"You got somethin' to say to me?" Chris Larabee challenged as he planted himself in Buck Wilmington's path and stayed there.
"Nope," Wilmington replied with a habitual smile. The smile lasted only until he realized the other man wasn't going let it drop at that.
They stood for a moment, examining one another, unable to exclude twelve years of knowing each other from how they anticipated this conversation to proceed.
Buck had just pushed through the batwing doors of the saloon to greet the day. He'd enjoyed breakfast with three of the other men who shared peacekeeper duties in Four Corners. He still wore a grin on his face over Ezra Standish bemoaning the early hour and the stifling early July temperatures. Despite being a southerner, he had muttered something about how much respect he had for the British and their good sense that fateful year of 1776, to grant America her independence, leaving the Yankees to their unholy heats, so they, themselves, could go home and get out of the sweltering weather.
Now Buck allowed the doors to swing shut as if that would give the conversation, that seemed inescapable, some privacy.
"You've been dodgin' me for three days now," Larabee finally broke the silence.
"I'd think that meant I don't have anything to say to you." Buck's tone of voice grated on the infamous gunslinger.
"What crawled up your ass and died?" Larabee demanded.
JD Dunne was taking a short cut up the alley to meet his friends for breakfast when he heard Chris's angry question. The young man stopped short. His first thought was that he was surprised that Chris would notice if someone was avoiding him, much less care. His second thought was that he really didn't want to be around his hero when that temper was flaring. He didn't want to find himself a target. 'Not much chance of that,' popped into the young man's head. There weren't many people Larabee cared about enough to show this protective-edged anger. There was an icy element when that anger was directed at Ezra. But there was always Vin and
"Okay, Larabee," he heard Buck purr. It was a tone Larabee hated, "I got a question for you. You gonna turn your back on the rest of us fast as you did JD?"
' Buck,' JD thought. Chris and Buck were fighting again. And did JD hear right? Were they fighting about him? He knew he shouldn't eavesdrop, but he couldn't help it.
Larabee, meeting his friend's eyes, knew the query referenced back to his recent willingness to let their young sheriff leave town after the accidental shooting of Annie Nechaus.
"People gotta know the law can stand up to whatever comes their way."
"Oh, so this isn't about an innocent woman dying, it's about the Kid having a heart and caring that it happened. It's about "Larabee's Law", you gotta be snake mean to keep the peace."
"Helpin' people and protectin' 'em are two different things," Larabee bit out the words as if this weren't the first time he'd said them to the other man and he was tired of repeating himself.
"Are you talking about me or JD?" Wilmington asked softly. JD could imagine the superficial smile solidly in place. The young man was surprised to hear so much emotion in the voices coming from both men. He was certain there was more being said than the mere words implied. What the undercurrent said could only have been fleshed out by the shared history of Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington.
"Me and the Kid are okay. Why don't you let that be enough?" left unsaid was that Larabee believed that Wilmington was personalizing the event.
"Hell, he'd lick your boots to stay in good with you!"
JD's face burned with embarrassment when he heard those words.
"You said it yourself, he killed an innocent woman," Larabee hissed. How could Wilmington not see that demanded repercussions? And why would he never understand that those repercussions weren't as important as if and how one survived those repercussions.
Out of sight, JD reeled at the words. Did Chris Larabee think he should be punished? Did Chris wish he had left, despite what he had said? The young easterner was far from forgiving himself for that event. What forgiveness he had found for himself was based on the belief that the others had forgiven him.
Wilmington had met Larabee's eyes after that last statement. "Damn you," was, finally, all he could say. Those two words spoke volumes. And what the intensity told the three older men listening from inside the saloon was that it had more to do with something from Chris and Buck's shared past than any recent events in Four Corners.
Larabee knew his friend well enough to know there was an internal struggle going on in that head and there was more he wanted to say, but, ultimately, the words would go unspoken. Buck didn't like confrontation with his friends. In the heat of action, danger or unjust accusations, he would tell you, in no uncertain terms, how the cow ate the cabbage. But Buck's upbringing and, unfortunately, his years riding with Chris, had taught him, all too well, that angry words couldn't be taken back. So, although he might let them fester, he rarely gave them voice after the fact. This trait had him holding his tongue now. Larabee hoped this quick exchange had allowed Buck to vent enough that things would get back to normal. Usually, if Buck realized that it was he, himself, who wouldn't take the confrontation to the next level, he would let it go. Both Buck's anger and his role as Chris's conscience would have been appeased.
"At least it was an accident." The voice was soft, but loud and clear. It surprised Larabee who had been turning to walk away. It surprised JD, spying out of sight. It sounded like the speaker had surprised himself as well with the challenge in the words.
Inside the bar, at the table nearest the door, Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson and Ezra Standish met each others' eyes. It was unusual for those two to have such a rather extended confrontation loud and in public.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Larabee defied him to answer.
"I mean he didn't gun some kid down in the street because he was feelin' mean drunk that day the kid called him out."
"No, he killed an innocent person because the gunfight had started events he couldn't stop. He was young. He was green. It was an accident." Was Larabee trying to explain JD's actions? Or absolve either Buck or himself of an event in their history?
"And it was strangers who started the fight bank robbers. Not a friend. I know the difference," Buck responded.
The difference? 'What difference?' JD thought to himself from his place of concealment.
Again the more experienced men inside the bar caught each other's eyes. On the surface it was hard to grasp the meaning of the words wafting through the swinging doors. But the tone and emotion behind them spoke volumes.
Larabee walked back slowly, "You think your way will work?"
"I'm not talkin' about me," Buck demanded defensively.
Larabee met him with cold, unrelenting eyes, "You haven't changed at all." Buck was always defending the underdog or a friend.
"It hurts to see how much you have changed," Buck threw back.
"Which one of us will get ourselves killed first? Or someone else?" Chris offered in Wilmington style with a low voice and a sad smile.
Wilmington went silent and still and met Larabee's eyes with a painful depth of what was being said beyond the words that were spoken.
Larabee knew it was a low blow, but he was never able to control the things that came from his lips when he was angry. Besides, Buck needed to be reminded that a good heart could be taken advantage of. Buck stepped back, the smile faltered and he nodded sadly to himself.
Larabee shouldered past the taller man and moved down the boardwalk.
Buck slammed back into the bar and plopped down in the chair he had so recently vacated, "Tell me," the tall man blustered, "You tell me why being friendly-like and easy to get along with should be a sign of weakness in a man or mean that he can't do the tough jobs?"
His friends, toying with the remnants of breakfast, would have been totally confused at the outburst, had they not overheard the recent argument outside. And still none of them knew what to say. They sensed this had very little to do with JD or his competency level.
The question itself was loaded and had no easy answer. The truth was that Chris Larabee did give off a dangerous aura. While, given first impressions, few would see the gangly, good-timin' lady chaser as a threat.
