Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em...damnit!
Characters: Buck, JD, Chris
Summary: The hunt is on to discover what prompted Buck to leave town - and bring him on home
A Story written to celebrate Dale's birthday
Thanks to Blackraptor for giving my stories a home :o)
Mid-evening and the town's seven regulators were inside the saloon. Buck was in high spirits. His infectious laughter made losing at poker to Ezra bearable, and prompted one regular to knock out a tune or two on the dust-covered upright piano. The group was aware of a bunch of cowboys looking back at them on occasion, but there was no trouble, so paid them no mind.
Buck pulled a giggling saloon girl into his lap and kissed her soundly on the lips, which she extended by holding his face in her hands. She stood, a little breathless and mouthed 'later' as she walked away. His companions were smirking, or shaking their heads in amusement, but seeing the boy sitting next to him turtle up, while pulling his hat down over his ears had the big man chuckling again and he nudged JD.
"Cute as you are, Kid that ain't no way to attract a lady."
JD straightened. "I'll take my chances, thanks." His grin belied his tone.
Buck leaned in. "Boy, do I have a lot to teach you..."
An anguished cry turned all seven's attention toward a table near the bar. One of the cowboys was manhandling the saloon girl Buck was on a promise with. With fury in his eyes, the brunet stood and strode over to the disgruntled cowhand. He glanced at May before staring at the man holding her wrist.
"Let her go."
"Just wanting me a little sugar, like you did."
Buck's eyebrow rose. "Well she ain't interested, which says a lot for her good taste in men."
After releasing May, the cowboy stood up. He was almost as tall as Buck, but with an alcohol-induced red, bulbous nose, and stained teeth - and not too many at that - Buck was eminently far ahead in attributes.
The cowboy gave a dry smile. "You saying she prefers a red-eye-swilling idjit to a real cowboy?"
Buck took a shaky breath as an unexpected memory emerged. >> 'Hey! get outta here! Whose little idjit bastard is this?' <<
He shook it off. "Nope, you are, and the fact that your breath smells worse than my boots may have some standing as to a lady's preference."
Five regulators smiled, and JD giggled. The cowboy looked his way. "You got something to say to me, boy?"
All the regulators stood to back Buck up, while Buck moved in closer to the cowboy. "Your beef's with me, he's just enjoying watching you making a fool of yourself, is all."
"Well, let's just see who gets the last laugh, huh...idjit."
JD was standing the closest to Buck, and a movement off to one side caught his eye. He barely moved in time to grab and push down the arm of one the cowboys sitting at the table before the man drew and fired. A gunshot, and JD's scream following it, had six guns drawn and orders hollered.
"You make a move for that gun, mister, and your fingers'll be restin' on the floorboards," Vin warned as the other four regulators fanned out to cover the group. Buck already had his man disarmed and eating tabletop.
"Guns and gun belts on the floor, fellas," Chris ordered. "Got a couple of nice, cozy jail cells just for you while y'all sober up."
Out-maneuvered, the group complied. Ezra took over from Buck so he could join Nathan, who was attending to JD. The brunet moved behind the boy and propped up the sweaty, heated body. He watched Nathan's bloody hands apply pressure to JD's leg, causing the easterner to groan, press back against Buck, and grab his mentor's arm.
"Aaaahhhh, aww Gawd, Buck, it hurts."
"How bad?" Buck asked the healer.
Fully focused, Nathan didn't look up. "Bullet went through front to side. Need to get him to my place and stop this bleeding." As he spoke, he took JD's legs while Buck tucked his arms under JD's armpits and clasped his hands around his chest. They lifted, and JD screamed out before going limp.
"Good, he's out, let's go, Buck."
Ezra was left to straighten out the minor disarray caused, and to ponder on how quickly a pleasant evening had turned positively hostile.
Josiah took over holding JD, while Nathan cleaned, stitched and bandaged the leg wound. He tried not to consider why Buck was staring out of the window and into the darkened street instead of helping, and the longer it went on, the more it bothered him. Once JD was finally settled, the preacher approached the brunet, unaware the man's mind was visiting a different place and time.
>> "Buck, Buck? Where are you, angel?"
Underneath a bed in one of the large house's many flamboyant bedrooms, eight-year-old Buck Wilmington giggled on hearing his mother's voice call out. He loved this time of evening, the period before his mother and sisters of the heart started work for the evening, and he got to play with the woman he idolized. He could barely contain himself when the door opened. She'd found him, but he always waited until her beautiful face peered into his hiding place, and she rewarded his discovery with a kiss. He frowned on hearing a familiar female voice, but it was not that of his ma's. His eyes widened on hearing a male voice, also.
"Easy, Sugar, no need to rush...OH!"
There was the sound of a slap before the bedsprings squeaked and bowed.
"Shut up, whore. My need is urgent."
"W...well, that's just fine, I..." Another slap, and the tearing of clothes before a rhythmic movement from the springs built in speed. "Oh! You're hurting...please, don't bite there...aaaaarrgghhh!"
Before he realized, Buck was out from under the bed and staring at Lucille's suitor's bobbing white butt, but what held his gaze was the blood on her exposed breasts and the agony in her face. His little fists bunched and he hit out at the man.
"STOP! Stop, Mister, you're hurting her!"
The shocked client went still and he stared at his miniature attacker. "Hey! get outta here! Whose little idjit bastard is this?" He punched Lucille in the face. "Is he yours, whore?" He punched again. "Well?" Lucille went still and the man climbed off and turned to Buck.
"You see what you did, you little bastard? You made me hurt her." Tidying himself, the client marched to the door, and opened it to Buck's mother, Layla, and the bordello owner, Belle. "I expect to be reimbursed. I did not satisfy my needs."
Belle looked beyond the man and gasped. Layla ran forward. "Lucille!"
Belle didn't look at the client, just at the bloodied girl on the bed. "Buck, go get the sheriff, baby."
Pushing Madame Belle and Buck aside, the mumbling man hurried away. Outside he waited for Buck to exit the building, and shoved the boy against one wall of the brothel.
Despite being scared, Buck pushed at the man. "Get off me!"
"You listen up. This is your fault you little idjit. It was because of you hiding under the bed that the girl got hurt. I'm gonna tell that to the sheriff boy, then we'll see who he blames." He walked away. "Iffen you act like a idjit, you live with the consequences."
Stunned by the idea Lucille suffered because of him, Buck went back inside and into her room where several of the girls, including his ma, and Belle, were tending to the semi-conscious girl. He hadn't realized he was crying until one girl, Beattie, pulled him into her lap.
"Aww, c'mon, honey, let's go get you some milk."
Taking one last look at the women he considered family, he swore that when he grew up, as long as he was around he would never let another woman be hurt again. From that moment on, Buck somehow successfully buried the incident deep in the recesses of his mind. <<
"Why don't you sit with him while we clean up, Buck? I'm sure he'll be glad of your company. Buck?"
Wilmington snapped out of his reverie. Liquid eyes turned to look at the injured boy asleep in the bed. >> 'This is your fault. It was because of your clownin' around, he got hurt...iffen you act like a idjit, you live with the consequences...' <<
A once repressed memory now reverberated in Buck's head like a church bell raising the alarm, making his head throb. His voice was raspy. "Will he be okay?"
Josiah smiled. "Between Nathan's skills, and JD's resilience, you bet he will. Buck? Buck! Where are you going?" Josiah was astonished to see Buck stare at JD, and then stride quickly away from the bed and out of the room.
"I need some air."
Josiah and Nathan exchanged glances before the former rested a comforting hand on JD's moist, heated forehead. "I fear our brother appears to be currently dueling with the devil." Josiah's blue eyes looked to the door. "But why?"
In his haste, Buck almost knocked Chris back down the steps to the clinic as he bumped past him. Larabee grabbed at the handrail and Vin raised his hands to support the man's back.
"Sorry!" Buck hollered back.
"Buck! Chris frowned. "Buck! Where're you going?"
Chris looked back at Vin. "What the hell?"
Vin's tanned features paled. "JD!" He took the steps two at a time.
"Shit!" Chris followed in his wake, coming to an abrupt stop inside the clinic when Nathan glared at them.
"Got a sick kid, here. Where's the fire?"
"He's alright?" Vin asked, his voice a mere whisper.
Nathan relaxed. "Sure. He's running a slight fever from the bits of his pants the bullet drove in, but I got the bleeding under control pretty fast once we got him in here."
Chris thumbed behind him to the door. "When Buck pushed past us, we thought..." Chris blew out a breath. "Is Buck okay?"
Josiah answered. "Not sure why, but that man seems to be carrying the weight of the World on his shoulders right now. He barely came near JD."
Chris looked at Vin, and then back to the open door. "Damn."
In his room, Buck had paced until he was exhausted. The last time he felt this way was when Sarah and Adam died. He felt so very bad that he'd wanted to stay one more night away, and though Chris appeared to blame Buck in the early days, just lately the blond assured the brunet that the burden of guilt was all his. He chose to stay because he wanted to; Buck just made the decision easier.
To see JD lying there in so much pain, and all that blood...was bad enough, but that hidden memory resurfacing, coupled with the accompanying guilt, hit Buck hard, and messed with his mindset until he was convinced that allowing himself, a rogue, and a clown, to be placed in a position of responsibility, was a mistake.
Time to move on, before JD, or anyone else got hurt again because of his over-zealous love of life. Grabbing his extra saddlebags, he began stuffing them with clothes and possessions from his drawers.
Larabee wandered the town after discovering Buck's empty room, but didn't dally, as he felt sure he knew where to find his long-time friend. Stepping into the livery, Chris approached the big man and watched as he saddled up. "You gonna be long?" There was no reply. "Buck, talk to me."
The ladies' man spoke but didn't turn. "I'm heading out."
"What? You're leaving - just like that? No goodbyes, no looking back, just a distant dust trail. You, uh, told JD?"
Buck momentarily hesitated, but didn't look. "No, he ain't awake yet."
"You think that's fair on the kid - to go without so much as an explanation?"
There was a shrug. "Don't owe him or anyone an explanation. 'Sides, he's learned plenty, and don't need me molly-coddling him no more." Buck looked down at the hand that suddenly grasped his arm.
A furious Chris grabbed Buck. "That's not what I meant and you know it. JD's come to depend on you, hell, we all do, but you'll never convince me he don't mean enough to you to not tell him goodbye."
Buck shook off Chris's grip. He couldn't afford to weaken now. He knew that if he went back to see JD, he'd be done for as far as leaving was concerned. "I'm going, and he ain't awake to talk to, so let's just leave it there."
The brunet turned sharply toward Chris. "Considering you're the master at walking away from those who give a damn, I figured you at least would understand."
