Thanks so much to Chris for help with grammar, punctuation, spelling and basically getting this into presentable condition.
His mind had wandered. How had it come to this? All they were supposed to do was escort Judge Travis and the territorial governor here, discuss buying some horses, discuss bringing some law to this rough land. Currently the territory was threatened by Carlos Vasquez’s band of Comancheros - white, red, brown, black; race didn’t matter. It was a group of ruthless men who had banded together to control the area through murder and intimidation.
Even knowing this, Larabee had suspected it was probably truly nothing more than a trip to try and get a powerful local rancher politically aligned with the governor. He wondered if that thought had affected events. Was there something he could have done differently?
He was brought back to the moment when he felt a nudge at his shoulder. The older man standing over him proffered a glass of whiskey.
Chris Larabee nodded his thanks as the man took a seat near the fire. Neither spoke.
Chris looked down at the stick in his left hand. He had been drawing inane scrawls in the ashes. When had he stopped? Long enough that the bottom of the twig was now glowing ember-red from extended acquaintance with the flames.
"Anything?" he finally asked as he moved from in front of the fireplace to take the other chair across from his host.
"Nope," the gruff voice replied.
He was a miser with words, that one, Larabee observed.
But he finally added a few details. "Standish seems to be resting as well as can be expected. Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez are up there." Then, in a much lower voice he continued, "Joe’s got the boys milling ‘round enough it’s hard to see anyone’s missing. Not so much, though, as to look suspicious."
They both instinctively looked over at the Comanchero guarding them. For the moment his attention was focused out the window. There were three more armed men outside.
"Figure they got us stymied," Larabee acknowledged as they were basically being ignored, " by hidin’ the boys hostage somewhere." He didn’t have to add that they were, to a large extent, correct.
The other man sighed heavily. If all of this was weighing on him it didn’t show. Except maybe the tension around his eyes, the clenched jaw. The way he threw the dregs of his whiskey into the protesting fire. He was as worried as Chris.
Larabee studied the man, his sun-leathered features, white sideburns that hinted at how many years he’d spent on the earth; observations belied by his strength and stature. His eyes never seemed to be completely open, but it came from squinting in the blazing Arizona sun more than age. Suddenly Larabee realized those pinpricks of intense blue were studying him with equal scrutiny. Chris wondered briefly if he was as easily read by this man as the reverse was true.
"Buck’s not a common name. Who’d a thought?"
Chris Larabee had never been one to need conversation, but it would be a comfort right now. Maybe he could learn something that would help later. Maybe he was getting used to having people to talk to.
"He was his Ma’s ’little Buckaroo’. Got shortened to Buck and stuck." With an affectionate snort he added, "I’m not sure he remembers his real name."
"He’s a good man."
"Damn straight." There was a pause, then anger. "He takes too damn many risks."
"Tell me about it."
"He doesn’t think! Or what he thinks is he can’t get hurt. Or everyone he cares about is worth the risk, worth more than his own safety."
Larabee looked around, trying to avoid that statement if truth be told. He used it as a distraction to think how his men were waiting on him - expecting him to come up with a plan; to start something. To assure them that the ones who were out looking for the hostages wouldn’t end up dead.
He knew somewhere Vin was like a caged animal. Tanner was the tracker, the one who should be out looking for the missing. But fate hadn’t given him that chance. He’d been the one out with Judge Travis and the territorial governor when all hell broke loose. It was up to him to protect the two men. Only the one man sent out to warn him knew where they were hunkered down. And his order was to stay with them and keep them safe. Neither Chris nor anyone else knew where they were. No one could trade the politicians for the captives even if they wanted to. Chris took a deep breath and started to ask a few questions about the man who had gone out to warn Vin and watch his back. He didn’t make a good first impression.
"And it’s my fault." It took a moment to realize the statement referred back to why Buck took so many risks. That was an attention getter. "When we were kids he followed me like a puppy dog. Tried to do everything I did. I wasn’t that much older, but I was the "big brother”. I guess I have to admit I liked someone who was pretty damn good at taking care of himself looking up to me that way." This wasn’t his way, to talk, to open up. So why now?