It was only their shared experiences since coming to this restless frontier town that had shown Josiah and the others the deadly, almost manic gunfighter who replaced the likeable rogue when he was pushed too far. It was an image of this stone-faced, frightening side of Buck Wilmington that came to the others' minds when they thought to assure him no one doubted his ability.
It was Josiah who realized that, to answer the surface question, they would have to say 'yes, too much of the time men do try to take advantage of an easy-going personality.' But below the surface, that was obviously and defiantly, not the answer needed here.
"I have often found it to my advantage to be under estimated," Ezra offered over a sip of coffee.
"By your friends, Ezra?" Dark blue eyes drilled into the conman and demanded self-examination, "You like bein' underestimated by your friends?"
Standish was more than taken aback by the emotions that the question drew to the surface. It was only years of habit that allowed him to hide the reaction behind a façade of calm indifference.
He was saved from having to answer by a black on black wraith as it raced by the window of the bar.
"Is that Mr. Larabee leaving town?" Ezra had to admit he was a bit surprised and concerned that the confrontation that the two just had would lead to the exodus.
"Yep," Buck replied. The satisfaction in that one word didn't come because he was glad Larabee was leaving, just some acknowledgement that he knew his friend so well, "You tell me if runnin' from any feelin' that ain't anger isn't the real weakness." Buck didn't expect an answer to that, probably didn't even know he'd spoken out loud. But he got up and walked out the doors as if he'd forgotten there were three other men sitting at the table with him.
Silence threatened to consume the table until Nathan finally spoke, "You think it's serious?"
"I believe those two have been at this point in their relationship many times, at least in the last few years," Josiah surmised.
"Think that's why they weren't riding together when they reached Four Corners?" Nathan wondered out loud. Could so few, enigmatic words cause them to split again? Nathan had to admit that he felt a certain level of security when their leader was around. Perhaps it was because he and Vin had saved his life that first meeting; perhaps it was because, when it came to a showdown, Larabee was willing to be out front when the killing started. Or, maybe, Nathan was as guilty as the next man in seeing a good heart as a sign a man couldn't do this job as well. That included his doubts about himself. He'd killed men, no doubt would again. But there was often that hesitation when he knew he was about to take a life. That hit-and-miss moment of uncertainty that could get him or his friends killed someday.
"I suspect it is the reason they were drifting back together." Ezra hoped it was true, "The events at the Seminole village were merely a convenient catalyst so that neither had to admit such a fact."
"He'll be back," Josiah observed, referring to Larabee and his quick departure with more confidence than he felt. He wasn't sure what was holding each of them to this small dusty town or what, one day, would cause them to finally leave.
+ + + + + + +
JD walked slowly into the street as he watched Larabee speed out of town. Was he leaving? Would he be back? Chris Larabee. He had been riding with Chris Larabee and the Magnificent Seven. That couldn't be ending, could it? He looked around as if awakening from a pleasant dream to a cold reality. He almost thought he would look around and be back in the stable in Boston. But no, he was still in the west, in Four Corners, and Larabee was disappearing into the landscape. And at the opposite end of town, Buck was coming out of the bar.
Oblivious to the older man's body language, which he would quickly have recognized in Larabee to say, 'back off', JD stormed over to catch up to his friend. JD offered no preamble, instead lighting into the other man, "Why can't you mind your own business?" He demanded.
"What are you talkin' about?" Buck frowned at the younger man's tone of voice.
"Keep out of my affairs. What will Chris Larabee think of me if he thinks I won't face my mistakes? What if he thinks I asked you to fight my battles for me?"
"JD " Buck still didn't know where the boy's anger was coming from since he didn't know the earlier conversation had been overheard. But he was all too familiar with this habit that JD was picking up from Chris. When he was faced with his fears and insecurities, or embarrassing emotions, he hid them behind anger.
"You're always raggin' on Chris, always talkin' about how things used to be. Now look, you've chased him out of town."
Buck kept walking and found himself in front of the general store. It wasn't unusual for the blinds of Mrs. Potter's business to be drawn this time of day. Otherwise the glare of the early morning July sun beat unmercifully through the glass. But Buck knew the woman would be up getting ready for the day. He headed into the shop as he spoke, hoping to take this confrontation off the street, "Chris leavin' has nothin' to do with you."
"No, it has to do with you. Couldn't you leave instead?"
Buck's head whipped to look at the boy in response to that statement. The look on his face made JD realize how that sounded, "Oh, heck, Buck, you know I didn't mean it like that. It's just that you'll always come back what if Chris "
For a split second there was a look on Buck's face that he couldn't control. It hinted to JD that he shouldn't be so sure of that statement.
The young man's statement was very much the other side of the coin of the discussion his older friends had held in the saloon. He was taking for granted a friendship, freely given, while working hard to earn a friendship that was harder to achieve.
Before JD could examine what he had said, or the expression on Buck's face, the older man shook his head, his usual smile was more a sardonic smirk, and he dodged into Mrs. Potter's General Store.
JD followed, ready to apologize further. He ran into the broad back in front of him.
"Get in and close the door," a rough, anxious voice demanded.
"Take it easy," Buck offered in a molasses smooth voice. Buck moved to close the door behind him before JD could be pulled into this stand off. But the man inside had seen the young sheriff.
"Both of you inside!" the voice demanded.
Buck came further into the store and JD peeked around his shoulder.
There was a reedy young man in the mercantile. He had stringy, unkempt ruddy hair that reminded JD of a copperhead snake. He was hiding behind Mariah Donahue, a young newlywed from a ranch east of town. The long barrel .45 Colt pointed at the woman's temple and her terrified expression told the story of what they had walked in on. Mrs. Potter, was behind the counter, petrified with fear and clutching her bosom.
+ + + + + + +
Peter Lowry couldn't believe his bad luck. It had been such a good idea. Okay, so one man couldn't really successfully rob a bank, especially with the reputed Magnificent Seven protecting the town. So he'd thought to use that to his advantage. Who would expect someone to rob the General Store?
The whiskey, ammunition and supplies were what a lot of any stolen money would be spent on anyway, right? And there had to be cash in the till to spend at a brothel for him and his brother in the next town. And what kind of security would be in a Mercantile? He had chosen the morning, too early for most farmers and ranchers to have made it into town. The locals would be finishing up breakfast instead of being out and about. It was brilliant in its simplicity in Peter's self-centered opinion.
The marmish owner of the shop and a simpering lass were easy to intimidate. He hadn't thought about how bulky the supplies would be to carry. But he wasn't going to admit the miscalculation, even to himself.
Peter grabbed the younger woman as soon as the door started to open. And now these two cowboys stood between him and escape.
"Get inside! Close the door!" Peter Lowry repeated.
The taller man sidled to the right of the door to let the shorter, younger guy inside.
"Hey, Pard," the older man smiled easily, "We startled ya, but there's nothin' here that needs to get anyone hurt."
"Shut up." Peter was careful to keep his body shielded by the woman.
Buck glanced at the terrified Mrs. Potter and saw a stack of supplies on the counter in front of her. The fear in her eyes was almost tangible as she relived the past in this situation. It was all too similar to the one which had taken her husband from her.
