A Family Way
The batwing doors did little to keep the night's chill and wet air out or the warmth from the stove in. That may have been why the six men sat away from the door and closer to the heat source that night. The weather had conspired against any human merriment so there was no shortage of places to sit in the saloon. Indeed, except for Inez polishing glasses behind the bar, they were the sole inhabitants until a gust of wind blew her in.
For a few heartbeats she stood there, rain dripping from her long coat to the floor. When she brushed her faded and soaked bonnet back, her long brunette braid escaped and its motion drew the men's eyes. She was pregnant, the coat failing to close completely about her girth. Indeed it opened more when she turned, smiled at them then made her way to the back of the saloon.
She tentatively smiled once again for Inez, who returned it, then she asked, her voice trembling, "I'm looking for Buck Wilmington. He told me once that he spent a lot of time here." As she spoke, her hand rose and protectively rubbed her belly.
Chris closed his eyes in resignation as the words of the strange female washed over him. "I always knew this'd happen if Buck didn't learn to keep it in his pants," he muttered. "It was only a matter of time."
Eyeing the clearly advanced level of the woman's pregnancy, Nathan shook his head. "Well, Buck's time has just about run out. That gal's due any day now by the looks of things."
Seeing the woman's lost expression as she looked around the nearly empty saloon, her eyes seeming to plead with the absent Buck to suddenly make an appearance, Ezra murmured, "Someone needs to tell the poor thing that Mister Wilmington will not be available for at least another week. If your estimate is correct, Nathan, then the lady may not have that much time. Shouldn't one of us inform her?"
Instinctively, five sets of eyes instantly speared Josiah. With a deep sigh, the former preacher nodded. "Guess I knew you were gonna say that." Rising to his feet, he moved toward the bar.
"Excuse me, ma'am. My name is Josiah Sanchez, and my friends and I couldn't help overhearing that you're looking for our friend, Buck."
The woman's worried expression cleared momentarily. "Oh, yes. When I saw him awhile back, he told me all about you. What you do here, and how good of friends you all are. I feel as if I know you already, and that you'll be willing to help us."
Taken aback by the declaration and the way her hand rubbed instinctively over her swollen belly as she said these words, Josiah looked back at his companions, a question in his eyes.
Back at the peacekeepers' table, Vin shook his head, quietly muttering so as not to be overheard by the lady. "They ain't the only ones who need help. By the looks of things, ol' Buck is in a whole mess of trouble."
"Please," the woman said, reaching out to grasp the hand Josiah had rested upon the bar. "Please you must help. I need to find Buck before my husband gets here. It's vital that I speak to Buck, and if my husband finds us..."
"Ma'am," he interrupted. "I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but Buck ain't gonna be back for several days. He's over in Eagle Bend testifying in a trial. It's likely to be quite some time."
At his words, tears began to flow down her cheeks and she swayed, leaning forward to clutch his arm for support as the color drained from her face. Even as Josiah instinctively reached out to catch her, all five of his companions leapt to their feet and reached out to help, easing her body to the floor as the strength faded from her limbs.
"We need to get her to a bed," Nathan barked. "Right now."
"Senor Buck's bed is empty," Inez suggested, looking down upon the scene with sympathy in her dark eyes.
JD looked up. "You sure?" He flushed when his innocent question brought involuntary snorts and snickers from most of the other men. "I just mean that he's out of town right now," the young man growled.
"We know, kid," Vin told him, a smile still lurking about his lips. "It's a good idea."
"Real easy now," Nathan said, gently helping to raise the woman into Josiah's strong arms. "We don't want to cause her any more harm. I reckon she needs to rest right now."
+ + + + + + +
Twenty minutes later, five of the six lawmen were back at their table in the bar. Nathan had thanked them for their assistance in getting the lady to the boarding house and settled into Buck's room. Then, he had unceremoniously kicked them all out saying that he had things under control and didn't need everyone underfoot.
