spencer into his arm and urged her to continue their walk back to camp. "Any idea how much further we have to go?" he changed the subject.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

The next day was much like the previous.

Buck arose before sunrise and packed their things. He made sure Virginia had warm coffee and something to eat, refusing to head out until she'd finished the biscuits completely. For a while their journey continued north and then, shortly after a their lunchtime rest, she directed a westerly course… 'The air is cooler that way' was her only reason.

Wilmington did just what he was asked.

Their conversation was light as the horses plodded along and, as hard as it was to see her strength wane, the rogue refrained from commenting on her condition until the late afternoon. Finally pulling his mount up short, he let Ginny and the packhorse come along side him before he called, "whoa!"

"What's wrong?" she asked, her chin finally rising from her chest.

"Well, Darlin'… 'cept for the fact that you're about to fall off that mule… nothin'!"

Pride and determination forced Miss Spencer to square her shoulder. "I'm fine," she insisted.

"No, you ain't," was the man's quick reply.

"You're not going to argue with me now, are you, Mr. Wilmington?" she queried. Gaining a stubborn strength from his challenge, the young women sat up straighter.

Buck smirked, allowing her intensity to amuse him for just a moment. "Yes, Ma'am. I am," he answered coyly.

She was about to continue her objection but the rogue cut her off.

"And don't you go tryin' ta pretend that you ain't tired," he now said seriously. "Cause I ain't havin' none of it. You need to close them beautiful brown eyes of yours and take some down time. If there's one thing I know, Miss Spencer, it's women… and right now, I see one who needs some rest."

The fight disappeared as quickly as it had come. Virginia heard the words and sighed heavily. She understood that he spoke the truth but she also knew that it was essential that they cover more ground. "We need to go further, Buck," she whispered. "Please…."

The ladies' man hadn't been prepared for her mood to change so quickly. His determination waned as he saw the desperation in her eyes. "Well," he began. "Maybe… we can… come to some sort of compromise."

"Compromise," she repeated.

Wilmington said the first thing that popped into his mind. "What say you join me in this here saddle and we ride double for a while…."

Her dubious expression was all Buck needed to continue his explanation. "You can get real cozy leaning against me. Shut your eyes for a bit, and I'll keep on ridin'."

Glancing away, Virginia gave some thought to his proposal. "Don't you think… your horse might object," she tried to reason out a negative reply, wondering about her reaction to being so close.

The ladies' man sighed, hoping to put an end to any further discussion. "Well, it's that or we stop, right here, and right now."

As he had expected, there was no more debate on the topic.

Carefully, the young woman made her way into Wilmington's lap, cautiously snuggling into his chest. Despite her apprehension, she was asleep faster than either of them realized and stayed that way until almost sunset.

Buck kept on riding for all that time… the motion of the horse and the beating of his heart lending to Ginny's restful slumber.

Setting up their camp again, the rogue made, served, and then cleaned up dinner. He was pleased that the lady had managed to consume a little more food that evening, but right now, he was more than curious as to what she was doing.

"What ya listenin' to?" he asked, watching her smile. She'd been sitting with her eyes closed for more than ten minutes; the wondrous expression on her lips grew with the passage of time.

As her eyes opened, she turned to gaze at him. "Mariah…" she whispered softly.

"Huh?" he frowned.

Virginia laughed quietly. "The wind, Buck. Don't you hear it…?"

A recollection came to Wilmington slowly and a smile replaced his confusion. "Now just where'd you hear about Mariah," he asked quizzically. "That's a legend I ain't heard mentioned in ages."

"That's what civilization does to a soul," Virginia answered quietly. "Takes away our abilities to 'really' see… 'Really' hear. Takes away our ability to… believe, too."

A strange calm settled between the couple as Miss Spencer's words echoed in his ears. Staring at her across the fire, Wilmington could almost believe she could see him… see the wilderness that surrounded them… and the beauty of the world around them.

"Would you sit with me a while, Buck?" An unaccustomed request, but indicating the place beside her, Ginny felt strangely comfortable in the solicitation.