"Those your supplies?" Buck continued in a relaxed tone, "Vin, boy, get over there and put that stuff in those gunny sacks so we can end this peaceful-like."
JD was startled to hear Buck call him 'Vin' and looked up sharply. Which was exactly the effect the other man wanted. Until that moment, JD had been trying to work his head around the fact that they had walked into a hold-up and dealing with the fact that he was again in a position where a young wife's life was in the balance. Now he could see by the look in Buck's eyes that he had a plan.
Buck held his hands in clear view at shoulder level, closed the door and took another step to the right.
JD held his hands up like Buck's and moved slowly toward the counter. "And get the money out of the till for this man," Buck added hoping to distract the nervous bandit from the fact that his targets were separating. But JD saw it. Dunne could see immediately that this separated the lawmen and left the ratty little man forced to watch two targets.
While JD recognized a tactical advantage developing, all Peter Lowry saw was an escape route opening up between him and freedom. Almost on reflex he moved forward toward the door. He still had a tight grip on his hostage. It never entered his mind that there might be a rear exit. He tried to concentrate on both men, but his gun migrated toward the bigger man whose size alone gave the perception of being the bigger threat.
Hypnotized by the chance to get away, Lowry didn't realize that he was about to make himself vulnerable to the two men. He continued to edge toward the door.
JD could feel the beads of sweat at his brow. Anticipation was worse than a spontaneous threat.
Buck had long ago learned that his hands held open at shoulder level were in the most effective offensive position for any action with the exception of outdrawing an opponent.
One more step and the measly little man who would hide behind a woman would expose his back to them.
Buck saw the moment Pete figured out his strategic mistake. Peter's head snapped one way, then the other. The gun moved slightly away from Mariah's head and turned toward the bigger threat.
Buck grabbed the young woman's arm and ripped her from the grasp of her captor. He was already spinning Mariah so that his body protected her as he went for his holster.
JD, forewarned and ready, dove to protect Mrs. Potter as he drew and fired. Three gunshots exploded simultaneously in the confines of the small store.
And then, as the echo died, there was silence.
Peter Lowry crumpled to the floor. Buck was lying on top of Mrs. Smith, protecting her with his unmoving body.
JD slowly lowered his gun. No one was moving. He'd done everything right. He'd waited for the right time; he'd only fired once. He hadn't fanned his gun. But the bodies were so still. Self-doubt and fear coursed through his body.
Then he heard it. The young bride was whimpering, gasping as if she couldn't get a breath to truly cry. Then JD heard Buck's voice whispering soft reassurances as he held the woman comfortingly.
Movement started again, "Oh, my Lord, my dear Lord," Mrs. Potter chanted as she scurried to Mariah's side. Wilmington gently handed her over to the older woman, knowing a man's touch was not what she needed at the moment.
Buck was staring at the body of the would-be robber as if seeing more than anyone else.
Josiah, Nathan and Ezra burst through the door, guns drawn, as JD sidled toward Buck.
"It's okay, fellas," Buck stated as if, maybe, it wasn't really.
Nathan fingered a rip in Buck's shirt half way between his elbow and shoulder. "Close only counts in horse shoes." Wilmington winked. Nathan accepted the acknowledgement that the bullet had come close, but, as Buck was saying, no harm done. Nathan moved over to check on Mariah.
"Oh, Mr. Wilmington," Mrs. Potter put her hand on his arm right over the bullet's path, even as she held Mariah with the other, "What would we have done .."
"Mrs. Potter, that's what we're here for," Buck reassured her.
"Thank you, thank you," Mariah added, "I was so afraid, but you "
Her husband burst through just then. The others kept the rest of the curiosity seekers outside.
"I'm I'm not hurt," she said through tears, 'Thanks to Mr. Wilmington " then, she added, " and Sheriff Dunne."
"Thank you," Mr. Smith shook Buck's hand. "Sheriff," he added with a nod toward the young peacekeeper as he escorted his wife out the door.
The undertaker materialized as was his wont in the aftermath of gunfire and arranged for the body to be moved to his office.
"You two all right?" Nathan asked again, just to make sure.
"Not leakin' anywhere," Buck reaffirmed then looked at Dunne.
He clapped the younger man on the shoulder and steered him toward the door.
"Thank you," Mrs. Potter repeated.
"You sure you're all right, Ma'am?" Buck asked. The gratitude showed in her face.
'Dang,' JD thought. He wished he had thought to ask after her. He was the sheriff. He should have thought to ask. Before he could voice his own concern, local townswomen swarmed inside to take care of the store owner and he heard an angry voice from outside.
"How can we have a civilized town if there are gunfights every " One of the townsfolk was griping as they left the shop front.
"This isn't civilization. That's why we need men like these. We're lucky to have them."
"That boy sheriff is lucky to have them," came a sarcastic reply.
The town had gathered to watch the action and most stayed to congratulate the lawmen and thank them.
Buck was basking in the attention. He just knew what to say. Well dang it, JD steamed, he'd been there, too. He'd been calm. He'd made the right decisions. There were two holes in the body. JD felt he was invisible; in Buck's shadow; only included in the appreciation as an afterthought.
What was it going to take to earn their respect? If riding with Chris Larabee didn't earn him the but was he still riding with Larabee? The way he took off to get away from Buck. Now after the adrenalin had made its way through his system and both he and Buck and their charges were safe, JD remembered that he was angry. First Buck may have chased Larabee away and now he was taking all the credit for saving Mrs. Potter, Mrs. Donahue and the store.
When Buck reached back to draw the younger man into the adulation, Dunne shrugged him off and walked away. It was a matter of perspective whether he turned his back on the citizens or they had already turned their backs on him. But the result was that he, himself, left Buck to calm the populace and, by default, receive the accolades.
The praise, thanks and Buck's acceptance rang in the young man's ears as he walked away. Buck watched him go. The older man never understood walking away in anger. He preferred to discuss or even fight out differences to clear the air. But he was all too familiar with the technique.
"The boy has some insecurities," Josiah's deep voice rumbled near Buck's ear.
"The thing with Annie is still coloring the town's perspective and the way the boy sees himself," Nathan offered.
"The town was sayin' thanks. He walked away from them." Buck's voice held a rare hint of criticism.
"You saw them saying 'Thank you' and 'job well done'. He saw them saying 'Thank you' and 'job well done' to you," Josiah observed.
"That's bullshit," Buck threw back.
"That's the way he sees it," Josiah shrugged.
"How can you be so sure?"
"He's the youngest, the least experienced. He's made the biggest mistake in his eyes and the towns'. If he has to share credit, he thinks he's being seen as second best."
"That's extrapolating a lot from the mere act of him walking away just now." Ezra, too, was good at reading people. He could see what brought Josiah to this conclusion. But it was important to interpret actions based on what you knew about your "mark". The danger came when you interpreted actions based on the observer's background, past, ghosts and regrets.
"It's been building and I've been watching since Annie died," Josiah answered, confident in his observations, "He needs acceptance more than the rest of us."