Chris's glare intensified before he shook his head and turned to walk away. "Ye-ah, well, I guess I grew up." He halted at Buck's final remark.
"Or decided you wanted to grow old."
"Alright, that too." He resumed his departure. "I'd say take care of yourself, Buck but - I guess y'already are."
When Buck finally emerged from the livery, he almost laughed at Chris's determination to make this as difficult as possible. He touched his hat to Chris, Vin, Josiah, and Ezra who were waiting around outside.
"Not too late to change your mind, Buck," Chris tried one last time.
"JD got hurt, it's past late." He wheeled his horse around and galloped off before the others could see his tears. "I'm so sorry, Little brother, but this is for the best, you'll see."
The four men watched until Buck was gone. Vin looked at Chris and started to walk. "We goin' after him, now?"
Chris shook his head. "Let's give him a couple 'a days to cool off."
Vin stopped. "Okay; then we're goin' after him?"
Larabee nodded at the Texan. "Hell yeah, I wanna know what's crawled up his britches and started biting."
Josiah didn't follow Ezra, Chris, and Vin back into town, he simply stared out at the vast plains, his mind a jumble of confusion, and his heart aching. "May God watch over you, brother."
After leaving, Buck had triple-crossed his tracks to stall anyone following him He then rode hard for two hours, before stopping at a semi-dry watering hole to rest up - and apologize to his big gray for pushing him.
Four days on and in the dead of night, Buck lay wide-awake in another town, and with yet another saloon girl curled up in his arms. His dalliances had satisfied his immediate needs to put everything behind him, but he was fast realizing nothing was mending the growing hole in his heart and it caused him to start thinking.
It wasn't the first time some lowlife called him a fool, so why had this time been a turning point? A tear rolled from the corner of his eye and down into his ear. He already knew the answer. On other occasions, the slur rolled off him like sand grains off a snake, but this time...this time JD got hurt. Others - his friends - had cared enough to react, which just made the whole business worse, and ended in JD taking a bullet meant for Buck. Who would be next?
He'd run away from the first unrelated folk to ever genuinely give a hoot about him, because he now feared that giving a damn could bring about a bullet meant for him, but directed their way, and Buck couldn't bear that. When not riding solo, he'd never had to consider more than Chris and himself before, and Chris was way too sharp to get caught out.
He fought the voice in his head reminding him that what he was fearing was exactly what he'd done for others, and found a welcome distraction when the woman in his arms stirred and touched him.
"Mmm...awake and ready for more, huh? I like you, honey."
Pleasuring this woman would allow Buck release from his remorse, and his eventual tiredness might let him sleep at last. With a squeal of delight from her, he took up her offer in order to test his notion. However, sometime later, he was aware that - while enjoyable - the ploy hadn't worked. His mind was still on JD, which didn't go down too well while having a good woman in his arms. Once Buck relented to the onslaught of arguments, his mind was made up. By morning, he would head home, and he had to admit, he'd never been happier with a decision.
JD opened his eyes to an empty room. Once his energy built a little, he rolled his head to the side expecting to see Buck asleep, but the chair was empty. He would have called out for the man, but his mouth was dry and he had no spit. He moved his leg and a fire erupting in his thigh helped him find his voice, albeit it little more than a pained squeak.
"Oh, God, oww, oww, oww...!"
Nathan stepped inside the clinic carrying a bucket of water. Seeing JD awake, he instantly set the pail down and went to his patient. "Ooh, too soon to be moving around, JD." He reached for a tin mug on a chair next to the bed and helped JD drink some water before easing him back onto the pillow.
"Th...thanks." JD waited for the room to stop spinning and the burning to ease to a continuous, throbbing ache before he spoke again. "Where's Buck?"
Nathan sighed inwardly, and sat on the edge of the bed. This was the third time JD had woken up asking for the ladies' man. Each time he'd been told Buck had stepped out, but the last time, it was obvious JD wasn't buying it. The hurt in the boy's eyes was almost too much for the tenderhearted healer to bear.
"Is he mad at me, Nathan?"
'Mad at himself more like'. "Lord, no. Why would Buck be mad?" He noticed JD trying to sit up and helped him.
"Just after I got shot, I guess I was kinda in and out of it, so I might've dreamed it, but I thought I heard Buck leaving here real fast, and Josiah was calling after him." JD swallowed. "Did I dream that?"
Nathan stood. "You should eat something. I got some chicken broth on the stove just waiting on you..." He heard a deep, long, sigh.
"I didn't dream it."
The healer's long fingers encircled JD's wrist. "Buck's mad at himself, Kid, not you. He took a ride outta town and ain't come back, yet, but he will, you know that."
JD's chin trembled and as he shuffled back down in the bed, he raised his arm to cover his eyes. "I ain't hungry right now, I think I'll get me some more sleep." JD heard Nathan move away from the bed and he peeked under his arm.
"Nathan, thanks for telling me the truth."
The tall man smiled, but there was no happiness in it. "No one's lied to you, JD, we just want you to get well, and sometimes that means being sparing with the truth for a while." He watched JD re-cover his eyes, and found himself grateful JD missed Vin standing at the door. The Texan's and healer's eyes met. Tanner stuffed his hat on his head and turned to leave.
"I'm gonna bring Buck back here iffen I have to do it at gunpoint."
Nathan grabbed Vin's arm. "We all know Buck's in need of help as much as JD is, just in a different way, is all."
There was a moment or two of pondering before Vin's blue eyes twinkled. "Didn't say I'd shoot him, did I?"
Two days on, and from the clinic veranda Chris watched a dejected Vin ride in to town and went to meet him. Buck had initially foiled Vin and Chris's first attempts to track him, and a heavy rainstorm completed the job. Vin's determination was to be admired, but Chris decided it was time to call it a day. Buck hadn't wanted to be found, and now he was going to get his wish. Larabee sighed as he walked to the livery to catch up with Vin. Easy words to say, not so easy to commit to.
Tanner glanced at Larabee as he approached. "I ain't givin' up, Chris. JD asks for Buck all the time, and I mean to bring him home."
"We need to tell JD the truth. Buck's made his decision, and it's past time we accepted that."
Vin turned to look at Chris. "Apart from the very last time fellas rode together, when Buck got all riled up and walked away from you, was it for long?"
Chris dropped his gaze to the ground, and then looked up. "No. He'd usually calm down within an hour or so."
"Chris, you know as well as I do, he ain't thinkin' straight. Somethin' spooked him, and I don't reckon it was just seein' JD gettin' hurt."
There was a long pause.
"Buck ain't the same man I rode with back then, Vin. Going on without me changed him. Sure, he's always been strong, and dependable, but now he's more sure about what he wants for himself. Yeah, he's left before, but he never hid where he went from me."
Tanner turned around and started brushing his horse. "Maybe so. Iffen he needed time to think, so be it." He stopped brushing and turned his head to look at Chris, much to the frustration of his horse.
"But whatever he planned, I'll never believe he wouldn't find a way learn how JD's doin'."
Chris swallowed hard at Vin articulating his deepest fear. "You think he's in trouble."
"Just got this gut feelin', is all."
A smile curved Larabee's lips. "Usually a good idea to go with those." He put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Come on, we'll set out again tomorrow, and this time we'll keep going 'til we find him."
JD didn't feel proud of himself for fooling his hero, who'd earlier been sitting with him until Chris took a walk for some air. Rolling back the bedclothes exposed his fully clothed body. His pants were torn and bloody, but he wasn't going to a barn dance, he was riding out to find Buck, so it wasn't important. While pretending to be asleep, he'd overheard the fellas talking and it was clear Buck hadn't traveled to his usual haunts. The dilemma prompted JD to ponder past conversations with Buck and one in particular kept coming back at him.
>> "Santa Augusta. Sure was a perty village. Small, but lively." Buck nudged JD. "Lots of sporting women."
JD rolled his eyes. "I got it, Buck. Lively." He went serious. "How come you ain't ever been back?" He was surprised to see Buck look a little awkward.
Buck shrugged. "Aah, y'know...stuff." He rallied to shoulder barge the kid, and almost took JD out of his chair outside the jail and onto the boardwalk. "You came along and kept me busy."
JD chuckled, but before he could ask Buck if that really was why, trouble kicked off in the saloon and he and Buck got up to go check it out. <<
JD was only at the clinic door and he already felt dizzy, but he wasn't about to quit now. His heart almost stopped when he realized Chris was still on the veranda, and he stood unmoving with his hand resting on the doorknob. He heard Chris go down the stairs and peeked out to make sure the way was clear. Once satisfied, he hobbled painfully out of the door and down the stairs.
Each creaky tread sent a spike of pain through his thigh, but JD felt sure that once he was riding, he'd cope. Making sure the street was clear of his friends; JD put on his best brave face and, using anything and everything in his path to help him along, he walked over to the livery. Sweat dripping from under and off his bangs, he edged his way along the side of the wooden building and sneaked in through the back, where he heard almost every word between Chris and Vin. It made him more determined than ever to find Buck.
Chris and Vin entered the clinic fully intending to tell JD everything, so were surprised to find the bed empty. Larabee glanced across to a chair that JD's clothes were draped over. It was empty. He looked at Vin.
"He wouldn't, would he?"
Vin turned back to the door and saw spots of fresh blood on the floor. "Aww, hell."
Once again inside the livery, Chris felt as if he'd been here before. "JD, you ain't leaving."
The boy tightened the saddle's girth. "I'm going after him, Chris. This ain't like Buck - you fellas know it, and I know it."
He and Vin had already decided to follow Buck, and wondered how he could justify stopping JD. "It's not for you to go chasing after him. He made his decision." He saw Vin's expression and had to agree. 'Damnit, not the right words, Larabee.'
JD turned to Chris, his soulful eyes filled with pain. "I heard you and Vin talking. Maybe something I did pushed him into that decision. I need to know, and if so, say I'm sorry."
"Take more'n a fallin' out to make Bucklin walk away," Vin said. He turned apologetic eyes to Chris. "But I agree with you, Kid, he ain't himself." Vin's gaze moved to the blood showing through JD's wool pants and then back to Chris. The pair nodded.
JD took a step back from his fully tacked horse. "Well, I aim to find out one way or the other." He turned to extend his hand to Chris, and was pleased when his hero shook it. His hand moved to Vin. "And then I'm gonna bring him home."
Tanner took the offered hand just as he looked up to the roof. JD's eyes followed the tracker's gaze. Moments later the easterner was aware of a powerful blow to his face and then - nothing.
Chris nursed his throbbing hand, while Vin's grip on JD enabled him to pull the collapsing boy into his arms.