Unprepared for her words, the rogue's thoughts were sent hurdling down another path of reasonless wonder. Again, he considered another time and place, yet, as he moved to occupy the space next to Virginia, Buck knew, all too well, exactly where he was.

As she had done earlier that day, Miss Spencer snuggled cautiously against his chest, and them smiled when Wilmington slipped an arm around her shoulders. She moved closer, her hand resting over his heart.

Minutes past like hours before she finally spoke. "Thank you for continuing our journey today."

Buck huffed a reply, "like you gave me any choice."

Silence reigned again as they sat happily nestled by the fire, but a shudder from the woman finally broke that quiet.

"You cold?" the rogue asked, clearly concerned.

Her answer came slowly. "Suppose so."

"Well, we can't have that," the man moved aside and stood. "Let me get them extra blankets Nathan sent along." As he turned towards the satchels at the tree line, her voice stopped him.

"Would you sleep beside me tonight, Buck?"

Clamoring for words to respond with, the ladies' man found he needed none as she turned away and settled down on her bedroll. "Don't answer me right now," she insisted. "You can get the blankets and I'll go to sleep. Either they can keep me warm… or you can… or maybe both." As her shoulders drew up under the bedroll, Virginia closed her eyes. "Good night, Buck."

A deep breath flowed into his lungs, but stopped short of escaping in the same manner. A large hand worked its way across a furrowed brow and over the top of his head. Strong fingers rubbed at the back of his neck frantically, his chin raised high in the air. This wasn't what Wilmington wanted… but how could he deny her. How could he deny any of this? Not just for the right reasons, but for the wrong…

'Or is that the other way around?' Buck questioned himself silently.

The ladies' man had lost track of what was right and wrong. Ginny had been in his life for twelve days now, and in that short time, everything that he had ever thought of as wrong and right had changed places. Things that he'd never even considered had crossed his mind. Words that he'd never thought about saying had come out of his mouth. An eternity had passed and Wilmington had been lost in the void of its wake.

Some time later, as the rogue settled down beside Virginia Spencer, he knew that she was the only one who could complete this journey for him… and send him home safely.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

They headed out early the next morning.

The lady was suddenly overcome with a burst of energy; yet, barely four hours into their ride she pulled her mount to a stop.

"What's the matter," the rogue asked quickly.

Unseeing eyes scanned the horizon and came to rest on the tall cowboy that rode beside her. "This… is the place," she whispered slowly.

Buck frowned. "Here?"

She nodded quickly. "There are mountains over there, right?" she pointed ahead. Not waiting for his reply, she indicated left, "And a river over that way."

Wilmington looked towards the peaks in the distance and furrowed his brow. 'So… maybe she heard the water trickling by us' he reasoned the river that wandered a crooked course nearby. 'But, how the heck could she possibly know about the mountains?'

"I ain't gonna ask you how you know all 'a that," he said cautiously. "But… how do you know this is the right place?"

Miss Spencer lowered her head to hide the grin. The laughter in her voice was clear, "Buck Wilmington!" she admonished. "For three days you've traveled exactly where I've said. I can't believe you're questioning me now."

The ladies' man was far too serious when answered, "well… maybe that's 'cause I don't want to stop," he blurted out angrily. Dismounting, he stalked up beside her and looked into her deep brown eyes. "Cause once we stop… I ain't sure… I can ever get goin' again." The words came out slowly, the strain evident.

As his head settled gently on her knee, Virginia forged ahead, refusing to give in to his emotions. "Would you help me down?" she requested.

Swinging her leg over the saddle horn, she glided to the ground in the rogue's arms.

"Don't you do this to me, Buck Wilmington," she growled into his chest. Raising her chin to look at him, her hand traveled to his cheek. "I need you to be strong for me, Buck… I need you to… give me… the courage I need…."

Seeing the single tear that ran a course down her face was more than the ladies' man could bear. "Oh, Ginny…" he turned from her touch and walked away.