"We all need acceptance," Buck replied. Nathan glanced at Josiah. They both heard more than the words, especially influenced as they were by the recent overhears of Buck and Chris's argument.
Buck glanced at the undertaker as he directed the men carrying the body, then returned his focus to the townsfolk around him. They needed acceptance, too.
+ + + + + + +
The shadows had lengthened and most folks were inside for supper so no one saw Buck Wilmington slip into the undertaker's rooms. The smells, some he didn't recognize, others he didn't want to identify, hit him first. But the surprise was that he wasn't the only living body in there.
The healer spun around startled at the intrusion, but relaxed when he recognized a friend.
"Buck, what are you doing here?"
"Patrol," was the lame reply.
Nathan didn't notice. He was simply relieved that he wouldn't have to explain himself.
Buck moved into the room thinking again how lucky they were to have Nathan Jackson looking out for them.
Buck had fought to stop wounds from bleeding; even removed bullets a time or two in the heat of the moment when no one else was there to do it. But to anticipate and plan any procedure that involved cutting into a human body well, thank God for Nathan.
But this, Buck thought as he moved into the room, this was above and beyond; this was something he could never get used to.
When he could justify that the subject, the situation and the need were appropriate, Nathan would slip into the undertaker's and cut into the cold corpse to see what he could learn from the injuries. He practiced tracing the bullets and the damage they inflicted. It was knowledge he had used to save people and keep their injuries from being permanently disabling. The undertaker was too inured to care what happened to the body of an outlaw that tried to kill a young woman so he said nothing in situations like this when the black healer snuck into his rooms late at night.
"I don't know how you do it," Buck said as he moved forward to take a good look at the corpse's face.
"Well, this time, JD will be glad I did," Nathan smiled.
"Looks like it was JD's bullet that dropped this fella."
"There were two bullet holes," Buck responded.
"JD's was the kill shot. With just your bullet this fella woulda had time to pull the trigger. The Kid may have saved your life as well as the women." He held up the two bullets he'd taken from the body. Buck recognized the difference.
"It was my bullet that killed him," Buck answered emphatically.
Nathan was surprised by the anger in the other man's voice.
"Buck, you were saving Miz Mariah's life and distracting the guy "
"I killed him, Jackson!" Buck hissed in a dangerously low voice.
Nathan just stared at the other man. His mouth open, he blinked and blinked again.
Buck met his eyes, blue to brown, as if trying to drill his will home.
The healer was at a loss for words. He didn't like ultimatums. And here was a friend demanding that, if not out and out lie, he at the least conceal the truth.
Accepting that he had made his point, Buck gave a jerky nod, bowed his head, turned and left without another word.
Nathan was still staring.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan sipped his coffee. His view was directed through the window where Buck, out on the street, was drinking in the praise of a still grateful town. But his eyes were unfocused, in deep concentration. Was it perspective, influenced by the conversation of last night, or was Buck now taking more credit for the shooting rather than sharing that recognition with JD? The healer didn't realize he had company until Josiah's gentle voice drew his attention, "You're thinkin' hard on somethin'."
"Hey, Josiah," Nathan greeted his friend, genuinely happy to see him, "You were out early this morning."
"Added a turn past Larabee's place," Josiah explained regarding his early morning patrol of the area, "He's not there."
Nathan frowned. They had both assumed the gunfighter had retreated to the cabin to avoid Buck.
"It's hardly been a day," Nathan rationalized.
"But I think you're avoiding my question," Josiah said after he nodded to the statement, "You look to have the weight of the world on your shoulders."
"More like the weight of friendship."
"A heavier burden to be sure," Ezra volunteered . He wanted the others to know he had arrived and waited to see if he was welcome or it was a private conversation.
In the mornings, Inez would have already sat cups on their regular table before the first of the peacekeepers wandered in. No one was usually sure how many of them were in town, but the ones around would migrate to each other for the first cup of coffee when it was possible.
Nathan flipped one of the five cups over and filled it to show the gambler he was welcome.
With an appreciative nod, Standish settled in.
"Friend?" Josiah urged. This wasn't like Nathan. His sharp mind usually found answers quickly. Dilemmas were rare for him.
The ex-slave looked at both men, took a deep breath and told them about the confrontation with Wilmington the previous night.
"Mr. Wilmington actually threatened you?" Ezra found that hard to believe.
"Not exactly, just demanded that he killed that guy. He ain't gonna hurt me."
"Still, he is ever sensitive to making JD's status in the community secure. He must know that to receive credit for foiling that robbery would go a long way to that end," Ezra mused aloud.
"Well, there was obviously more to the falling out with Larabee than we saw." Nathan had had time to think about these strange actions and consider possible causes.
"What are you thinking?" Josiah urged.
"Maybe Buck needs to prove to Chris that his style of peacekeeping works?"
"And that style would be?" Ezra asked, "The culprit is as dead as if Mr. Larabee had been present."
Nathan shrugged, "We don't know what went on inside the store."
But Josiah didn't question Nathan's logic. The ex-preacher followed that rationale easily. How much had he, himself, sacrificed in his younger years to get his father's approval? "So," he asked, "Are you going to tell JD or the town?"
"I wanted to use you as a sounding board first." Nathan included both of the other men in his statement.
"And?" Ezra pushed. Sounding board was exactly what they had been. Nathan wanted to hear his thoughts out loud and see the expressions of the other men as he presented them. Ezra suspected that Nathan had already made his decision. Nathan made decisions and formed opinions quickly, trusting his own judgment in the end. And, certainly, neither he nor Josiah had added any insight.
"And I think I'll see if Buck's guilt don't get the best of him and he says something on his own."
Era smiled to himself. Nathan relied on his own conclusions because, usually, they were the right decisions.
There was some sound that finally drew their attention out of the conversation.
JD stood beside the table. The forgotten mug of milk in his hand gave evidence that he had approached from the back of the saloon, snagging a drink at the end of his tour of the town. The look on the youth's face gave evidence that he had heard much of the conversation.
Insecurities morphed into disbelief, disappointment and then anger before their eyes. "Buck left me hanging?"
They had been bandying around words almost like gossipy old women. Now that JD had overheard them, the words were suddenly even more destructive and incriminating.
"You know, he's playing it up, but I don't think Buck cares that much about what these townsfolk think." Nathan tried to minimize the damage.
"Not the town. You said Buck wanted to impress Chris. How could Buck do that to me?" JD's voice was hollow.
"JD, I don't think they've been friends a long time." Josiah was seldom at a loss for words.
"Have they?" JD's hurt feelings were taking an all too human direction, wanting to hurt the one who had hurt him.
"That's not in question, son," Josiah was quick to assure.
"They know each other. But friends? When Chris first came into town, he didn't even look Buck up until he needed a hired gun. He threatened him with a strait razor just for talking about his family."
"Mr. Dunne, I would caution against distorting the facts based on your anger."