Hearing the call, Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan walked into the livery from just outside the door where they'd been asked to wait. The former picked JD up by a wrist and a thigh to hoist him over his broad shoulders. Nathan raised the dangling boy's head a little, to check he was okay. Satisfied, he nodded to Vin and Chris.
"He's bleeding," Chris said, pointing to JD's leg.
"Too damn soon to be up," Nathan mumbled.
Josiah patted the butt arched over his shoulder. "We'll take care of this one. Bring our lost lamb home, boys."
Chris and Vin touched their hats and nodded.
Ezra offered a two-fingered salute. "And God's speed, gentlemen."
About an hour away from the border, and Buck was mindful of the fact that banditos drifted around this part of the territory. It was hot, so he deviated from his route to reach a watering hole he was aware of being close by. Ever watchful, after leading his horse to the small waterhole, Buck filled his canteen and chewed on some beef jerky while his horse rested and enjoyed several slices of juicy apple from his master.
Securing himself a position where he figured he could spot trouble early, Buck lay back under a shade tree and pondered the past five days. He regretted leaving JD the moment he hit the first town; even earlier, if he was truly honest. Images of the fellas, and JD, wouldn't leave his thoughts, and the further he traveled from the place he called home, the more flashes of fear he had about not being around to protect them; not being there to look after the kid. Now he was heading back, but his fear at present was of having left his decision too late.
Buck's eyelids drooped with weariness, but his mind was wide-awake and working overtime, and as he sat there, he remembered some of the 'strays' he'd met along the way. Though he would deny it, Chris was one - well, in truth, they both were, and their meeting forged a friendship that lasted years. For that matter, it was still going strong, just a little less exclusive these days. They had both mellowed over time, but the memories of those early days, good and bad, remained vivid. For Buck, there would never be another friendship like it, but that didn't mean others wouldn't be equally special.
He yawned. Where had his mind been? Oh yeah, strays. While Buck was still riding with Chris, there was Ned; a fiery twenty-year-old whose fast mouth was marginally slower than his gun hand, and who collected notches on his Colt's grip faster than 'Curly Bill' Brocius; though Curly Bill would get to live longer, and take more lives. Despite the boy's cold expression, and uncaring manner, Buck saw something in his eyes that screamed loneliness. He recognized the expression because he'd seen it every time he looked in a mirror, or window - until he met Chris.
Larabee warned Buck off; telling him some men just couldn't be, or didn't want to be saved. In the short time that he got to know Ned, Buck occasionally reached the kid, but had to judge his moments well. In the end however, it turned out that, bar the preacher, Buck was the only man at Ned's funeral after the youth was ambushed in an alley one night while on his way to his room. The brunet smiled inwardly on recalling Chris was there, although right at the edge of the graveyard, but he'd stayed close.
From then until Chris met Sarah Connolly, despite that the pair rarely stayed in a town longer than the time it took to drink until nearly unconscious, and bed a few sporting women, Buck met Charlie, Harland, and Lom, and felt proud that he'd seen two start wooing young ladies, and one become a sheriff.
Adam Larabee wasn't in need of saving, and loving him came as easily as breathing. He had his father's enthusiasm and curiosity, and his mother's serenity and patience, and in order to see him, Buck visited their home as often as he felt was fair on the couple. Five years of happiness, and a true sense of family after the longest time was his, until tragedy struck. Buck swiped away a threatening tear and shuddered at the ache that accompanied the bitter memory of loss; a pain that had deepened when he finally gave up trying to console Chris, while aiming to keep him from getting his fool head shot off.
After parting from Chris, Buck turned back to his favorite pastime, women. Thanks to his early home life, the brunet's ease and charm around the ladies ensured he was never alone at night, and often several times throughout the day, too. In an effort to bury his anguished memories, Buck laughed, loved, and lived life to the full; and never dallied anywhere too long.
One day during his travels, Buck crossed the Mexican border. After several hours of riding, he came upon a quaint old Mexican pueblo, not that far from the very watering hole he was visiting, now. Due to a relationship with a woman called Magdalena, who had a teenage son, Tobias, he stayed in that village for longer than planned. The boy was full of laughter, and mischief, and Buck took to him instantly, as Tobias did, to Buck. He taught him to shoot, and swim, and fish - well - swimming came into the mix when the boy got a little enthusiastic while fishing.
Several months on and it became obvious Buck was staying more for the boy, than Magdalena, who became increasingly smitten with a local granjero; and so he made the second hardest choice of his life when he decided it was best to move on. Tobias took the news pretty well, shocking Buck when he explained that though many men had stayed for a time, none had ever behaved as a father, brother, and friend to him the way Buck did.
The day he rode away from Tobias, Buck was reminded of a childhood yearning. From the age of ten, he pleaded with his mother for a younger brother. The memory of her sweet laughter and a kiss to his head, accompanied by 'we'll see, angel', caused a lump in his throat as he headed for the border. It had never occurred to him he wasn't planned, because his mother had loved him so.
To the present day, Buck would never know why he chose to stay in the next town he rode into. The buildings were few and far between, and had most of their doors and windows boarded up, but there was something about the place. After only ten minutes in the town's only working saloon, Millie caught his eye. She was more a woman than a girl, and sure didn't look the type that had been in the business since her youth.
They spent an hour talking, and he learned that her husband was in Yuma prison, and she was working in the saloon for bed and board. Buck noticed the owner glaring at her and he'd suggested she take him upstairs. It was the start of many nights, and days, of fun and companionship. She never once charged him for her services, but Buck ensured she was well rewarded, in more ways than one.
The ladies' man scratched at his whiskers in an effort to avoid thinking about the day there came a knock on her door; a knock that reunited him with Chris, and initially introduced him to Vin, Nathan, and Ezra. But he couldn't stop the onslaught of emotion as he was suddenly bombarded with images of his first two meetings with JD. Before he knew it, his mind was filled with the moments before and after he walked out of the room JD was laying injured in, and he cursed the threatening tears that accompanied the memory.
Buck was jolted out of his reverie when the click of a gun cocking sounded next to his ear.
"That don't sound like no bug I'm familiar with."
A voice hissed in his ear. "On your feet, gringo, NOW!"
Buck did as ordered, and cursed his own carelessness. He looked at the three men staring at him and pointing guns. "You lost fellas?" He tried not to balk at the foul-smelling breath that greeted his question when its owner leaned in to take his gun.
"I think that may be you, güero, and you are not welcome, here."
Buck saw his chance when the Mexican looked around the area and he grabbed the man's gun. He shot him and then rolled away to aim the acquired gun at the other two. He winged one good, but hot lead pierced his chest from the third man's weapon. Buck dropped onto the sandy ground face first, and as he faded, through his fuzzy vision he saw his horse taken, and the two survivors ride away. He barely had time to consider the dead man just ahead of him before his world went black, and silent.
"JD...I'm sorry little brother...forgive me..."
"...Yes, we'll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God."
A young woman's voice broke into the hymn singing. "How much farther, Eddie? Feels like we've been traveling in this clapped out wagon forever."
The woman at the reins looked back at one of five, travel-weary females. "This clapped out ole wagon's 'bout all we got 'til we get to the bordello, Ellie, so just sit back and quit griping."
Edwina 'Eddie' Bouclé was a southern madam who had lived in more towns than her forty years implied was possible. Initially her businesses followed new towns springing up, bringing growth, prosperity and endless custom. But with girls leaving to try their luck in San Francisco, several deaths in childbirth, and those staying with her getting long in the tooth, the caring woman was convinced to cross the border and settle in quieter places, while occasionally picking up stray girls along the way.
Now, there was more a sense of family, and together the group decided they wanted to get back over the border. Eddie still owned a bordello near Durango and, though it would likely need fixing up, that's where they planned to settle. Their journey was seriously hindered however, when a back wagon wheel broke. Ever-resourceful, Eddie remembered an old trick a ranch hand once taught her, and with a sturdy bough lashed to the cart to take the place of the wheel, they continued on.
Before the hymn singing could start up again, there was an ominous crack and the women squealed when the cart toppled toward the side of the makeshift wheel. Eddie halted the two mules, and as she jumped down to inspect the damage, the girls helped each other down off the cart. The southerner groaned on seeing the split bough. Her eyes scanned the area.
"What I wouldn't give for a man right now."
Charmaine, or 'Charlie' as the girls called her, bobbed her eyebrows. "Wouldn't we all, honey."
Eddie shook her head, but was smiling. She looked at the area to her left. "Ellie, Gwen, take the canteens and follow that trail. If memory serves me right, and if it hasn't dried up, there should be a waterhole yonder."
The girls gathered up any empty canteens and made their way up the small incline, and disappeared through some rocks.
The madam turned and smiled at Alma, one of her dearest friends. "Mmm hmm?"
"I've heard tell of bandits this close to the border. What if the girls...?"
"...Run into them? I'll tell them to give them a good rate."
The four women laughed, but Eddie, and Bess were soon snatching up their Spencer Carbines when Ellie came hurtling down the incline.
Looking to where Ellie came from, the matriarch halted the girl. "What is it?"
"Come see." She grabbed Eddie and Alma's hands. "Come on, quick."
Noting the woman was more excited than frightened, the others followed.
In the small clearing next to the waterhole, Gwen was sitting on the floor. In her lap, an unconscious man's head rested and it was clear he was badly hurt. She looked up at the stunned group.
"Can I keep him?"
They all approached. "He's alive?" Bess asked.
Gwen nodded, "But he's sick."
Being the closest thing to a healer the group had, Bess dropped down next to the man's still form and examined him. "Bullet's still in there, which might've stopped him from bleeding out more. Heart's good and strong."
Charlie studied Buck's prone form. "Well, Eddie, you said you wanted a man." She smiled, admiringly. "And this is a good one."
The woman rallied. "Okay, there's an old ruined mission a few miles up the trail and just over the border. It's a lot safer there, so let's fix the wagon, get him and us there, and then we can help him."
Eddie, Alma, Ellie, and Charlie went back to the wagon, and Bess prepared Buck for traveling while Gwen held him steady.
Chris and Vin were currently in a village by the name of Santa Augusta. There were only two working girls in its small cantina, and it was quickly established Buck hadn't visited there. As with the various other towns they had been to, the pair decided to move on, but as they went to mount up, Chris stopped mid-rise and stared across the street to a broken down corral.
By the time Tanner's boots hit the ground, Larabee was already at the corral and staring at the familiar Gray whinnying at him. He gave the horse a pat before heading into the shed that doubled as a livery. Vin kicked the soles of the sleeping herrero's boots, already armed as the man awoke with a start and reached for a rifle.
"Easy, blacksmith, I'm here to ask about the Gray in the corral," Chris said.
The man stood. "You want to buy?"
"He's yours?" Vin checked.
"Si, I buy; will sell cheap."