Her eyes slowly closed before her chin lowered. She knew he was still there. The anxious scuffling of his feet was hard to miss. Yet, for all her mixed up emotion, she understood that Wilmington was just as confused and angry. "There… are three reasons why I chose you… to bring me here, Buck."

There was a long pause as the woman turned and busied herself petting her trusted horse. The distraction was more than welcome.

When the words finally broached her lips, Virginia's voice was calm. "The concern I heard in your voice that very first day… is why you are here… I didn't understand at that exact moment, what it was that you were feeling. How upset you were… that a woman could die in your company. How appalled you were that you could do nothing to prevent it." Resting her head again the horse's withers, Miss Spencer continued. "That's all the… most important reason why… Your talent for hiding."

Wilmington was forced to turn and stare at the lady. Consciously, he had little idea of her meaning.

Through all her sightless vision, Virginia understood what Buck didn't.

More restless scuffling of his feet confirmed the disbelief in his heart. "What?" the rogue blurted out defensively.

That brought a smile to her lips. "See," she almost shouted back. "You hide behind your rough edges… and the humor. You hide everything that bothers you. You run away so people can't see that things hurt you… so they can't see the passion that hides within you."

The ladies' man grew nearer at her words. "What the hell's that supposed ta mean?" he growled defensively. "Buck Wilmington doesn't run from a fight… I ain't never run away from anything in my life."

She gazed up into the eyes she sensed boring through her soul. "Except… your feelings," Virginia whispered slowly.

Dark blue reflections closed tightly and remained that way until anger took hold. "You're wrong," he said defiantly, not wanting her to hear the truth he kept locking deep within his heart.

There was no hesitation when the young woman answered him, "tell me what happened that day, Buck. The day the rains came and you were out of town?"

Confused again by her apparent change of topic, the rogue answered without thought. "Is that what this is all about? A little baby…"

Stopped suddenly by the remembrance, Wilmington swallowed hard, gazing wondrously into her questioning brown eyes. In that instance, he knew Ginny was right. He'd hidden that day away… and the feelings that went with it.

"A little baby… came into this world… already dead," he stuttered quietly. "And here you are… reading all sorts of… 'Mystery' into how that affects me!"

His declaration clarified more than Wilmington knew. As her head slowly dipped, Virginia was truly sad… sad for the baby… for herself… and for Buck.

"It was a little girl?" Her question was barely audible.

Without even understanding that he was doing so, the rogue continued his story, long pent-up emotions slowly edging to the surface. "Yeah," he acknowledged painfully. "A boy came first… but Nathan knew it wasn't finished… Josiah held that baby while the mother struggled with the other one… The boy didn't cry… not once."

Buck glanced away to hide the tear that trickled down his cheek. He took a deep breath and shook his head gently. "Vin came into the tent about the time the girl was born… She was so... tiny… Too fragile… ta take in breathe. Nathan tried," he quickly added, forcing back his feelings. "That's when it happened… that's when the baby boy cried… Cried so loud… like he knew…."

Listening to the heartfelt words, Virginia finally understood. It had plagued her… made her wonder what could possibly have happened to make Buck walk out on her that next afternoon.

Although she had not seen his face… not 'talked up a storm', as JD put it, Miss Spencer had known then that Buck was the one. She'd understood, all too clearly, that Wilmington was the man who could weather the storm of her passing. Commit her body to the ground and her soul to the heavens, just as she had requested. Of all the Seven, Buck was the one who could endure… and move on.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

A night and a day passed.

They spoke now and then… when the quiet was too much.

Wilmington continued to guide her.

The afternoon found them out by a rocky outcropping and once more the lady stopped. She sat listening to the wilderness for some time. The rogue stayed near but never too close to interrupt her communion.

Taking to her feet a while later, her head slowly nodded as the ladies' man joined her. "Bring me here," she said quietly, slipping her hand into his arm.

Buck needed no explanation this time. They'd talked about what he should do.

Virginia had made her wishes clear, but there was one last thing she needed to hear. "Promise me, Buck… Promise me you won't cry…."