"I'm not. Maybe I'm seeing things straight, maybe I'm growing up and not wishing friends were like in my dime novels."
"I don't think we should even grace this topic with continued conversation," Ezra began, only to be interrupted by the young sheriff.
"You were ready to talk before I got here," JD accused the others. They guiltily refused to meet his eyes. "How many times has Chris said he wanted to shoot Buck?" JD took their silence as tacit approval of his line of thinking, "He sure as hell didn't wait around for Buck to get out of jail when the Marshal tried to take over. Like I was stupid enough to do."
The older men exchanged glances. The boy was using the words he had overheard to feed his hurt feelings and insecurities, "And all those stories Buck tells about how Chris used to be." JD nodded to himself as this train of logic appealed to him, "I don't see anything wrong with the way Chris is now. Maybe it's Buck what wants to live in the past?"
"What about the stories of the infamous, cold-blooded-killer, Chris Larabee, you read about in your dime novels? Do you see him in the man you know?" Josiah decided to try to let the boy talk this through and work out the flaws in his angry reasoning himself.
"Nope, don't see him either."
"Exactly. So the truth must lie somewhere in between," Josiah offered.
"I suspect it's been a long road for both of them," Nathan added. Turning to his old friend, Nathan asked for Josiah to be the voice of reason, "Josiah, don't let the boy go down this road."
"He's right, son. None of us at this table have walked in our friends boots. Only then could we have a clear vision of "
"I don't want a sermon, Preacher! Especially when it sounds so different from what I heard you all sayin'!" he shouted with a defiant self-righteous anger.
"JD," Nathan started.
"No, friend Nathan," Josiah interrupted with a soft, deep, pacifying voice that tried to conceal a certain disappointment, "He is only going to listen to his own voice now."
"But " Nathan was feeling guilty that JD had this knowledge that he knew, on some level, Buck had trusted him to keep in confidence.
"I think he should follow this theory to its logical conclusion." Josiah was hoping that the time to discuss would also give JD time for his anger to subside and remember the good friend that had taught him, fought by his side and nurtured him from the beginning. Better to air it out than let it fester. Better to discuss it here than to attack Wilmington with it.
"Well," JD did slow down seeing now that he was the center of attention. But his pride wouldn't let him think about being right or wrong. He made up his new theory as he went along, "Well, they both say they've known each other a long time. But do they use the word friends? For all we know, Buck was some drifter or hired hand that helped Chris out now and then. Maybe Buck's never been able to be more than that and is still trying. Maybe Buck's jealous of us?"
"Do you want that to be true?" Ezra spoke up again.
"I don't want to be stupid about what I believe. I mean, all those stories you read and hear about Chris. Do you ever hear Buck's name?"
"Whether or not Mr. Wilmington's name is mentioned in the telling of the tales, I must say that in our experience, anyone who knows Mr. Larabee knows Mr. Wilmington. Much, usually, to our chagrin," Standish volunteered, remembering the old acquaintances that had ridden through town and, most often, caused trouble.
The two older men smirked at the reference. JD didn't see the humor.
Ezra found it interesting that, when the conversation bordered on gossip, he, Nathan and Josiah were ready to suspect Buck's motives in the worst light. But now, placating the alleged injured party, they were willing to minimize Wilmington's actions and defend him. The words that had passed between Nathan and Buck were the same. What had changed? And then Ezra got it. They were isolating one incident and judging a man by that one event instead of weighing the one occurrence against everything they knew of the man. "Who rode with Jesse James?" the gambler asked abruptly.
Standish was more than familiar with JD's fascination with famous and infamous names of The West. He was sure that the question would get young Mr. Dunne's attention.
And it worked. Unsure how it related, JD answered anyway, "His gang?"
"In fact, it was Jesse James who rode with his brother Frank and Cole Younger, who in turn had ridden with the brutal Quantrill's Raiders. They felt their raids were little more than continuing the battle against the Northern Aggression." Was that Southern pride in the declaration?
"What possible point are you trying to make?" JD huffed defensively.
"To paraphrase the Bard, I believe that Jesse James is the name remembered because it dances trippingly off the tongue. Frank James and Cole Younger are rather mundane monikers in comparison. Does it change the fact that they were there? Or isn't it a fact that Mr. Larabee's dressing in black and a rhythmic name makes him more of a memorable character?"
"Who are Wyatt Earp's brothers?" Josiah, catching on, asked the next question.
They could tell by the look on the youngest's face he was embarrassed that he didn't remember the other players at the OK corral.
"Who were the Tennessee Volunteers who entered the Alamo with Davey Crockett?" Josiah came up with another example.
"Why does it matter?" JD blustered.
"It mattered to their friends and families," Nathan whispered.
"Pretty heavy handed, Doc," JD shot back defensively.
"I heard a fellow say that Crockett and Bowie were of an age that they could no longer live up to their reputations. Their egos couldn't handle it and they were like cult leaders who intentionally went to the Alamo to go out in a blaze of glory; that they didn't care that they were taking all of those young, idealistic men with them. The gentleman who offered the premise even tried to use excerpts from letters that left The Shrine as evidence," the gambler recalled.
"No way." JD was awed at the possibility.
"I wouldn't let Vin hear you say that," Jackson observed.
"I assure you, I shall never allow any Texican to overhear my repeating that story," Standish smirked.
JD realized that of course that accusation wasn't true. But he had been willing to believe the rumor, based solely on the words Standish spoke, just as he was willing to believe the worst about Buck, "Why would someone say that?"
"Jealousy? Trying to be different? Because he heard the rumor from someone else and passed it on?" Josiah offered.
"At the same poker table where I heard that rumor, sat a vaquero who alleged to be one of Santa Ana's soldiers at that fatal siege. He said that Crockett was taken alive and fell to his knees begging for his life to be spared."
JD blustered, trying to remember his side of the debate and find words to support it. He couldn't and fell back to being angry and defensive, "But what does any of that have to do with Buck stealing credit for my shot? Or Buck and Chris just knowin' each other but not really being friends?" He shouted.
"Do you think Wyatt Earp loved his brothers any less because you don't remember their names from your dime novels?
"No, but " JD stuttered.
"Do you believe the men who traveled with Crockett or Bowie did so to die as anonymous martyrs beside a cult legend?" Ezra continued before the boy could form a thought.
"They believed in what they were doing," JD demanded.
"And in each other?" Nathan threw in.
JD's head snapped from one man to the other trying to keep up with the conversation. The problem was, he was trying to think of responses that supported his side of the debate instead of answering from his heart.
"Davey Crockett was a frontiersman, a Congressman and a fighter. Those are things that he did. Actions he took. What in his actions would make you believe that he would beg?"
"Nothing!" JD shouted, furious that these men would malign one of his heroes.
"Exactly! That's the whole point," Ezra demanded. The short, to the point words showed how seriously he took his stand in this conversation, " You've seen Mr. Larabee and Buck, how they move together in a fight. They trust their backs to each other. Their tone of voice above and beyond what harsh words they may say to each other "
"Stop it!" The young man demanded out of anger and guilt generated by the conversation, "Before you knew I was here, you were saying the same things about why Buck did things about Chris and Buck. Why is it different when you're talking to me?"