"Bought from who?" Chris's eyes flared as he spoke, unsettling the man.
"Some hombres." He shrugged. "I don't know who they were."
"Was one tall, white, with a mustache?" Vin asked.
The herrero shook his head. "No, senor, no gringos."
"Saddle and saddlebags?"
"Si." The blacksmith went to a corner and carried over Buck's saddle and bags. "You buy?"
Chris grabbed them. "No, we take; the horse, too. They were stolen from a friend of ours."
"Aah, ¿qué?" He rambled on in Spanish, stopping when Vin pushed some money into his hand and winked.
"For the inconvenience, amigo."
Once Beavis was saddled, the two friends mounted up.
"Where now?" Chris asked himself more than Vin.
"There's only two waterin' holes from here. We could try those."
Chris nodded. "Agreed." He twisted in his saddle. "I got more than a gut feeling that Buck's in trouble."
"Yup. You Set?"
"JD! What the hell are you doing in your room? If you plan on staying here, then take off those pants and get into bed, you ain't up to no riding yet."
The young easterner continued to dress as Nathan glared at him from his bedroom door. His face already glistening, he looked in earnest at the healer. "I ain't trying to be difficult, Nathan. Buck needs help, and I aim to give it."
"You don't know that, 'side's Chris and Vin are already out looking."
"Nathan, please." JD limped over to him. "I want to go. Now you can help me by binding my leg good and coming with me, or just step aside." He pointed at his bruised jaw and cheek. "Or do you plan on stopping me Chris's way?"
"He makes a good case."
Both men looked to see Josiah in the corridor. "Ezra's found some new marks in town and has graciously offered to hold the fort here while we assist in Buck's return to the fold."
There was a moment when Nathan looked as if he was about to question how Ezra knew they would be thinking of leaving, but he let it pass.
"I think I know where he was heading," JD added for weight to the argument. "I never got a chance to say before Chris put me out."
Nathan's tense shoulders dropped. "Well, I guess if you must act like a fool, I might as well go along to keep an eye on you." He shook his head at the beaming grin from the boy, and Josiah's chuckle.
"Come on; let me put fresh bandages on your wound before we set off." Nathan noted the alarm on JD's face. "Kid, I promise I ain't planning on slipping you no sleeping draft, okay?"
JD grabbed his gunbelt and hat and hobbled past the two men. "Okay."
Nathan turned to Josiah. "This is plum loco."
Josiah draped an arm around the healer's shoulders. "Love often is, brother."
If anyone could see Buck now, they would consider him to be the luckiest man alive. Had Buck opened his eyes, he would have agreed, but throughout the short journey to the old mission, and despite being surrounded by attractive women, the man remained unresponsive. Eddie rode up to the crumbled mission walls and into the courtyard. What were once buildings with rooms ahead were now just debris and damaged walls, their roofs long gone. On halting the mules, she pointed.
"Take him to the safest area and I'll set up camp."
Four of the six women eased Buck off the buckboard and carried him into the least frail building. Once he was on the ground, Bess went back for her makeshift medical kit and shooed all but Gwen away while she prepared to treat the good-looking stranger.
"Don't let him die," Gwen pleaded as she stroked Buck's dark, soaked tresses.
Bess looked at her. "That's my plan, sugar."
"He was mumbling names. Said JD a lot, and Chris. Do you think they're his family? Brothers, maybe?"
"Maybe. Pass me the whiskey, sugar, then close your eyes, I know you don't like it when I cut." The back of her delicate fingers stroked Buck's whiskered cheek.
"Who are you, handsome? How did you come to get hurt? Do you have family out there worried about you, searching for you, maybe? I sure hope so. A fine man like you don't deserve to be a loner."
Taking the whiskey-cleansed blade, Bess pressed her finger and thumb against Buck's moist skin close to the wound in his chest, and sliced a little at the ragged flesh. She paused to see if Buck was affected, and when he didn't move, she continued. Pushing her fingers inside the gash, she felt around.
"Ooh, I can't...I can't...oh, wait. There, I have it!"
As Bess withdrew the bloody finger and thumb holding the bullet, Buck arched his back, strained out a long, low growl, and then collapsed.
"Sorry, baby, but that should do it."
Alma had reported that the well in the courtyard still held water. They were already carrying a fair amount, but Eddie was still relieved, and made a note to boil it before using. In another building next to where Bess worked, Ellie had a fire up and smoking from the plentiful deadfall of numerous sun bleached, brittle trees around the yard. By the time Gwen emerged with a bloody bullet and rags, the water had boiled, and beans were bubbling in a pot to accompany some of the ham they were carrying. The young woman took a bowl for water and fresh rags back to Bess.
"Dead? Nu uh. He's hot, but Bess says he's looking better already." Suddenly remembering something, she went back to the wagon for another canteen of water, and then continued on her way.
Charlie noted the looks from the other women. "What? I was just worried, is all." She grinned. "He won't be ready for action for at least a few days."
Laughter accompanying the remark made the rest of the group's tasks go a lot faster, and they began to appreciate that, while they had hit a few problems, they were almost home.
And they had a man.
After two days of hard riding, Chris and Vin were at the second watering hole and it was all too apparent, and not just to the tracker, what had happened there. Dried bloody patches in the sand and horses' tracks beyond the underbrush suggested Buck and at least one other was hurt, though the drag marks in the sand showed one body had been removed. Chris could see Vin was intrigued by fresher tracks, and after tracing them down from the waterhole, he came back to Chris and their three horses.
"You look a mite happier."
Vin pointed around. "The fresh tracks are women."
"Women? Out here?"
"Yup, smaller feet and lighter boots."
"You reckon they took Buck?"
Tanner nodded. "They took someone. Seen spots of blood close to where a wagon rested." He walked a few feet before looking back at a pondering Larabee. "You comin'?"
"To follow the wagon? What if it's not Buck?"
"Chance we gotta take. The wagon's got a wheel missin' and they're usin' a sturdy tree limb to keep it movin', so it's made a nice, deep furrow in the sand."
Chris allowed himself a small smile. "All right, let's do this."
At the mission, night was drawing in. While the rest of the group settled in the next room over, Bess and Gwen stayed close to their wounded charge. Buck was feverish, and restless, and occasionally called out for his ma, and JD. In the flicker of the firelight, Gwen looked worried.
"He's gonna die."
Bess mopped at Buck's face, neck, and bare chest. "His heart's still strong. I reckon if he gets through this night, he'll be okay." Subconsciously she ran her fingertips from the damp, pulsating hollow in his neck, and down his chest, to rest her palm on his heated, toned stomach.
"He'd better wake up soon; I really want to meet this fella."
Buck's eyes opened and the darkness confused him. He felt sure it was full light just a few minutes ago. How long had he been asleep under the shade tree? A flicker of light caught his eye and he realized it was a shadow passing in front of a fire. Alarm swept through him and he went for his gun, but instead groaned aloud when pain spiked through his arm, chest, and shoulder. Seconds later, two female faces were looking down at him.
Gwen smiled. "Howdy."
"You were shot," Bess explained.
A smile grew on Buck's face. "Well lookee here," he said, hoarsely, "I died, and went to live with the angels." His expression went deadly serious and, despite his pain, Buck sat up and stared around. "JD!"
The two stunned women helped him. "Hey, you can't be doing that, yet," Bess scolded.
"Who's JD?" Gwen asked.
Overcome with dizziness, Buck allowed the ladies to ease him back into a sitting position against the nearby stone wall. He took a few moments to compose himself.
"He's like a kid brother to me. Last time I saw him he was shot, and I was afraid that, if this is Heaven, and he was here..." Buck's eyes filled and glistened in the firelight. His voice dropped to a raspy whisper.
"Then, he didn't make it." One tear rolled down his cheek and into his mustache. "Should never have left him."
Bess lifted a cup of water to his lips. "Honey, I can't say about your brother, but I can tell you, this sure ain't Heaven." She again stopped him from trying to get up. "Didn't I just tell you about moving around?"
"Have to get home."
"Yeah, well, you will, just not for a day or two. I'm not having all our hard work ruined because you're too damned stubborn to stay put."
For the first time since waking, Buck actually looked at the women. Despite his discomfort, his smile was warm, and genuine. "Now then, where are my manners? Name's Buck, Buck Wilmington, and it looks like I'm in your debt, ladies, and also at a disadvantage as to your names."
"I'm Gwen, and this is Bess," the younger woman said.
"And I'm Eddie. This is Alma, Charlie, and Ellie. Nice to see you, awake, Buck."
The brunet looked toward the new arrivals standing in what was once a doorway. He grinned and winked at Bess. "You sure this ain't Heaven?" Buck nodded at the newcomers.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, girls. Forgive me for not getting up, but I'm kinda ailing right now."
Gwen giggled and moved her hand from his leg. "I wouldn't say you're 'not up', Buck."
Charlie sashayed her hips as she walked toward the three. "Not surprising, I do tend to have that effect on men."
There was laughter, and Eddie noted Buck chuckling right along with them. She clapped her hands. "Come on, girls, it's still night, and we all need our beauty sleep..."
Charlie butted in. "...Speak for yourself, Honey."
Eddie shook her head as more giggles erupted. "...and Buck needs his rest."
While very pleased with the company, Buck was grateful for Eddie's insistence as he was struggling with the pain, and real tired.
With little waves from the girls, and a blown kiss from Charlie, they left, leaving just Bess and Gwen. The former noticed Buck shiver.
"Let's get your bandages changed, and then I have some herbal tea that will help you sleep."
"'Preciate that, Bess, though I don't reckon sleep'll be a problem."
Ever eager to help, Gwen brought over the bandages and then made the tea.
"Just to play safe, Sugar," Bess advised. "You lost some blood, and there's no telling how long you were lying there before we found you."
Buck endured a painful treatment, and was more than grateful for the tea. He was still shivering when he settled down again, but, although pleasantly surprised, he didn't bat an eyelid when both women settled down next to him while Bess explained it was to help keep him warm.
Bess lay next to Buck and listened to his soft breaths as he slipped deeper into sleep. Teasing aside, she really liked him. Despite being incapacitated, he seemed funny, sweet, and kind. She felt safe with him, and it had been a long time since a man made her feel that way. She snuggled in against his good arm and could barely contain her glee when Buck absently looped his arm around her and pulled her in close. Bess's contented sigh was the last conscious sound from the trio, neither of them aware that Eddie was back, and standing in the doorway, watching them sleep.
The next morning the women were up and about early, and by the time Buck awoke had already cooked breakfast. He wasn't hungry, but was grateful for a mug of hot coffee, a much tastier cupful than he'd enjoyed in some while. The man had been helped out into the main courtyard, and settled against a wall of the buildings, and into the shade cast by them. This was where he was sitting, watching the women bustling around, when Eddie approached and sat down next to him.