His eyes shut tightly at the thought. He wasn't at all sure if he could, but like everything else he'd agreed to, Wilmington consented to this request as well. "I promise, Ginny… I promise."

Their walk back to camp was solemn.

As evening came, the ladies' man prepared the meal, but Virginia only picked at it. No coaxing could persuade her to eat.

An hour later, Buck finally pulled the plate from her hands. "What's wrong?" he asked quietly.

"I need to tell you…." Her breath was stolen and the young woman found herself turning away from him.

Wilmington set the plate aside and put a hand on her shoulder. "Tell me what, Darlin'?"

Her chin was down when Virginia shook her head.

"Now come on, Ginny," he pushed, disappointment clear in his voice. "You can't start sayin' somethin' like that and just quit. You need to tell me, what?"

At the pull on her shoulder, Miss Spencer turned, yet her head was still hidden from view. "The third reason… why it had to be you…."

Wilmington cleared his throat. "Is this gonna be another… complicated reason, like the last?" he questioned, trying to lighten the mood.

The woman smiled, despite herself. "Can't… say for sure," she replied coyly. "Thing is… I'm not entirely sure… the reason exists."

The rogue frowned and shuffled closer. "Well… you'd better spit it out, so's we can find out then."

Slowly bringing her eyes to meet his, Virginia raised her hands to his cheek. Her movements were deliberately slow, her voice amazing calm. "I need to see you, Buck," her fingers traced his cheekbones to his jaw.

Remembering that he'd walked out on her once, Wilmington wasn't about to do it again. He sat for more than fifteen minutes as her nimble digits explored every inch of his features. Her hands lingered around his eyes… and on his lips… He felt the power of her touch when strong manipulations pawed into his hair.

"What's it like?" she wondered aloud, her voice barely a whisper.

Lost in her touch, Buck snapped back to reality and frowned. He inquired almost breathlessly, "what?"

Virginia was hesitant. The flesh at her fingertips had awakened a desire deep in her soul, but she was still unsure. "What's it like… to share," for a moment she lost her courage. Her eyes closed and her chin dipped.

Caught up in the need he sensed emanating from them both, the ladies' man carefully urged her gaze back to his.

Gently removing his hand from her chin, Virginia sensuously kissed the open palm and then curled her cheek into its grasp. Drawing a deep breath, she found courage in his touch, again raising her eyes to look at him. "What's it like…" she whispered. "What it like to share yourself… your body… your soul… with another?"

Denied existence until now, the passion had been building for days, and there was little doubt of his reaction. Her touch had brought all of his senses into play and Wilmington could no longer dispute his need. He no longer felt the need for restraint.

Lifting her head once more, Buck leaned in close. "It's a beautiful thing, Ginny," he answered honestly.

Her hands found their way to his face again. She felt the warmth of his breath on her lips… knew that he was closer than he had ever been before. This was what she wanted. Her one last wish finally realized. "Show me," she begged, leaning in to seal the request.

As their mouths touched, the rogue forced himself to quell the need burning within him. Any semblance of doubt faded as her fingers traced the line of his shoulders and pulled him closer.

The embrace deepened as lips parted. Slowly, carefully, an experienced tongue began to navigate a tried and true path.

Forced to separate by the requirement for air, the woman nuzzled under his chin. Her hands traveled the short distance to his chest. Nimble fingers slowly unfastened one button… and then another. "Show me," she whispered again.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

It was well past noon when Miss Spencer finally woke. Her eyes opened wide and she breathed in the fresh air of the wilderness.

"Well, hey there, sleepy head," the rogue teased. He'd been watching carefully, his amazement and amusement meaning more this day than the concern kept at bay.

Pulling the blanket over her nakedness, the woman sat up. "Good morning," she said modestly, a graceful, yet coy smile decorating her lips.

"Well… considering the sun reached its peak about an hour ago," he corrected, bringing her the canteen.

Accepting the water and a gentle kiss, Virginia smiled. "Thank you."