There was silence around the table as the older men contemplated the truth of that accusation.
It was Josiah who spoke as if in a confessional, "Perhaps we didn't realize the damage our words could do until we saw them through your eyes."
Ezra took a breath, was immediately his composed self again, and paraphrased JD's earlier question back to him, "Despite anything we may say or how we say it, what in the actions of Mr. Larabee or Mr. Wilmington would make you think they weren't as close as any brothers you've ever met?"
JD did give it some thought before he acted defensively, "I just said maybe they ain't as tight as we assumed. As Buck wants us to believe. Why else would Buck take credit for something I did?" 'Credit I need'. JD slammed back from the table so fast that his chair toppled over.
"Perhaps we should ask him?" Ezra offered with a hint of sarcasm.
"Perhaps we should," JD spat back, embarrassed that he had let his train of thought take such an ugly turn, but equally upset that there was a certain logic to the facts as he presented them. Then he rushed out the door.
"Were we trying to convince him, or ourselves?"
"It reminded me that before I assume the worst, I am going to ask Buck, straight out, why he's doing what he's doing," Nathan offered.
'So Nathan's mind can be changed,' Ezra thought to himself.
"I wonder if we should have kept JD here until he cooled down?" Nathan added as an afterthought.
With a quick exchange of glances, Josiah took the responsibility of going to the door to try and call the boy back.
+ + + + + + +
JD strode down the boardwalk, oblivious to everyone around him. Of all the logic and illustrations the older men had presented, it was Ezra's last words that rang in the young man's ears. "Perhaps we should ask him." Did Standish think that JD would only say those things behind Buck's back? That he wasn't man enough to make the accusations face to face?
Once again the young sheriff allowed his need to impress the men he worked with to be a greater influence on his actions than what he, himself, thought was appropriate.
They had been harsh and judgmental, the things he had said about Buck's association with Chris. JD didn't know where the train of thought had come from other than anger, but what if Ezra or one of the others told Buck what he had said? No, as much as he wished he had never said those things, as loathe as he was to accuse Buck to his face, he had to do it. He had to prove he would say, to a man's face, anything that he would say behind his back.
Actions not words. Had all those examples of 'action not words' been directed at him? Had the others been subtly telling JD that they didn't think he'd really stand up to Buck? JD's pace faltered at the next thought. Had they, somehow, been comparing him to men who would say those things about Crockett and Bowie and Wyatt Earp's brothers? 'No,' he thought defiantly and continued on with a determined stride. Damn straight he had the right to accuse Buck. He had completely missed the point his friends were trying to make. If they had been more sure of what they had wanted to say, perhaps they wouldn't have been so subtle.
JD could understand Buck wanting Chris's approval. After all, to ride with Chris Larabee. Chris Larabee. From JD's perspective a man would be willing to do almost anything for the chance.
Maybe Buck did need to prove to Chris that he could handle a situation in his own style. 'He needed to prove? He needed to prove! Half the town thinks I'm incompetent a joke. The other half including Casey - thinks I'm a murderer. Now they think Miz Mariah would have died if Buck hadn't been there. But it's the other way around. He he let them think ' He saw Buck and headed that way as he continued to stoke his nerve with righteous indignation.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was leaning against one of the poles that held the porch cover outside the jail. He had been watching the stranger since he rode into town. The man had ridden slowly, his head hadn't move, but by the way he covered his face with his hat brim to hide his eyes, Buck knew he had been studying both sides of the street. He'd been in town for almost an hour, striking up casual conversations with men on the street. He was talking to Conklin now, and Lester. Occasionally one or the other of them would glance his way.
Just as the stranger tipped his hat to those "upstanding citizens" and headed toward the saloon, Buck was brought back from his observations as JD reached him and shoved him roughly on the shoulder.
"How could you?" The younger man demanded, "You know this town thinks I'm useless. You know that Chris thinks I can't do my job "
"JD, that's just not true "
"And you stole my chance to make things right! You took credit for killing that robber. Did you know he has a bounty? I found his wanted poster this morning. I killed a wanted murderer. I saved Miz Mariah. I saved your sorry ass."
Buck looked up quickly at the accusation. His eyes fell on Josiah who had come out of the saloon and stood by the doors watching the scene down the street. Nathan was holding the doors open behind Josiah and watched as well. The stranger was headed their way.
Buck drew his attention back to the irate young man, "Calm down "
"I won't calm down! You stole Chris's reputation. You can't have mine!"
Buck frowned slightly, trying to figure out what had just been said. He shook off the hurtful words and mercuric anger. In so many ways, the young man was like Chris. Anger was the emotion he reverted to most readily. Embarrassment, worry, hurt feelings, somehow he thought those were too feminine to deal with; a sign of weakness. He was such a good kid, he wanted to help people, he wanted to do what was right. And he wanted to be a tough gunfighter. But he didn't think the two were compatible.
Buck glanced toward Nathan when he realized JD knew about the killing shot. The healer had the courtesy to look chagrined that he had let the information out. Buck also noticed the stranger, just stepping past Josiah and Nathan to enter the saloon, glance toward the disturbance in front of the jail. Buck grabbed JD's upper arm and herded him inside.
"Get your hands off of me!" The shorter man protested.
Josiah and Nathan shared a look. They knew, of course, that Buck wouldn't hurt JD, so without a word they returned to the cool inside of the building to let those two work it out. Nathan, in the back of his mind, suspected he would have to answer for betraying Buck's trust. He wasn't sure how he felt about that.
They were surprised when, within ten minutes, Buck Wilmington stepped into the dark saloon and ignored them, walking instead to the bar. The stranger saw the approach through the mirror. And while he didn't turn around, he stood up straighter and put his beer mug down.
"Passin' through?" Buck asked as he reached the bar.
The man turned and shoved his hat back from his brow. A shock of burnished red hair escaped and fell toward his eyes, "Got business," was the reply, in a tone that told Buck that they both knew what the business would be.
"Ride on out," Buck ordered softly.
Watching from their table, Ezra and the other peacekeepers could tell these two knew each other.
"You killed my brother, Wilmington. Over a woman."
"That's not how it was."
"Don't try to crawl out of it you yellow bellied coward. I asked around."
"Pete had taken two women hostage when he tried to rob the Mercantile." It was a statement, not one Buck expected to make any difference.
"I like this, Wilmington. Crawl. Squirm. But you killed my brother. And Darby Lowry's gonna kill you."
At the name, Ezra was almost on his feet before he realized he was standing. Darby Lowry had killed at least 13 men; goaded them all into fair shootouts. The man was fast. Cold blooded and fast.
Buck put his hands on his hips, lowered his head in resignation and responded, "Let's do this, then."