"One day, Buck came home with a bobcat kitten from somewhere. He was way too old by then - a grown ass man nurturin’ a wild cat. Concocted some 'formula' - said fur bearin’ animals needed more than cow’s milk - and damned if it didn’t survive. He raised it with barn cats to keep it gentle, fed it, played with it, kept it mindful if it got too aggressive - or too independent. That thing was almost timid around Buck. Until I was drunk one night and made the mistake of punching him. That cat turned me ever’ which way but loose. Pulled my gun out of reflex …"
The man beside him cringed anticipating what would come next. The story teller sensed it, his eyes widened and he actually laughed, just the sound of it made it clear it was a rare occurrence. "Hell no I didn’t shoot it! For one thing, the bullet would have had to go through Buck. Secondly, Buck would’ve killed me."
There was a pause, one man reliving the past, the other more than commiserating.
"It wasn’t until years later I figured it out. That cat stayed gentle and loyal - you know how solitary a bobcat is - because Buck never let it grow up. Physically, oh, sure, but up here," he tapped his temple, "Buck was always the momma, the authority figure."
Suddenly what first seemed like nervous chatter from a man not used to so many words, seemed it might have a point. A moral. "And years later I figured out Buck had learned that sort of rearin’ from me. I did the same thing to him."
Neither man seemed willing to examine that too closely. Larabee finished off his drink and helped himself to another glassful, not meeting the other man’s eyes.
Then another laugh. This time it not only sounded rare, but something only recently possible. "So what you’re really wondering is ‘how does a man figure all that out, much less admit it in front of a stranger’. To talk about it?" An arched eyebrow defied a denial. It didn’t come.
"I had to settle down some, met men I trusted. I guess I noticed, on some level, that Buck would run interference when I started to talk to the others like I talk to him. It seemed to bother him when I talked to him like that around the others but bothered him more when I talked to them that way."
Now why did he stop there? Like he was letting something sink in. It was getting to sound too much like a eulogy. Larabee was ready to call a stop to it.
"I took Buck for granted. Maybe now I think it was to keep him my ‘kid brother’ who looked up to me and took what I dished out. Maybe I was always testing him to see how much he would take until he left me like … well, like others. As to how I finally saw what was going on? Buck had it one day and rode out. I said to hell with it, he’ll be back or he won’t - to hide the fact this time was different. I thought I’d really pushed too far, but was too proud to fix it."
"That’s when my wife lit into me with words and ‘say so’ that made that bobcat attack seem like a love tap. Got a bit of a feel of what I’d sounded like, what I’d been dishin’ out. Believe me …"
"Husband?" A soft voice came from the top of the stairs behind Chris Larabee. He realized the older man had seen her coming.
"... You never want to get Victoria Montoya Cannon truly mad at you."
"John," she rebuked, but denied nothing as she moved into his embrace and turned to Chris. "Mr. Jackson is an amazing healer. Mr. Standish is resting. I believe he will recover completely."
"Thank you, Ma’am," Chris nodded, a sincere weight off of his shoulders.
"Any word?" Victoria asked John.
"Nothing." John Cannon looked over through the window to greet the eastern rays of morning. "With the sun coming up there’s not much hope. We sent Buck and Mr. Wilmington on a suicide mission."
They all knew that even if two men could creep into a camp of twenty or more and sneak Blue and JD away from them, they couldn’t hope that no one noticed before they got far enough away to be safe. And with nothing but barren desert, scrub and Chaparral plants, there was no place to hide or seek cover. With the rising of the sun, they were resigned that they had lost four good men today, family. But there was some solace in knowing that there was no other way Buck Wilmington or Buck Cannon would want to go out.
"Rider comin’ in!" Where usually Cannon would recognize Reno’s voice shouting from the crow’s nest, this was a stranger’s voice with a Spanish accent. One of the Comancheros had the post today. Three of the people in the living room looked at each other, trying to see hope in one another’s eyes.
Their guard looked out the window to see what was going on, even though it would be several seconds before someone on the ground could see what the high lookout had spotted.
So, was it Carlos Vasquez? The leader of the outlaws coming to confront them; to punish them or theirs for trying to launch a rescue?
Chris Larabee and John Cannon stood straighter, heading for the door, once again with no intention other than to make the most of a hopeless situation.
"Riders!" The voice amended at the top of his voice, "Comin’ in hot!"
That’s all Larabee needed. If Vasquez was coming to gloat or punish, he and his men would saunter toward the ranchero to raise the tension, the anticipation of what would happen next. That it was a race to the gate … Buck had pulled it off again.