Wilmington grinned, lingered at her side. "You all right?" he asked softly.

Embarrassment colored her cheeks for only a moment. "Yes… very much so."

Watching the woman drink from the canteen, the rogue smirked. "Ya know… I can't believe you brought me all the way out here… just to make love with me," he teased.

Ginny giggled playfully. "I can't believe I waited this long to find out what it was all about."

Taking up one hand, Buck drew it to his lips and adorned it with kisses. "Well, Darlin'… it was my honor to show you."

Virginia shook her head playfully. "Now how did I know you were going to say that?" she mused.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

The day passed slowly, Virginia never making it out of her blankets. Her previous enthusiasm for walking seemed to have waned with her strength. Her charismatic persona was missing, too, and Wilmington felt the absence.

As dusk neared however, the lady became more like her self. She enjoyed a fair sampling of the rogue's cooking and requested his company when things were cleared away. The dimming light and the warmth of their bodies drew them closer and once more, they shared each other completely.

Several hours later, Buck stirred. Rolling over, he gazed at the wide eyes staring up at the heavens. "Hey, there," he whispered. "Couldn't sleep?"

"No," she replied. "I was just lying here watching the stars… Aren't they beautiful tonight?"

The ladies' man grinned at her jest. Looking up at the sky, he nodded. "They sure are… but not as beautiful as you."

"Oh, I can't believe that," she complained. "I mean, look at them, Buck… Really look at them."

From his position beside her, Wilmington frowned. Drawing himself up onto one arm, he pulled himself closer, almost blocking her view. "Ginny?" he spoke cautiously.

For the first time since they'd become acquainted, Virginia's eyes truly met his. She stared for the longest time, not wanting the moment to end. "Oh, Buck," she murmured. "What lovely blue eyes you have, so deep and rich…." Reaching up to touch his cheek, she caressed it gently.

"Ginny," he stuttered… "You can see me?" Water welled in the man's eyes as he realized the truth.

Miraculously, something had changed, and Wilmington couldn't stop the tears of joy that fell gently from his cheeks. He watched her truly watching him for the longest time before the foreboding certainty struck him… 'A calm before the storm' he acknowledged silently.

"Buck Wilmington," Virginia protested with a giggle. "You're getting me all wet."

The ladies' man stifled a laugh as the water continued to trickle down his cheek. Immense joy and overwhelming sadness culminated as he leaned into her shoulder. He settled there and the hours passed slowly. He listened intently as she talked about the configurations of the stars, something she had learned as a child. Try as he might, Buck couldn't see the pictures she described but that wasn't as important as being there for her.

Just being there… that's all she'd ever wanted…

Wilmington talked, too.

He shared his life as freely as he had shared his body.

Two souls mixed naturally as they whiled away most of the night. As the first tinges of light hinted at dawn, Virginia finally fell asleep. Buck held her in his arms, forcing back all the dread that threatened. His sleep was rough when it finally came.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Feeling around at the place beside her, Virginia called for him, "Buck?" her voice was weak.

"Right here, Darlin'," he was at her side instantly.

Realization was that quick, too… He knew she could no longer see him. As he had feared, her sight was both a gift… and a warning.

Her eyes sparkled in the sunlight and for a moment, the ladies' man forgot about the dread he felt, concentrating instead of the present they had been given. Whatever the reason, Ginny had been allowed to see the heavens, one last time.

"Don't go far," she requested. "I want to feel my hand in yours… I want to breathe you into my lungs… until I draw my last breath."

The rogue swallowed hard. "Now don't you go takin' like that," he admonished.

Virginia's breath hitched and she shook her head insistently. "Don't, Buck," she reached for his hand. "We… both know… there isn't much time. Don't fool yourself for my sake."

Settling down beside her bedroll, Wilmington pulled the blankets up around her shoulders. "I'm not tryin' ta fool anyone, Ginny. Just don't see no reason to dwell on somethin' we can't change."

Her head nodded slowly. "And, you remember your promise?"