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner rode into Four Corners without a care in the world. Chris had a fine eight point white tail lashed behind his saddle. Vin had a good two dozen bob white and blue quail over his saddle horn. The turkey beside them had an eight inch beard. There was enough meat for all of their friends and the planned fourth of July feast. They were laughing about the ways to convince Inez to fry the quail and Vin's technique to get Nettie Wells to smoke the turkey. Vin was determined to cook the venison at least the back strap over an open fire. He'd even picked up his own seasonings in the prairie as they made their way home.
Instead of stopping at the livery, they moved toward the saloon. Might as well get started on Inez. Maybe Buck would be around to irritate her and give her a good excuse to pretend she didn't want to participate until she gave in.
"Help! Damn it, somebody!" JD's voice called from the small, barred window of one of the cells in the sheriff's office. "Chris!" He shouted when he saw the two men ride by, "Chris!"
Chris and Vin shared a frown. What was that boy doing in a cell?
They pulled up and made their way to the jail.
"JD?" Vin asked as the boy grasped the cell bars and stared at the men.
"Let me out."
Both of the older men stood waiting for an explanation.
"Buck locked me in. Me and him stopped a robbery then he took credit for killin' the
guy but it was my bullet only he wouldn't say so but Nathan says so. I told him I knew what he'd done but he locked me in here. And you and him were fightin' mad about me and you rode out of town and I didn't know if you'd come back because you said oh, my God, Vin. You're trip for the judge - I we forgot you said you would ride out to meet Vin to hunt "
Larabee and Tanner were still trying to decipher what was being said when
"Wilmington!" An unfamiliar voice called in the street.
Chris frowned. He recognized that tone. He'd heard it enough. The defiance of one man calling another into the street so one of them could die.
"Was the man you killed alone?" Larabee asked quickly.
"Yeah. And he had a wanted poster. His name was Peter Lowry."
"Wilmington!" the voice called again.
And Larabee was on the run. He swung open the door and ran toward the saloon.
"Hey! Hey!" JD was indignant.
Tanner took the time to toss the cell keys to the boy before he followed his friend.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington strode into the center of the street where Darby Lowry was waiting. Larabee ran up. The gunfighter knew that they weren't yet in position and slowed down so as not to make a nervous situation moreso. But while the townsfolk were gathering in morbid curiosity, Larabee walked into the dusty road and approached his old time friend.
Nathan, Josiah and Ezra, on the boardwalk, reluctantly respecting the archaic rites of the duel, slowly realized that Buck's motivations for his out of character actions were to keep JD from standing in the street at this moment, facing the fast gun of Darby Lowry.
It occurred to Ezra that none of them, with the possibility of Larabee, knew just how good Buck was in a quick draw confrontation. But he did know that Lowry was fast. And as Buck and Darby were on a first name, if hostile basis, he could only assume that Buck, too, was well aware of the reputation.
Vin came to stand beside Ezra. The look they exchanged gave heed to the seriousness of the situation. JD caught up with them and started to follow his hero into the street. Vin grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
+ + + + + + +
"What the hell are you doing?" Larabee hissed at Wilmington as he moved in close.
"This ain't your fight," Buck replied in a dangerous whisper.
"It ain't your fight, either," was the response. It was clear to Buck from the look on his friend's face that Larabee knew that it was JD who had really fired the fatal shot.
"Move aside, Larabee."
"You'll flinch. You'll let him make the first move and then you'll hesitate just a fraction of a second because your thought will be he's only avenging his brother."
Buck frowned in defiance. Chris didn't buy it.
"You drive me crazy," Larabee growled, "And you say I have a death wish."
"Larabee! Get off the street!" Lowry demanded.
"Shut up, Lowry," the man in black growled.
"He killed my brother! We'll end this here, man to man. One way or the other."
JD's eyes grew wide and the blood rushed from his face. Darby Lowry. He was here to avenge his brother's death. Darby Lowry, one of the fastest guns JD'd ever heard of. And JD realized, like a bolt of lightning, that Buck had taken the responsibility for Peter's death because he knew that, eventually, someone would be standing in the street facing Darby.
JD's head whipped around and his eyes met those of Nathan, Josiah and Ezra. He expected to read accusation. Instead, he could see that the others had never suspected the rogue's motivations, either. They didn't have time to accuse or place guilt. They were worried. Buck wouldn't back down. It was a matter of pride. And, if he didn't stand here, Darby would expect JD to.
"This is my fight," JD pleaded to be released.
"Perhaps it should be," Ezra replied, never taking his eyes off the confrontation, "But it is too late for that, now."
Vin Tanner, watching the drama play itself out on the street, heard something in the voices of both JD and Ezra that drew his attention. When he looked that way, he read volumes in their expressions as well as the looks on the faces of Nathan and Josiah.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris " Buck's voice said that there was no other recourse, and he was asking his friend to get out of the way.
"What happens if you're not left standin'?" Chris challenged. "Darby finds out it was JD's bullet not yours "
"Ain't his style and you know it. He'll high tail it right out of here. 'Specially with you in town." Buck paused to meet the other man's eyes, "I plan on bein' standin'."
Chris held his friend's eyes with anger. Then he broke the glance, looked down in a move Buck recognized as being resigned to a course of action.
JD gasped as Larabee turned away from their friend. This was even worse than that stupid sword duel. It would be over so much faster. And it was JD's fault.
Chris gave the appearance of turning away, only to spin and connect a round house punch to Wilmington's jaw. This was immediately followed by a downward jab that drove the taller man to the ground.
Chris stood taller, placed himself between his friend and the gunfighter at the other end of the street, then turned to face Darby Lowry.
"This ain't your fight," Lowry demanded, never realizing he echoed the words between Larabee and Wilmington moments before. Some of the confidence was missing.
"This one is," was the response. "You get past me, you can take up your issues with Wilmington."
"You fightin' his battles now?"
"I'm standin' up against a killer. You can draw or you can ride out of my town."
Larabee seemed relaxed. His eyes were on the other man's hands.
Lowry wasn't nearly as confident now that he faced the infamous Chris Larabee. He'd seen the gunfighter's draw. It would be close. And Darby Lowry didn't fight a close battle. The reddish-blond eyebrows inched up as he looked around at the boardwalk and saw all the spectators. He gave a derisive snort and made to turn away.
Chris watched and then turned back, starting to kneel down beside Buck.
"Chris!" Tanner shouted.
Lowry spun back toward the confrontation and drew his gun. Larabee continued down to one knee as his own gun cleared leather. Larabee's aim was true. Lowry stood with a stunned look on his face for a moment, then crumpled into the dirt.
Nathan hurried up to their leader. Lowry had clearly gotten off the first shot. The healer followed as Larabee stood slowly and ambled to stand over the body.
Lowry had drawn first.
Larabee never stood a chance. In a fair fight, yes, Larabee's lightning draw was a match for the other man, but not when Darby had given himself such a head start.
'It's not how fast you are, but how straight you shoot' the words wafted through JD's thoughts as he tried to work his mind around events that had happened so quickly and could have turned out so much worse.