Larabee lunged at the outlaw guarding them just as he turned to aim the shotgun into the room. The gunfighter’s reflexes grabbed the barrel of the 12 gauge and shoved it downward as it discharged into the floor. He didn’t feel the barrel burn his hand as he ripped it from the desperado’s grip and in the next heartbeat slammed the stock into his jaw. He spun the long gun in the air and it came down where the stock landed in his hand. He held it at waist level and headed for the door.
"Gun cabinet’s locked," Cannon barked. "One of the sons of bitches outside’s got the key."
Larabee blasted the lock. The door hung on one hinge and the guns and holsters of all the men of the High Chaparral and Chris Larabee’s men that had been locked in there were now free and glinted more beautifully than gold.
Another heartbeat had Nathan and Josiah pounding down the stairs in response to the gunplay. Chris handed them their guns that had been locked in Cannon’s gun cabinet. Cannon handed Nathan his knives. They didn’t break stride as they took extras to distribute among the ranch hands and raced out the door behind their leader.
"Upstairs, Victoria," John Cannon stopped long enough to demand.
"John," She began to protest.
"Take this," he handed her a shotgun, "Get upstairs and watch out for Standish."
Victoria accepted the responsibility and headed to the second floor.
In one more heartbeat Chris Larabee lunged into the battle. Joe, Sam and the other ranch hands hadn’t needed guns to overpower the three guards outside, given the element of surprise, but it would take more than that to best the outlaws headed their way.
One of the Mescalero Apaches who rode with Vasquez was the look out. His rifle kept anyone from getting close to him - just as it was supposed to be. But that was when a 'friendly' was up there protecting the ranch. He split his attention between the ranch hands and shooting at the incoming riders; making it almost impossible for them to get through the gate.
Chris saw Buck - his Buck he amended - lurch forward, but stay in the saddle. One of the six horses running from the Comancheros pulled to a stop so suddenly that his horse almost sat down on its haunches. Six? Six horses? Larabee’s brain screamed. ‘I’m gonna kill ‘em both.’
The horse regained all fours and froze. The man on the palomino stopped behind the black to supply cover fire. The man on the black stood in his stirrups quickly but surely, put a rifle to his eye and fired. The Apache was falling from the crow’s nest before the rifle crack was heard. Then the black and the palomino leapt forward and drove toward the ranch behind the others. Suddenly Buck Cannon, Buck Wilmington, Blue Cannon and JD Dunne were racing through the gate followed by Vin Tanner and the man who, two days ago, had been introduced as Victoria’s brother.
Two dozen Comancheros were seconds behind them. All six men rode into the yard and were off their horses before they slowed down. Chris slid the rifle out of Buck’s saddle scabbard as Paladin sped by.
"You hit?" Larabee asked Buck.
"Dodged," he replied as he took aim on one of the first outlaws coming through the gate. Neither man stopped firing when targets presented themselves.
"Tanner?!" Larabee asked Buck as if it were his fault.
"Take it up with him!" Buck shouted. Chris turned to Tanner who took time to smirk before he strategically moved to the other side of the brawl.
Nathan, Josiah and John Cannon were only able to distribute a few of the ranch hands guns before the gate was breached. JD and Blue made sure they got pistols. They wanted redemption.
The battle disintegrated into hand to hand combat when, as a Commanchero would raise a gun in one direction, he left his other side vulnerable to the peacekeepers and ranch hands.
One man charged his roan toward Blue Cannon. His father pulled him out of the way by the shirt collar and shot the man who had made the attack. John Cannon shoved his son toward his brother Buck who, in turn, took the responsibility of keeping tabs on the young man who tried too hard to prove himself.
Josiah was bashing heads together and venting his pent-up frustration at feeling so helpless all night. Nathan’s knives were as much a distraction as they were deadly. None of Vasquez’s men know when a blade would target them.
In short order Vasquez’s men were fighting for their lives, no match for the men of the High Chaparral and Chris Larabee’s peacekeepers who were fighting for their homes and revenge.
Manolito Montoya, Victoria’s brother, glanced around and saw the tide of battle quickly shifting in their favor. John Cannon was leading his men, but had migrated back within reach of his brother and his son, ready to protect them if need be, even if he, himself, didn’t realize it.
Vin Tanner, the man he’d ridden with last night was circling an Apache, both with knives in hand. And damned if they hadn’t each wrapped an end of the native’s sash around a wrist. The two of them were embroiled in a battle of honor and completely oblivious to the melee that eddied and swirled around them.