"So, Buck, brought up in a cathouse, huh?" She was impressed he didn't choke on his swallow of coffee, in fact, he kept amazingly calm.
Buck looked at Eddie. "Is that who these girls are?" he softly fired back at her.
Eddie nodded. "We're heading for Durango. Got me an old bordello there. Your ma still alive?"
Buck shook his head. "No ma'am. Yours?"
Eddie chuckled. "Sure hope not, the woman was a drunk and beat the tar outta me every day. She blamed me for never having a husband. I blamed her for saying yes to a man without accepting the consequences."
"You left home young," Buck more stated than asked.
"Uh huh. Was taken in by a big ole Southern lady who took care of me until I was old enough to pay her back for her kindness. When she passed, I took over her place. Been doing this ever since."
Buck stared at nothing in particular. "I left when a murdering sonofabitch killed my ma. Miss Belle didn't want me to leave, but..." he took a sip of coffee, "...it was time." He smiled at Eddie. "How did you know...'bout how I grew up?"
She stood. "Brought enough babies into my homes and watched 'em grow alongside the girls to be able to spot one a mile off." She leaned in. "There's a way the boys are around the girls and, you just know." She turned to join the others. "Sorry about your ma."
Buck smiled, sadly. "Yeah, me too."
By dinnertime Buck was hungry enough to eat some rabbit stew that Alma prepared, but it didn't take a genius to see he was preoccupied. Bess sat next to him.
"Are you worried about your brother?"
Buck huffed a soft laugh. "That obvious, huh?"
"Well, you should be worried about yourself, but you're clearly the kinda guy who puts others first." She watched the man control his wobbling chin.
"It was doing just the opposite that got me in this mess." He turned to the woman. "JD's just a kid, green as a wet stick, and with more grit than a desert trail...anyway, I got into a beef with a cowboy and his buddies and...and JD got shot." Buck swallowed. "The kid was protecting me." He was surprised when Bess smiled.
"Protecting his big brother. Perish the thought, because I bet you ain't ever put your life on the line for him, right?"
"That's not the point," Buck said in a soft growl.
"Sure it is. I see how you are around these girls. You may not be up to being in the heart of things right now, but you've been watching outside those walls all morning. Right?"
Buck stared at her, and then smiled. "Right." He gestured around. "Pretty close to the border, here. Not too safe for most, 'specially pretty ladies like yourselves."
Before Bess could reply, the other women were scurrying around and grabbing guns. Bess was instantly on her feet and with them.
Eddie eyed the six hombres riding into the courtyard. She raised her Spencer carbine. "Hold it right there, amigos."
One rider dismounted and walked up to the tip of the barrel. "Aah, chica, that's no way to greet a man in need of water."
"No water here. Go on your way."
Tobacco-stained teeth revealed themselves as he looked around the group and smiled. "Well, maybe there's something else I'm in need of...my compadres, also."
Eddie armed the rifle. "Good luck with that, now go, lessin' you want a few extra holes in you."
The Mexican spread his arms. "Are you threatening us, chica?"
He squawked when a gunshot sounded and a bullet clipped the fingers going for his gun. He grabbed his hand and looked up to see Buck standing among the women and holding a gun on him.
"No, I am. You want water, you go back the waterhole where you stole my horse and left me to die."
There was an awkward standoff until finally the Mexican walked backwards to his horse and mounted up. "This is not the end, gringo."
Buck smiled. "Oh, I think it is, pal. Adios."
The group of women didn't move until the threat was a blip on the horizon. Buck was first to relax.
"Would be a good idea to move on, girls."
Eddie turned to Buck, ignoring the doe-eyes the other girls were giving him. "Guess so, just need to fix up the wagon wheel before we do."
Buck cast an eye at the three-wheeled, one bough cart. "I know a little town not too far from here, 'bout two days ride. We can fix up your wagon there, if you want."
The matriarch smiled. "Wouldn't be in need of our services, would they?" she teased.
Fighting a little dizziness, Buck chuckled. "You'd get no complaints from me and the fellas, but I ain't too sure about a few other folks living there." He hadn't realized he was collapsing until Bess, Charlie, Gwen, and Alma were holding him up.
"You falling for us, Sugar?" Charlie asked with a cheeky grin.
While being helped back to his makeshift cot, Buck forced a smile. "How could any man resist such charm, and beauty," he replied.
Eddie laughed. "Get some rest, Buck, you'll need to reserve energy for the ride." She looked at his bare upper body. "I think I have a shirt packed up somewhere. I'll dig it out."
Buck gave a weary wave. "Much obliged, Ma'am." He gratefully accepted one of Bess's teas and settled down for some shuteye. He was going home, but figured it likely wasn't going to be an easy trip...providing they got out of this place first.
JD hadn't wanted to camp overnight, but with two men bigger than him, he lost the battle even before it truly began. He was hurting like crazy, and knew if he stopped it would be worse when they started up again. He wasn't wrong, and was clinging to his Bay's mane for extra support, while hoping Josiah and Nathan couldn't see him swaying in his saddle.
But they did.
"JD, drink some water," Nathan insisted.
"I will," JD nodded, even as he was figuring out how to do so without falling off his horse. He fooled no one, and before he'd realized what was happening, his horse was being led toward a group of rocks and brush. Josiah took JD off his horse as easy as handling a child, and set him down close to a shaded rock face. When a canteen was placed into JD's hand, he looked up.
"I'm not sorry for coming out here," he pouted.
"Not asking you to be," Josiah replied as he sat down next to him and took a drink from his own canteen.
JD frowned. "I'll be fine once I've taken a drink."
Nathan joined the pair and nodded. "Yup, I guess so."
The boy sighed and focused on his hands. "Okay, just do it, let me have it, both barrels, I figure I deserve it." He waited, but when no reply came, he peeked up. Both men were grinning. "I don't understand. Why ain't you tearing into me?"
The pair each lit up a cigar. Josiah took a few puffs of his. "Will it change your plans?"
The youth straightened. "No."
Nathan shrugged. "Then we'll take a break when needed and press on when you're ready."
"Uh, okay - thanks."
Josiah draped an arm around the boy's shoulders. "We want Buck back safe, too, but know this, if it gets that you're risking your own health, we stop. No point in having to worry about two of our brothers."
"Don't I get a say in this, fellas? I wanna find Buck, and I thought you understood that."
"We do," Nathan agreed. "But what kind of friends would we be to let you get sick and not give a damn?"
JD chewed on his lower lip. "So we're not stopping for long?"
"Ready when you are," Nathan answered.
Relief flooded through him as JD dropped his gaze and nodded. He leaned into Josiah and spoke softly. "Thank you." In a few minutes, he was asleep.
"I'll check his bandages before we leave," Nathan said.
The pair was in no doubt how desperate JD was to search for, and find Buck, because they wanted to, also. It said a lot about a man if all of his available friends were out looking to bring him home, and while JD rested, Josiah and Nathan pondered over how Vin and Chris were getting along.
It was early morning on the second day Vin and Chris followed a wagon's trail from the waterhole; and Vin was pretty sure he knew where it was heading. He halted his horse and looked out across the desert.
"Got something, Vin?"
Tanner nodded. "It's a ruin, now, but there's an old mission just beyond the horizon. Not sure if Buck's there, but the wagon sure is headin' that way."
The two friends looked at each other. "Guess we should go look," Chris said.
Vin gave a sharp nod. "Might as well seein' as we come all this way."
With just a short break for water, a few handfuls of dried fruits, and a biscuit or two, Chris and Vin continued on. The sun was high and relentlessly sucked the moisture right out of their weary bodies. As the pair started to flag, a hot breeze blew over them, bringing with it the distant sound of gunfire. Re-energized, they rode hard until, in the distance, an old, crumbling mission came into view. From the bushes to one side of the walls, puffs of smoke indicated where one party was hiding out, while inside the mission, more gun smoke floated up from gaps in the stonework. Guns drawn, the two regulators raced hell bent for leather toward the trouble, and hoped they wouldn't arrive too late to help.
In one of the roofless rooms, Buck watched Bess work as she checked his wound and changed his bandages. Her touch was light and made his heart beat a little faster, and when she smiled, he was entranced. He smiled back at her.
"I'm much obliged to you, Bess. Don't think I would've made it without you."
Bess's smile widened. "Big, strong, hunk 'a man like you? Sure you would."
Buck caught her hand as she finished up. "Even so, I'm real grateful."
The dark-haired, gray-eyed woman stared into gentle, dark blue orbs. "Grateful enough for a kiss, maybe?"
Buck chuckled and with the hand holding hers, he pulled her close. "I thought you'd never ask." They had only kissed for a few seconds when a voice interrupted them.
"Knock, knock." Charlie smiled as Bess hastily separated from Buck. "Well, look at you two lovebirds."
Bess pushed stray hair from her face to behind her ear as she packed up her things. "Man wanted to thank me."
Charlie bobbed her eyebrows. "I bet he did."
Buck grinned. "Got me a kiss for you too, if you've a mind to come get it."
Charlie approached and leaned in. "You're gonna need a lot more strength for me, Cowboy." The three laughed, but it was short lived when gunfire sounded from the courtyard. As the two women hurried to look, Buck awkwardly, and painfully got to his feet.
In the courtyard, and close to one broken wall, Eddie, Alma, Gwen, and Ellie were lying in the dirt on their stomachs, and firing at several Mexican men attempting to ride into the area. All the women had for protection was their guns and a few boulders set into the dirt just in front of them, but though the bullets were hitting close by; the most they succeeded in doing was scuffing up grit. Coming out of the crumbled room, Buck quickly assessed these men were after the women for only one thing. Regardless of their chosen lifestyle, his belief was that all women deserved respect, and the right to say 'no', and so Buck didn't spare a second thought about shooting to kill, and came out with a rifle blazing.
The banditos retreated to outside of the mission, giving Buck and the women time to regroup. Ellie climbed one wall to get a better view. Eddie looked up at her.
"D'you see 'em?"
"I see some horses behind a bunch of scrubby trees. I guess they must be there...OH!"
A bullet missed her, but Ellie was startled and fell. She hit the ground with a thump and went still.
"Ellie!" Bess and Gwen ran forward to join Eddie as she hovered over the still girl. The women watched anxiously while Bess checked her patient out. Meanwhile Buck climbed up to a break in the wall and looked out. Moments later, he fired.
"Hey, hombres, you want trouble, you got it. Best decision you'll make today is to ride away." He looked back in time to see Ellie being helped to sit up. Eddie smiled at him.
"Just had the wind knocked out of her, is all."