But Nathan couldn't find any damage to his gunfighter friend. Darby Lowry had never suspected that the notorious Chris Larabee would dismiss him so quickly to tend to Wilmington. Lowry had aimed where he last remembered Larabee's center mass to be. His bullet went harmlessly over the other man's head.
Nathan was still giving the other man a once over when their eyes met, "See to Buck," Larabee directed, "Fool's always had a glass jaw." With that he made his way toward the saloon. With a nod, the one time stretcher bearer went to check on his other friend. Ezra and Josiah joined him. Buck was coming around.
JD's eyes, wide with worry and what could have been, watched his hero walk toward him.
Larabee frowned slightly, trying to figure out what had happened while he was gone. JD was looking guilty, but the boy took guilt on himself too easily. In so many ways, the young man was like Buck. Anger was an emotion he tried to avoid. He was such a good kid, he wanted to help people, he wanted to do what was right. And he wanted to be a tough gunfighter. But JD didn't think the two were compatible.
Chris himself had never found the balance. But Buck would teach JD that the two could compliment each other. If Chris could keep them both alive long enough, the gunfighter gave himself a sardonic smirk. Without a word he moved right past the sheriff and into the saloon.
Vin saw that Buck was sitting up. Nathan was giving him a once over and helping him to his feet. Josiah and Ezra were dispersing the crowd. The undertaker was claiming his newest client. JD looked shell shocked, which might not be a bad thing. Whatever lesson he had learned this day, the seven of them had survived it.
But thinking back to the kaleidoscope of emotions he had seen coloring the expressions on his friends faces just before the gunfight, the tracker pushed himself off from his leaning post and moved to round up his friends.
+ + + + + + +
"Stop pawin' at me, Nathan," Buck complained, "I'm fine."
Nathan backed off, "Buck I don't know how things got here I didn't mean for JD to overhear me damn it, why didn't you jus tell me why you wanted to say you shot Peter Lowry? Why couldn't you tell me you were trying to protect JD?"
There was a strange mixture of anger, contrition, compassion and hurt feelings in Jackson's sputtering. Buck appreciated that there wasn't a mean bone in the man's body, and realized he owed the healer an apology now that the truth could be told.
The rogue was still using his right hand to manipulate his jaw, wincing at the soreness that would only get worse, and hiding a true, rare anger behind a muttered, "Larabee," something indiscernible and then, "cheap shot." But there was one thing that Buck Wilmington thought was important, and that was to never direct anger at an innocent party. So he met the man's eyes so that his sincerity could be clearly read, "If you'd known the whole story, you'd have had to decide if you were going to set it up for me or JD to face Darby Lowry. I didn't want you to face that responsibility." He gave Jackson a supportive pat on the shoulder and took off for the saloon. Anger and determination grew with each step closer to his destination.
As he approached the saloon, he passed Vin who had levered his relaxed form away from the boardwalk and was headed toward Josiah and Ezra. The tracker tipped his slouch hat toward his taller friend. He was wearing an enigmatic smile that Wilmington ignored.
+ + + + + + +
Buck didn't even allow his eyes time to adjust as he entered the tavern. He knew his target would be at the usual table.
"Where the hell do you get off fighting my battles for me?" Buck demanded of Chris as he joined him at the table, "Do you know how that makes me look to them folks out there?"
"Don't care what they think so long as you're still breathing," Larabee replied honestly.
"It wasn't your fight!" Buck shouted. Chris didn't usually stay this calm. And when he did, it was Buck who got loud.
"It wasn't your fight, either," Larabee offered calmly and took a sip of his beer.
"Why?" there was just enough defiance in his voice that he knew it would make Buck talk to him.
"Aw, hell, Chris, that kid, he's got a good heart, He's got so much to give. I watch him and it makes me feel good, makes me feel hopeful."
There was a silence in the saloon. The locals that had moved outside to watch the gunfight, had decided they had better places to be than in the same room with Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington after what had happened.
Buck didn't take his eyes off of his friend.
He waited to see what form the fight would take this time. Would it start out, 'You can't save everybody' or go into, 'Helpin' people and protectin' 'em are two different things,' or maybe he'd go straight to accusing Wilmington of having a death wish.
When Larabee remained silent, staring into his shot glass, Buck added truthfully, "I'd rather have JD alive and hate me for what I did, than lose him," and got up to storm out of the room.
Larabee finished off his drink, and his low voice floated easily to his friend's ears, "Yep, that about covers all of my reasons, too."
Buck was dumbstruck. So much had happened in the last four years. So many angry words and so much misplaced guilt. For Chris to compare their friendship, still, after everything that had happened, to what Buck was trying to say JD meant to him what a warm, safe, proud feeling.
Wilmington leaned heavily against the wall, and lowered his head until his hat covered any expression. Finally, after an extended silence, he said simply, "Chris."
Larabee sat sipping his whiskey.
"You and Vin have any luck?"
"Deer, quail, even a Tom turkey."
"Think he's out cleanin' 'em now?" Buck continued.
"Said somethin' about teachin' JD how to do it."
"Think if we stay in here, share a drink, we can get out of helpin'?"
Chris didn't need a second invitation as he turned over one of the extra shot glasses on the table and filled it up. Buck returned to the table, there was immediately an easy camaraderie between the two men.
At that moment, Tanner pulled the bar doors open and herded the other four peacekeepers into the shade of the bar. There was a determined look on Vin's face. The others gave the vague impression of penitent school boys. They stood around the table, not taking a seat. Buck and Chris exchanged confused looks.
Finally JD spoke, "Are you two fightin' again? 'Cuz we can never tell what's goin' on " He began defensively, but Josiah's big hand on his shoulder, interrupted the tirade.
"I should have known, Buck, how you would handle a situation, seeing as you took duelin' for Inez on yourself when we could have all worked together, but well, I've learned a lot about perspective today, how I see things and how " Josiah trailed off, not sure what he was trying to say.
"What the hell's been goin' on around here?" Larabee demanded accusingly of Buck.
"Pard, I ain't gotta clue," Buck responded, still looking between the others for some hint, "I ain't hardly seen these boys the last two days," he added.
Nathan rubbed a big hand over his face as he realized the truth of those words. While Buck had been the center of many conversations, he hadn't been included in any of them.
"Sit," Vin advised simply. Josiah, Nathan, JD and, finally, Ezra, contritely obeyed. Vin had gotten the short version of what had happened, been said and been assumed over the last twenty four hours. Something as innocent as he and Chris meeting out of town for a hunting trip had set of a chain of events that could have ended tragically. Tanner was a straight forward man. Not a man of many words, the ones he did use, meant exactly what he intended to say. He was determined that what was going to happen at this table, today at least, would be the same thing. His eyes moved from one friend to the other, some meeting his eyes, some not, "We're gonna all have ourselves a palaver," Vin stated with a rarely used authority in his voice.
Inez, who like any good barkeep was a good listener, arrived just then with mugs, beer and more whiskey. She tossed a thankful smile Vin's way and then returned to setting up for the night.