"Anyone would think we had no sickroom decorum whatsoever," Ezra huffed. "I think we have just as much right to question the lady's claims as Nathan does."
"What claims?" JD asked blankly. "She didn't say anything except that she's looking for Buck."
Ezra looked at him pityingly. "Yes, and for what reason do those of the feminine persuasion usually seek out our randy companion?" A look of blank incomprehension filled the young man's face, bringing a sigh to Ezra's lips. "Forgive me, I forgot to whom I was talking. Think about it, my friend. A lady- obviously in a very delicate condition - comes to town seeking Mister Wilmington. Not seeking general assistance, not seeking shelter or medical aid, or protection from the law, even though she clearly had an understanding of our function in this town. She was seeking Buck. What does that tell you?"
Understanding dawned as he spoke, a look of agreement flashing between Vin and Chris, and expressions of doubt and disappointment stealing over the faces of JD and Josiah.
"We have no proof," Josiah said quietly. "You heard it yourself. The lady said she had a husband."
"That's right," JD put in quickly. "You shouldn't go saying things like that without knowing any better. Just because he knows her, don't mean he...well...knew her. If she's married, then her husband has to be the father, right?"
Ezra gave a soft snort at the young man's blushing argument. "Hardly. Being a wife certainly didn't imbue my mother with any overwhelming maternal instinct, and being a wife...five times...did not increase her domestic tendencies either. Just because our mysterious visitor happens to be married does not prove that her child was conceived as a result of wedlock."
"Besides, you can't say that Buck doesn't have a history for not thinking before he acts, especially with women," Chris remarked dryly.
Just then, Nathan rejoined the group, simply stating, "She's sleepin'."
"Who is she?"
"What did she say about Buck?"
"Where'd she come here from?"
"You find out any more about her husband?"
All five questions burst forth simultaneously, blurring over one another in their haste for answers. Nathan held up his hands against the barrage. "Whoa, now. The lady didn't say nothin' about nothin'."
"Did she at least give you a name?" Vin asked.
"Said her name's Faith," Nathan replied, shrugging a bit as he added, "That's all she did say, though. I didn't push for more; she was awful done in."
"You don't think the baby's Buck's do you?" JD blurted.
Ezra flashed him a disbelieving look. "Very subtle."
Eyes widening, Nathan choked on the sip of beer he had just taken. "What? What makes you think the baby is Buck's?"
The other men filled him in on the conversation he had missed. "So, what do you think?" JD repeated.
"No way," Nathan scoffed. "Buck's been right here with the rest of us for the last year. Ain't none of us ever set eyes on this lady before, and even Buck needs to be a little closer than a letter away to be usin' that animal magnetism of his."
"Speaking of close, how close would you speculate the lady's time to be?" Ezra asked slyly.
Nathan paused a moment to consider. "From what I saw just now, I'd say it ain't gonna be more than a few days. She did say that she'd been having a real achy back but that might be because of all her walking." He shook his head once then, just before he took a sip of his beer, continued. "Yes sir, that baby's almost certain to show up before Buck does."
"So, nine months then," Ezra concluded.
Before he could go any further, every glass on the table jumped as Josiah slapped a hand down hard upon the surface. "That proves it then," he said triumphantly. "No way he could be the father."
Across from him, Chris was shaking his head. ""Fraid he could, Josiah. Buck was away for awhile just about that long ago. Remember?"
"I do," Vin cut in. "He was gone 'round two or three weeks, I think. Didn't say where he was goin' but he come back surly as hell and wouldn't say a word about where he'd been or what he'd been doin'. I didn't butt in, figured it wasn't my business."
"Me either," Chris agreed. "I only seen him act that way a few times in all the years I've known him. He got over it them other times; I figured this was the same. And from what I saw, it was."