Buck clambered down to ground level, and swayed a little when his feet hit the dirt. He waved off help. "I'm good, but we need a gun on this position..." he pointed, "...and right along this wall, as well as covering the courtyard entrance." He approached Ellie.
"You up to helping us li'l darlin'?"
The woman huffed. "Shoot, Buck, take more than having the wind knocked outta me to stop me from helping y'all."
Buck kissed her cheek. "That's my girl."
Eddie took up the challenge and ordered the girls into position. Buck helped Alma and Gwen push the wagon into the entryway and left the pair to stand there in readiness. The rest of the women lined up along any breaks in the wall facing the trees, and Buck decided he would keep an eye on the rest of the perimeter. The waiting was tense but then, just as suddenly as it went quiet, the shooting started up.
During a lull, Buck rested his back against a wall and due to his arm being strapped, awkwardly reloaded the rifle he was using. Blood showed on the fabric of the borrowed shirt, suggesting his wound had opened up, but he didn't have time to worry about it right now. Judging by the amount of gunfire, the bandits had moved on from the plan to physically attack the women, to helping themselves to whichever ladies survived as well as likely taking anything worthwhile. While that was enough to worry about in itself, Buck's main concern at present was how long their own ammunition would last. Two out of the six women were already out, and he was on his last dozen rounds. He had to make them count.
The brunet looked at the women; brave, stoical individuals who appeared used to tough times, but right now, as backs of hands swept across perspiring, hair tussled brows, each one was displaying signs of concern, and weariness. The gunfire started up again, and as Buck stood to fight back, he refused to believe that after all he and the girls had been through, it would end here. He looked to the wagon and noticed Alma and Gwen were firing through, and to one side of the entryway, so he went to help them. Bullets ricocheted off the wood, sending airborne splinters into the three's faces, but they kept shooting.
Through the shimmering heat haze rising from the ground ahead of them, a distorted image of two riders appeared. Buck groaned, inwardly and took aim, but just as his finger squeezed the trigger, he pulled the shot and yelled to his companions.
"Help me move the wagon, NOW!"
Together they barely hauled the cart out of the opening in time for Chris and Vin to gallop through. As the wagon was quickly rolled back into place, the two riders pulled up and hastily dismounted.
"Good timing!" Buck yelled back at them from the wagon.
Even as Buck spoke, Vin had run off and was already climbing the walls of the old, crumbling bell tower. Chris went to a vacant opening in the wall. He looked back at Buck and offered a crooked grin.
"Good thing we came along. Guess I'm returning a favor, huh, Pard?"
Buck smiled in acknowledgement of Chris's reference to his timely appearance during their attack on Stuart's ranch a while back. "Good thing you did." He noticed the girls staring curiously. Buck grinned.
"It's alright, ladies, these are the good guys."
From the tower, and before dropping down out of sight, Vin touched his hat. Chris did likewise, but when a bullet glanced off the stonework close to Chris's face it closed down the chatter and he and Buck fired back.
Vin's position was unstable in the old bell tower, but it offered him a bird's eye view of their adversaries. He leaned over one edge and gave a shrill whistle that caused everyone in the courtyard to look up. He flashed his open palms twice and Chris nodded. Vin then ducked down and found a position overlooking the location from where he and Chris saw the gun smoke. The group was well hidden, but he could easily pick off a few and once he saw one about to shoot, he lined up his rifle and as the man fired, Vin hit back.
Chris looked up to see Vin flash up his fingers. He turned to Buck. "'Round twenty men sound about right to you, Pard?"
"That's more than paid a visit earlier, for sure."
"Figures," Chris said to himself. "Sent in a scouting party, first." He looked up when a shot rang out, followed by one from the bell tower, and as several more from Vin followed, the ground party joined in the fresh gunfight.
Intermittently, Vin stood, fired off a few well-aimed shots, and then ducked down to let the stonework take the return fire. Chris's aim was no less deadly, skillfully pulling back behind the wall to avoid incoming bullets, but not always avoiding the stone chips ricocheting from hits to the wall. Buck was crouched at the well, pivoting and firing as and when cover was needed after another two women ran out of ammunition, and the gunfire kept coming.
"You sure this is the way, Padre?" JD knew the name of the village he was heading for, but had no clue as to how to get there.
"It's the only way I know of, John Dunne," Josiah replied as he took off his hat and wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. He gestured with the hand holding the hat. "We'll be passing an old mission, soon. 'Bout half a day's ride from there is a watering hole, and Santa Augusta is another day or so's ride from there."
"That's if Buck's even there," Nathan reminded.
"It's a place to start," JD insisted. "Vin and Chris couldn't find him the other side of the border, and that's the only town I ever heard him talk about on this side."
JD raised his butt out of the saddle to stretch his injured leg, which had gone numb, but couldn't stop the grimace that followed the action. He was preparing for the expected lecture, when distant gunfire had all three halt.
"Someone's in trouble," JD said, excitedly. With a kick to his Bay's flanks, he took off.
"JD!" Nathan and Josiah hollered together, but even as they were doing so, the men were racing after him.
The three rode closer, and could see that gunfire was coming from a stand of small trees and shrubs to one side of the mission, while return fire came from the mission itself. Due to coming up from the rear, they could see several bandits hiding among the scrubby cover. Josiah made a decision and slowed.
"JD!" The preacher waited for JD to wheel his horse around and look back at him. "Head for the mission. Nathan and me'll head off the men under cover."
A little ahead of Josiah and Nathan, JD glanced over his shoulder as his horse danced expectantly. "Huh? But those fellas..."
"Go, NOW!" Josiah bellowed. He watched JD change direction and race off, and prayed that he had read this situation right. A glance to Nathan told him they were ready. Both men drew their guns and rode hard for the rear of the stand of trees. Once they were close, they began firing.
The closer JD got, the more he recognized the gun firing from the bell tower. He could see there was a wagon across the opening to the mission, and as he looked it over, he grinned to himself, lowered his head and body, and rode flat out toward it.
Buck's strength was failing. He was trying to keep an eye on the opposite walls to the gunfire and had already shot dead two men attempting to sneak in. Vin was a blessing up in the bell tower, picking off any bandits breaking away from the main group, but it was clear by the way the Texan's shooting was more selective that he was running low on shells. Charlie ran around collecting all the ammo available, including any carried on Chris, Buck's, and Vin's horses, and shared it out equally. However, everyone was painfully aware that it could come down to which group ran out of bullets first.
Vin suddenly whooped and fired into the air. "Hold your fire! We got company!"
All moved to the target wall and peeked out through holes and gaps. They saw two men riding fast and firing at the bandits. The surprised bandits hastily mounted up and rode away at full speed. The mission group were about to relax when the sound of a fast-approaching rider caused them to turn toward the unmanned wagon. Eddie aimed her Spencer but Chris's hand pushed the barrel up to stop her firing.
"He's one of us!"
JD rode up to the front of the mission, and could see the cart in the entryway was abandoned. He knew it would hurt his leg like hell to do what was needed to get inside the mission, but he wasn't prepared to waste any more time in finding out if Buck was in there.
He urged his horse into a leg-stretching gallop before the Bay jumped and sailed gracefully over the wagon. Perfectly positioned, JD rode out the leap with the poise of a skilled rider, but his injured leg was jolted on landing. However, he didn't have time to react as something caught his eye and he drew his gun.
Buck stared toward the mission's opening, and subconsciously started walking into the center of the courtyard to shoot the intruder. He watched, transfixed, when he recognized JD as he galloped toward the narrow end of the wagon and, with a skill the regulators had witnessed before, leaped the obstacle blocking the opening with ease. Almost the moment the Bay's hooves hit the ground, Buck saw JD draw his gun and fire. His and others' heads turned to see an armed Mexican, who was sneaking across the courtyard, go down. JD wheeled his horse around and grinned at his mentor and surrogate big brother.
JD saw the man stride over to him, but his grin faded when Buck punched his arm. "Oww! What was that for?"
"Of all the stupid, crazy stunts you've pulled, that has to be at the top of the heap. You could have hit someone..."
"Huh? I could see no one was there..."
"Well then you could have fallen and broke your fool neck."
"Aww, shoot, I can ride, you know that!"
"And get down off that darned horse when I'm yelling at you!"
JD gingerly dismounted, but his adrenalin was too high to feel the pain right then. He limped up to Buck with purpose and poked him on the opposite side of the chest to Buck's strapped arm. "Then I'd never ride again, 'cause all you ever do is yell at me!"
"Well quit doing crazy stuff, and maybe I'll stop."
"You can't stop, you enjoy it too much!"
Both a little breathless, the pair stared at each other. JD swallowed and his eyes filled. "Why did you leave, Buck? Did I do something to make you mad?"
Already tearful at seeing JD alive and well, Buck's good arm reached out and pulled the kid into his good shoulder. "No, son," he whispered. "Leaving had nothing to do with you. I'm real sorry I took off like that when you was hurt, an' all."
JD couldn't reply, he just fisted the back of Buck's shirt tighter as the pain-wracked pair held onto each other.
A grinning Tanner joined Chris and the women. Bess turned to the men. "Why are they shouting at each other?"
With a touch of his hat, Vin jogged off to move the wagon for Josiah and Nathan to enter the courtyard. A grin adorned Chris's dusty, handsome face. "It's what they do."
"Is that JD?" Gwen asked. "Buck's brother?"
Chris nodded. "You could say that, yeah."
"So who's Chris?"
Larabee narrowed his eyes at Gwen. "Why?"
"'Cause when he was sick, Buck talked about him, too," Bess cut in.
Chris cleared his throat. "Uh, I'm Chris, Chris Larabee." He pointed. "That's Vin Tanner, and the two men riding in are Josiah Sanchez, and Nathan Jackson."
Eddie relaxed her rifle. "We're obliged to you for helping us out, Chris. Don't reckon we'd 'a all been here now if you hadn't happened by."
Chris looked back to Buck and JD, who had yet to move. "We've been looking for Buck almost since he left town." He noticed the women hoping for an explanation.
"It's a long story that can keep. How'd he get shot?"
Ellie spoke. "We found him unconscious at a waterhole. When the bandits first rode in here, Buck hollered at them, and from what he said, it would seem they shot him, took his horse, and left him for dead back there."
Chris looked toward Buck and JD and his blood-spattered features darkened before relaxing. "Well, looks like we can call it equal, ladies, and I'm much obliged to you."
"My leg...I uh, I don't think I can move it right now." he felt Buck's familiar deep chuckle vibrate through him as he remained leaning in.
"Reckon I'm a mite tired and in the same predicament, Kid."
"You fellas look like you could use some help."
Buck looked over JD's head and at Vin as he approached. "Sure would be obliged."