Eyes closed, the ladies' man hesitated, but he knew he had to answer. "I do," he acknowledged, smiling at her. Yet, just as quick, he changed the subject. "You want anythin', Ginny?"

There was a long silence after she indicated no. Her fingers worked at Buck's palms, slowly caressing little circles into his skin. Finally, when she stilled, there was one last question that needed answering. "Did you… say a prayer… for that little girl… Buck?"

His breath caught as his eyes lost their focus. His fingers closed tightly around her tired hand before he replied. "It was the mother, who asked us to take the baby away," he spoke quietly. "She was… afraid… afraid her husband would only see the… death… as a failure... Josiah wrapped her fragile little body in some rags and Nathan took her out of the tent like nothing was wrong…."

The emotion in Wilmington voice was strong as he squeezed Ginny's finger again…

Feeling no response, Buck looked down at Virginia. Her eyes were closed…

He knew…

Staring at her peaceful expression, the ladies' man knew, yet stifled his feelings. He'd made a promise… and there was still her question to be answered.

Holding her hand tightly, he continued to talk… compelled to finish his answer… "We… rode out… far away from the wagon train… before we stopped… I think we gave a fittin' burial… all things considered. Set her in a tiny… grave… out in the wilderness… just like here… Josiah said some words… And, all I kept thinking was… was how much of a waste it was… How much that little girl had touched us… although she was never there… How much… any one person can affect another… whether we know them for an hour… two weeks…or a life time…."

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

The last few shovels full of earth were the hardest.

As each grain of the sandy soil fell back to its rightful place, Wilmington grew increasingly tired. It wasn't just the physical labor though... he'd lost count of how many graves he had dug in his lifetime... too many, that's for sure...

But, this one was different.

So… very different…

This burial had been planned.

The spirit that now occupied this grave had chosen this resting-place… for this exact purpose… just four short days ago.

With one last painful sprinkle, the remaining dirt settled back to where it belonged.

The rogue took a deep breath and looked skyward. Slowly, tears began to form and he made little attempt to stop the tide he knew was coming. His weary gaze returned to the small mound. A sob escaped his mouth and he bit down hard on his lip, throwing the shovel away angrily. "Damn it!" he cussed, a hand quickly raking through dusty, matted hair.

He was suddenly furious with himself.

He'd made a promise.

Swore he wouldn't get upset when this time finally came.

Sorrowful eyes closed, trying desperately to force back the emotions that threatened to crest with such great fury.

But, it was too late.

He wouldn't win this battle...

He'd lost it, long before the promise had ever been made.

Slumping down in a heap beside the burial plot, Buck covered his face and swiped the sweat from his brow. He took the water from his eyes, too… still denying to himself, and Virginia, that the tears had actually fallen. "I didn't know this was gonna be so hard," he whispered angrily.

Glancing back at the small rise, he tried desperately to control himself. A heavy sigh preceded more words, but this time, his voice betrayed his grief. "It's not fair... Not right that you were taken…."

After a long moment, another restrained whimper escaped pursed lips. "Not right that I... that I watched you… slip away."

Slowly, his eyes drifted to the heavens, then closed defiantly as more tears trickled down his cheeks. "Oh, God…" he sucked in the words.

More than twenty minutes passed yet, time seemed to stand still as his mourning echoed through the wilderness. A fitting tribute for 'Mariah' to carry through a wilderness that Ginny loved so much…

Eventually fighting his way back to his feet, Wilmington looked at the mound of earth again. He wiped his eyes… no longer in denial of his emotions. A small smile crept to his lips as he gathered his strength. One last deep breath vibrated through his throat as he cleared it. Gradually, and with a gentle nod, the words came, "thank you, Ginny" he whispered.

The breath was difficult, but strong as he drew it, one last painful lament was suppressed as he tried desperately to keep his promised. "Thank you," he repeated, slowly turning away.

With the dawn comes deliverance… Release from the cares and burdens of the world…
Forgiveness for all that may be wrong… Salvation for those who must persevere… and go on…

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