A silence fell over the group as they digested this latest bit of information. "Buck came to talk to me, right about that time." Seeming not to realize it, the entire group leaned forward as the words fell reluctantly from Josiah's lips. "He was real upset. Didn't go into too much detail, but he implied it had something to do with a woman. I tried to get him to tell me more, but he sort of changed his mind right at the last minute. Said he didn't want to bother me and just walked away. Next time I saw him, he seemed to have worked things out in his own mind, so I didn't push him."
"And now, you wish that you had?" pressed Ezra.
Josiah's brow furrowed, brows knitting as he fell into deep thought. Then, his features cleared and he sighed.
"I don't believe you," JD spat, launching himself from his chair in an expression of agitation. "You've changed your mind, sided with them against Buck?"
"JD, this ain't about takin' sides," Vin said, trying to calm him.
JD paced in a circle, seeming unsure of which way to turn. "It is," he insisted. "All of you decided this baby is Buck's and you don't have any proof at all. So what if he was gone at the right time? That don't mean anything!"
"You got proof?" Nathan countered. He sounded almost as though he hoped that perhaps they had missed something and JD did have a valid basis for his belief. "You know somethin' that proves Buck didn't have anything to do with this?"
"I know Buck," he fired back.
Chris shook his head. "I know him too, kid. And I know him better."
For a moment, it looked as though JD would continue to argue, but finding that he had no counter for Chris' quiet statement, he turned and stomped out of the saloon without another word.
The others watched him go, admiring his faith even as they pitied his naivete. Slowly, Chris raised his drink and said, "Here's to Buck. And fatherhood."
Four glasses raised in silent salute.
+ + + + + + +
The streets were quiet as a lone figure on a big gray horse rode slowly into town. Buck rode with a smile upon his face, a grin that only widened as he spotted Chris standing near the hitch rail in front of the saloon.
"You're back early," Chris said, raising a questioning eyebrow. "Something happen at the trial?"
"Son of a bitch pleaded guilty," Buck told him, laughing as he continued, "Can you believe that? Three months we had him sittin' in our jail, pissing and moaning about how we done him wrong and arrested the wrong man, and then he takes one look at the judge and breaks down. Spilled every guilty thing he'd ever done since stealin' apples from his granny's orchard as a kid. Stupid bastard."
Chris grinned. "Lucky for us."
"Lucky for me anyway," Buck agreed, swinging down from his saddle with a grunt.. "Means I got to come on back home a week earlier than expected. Soon as I go get myself cleaned up, I'll let you buy me a beer to celebrate."
"Maybe you better come in for that drink first," Chris suggested, reaching forward to take a light but firm grasp on his arm.
Startled by the gesture from a man almost notorious for his dislike of unnecessary physical contact, Buck hesitated. "Something wrong?"
A strange smile darted across his face. "Depends on how you look at it. Really think you're gonna need that drink, though."
"Tell me," Buck said, growing more agitated at the increasingly cryptic behavior from his old friend. Resisting the tug on his arm, he repeated, "Just tell me."
"You know a woman named Faith?"
Buck stilled, almost whispering as he clarified, "Brunette, tall, real pretty?"
Chris nodded. "And real pregnant." He paused a moment to let the words sink in before the stricken look in Buck's eyes drove him to explain further. "She showed up here late yesterday, wet, cold and lookin' for you. We put her up in your room."
Chris fell back a step, startled when instead of answering, Buck simply turned on his heel and strode away, breaking into a run as he got closer to the boarding house. He did not even seem to hear it when Chris yelled after him.
+ + + + + + +
Less than an hour later, another figure rode down the same street. His mount was unassuming, a brown mule which had seen better days, and the man's appearance was equally nondescript. Long unkempt hair, mousy brown going to gray, a scruff of patchy salt and pepper whiskers, pale skin, brown eyes, and dull homespun clothing. Everything about him seemed to blend into the atmosphere around him. Josiah barely even noticed the man's presence as he pulled up in front of the church, until he spoke. His voice was rough and demanding. "I'm lookin' for someone," he blurted. "Woman, fine lookin', brown hair, carrying a child."