Josiah, Nathan, and Chris joined them and while the latter pair took Buck, Josiah and Vin helped JD. They followed Bess, and between them took the injured pair to the area where Buck had been resting earlier. When there, they set the two down next to each other and Bess checked Buck, while Nathan examined JD.
Nathan scowled. "Damnit, Kid, you've opened up your wound."
"Oh, Buck," Bess scolded, "you're bleeding again."
The two healers looked at each other and shook their heads.
Josiah chuckled and walked past Vin and Chris, patting each man on the shoulder as he did so. "I'll go boil some water."
In the courtyard, Eddie watched the group disappear, and then turned to Alma. "We ain't got no whiskey, so I reckon we could all use some coffee."
Dirty, tired, but unharmed, the women moved. They brushed themselves off, and then set about preparing some food, and a good, strong pot of coffee.
Darkness fell and the men took it in turns to keep watch. Buck and JD were moved into the courtyard and everyone's bedrolls now encircled the roaring campfire. JD was sound asleep, but Buck had woken up and his back was resting against his saddle while he enjoyed a bowl of rabbit stew. When he tasted it, he figured there was some other meat in there, too, but knowing that Vin caught it, Buck decided it was best not to ask what.
"So, he's not your brother?"
Buck looked across at Eddie to see her addressing him, and gesturing to the boy sleeping next to him. He smiled. "He's as close to kin a man can be without sharing blood."
"All you boys seem real close," Alma said.
Seated on the other side of JD, Chris's lips curled in a small smile, but he remained looking down at his mug of coffee when he replied. "Been through a lot together these past months."
Despite the lack of clarification, everyone knew what he meant. His hand went to his gun at the sound of snapping wood, but Chris relaxed on hearing Vin's incoming whistle. The Texan appeared out of the gloom, walked toward a lidded pot keeping warm by the fire, and poured himself a cup of coffee. He took a mouthful.
"Not so much as a cricket movin' out there."
Chris looked up. "You need a hand?"
The tracker shook his head. "I reckon they're long gone. When I took a look around earlier, there weren't any tracks doublin' back, they'd kept on ridin'."
Chris nodded as he recalled Vin's report after returning from scouting. Following a pause, he spoke. "I figured we'd head out first light."
Tossing coffee dregs at the edge of the fire, Vin agreed, but he was looking at Buck and JD, and frowning. "Kid okay?"
Buck glanced down at the sleeping boy sprawled out at his side, smiled, and then looked at Vin. "Nathan reckons he's just tuckered out. Was up and doing too soon after getting hurt."
Preparing to take one last walk around the mission's perimeter, Tanner offered a dimpled smile. "Just like his brother."
Buck grinned back. "Which one?" He turned his head when Chris stood and put his hand on Buck's shoulder.
"Get some sleep. Got a long day tomorrow."
Tanner turned toward Chris.
"Wait up, I'll walk with you."
Both men looked back at Buck who was gesturing toward JD.
"How'd the kid get slugged in the eye?"
Vin stared down at his boots before raising his head just enough to look at Chris. The blond glanced at Buck, and then continued walking. "We'll talk later, Pard."
"You're a preacher?"
Resting easy on his side, and propped up on an elbow, Josiah swirled coffee around in the mug in his hand and smiled at Alma. "Was once."
The big man paused a moment. "Well, let's say God and me parted ways for a while, then just after I met up with the boys - we got to talking again, so we're taking it a day at a time."
"You boys must be real close...to all come out here looking for Buck," Ellie assumed.
Josiah took a swallow of coffee. "Buck's important to us, and his leaving was out of the blue, and real rough on the group, especially JD." His blue eyes flashed in the glow of the firelight.
"When he didn't come back, gut instinct told us something was wrong."
"He's a lucky man to have such good friends," Gwen said.
"He'd do no less for us," Sanchez assured.
"Why were you so sure he'd come back?" Charlie asked.
Josiah glanced across at Buck and JD, and then to Chris as he and Vin walked away from the injured pair. "Buck don't give up on his friends, and 'specially two in particular."
"You mean the ones Buck thinks of as brothers?" Ellie queried.
Josiah nodded; it seemed the best way to go without complicating things.
"Are you gunslingers?" Eddie asked.
Josiah shrugged. "Some might call us that."
Josiah's gaze softened and he smiled. "He's getting there."
There was a pause. "That's where Buck comes in," Eddie guessed.
The preacher nodded. "Took to him the instant they met."
"Ain't you afraid he'll get killed? Or by mistake get one of y'all shot? Him being a tenderfoot an' all?"
Josiah smiled at Ellie. "We all had to learn sometime. Just like he watches ours, JD's got six big brothers watching his back, and one in particular who's determined to get him beyond his teen years."
Alma glanced contentedly at the women around her. "Like a family." She watched the big man sigh contentedly.
"Really? Yellow root?"
Bess nodded at Nathan. "I know the first you reach for is stinkwood, but I find yellow root is just as effective in fighting infections and stomach flu - it even helps with toothache."
Gwen listened to Josiah while watching Nathan and Bess swap out herbs and plants from the cloth pouches they used for storing medicinal treatments. Unlike Bess and Nathan, Gwen was not a natural healer, but just like Bess and Nathan had done, she was learning. Bess told her she had a natural touch and a good mind for remembering what needed to be done. Those words had meant a lot to Gwen after years of whoring caused her to wonder if she could ever be anything more. But then, being with Eddie was not like other cathouses she'd worked in - and ran from. Eddie kept them busy, but she cared for them like a mama, or a big sister would, and wouldn't take no nonsense off any man. When Eddie asked the girls to go to Durango with her, not one of them hesitated in saying yes. Just like Josiah and his friends, they had become a family, and for most of them, it was their first.
Gwen looked when Eddie's voice drew her attention.
"Got a big day tomorrow, girls. Reckon we should get some shuteye."
With nods, and goodnights, the women moved to their half of the circle and prepared to settle down. Without thinking, Bess checked on Buck. She glanced at Nathan and he smiled and nodded, so she checked JD over also.
Awake for the first time in several hours, JD gratefully accepted some stew and a drink of water. Despite having slept, he never doubted he would sleep again soon. He was real tired and if he hadn't been hungry, he would have dozed right back off again after Bess checked his leg. JD yawned, noisily, suddenly snapping out of his drowsiness when Buck's hand steadied his slipping bowl.
"Thanks." He was relieved to see Buck's shit-eating grin was back and he grinned in return. "How're you doing?"
"Better than I was. Reckon having you and the boys here's helped a lot."
There was a pause before they both spoke at once.
The pair laughed. Buck put a finger over JD's lips when he went to talk again, so that he could speak first. "I'm sorry I lit out like that, Kid. I wish I could explain why, but I can't...One minute we was having us some fun, then guns were drawn...you'd gotten shot..." His misty gaze lowered but he kept talking.
"I can't believe I left you hurting like that." He gestured to his strapped arm. "I was coming home when this..."
JD reached out and patted Buck's leg. "It don't matter, now." The boy said the words, but Buck could see the hurt in JD's eyes.
"When I woke up and heard you'd gone, Buck, I...I figured I'd done something to make you mad."
Buck shook his head. "Shoot, Kid, me and you are always making each other mad. I'd be riding out every other day if that was true." He grinned when JD chuckled, but then went thoughtful.
"Damned if I can explain it but, something that cowpoke said hit home and it got me to thinking back to when I was just a shaver."
JD was listening to the explanation but it was clear he couldn't figure where Buck was going with it. The older man smiled.
"His words raised up a bad memory, and I kinda went off track for a while. But I'm back now...if that's alright with you." He was shocked to see JD shake his head.
JD looked at him. "I can't believe you'd think otherwise."
Buck chuckled in relief. "Well alright then." He indicated to the tilting bowl in JD's hands. "Now eat your stew before you end up wearing it."
All but them, Chris, and Vin, had settled down. Less than fifteen minutes later, only Vin was awake as he took first watch. Tanner glanced around the circle of bedrolls and nodded in satisfaction at the truth that, in a day and a half's ride, they'd be home.
Ezra Standish stood on the boardwalk and watched the stage come into town, and then go out again. He dusted off his jacket, disgruntled that nothing but packages were delivered. No fresh marks to keep his poker hands limber today; this evening, he would have to turn on the charm with the locals. Leaning against a porch roof support, he perused the street for the umpteenth time that day. Thankfully, things had been reasonably quiet since his cohorts left town in search of Buck, but despite his appreciation of that fact, Ezra was becoming bored with only himself, several of the town's businesswomen, and the occasional semi-coherent drunk, for company.
Consequently, when he saw dirt swirling on the horizon, he put it down to another dust devil, but Ezra straightened when the murky cloud deviated from the expected pattern and he stared, unmoving, until riders emerged from the gritty camouflage. His cheeks dimpled in a smile and he neatened his attire to greet the familiar riders and...he narrowed his eyes...was that a wagon with them? After stepping into the street, the southerner walked toward Chris and Josiah who were leading the group in. He wasn't surprised that Vin was bringing up the rear, but what did astound him was seeing two women riding Buck's and JD's horses. He felt his stomach turn when concern overcame any rational thought and all sorts of 'worst case scenarios' crossed his mind. Ezra looked up and nodded to Chris when the gunslinger pulled up just in front of him.
"While it's exceptionally good to see you all, I can't help but register my concern as to the whereabouts of Misters Wilmington and Dunne."
Chris's smile was genuine as he greeted the southerner and then gestured toward the wagon. Ezra touched the brim of his hat to the women in the wagon's bed, and his grin grew at the familiar sight of the top of a bowler hat. He approached.
"Ladies, a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Buck, I see you've succeeded in having an adventure with a not uncommon conclusion. Good to see you've endured the ordeal with your usual aplomb."
Despite his exhaustion and discomfort from the journey, Buck chuckled and returned the smile. "Good to see you too, Ezra." He noted the gambler's curious gaze toward JD. "He's doing fine, just sleeping again."
Ezra helped the women out of the wagon. "I too would enjoy my slumber if my face were nestled against the comforting bosom of a beautiful lady."
The men looked at JD's position and laughed, while Gwen's face lit up at the compliment. JD stirred and she looked down at him.
"Hi there, sleepyhead."
JD yawned and rubbed at his eyes. He saw Buck grinning widely at him, and was just appreciating how comfortable he was when it occurred to him exactly where he was. JD hastily sat upright and looked coyly at Gwen.
She leaned forward and kissed JD's brow. "You're welcome."
Gwen stood, and the woman rested on Vin's shoulders as the Texan's hands wrapped around her narrow waist and he easily lifted her up and out of the cart. Now everyone was stood on the ground, the group of women inspected their surroundings. Suddenly, Charlie squealed.