Larabee, the quietly angry leader, had forsaken the rifle he pulled from Buck’s scabbard. He wanted to hit as many of these outlaws as he could reach and hit them hard for endangering his men.
The Preacher seemed to be accumulating the fallen enemy and piling them at his feet. He was a bit of a berserker and Mano reminded himself to never get on his bad side.
Sam, Joe and Reno were, as usual, in close quarters giving as good as they got. They knew they had won. It was all clean up now, and convincing those that wouldn’t give up they’d made a bad choice.
Mano laughed and moved to lean on the hitching rail and enjoy the fact that things had actually turned out okay. No one seemed seriously injured. He took the dipper from the water bucket. Just as he put the cup to his lips, a punch from one of the last outlaws standing had Buck Cannon staggering into him.
"Ay, Compadre," Montoya chastised as he tried unsuccessfully to avoid getting drenched.
Cannon blocked another punch from the man moving in on him, "Well now, Mano, we ain’t quite finished here."
Buck Wilmington, working his way through anyone else standing, dropped Cannon’s attacker with a roundhouse punch, looked at the water ladle in disgust and pulled a flat sided bottle of whiskey from his vest pocket where it had somehow survived unscathed.
Chris Larabee’s eyes scanned the area briefly and met those of John Cannon, who was doing the same. The yard was strewn with unconscious and wounded. Sam was directing the ranch hands to round them up.
Nathan finally got to the hand Larabee had burned on the shotgun barrel and wrapped it in a bandana. It was a temporary fix, but the healer knew he’d have to bide his time taking care of it proper-like once things slowed down.
"Tie what’s left of ‘em up in the barn, Sam." John ordered. "We’ll figure out what to do with them when we get around to it."
"Got it, Boss."
One final gunshot rang out. Everyone ducked, looking for the new threat. Larabee spun to discover Vasquez himself stretched out behind him. The gun in his lifeless hand told the story. The outlaw had tried to backshoot the gunfighter. Chris looked in the direction of the shot to see who had saved him. Ezra Standish, his left shoulder heavily bandaged, but that damnable red jacket draped over it nevertheless, was propped against the wall of the casa, a smoking gun still in his hand.
John Cannon’s story of his wife’s temper flooded back. Because, instead of taunting Larabee with his usual smirk and tip of the hat, Ezra was backed up with nowhere to go and looking for an exit strategy. Victoria Cannon was shaking a wooden spoon in his face for getting out of bed. It brought to Larabee’s mind the image of a ranch dog backed up and stymied by a spitting, hissing, kitten.
"Senor Standish! You are in no condition … "
"Madam, do you realize I saved a life?"
"And perhaps we can write that on your headstone?! What is with men, ignoring their health …"
"Victoria, hermana," Manolito tried to run interference.
"And you! Manolito do you like having me worry all night …" the spoon was turned on him. He immediately backed off, his hands up in surrender and with a sympathetic, ‘You’re on your own’ shrug to the gambler.
A few feet away, another altercation was brewing, "You!" Larabee growled. He had enough presence of mind not to use his last name, but Tanner had stuff to answer for.
Vin knew it was coming and had decided to show his face and get it over with.
"You had orders!" Larabee growled as Tanner moseyed over.
"Needed to find that gang’s camp fast."
"So you left a judge and a territorial governor in the desert alone …"
How could a fake cough carry so much authority? Larabee wondered. ‘Years of practice’ flitted through his mind as he turned to see the judge and governor standing behind him, all but unrecognizable in wrangler’s dusty clothes. For the first time he noted that the Judge was wearing Wilmington’s hat and the governor was wearing Cannon’s.
"Mr. … Vin," Judge Travis began and then amended almost seamlessly. There was no reason to risk that the Governor was familiar with a name on an inconveniently outstanding wanted poster, "and Mr. Montoya snuck us in here after dark in time for them to move out with the rescue party. It appears the unexpected benefit was that the head count remained the same here at the ranch."
"They hid us in plain sight one might say and joined your other men in a successful rescue – and allowed you to put an end to the notorious Vasquez gang and in righteous form, I might add. To think you were only supposed to be our escort. Mr. Standish, I believe I owe you all a steak dinner?" The governor, even here couldn’t help but sound like a politician. Ever a politician.