Josiah looked at him steadily, his expression giving away nothing as he replied, "Ain't sure I've seen who you're looking for. Anything more you can tell me?"
"Her name's Faith," the man growled, seeming almost reluctant to give her a name. "She'd have been looking for a man named Buck Wilmington."
"You some relation to one of 'em?" Josiah hedged, not wanting to admit anything until he had some reason to.
The man drew himself up straighter, pulling his jacket back as he did so and revealing a holstered gun. His tone hardened. "She's my wife."
Josiah hesitated. Under normal circumstances, he would have simply given directions to a man requesting the location of his wife, but this was different. The woman had come to them, asking for help, for protection, and there was something distinctly threatening about this man.
Before he could fabricate a reply, a voice sounded from the other side of the building. "Problem?"
Both men turned to find the forbidding gaze of Chris Larabee fixed upon them, the cold look in his eyes making it clear that he had seen and heard the implied threat.
"This fella's looking for his wife," Josiah said calmly. "Says Buck Wilmington's a friend of theirs."
"He's no friend," the man snapped, not seeming to notice Josiah's nod at the confirmation of his animosity toward Buck. "Just said my missus was lookin' for him. She's in a family way and I come to take her home. She belongs to me, not him."
"Sorry to disappoint you," Josiah told the man evenly. "Buck's out of town. Not due back for days yet."
Chris nodded, his eyes on Josiah, causing the other man to straighten as he read the silent message there. Buck was back, and Chris did not want this man to know it.
"I been here in town all day, and I ain't seen no pregnant woman all day. You better just move on," Chris said, his tone making it clear that it was not truly a suggestion.
The man, his eyes darting from one face to the next, snarled and jerked the mule's reins to the left, making his way on down the street. Clearly he was not convinced.
Sparing the departing figure no more than a glance, Chris jerked his head toward the interior of the church. He needed to fill Josiah in on the latest turn in the situation.
+ + + + + + +
Minutes later, Josiah and Chris left the church with a plan in mind. Josiah would go for Nathan, helping him to spirit the woman and Buck out of town. Buck would resist the idea of running from a fight, but they would appeal to his concern for the woman. Meanwhile, Chris would round up Vin, Ezra and JD to keep the new arrival busy until Buck and his lady were far enough away.
Sending Josiah off on his part, Chris hurried toward the saloon knowing that at least one of the others would be there. As he reached the batwing doors of the saloon, however, he was nearly barreled over by Ezra and Vin. Barely pausing to recognize him, Ezra blurted, "Chris, Buck is back. Some neanderthal was just in here looking for him, and his lady friend. The bartender told him where to find Buck before Vin and I could intervene. We must hurry."
Before any of them could act, a voice was heard shouting, "Wilmington! Wilmington, you son of a bitch, get down here! I know you're up there!"
"How the hell did the bartender know Buck was back?" Chris growled as they hurried toward the boarding house, and the continued shouting.
"Horse," Vin said simply, jerking his thumb back toward the hitch-rail where Buck's horse still stood.
As they reached the scene, they saw JD running toward them from the opposite direction. The stranger continued to curse and rant, oblivious to the arrival of the six lawmen. The only person he cared about seeing at this moment was Buck Wilmington. And all too soon, the man himself obliged, coming out of the boarding house fastening his holster about his hips.
"I warned you, Hollister!" came his shout and the other man turned towards the sound. "I told you. You hurt her and -"
Hollister, pulling back on his coat and revealing the sidearm, shouted back. "SHE'S MY WIFE!"
Even as he bellowed, his hand was sweeping back, reaching for the weapon. Buck's hand flew to his own and cleared leather first. A sound beside and behind him at the entrance to the boarding house distracted him and he turned towards it, instinctively knowing that it was Faith. It was but years of survival instinct made his finger pull the trigger. The bullet went for its first target and found it.