"There's a bathhouse!"
The ladies became animated as towels and wash bags were hastily grabbed from the wagon and they all moved en masse into the building. Roscoe Peeples looked up from his book and his clay pipe drooped from the corner of his mouth as he stared in astonishment when five women spilled into his place of business.
Eddie slapped some greenbacks down on top of the small desk. "We need your tubs, Mister."
Roscoe stared, and then finally nodded. "Got three and enough hot water for 'em right this minute. The drum'll be full 'n hot again in around twenty minutes. twenty-five cents a bath, extra for soap."
"Sounds a good deal, we'll take it." She looked when Chris reached past her, picked up the money and placed it into Eddie's hand.
"We got this, Roscoe." He touched his hat. "Enjoy, ladies."
Eddie smiled her thanks as the women squealed with delight and hurried behind the curtained area. Roscoe grinned and stood to get the water. Josiah grabbed his arm and gestured toward Ezra, and a very serious-looking Vin.
"We'll be right here, watching out for them while they bathe."
Roscoe's head bobbed in a series of fast nods. "Yessir, Mister Sanchez."
Vin touched his hat. "I'm gonna go make arrangements to get their wheel fixed up." He strolled toward the wagon and urged the mules over to the livery.
Ezra and Josiah helped Roscoe fill the three tubs and then retreated to a short distance outside the curtained area. With their backs to the drapes, the two grinning men listened to the giggly chatter, accompanied by splashing water as the women took their first hot bath in several weeks.
"Come on in boys, the water's r-e-a-l good."
Josiah chuckled when discarded stockings found their way onto Ezra's head and shoulder. With an eyebrow raised, the southerner's eyes glanced sideways at his shoulder before going almost cross-eyed to look up at the single hosiery semi-draped over his forehead.
"I'm of the opinion that we may be a little too close."
With a nod of agreement from an amused Josiah, and before the pair moved out into the room beyond, Ezra peeled the hosiery off himself with a thumb and forefinger and deposited them over the top of the curtain rail.
Chris exited the bathhouse and walked toward Buck and JD, who were out of the wagon. Nathan approached him.
"Just for tonight, I'd rather have 'em in the clinic. Tomorrow they can go back to their own rooms, maybe even sit out awhile."
"You know, we're right here," Buck reminded.
Chris stared, and then grinned. "Yep, you sure are." He pursed his lips, braced himself, and walked over to JD who was leaning against a support post. He noticed JD's head lower.
"JD, how you doing, Kid?"
JD didn't look up. "I'm good thanks, Chris."
Chris glanced quickly at Buck before looking back at JD. "Sorry I slugged you."
There was an awkward silence, and Chris could feel Buck's glare burning into the back of his neck. JD looked up.
"If it'd been anyone else but you, I'd be slugging 'em back right now." He grinned, crookedly. "Well, maybe when my leg was better so's I could run like hell afterwards."
Chris's features broke into a huge grin, and then he actually laughed. He patted JD's shoulder as he walked away. "You'll do, Kid...you'll do."
JD and Buck watched him leave, and then JD turned to his mentor. "I'll do what?"
Now Buck was laughing, along with Nathan. The former walked up to his surrogate little brother and gave him a tight, one-handed squeeze. "Damn, it's good to be home."
In the clinic later that evening, Chris visited before settling down for the night. He had both casualties laughing fit to bust when he told them of the chaos caused and the looks thrown from Mary and several other townswomen as Eddie and her girls bought supplies, dresses, petticoats, hats, and undergarments with their usual enthusiasm. He told the pair that they were missed when the rest of the regulators joined the women for dinner, and ended his chat by mentioning that the group said they would be moving on the day after next.
Nathan brewed and served tea for Buck and JD, and gave a shot of whiskey to Chris. Buck barely took a sip of the drink, while JD finished his, and as Buck expected, JD was sound asleep sometime later, as he would have been too had he drunk his tea. First though, he needed to speak to Chris.
Buck glanced at a sleeping JD, then spoke in a lowered tone. "I need to say something..."
Chris shook his head. "No, you don't."
Buck insisted. "Yeah, I do." He took a moment or two to compose himself. "I'm sorry you had to come after me. I still can't explain why I lit out like that, but it only took a day or two to get my head straight to come back."
"There are times when a man needs space. We understood that," Chris reassured. "And had it been Vin, me, Ezra, even Josiah, we'd 'a likely delayed leaving for awhile. But it was you, Pard, and you ain't the leaving kind. My gut told me you needed to be here, not out there somewhere, and alone, so we came looking." He could see a teardrop fall from Buck's eye.
"Only way I thought I could stop JD was to put him out..."
Buck laughed, softly and dabbed at his eye with the sleeve of his union suit. "He reminds me a lot of you."
For a moment, Chris's expression showed pride, but he quickly shook it off. "Aww no, he's all yours, Pard. You get full credit."
Buck glanced at JD. "Not full...it's part of what I saw in him right from the start."
A comfortable silence followed. "Is there anything you need, Buck?"
Buck shook his head. "Thanks, Stud, but I got all I need right here in this room, and in this town."
With a nod, Larabee stood. "Me too." He patted Buck's covered knee, and left.
Outside, on the landing, Vin pushed away from the wall and approached Chris. "Everythin' okay?"
Chris offered a small smile. "Yeah, reckon so. You heading for bed, or you up for a beer?"
Tanner patted Chris on the back. "What was that about beer?"
The pair grinned and together they walked down the stairs and toward the saloon.
Mid-morning the next day and Buck was relieved to be back in his own room and sitting on his bed. Knowing the women decided they would leave first thing the next morning, Buck wasn't really surprised when Bess knocked on his door. He grinned.
"Checking up on me, Darlin'?"
Bess nodded. "Uh, huh, one last time, before we move on." She reached behind her and locked the door before walking over to the bed. Bess removed the bandages, and her face got close to his bare chest as she took a close look. Her slim fingers touched the healing scar and her breath caught in her throat when Buck gently took her hand in his. Bess felt her face flush and she stood.
"The wound's looking real good."
Buck nodded. "Thanks to you." He sensed this was more than just a courtesy call. "I hear you're heading out in the morning."
Her hand still in Buck's, Bess nodded.
"You going with 'em?"
"Oh sure, I'm looking forward to getting to Durango, but..."
"Before I go, I just wanted to..." Leaning in, she kissed him.
Buck pulled her close and deepened the kiss until Bess eased back. He smiled. "Thank you, that was real nice."
"Mmmm..." She stroked his chest and grinned. "Just how strong are you feeling?"
Buck chuckled and tugged her close. "You wanna find out?" His eyes widened and twinkled at where her hand moved to next. "I guess that's a yes."
Next day at the crack of dawn, the six women were stowing their belongings in the wagon and preparing for the next part of their journey. Eddie approached Vin.
"Thank you for getting the wagon wheel fixed. What do I owe you?"
Vin smiled. "Ma'am, we owed you for what you ladies did for Bucklin. Y'all have a safe journey." His smile widened when she stretched up to kiss his cheek.
"God bless you, Sugar." She looked at the seven men gathered around the wagon. All the girls were helped aboard and were soon seated and ready to go. Eddie approached Buck and JD who were stood together. She kissed each of them on the cheek.
"You two stay out of trouble." She laughed softly at JD's coy glance, and Buck's shoulder shaking chuckle.
"Likewise," Buck replied.
The matriarch turned to Chris. "You boys are true heroes. It's been a pleasure to have gotten to know y'all."
Chris glanced at Buck, winked, and smiled at Eddie. "Likewise, Ma'am." He helped her up onto the driver's bench, and next to Alma. Vin and Ezra mounted their horses. The two men were escorting the group to their next stop.
With a last look back, the girls waved and Eddie flicked the reins. "Giddyup, mules."
Buck, JD, Josiah, and Nathan waved back. Chris briefly raised a hand. All five men laughed as the wagon slowly disappeared to the melodic tones of six female voices.
"Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?
Yes, we'll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God."
Several nights later found all the regulators in the saloon and enjoying a quiet drink. Ezra was playing poker with a group of cowhands when suddenly one stood and pointed a gun at the gambler.
Ezra's cool, green gaze held the man's glare. "I can assure you, sir, with a poor opponent such as yourself, I have no need to cheat."
The man heard six guns cock.
"C'mon, fella, time to head out," Buck said.
"Iffen you can't see this man's a cheat, then you're as much an idjit as this here gamblin' fella thinks I am."
Buck holstered his gun. "Well, I don't see it, so best I walk away," he said before drinking back his whiskey, putting on his hat, and walking out through the batwing doors.
Uneasily, JD watched him go, but turned his attention back to the situation when Chris walked up to the man. Before dealing with the cowboy, Chris looked at JD and gestured toward the doors with his head. With a grateful nod, JD left, turning back to look on hearing a familiar sound, before pushing through the doors.
After some anxious searching, the moonlight helped JD locate Buck leaning against the back wall of the church. In an uncommon move, the boy silently hovered close, but didn't approach. He jolted at the sound of Buck's voice.
"You taken root there, Kid, or do you plan to come on over?"
Responding to Buck's quiet question, JD moved to stand alongside the man. "You okay?"
A little ashamed of his offhand reply, Buck looked at the ground, and then at JD. "Don't you worry none, I've made my peace, and unless a slur comes from someone I give a damn about, I'm good." He resumed his position while waiting for JD to collect his thoughts.
JD paused for a minute to make sure he didn't say anything stupid. "Right about now I reckon the fella Chris just punched out wishes he'd kept his opinions to himself." JD heard Buck snort.
"Uh huh. Laid him out good on the saloon floor. Told the fella that if he ever ventured to bad-mouth a friend of his again, he won't be so nice next time." JD paused.
"Mama once said that, when a stranger's words are cruel, to remember it ain't us at fault; it's them that don't know nothing better than to cause trouble, and fretting on it won't change anything, so ain't worth our time."
"Your ma was a wise woman." Buck's eyes glistened and he looked up at the star-speckled sky. "You done?"
JD shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."
"You want another beer?"
There was a few moments silence. "Milk's good."
Buck chuckled softly, turned and draped an arm around JD's shoulders. "Milk it is and, Kid..."
"Yeah?" JD's mouth went dry as Buck's tone sounded serious.
"Thanks, and...don't fret, little brother, I aim to stick around for as long as you need me." He smiled when JD's toothy grin lit up in the moonlight.
"Gonna have a long wait."
"Good thing I'm a patient man, then." There was a pause before they both laughed.
Chris stepped from out of the shadows, and his face creased in a wide smile. He quietly followed the pair back and soon was also laughing aloud when a familiar voice drifted back on the light breeze.
"Hey Stud, you buying?"
Thanks for riding along!
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