As Hollister fell to his knees, the other men racing to head off possible disaster paused. With his gun still in his hand, his eyes glazing over in death, the man pulled the trigger twice then fell face first into the muddy street. Chris, the one closest to him, kicked the gun from his limp hand, spinning it away. He held his gun cocked as Vin rolled the man onto his back.
"Dead," Vin affirmed even though it wasn't necessary. A hole, a little blood around it, was in the man's forehead.
The shout for Nathan came from the doorway of the boardinghouse. The others could see only Buck's back as he knelt on the plank walk. Once more he shouted for the healer, his head dropping back as he screamed to the heavens. Chris was the first to react, knowing, yet fearful, of what he would find. And he was right. Buck held the woman in his arms, blood spreading obscenely across her belly.
+ + + + + + +
The hours ticked by slowly. In the parlor of the boarding house, JD sat watching the stairs, listening with hope. It was as close as he could get to Buck and felt that his friend would need him and he would have to be there.
Across the street occupying two chairs leaning back against the saloon wall Vin and Chris also kept vigil. Every once in a while, they would see movement through that upstairs window. They said little to one another, unable to find words that fit with their own feelings held close to their own hearts.
Ezra had taken up his normal chair in the saloon but turned away all would-be gamblers that day, Instead, slow sip after slow sip, he whiled away the time. Like Chris and Vin, he watched the front of the boardinghouse.
Only Josiah was absent from this watchfulness. After helping to carry the wounded woman back to Buck's room, he had stayed long enough to say a silent prayer at the foot of the bed then Nathan had begged him to leave. From there, without further thought, he'd gone to the church. On his knees before the simple altar, his hands clasped in prayer, he'd tried to find the words to beg for mercy but knew they would be in vain. Instead, now, he simply asked for a way to help his friend.
It was late afternoon when Nathan came down the stairs. JD rose as if to dash by him but Nathan grasped his arm and pulled him away. "Buck needs his time now," he warned softly. "She ain't got but a few minutes left."
With Nathan still holding tight to JD's arm, the two went across the street and into the saloon, gathering Chris and Vin as they went. Inez brought them a bottle of whiskey and glasses then sat down beside Ezra.
"What's going on, Nathan?" Chris asked even though one look at the man's face was enough to answer the question.
"Bullet took her in the belly. Shock drove her into full-fledged labor. I told Buck that there was just no way..." His voice trailed off and he absently sipped his whiskey several times before he went on. "I knew just by lookin' that there was no way either Faith or her baby was gonna.....Woman used ever last bit of strength she had to deliver that baby girl. I know that we said some things about Buck bein' the daddy and all, but let me tell you this. That man, he knew same as I did that they was both mortal wounded yet he held onto her hand, talking with her and such, giving her hope. I've seen men with their wives trying to give birth and you'd think they wasn't even interested. Not Buck. He even promised her that he'd give the baby the Wilmington name."
Nathan had to pour himself another drink and the other peacekeepers pretended not to notice that his hands shook. "She asked to see the baby. Thought the baby was okay. I didn't want to tell her different, that the bullet had cut the cord and the baby was born dead. But Buck took that poor little baby, wrapped her up just as pretty as you please and laid her in her mother's arms. That was when she begged him to give the child his name; to raise her up right. Lordy, it was a hard thing to see."
"Has the lady...expired?" Ezra's words threatened to fail him as Nathan slowly nodded and said that she'd had but a few moments remaining and that he'd left to give them that little time together alone.
Chris slouched back in his chair, more aware than the rest of them about the pain his friend was experiencing. There came to him alone the understanding that no matter what they said or did, it would be a burden that only Buck could carry. He tried remembering his own dark days and what helped him through them. Nothing. And even though the adage said that time heals all wounds, he knew it wasn't so. Some never healed.
"Gentlemen," Chris whispered hoarsely and held his glass out. "For Buck." Slowly, each glass came to join the others.
+ + + + + + +
With the first rays of morning light reaching the steeple and glinting dully off of the silent bell, Buck Wilmington pushed a shovel into the rocky dirt in the town cemetery. The first turn of dirt and he stumbled, unable to find the rhythm he needed. Red-rimmed eyes were closed briefly and he took a shaky breath then resumed. Into the hard packed ground the blade went and then dumped its load to the side, away from the simple pine box and its sorrowful burden.
He'd finally worked himself into a steady rhythm when a hand touched his shoulder, stopping him.
"We need to break the hardpan up," Josiah said and positioned himself facing the other man and swung the mattock into the soil. It sank all the way to the thick throat of the tool then rose only to slam back down again, loosening the red dirt.
"I can do it myself," Buck said but made no move to stop the preacher.
"Ain't sayin' that you can't." The mattock swung down again, thrusting deep. Josiah didn't look up from his work. "Just that you don't have to."
Buck, without words to thank him, resumed his shoveling.
They had just gotten the top layer broken and removed when another shovel appeared beside Buck's. He looked up and met Chris' steady gaze. Wordlessly, Chris asked permission and just as silently, Buck accepted the offered help.
The mute work continued and the pile of dirt beside the hole grew. Buck, spent both physically and emotionally, paused, his head on his crossed arms over the shovel handle. When it moved under him, he jerked up, only to find Vin taking it from him and easing him out of the way.
JD came with another shovel. For a long moment he stood before his friend and said nothing. Then, with a short nod, he turned and joined the others.
"I believe that you could use this, Mister Wilmington," came Ezra's drawl as he handed a canteen to Buck, then, slipping off his red jacket and rolling up his white linen sleeves, took the mattock from a surprised Josiah and went to work. For a brief moment, all watched surprised as the gambler aptly handled the back-breaking tool. Then, one by one, with a shrug or a raised brow, they went back to their own work.
"I brought your Bible, Josiah," Nathan said as he made his way up the slope. With him, Inez came as well, a handful of wild flowers held as carefully as if they were spun from glass. She paused beside Buck, vainly trying to smile and say the right words. When she realized that there were no words that were right, she touched his face softly.
Although it wasn't that heavy, six of them lowered the simple pine casket into the red earth. Josiah wiped the sweat from his brow and stood back. He waited until the rest were still and silent, then he looked to Buck. He's ready to collapse, Josiah thought.
His words were soft, seeking to hit just the right tenor. After all, he'd barely known the woman yet he held the grieving man in high esteem. He prayed for guidance for the living and rest for the departed. All the gruff voices around him sounded their own "amen", passive or strong, giving or denying.
Inez laid her flowers on the coffin then the men covered it with its last blanket of red soil. They were tamping it down when Buck settled the white painted plank at the head of it. All looked up, trying hard to not read the black letters painted there.
"Until I can get a stone," Buck offered up as an apology. "Faith'd understand."
"I'm sure she does," Josiah agreed. "And I'm glad that you gave her and her baby your name." Indeed, the makeshift tombstone read Faith Wilmington and daughter Hope, and gave their dates.
Buck looked up from his work perplexed. "Why wouldn't it say Wilmington? Before she married Hollister she was a Wilmington. She was my cousin, you know."
"Then she...?" Nathan said those two words and stopped, his mouth hanging open.
"You mean that the two of you....the baby and all...." Ezra, like Nathan, floundered to a verbal halt.
"See?" JD yelped and slapped Ezra on the back. "I knew it!"
"Knew what?" Buck asked, his face screwing itself into a question mark.
"But you seemed so - I don't know. Like you loved her." Nathan had found his voice again.
"'Course I did! Ever since we were young'uns together. That was why when I found that bastard Hollister beatin' on her, I begged her to come away with me. But she wouldn't. I told her if she ever needed help to get word to me. Except for my momma, she was all the family I ever had. So, yes, I loved her!"
Looking around at the other men staring down at the sad marker with shamed faces, JD edged over and nudged Chris' arm. Quietly he whispered, I knew it all along.