In response, Ezra offered, "I bet the governor that we would run into the Comancheros and dispatch them." He used the exchange with the governor to sidle away from Victoria.
Buck laughed and took a silver dollar Josiah begrudgingly handed over. "I knew you’d get a bet in." He held up the silver dollar bet as proof.
"I’m sure you’ll be equally amused to learn of the side bet I made with the governor – that you or Mr. Dunne would be the catalyst," Ezra offered innocently.
Buck’s mouth moved like a fish out of water, searching for words as he saw gold and silver coins pass from the Judge and Governor to Josiah and Vin as well as Ezra. Apparently Ezra wasn’t the only one who thought Buck could find trouble. He looked around for someone to defend him.
Standish added, "It’s not always the bet. I acknowledge that any of you can find trouble …"
"Us!?" Buck blurted.
Standish kept speaking as if he hadn’t been interrupted, "… but this expedition had your names written all over it. I should have gone double or nothing if you were both involved."
"Hey, now," JD started forward.
Blue Cannon pulled him back, "Ain’t it nice to not be in the center of the blame for a change?"
JD thought and nodded. The two young men had had time to commiserate while they were held hostage and learned they had a lot in common.
"It is fun to watch Chris get all up in Buck and Vin’s face." Dunne admitted.
The disbelieving look on Buck’s face had a disgusted Larabee snatch his hat from the judge and slap it into his chest as he turned back to Tanner. "You couldn’t have told me?"
"Didn’t like the way you asked."
"Buck! You’re bleedin’ like a stuck pig!" JD observed suddenly, worriedly and loudly.
Two men looked for injuries. Buck Cannon confirmed he was relatively unscathed.
Wilmington knew to crane his neck to try and see his back. "It is beginnin’ to sting a might."
JD started to move toward his friend, but couldn’t get in. Victoria Cannon and Nathan Jackson were there immediately to inspect the deep gouges where the crow’s nest gunman’s bullet had scudded across his back like a flat stone across water. Larabee was behind them. Manolito Montoya was suddenly behind JD and Blue and draped an arm over each one’s shoulders, to distract young Dunne from his friend’s injury. "Let’s let them do their job, no? Mr. Wilmington couldn’t be in better hands." He handed first JD and then Blue the whiskey flask that somehow he now possessed when Buck had it only moments before. He encouraged both to take a sip even though neither chose it as their drink of choice.
"Mr. Wilmington," Victoria began sympathetically as she examined the three deep wounds.
"That needs tendin’, Buck. Now."
"No offense, Nathan, but Miss Victoria’s hands are a might cooler than yours …"
"She’s married!" echoed across the yard in six variations of warning, bemusement and frustration.
Buck ignored them, "Ma’am, it ain’t that bad."
"Except the bleeding isn’t stopping."
"I’ll tend my horse and …"
There were three reactions.
"Mr. Wilmington, our ranch hands can …"
"I’ll wait ‘til you lose enough blood not to argue …"
"Buck, stop being a damn fool …"
Wilmington, no surprise, reacted to Larabee’s derogatory comment, "Paladin might nearly killed herself gettin’ us …"
But Larabee had already turned back to finish with Tanner. "I expect that sort of stupid stunt from Buck."
"Hey, now..." Buck railed.
Vin responded. "We needed to find the camp. Fast. Two men weren’t enough for the rescue job once we did find the place. And I could track ‘em faster." His tone added, ‘You know it’s true.’
The result was a three way argument where no one could make out the words.
Victoria took half a step forward.
Manolito stepped in front of her, "Let the men handle their own business."
"Men! You are all children. All of you."
"Victoria," Mano began in his pacifying-his-sister-voice. That’s as far as he got.
"And you! You ride about the country all hero and macho – do you want to die!"
With that accusation the argument immediately lapsed into demonstrative Spanish, ignoring the fact that they were between another ongoing argument as Nathan decided to turn his ministrations to a weak, wavering Standish who nevertheless moved to avoid the attention.
The yard suddenly filled with discordant strains like an orchestra tuning up, but the instruments were all voices.
John Cannon, relief and fear released as anger, towered over his son. "What were you thinking? Or do you ever think? Riding out like …"
"Oh, man, does that sound familiar," JD slurred before he realized he’d spoken. Apparently the heat, the adrenalin and not being used to hard alcohol was hitting him fast.
Blue Cannon stared at his new friend for a moment.
"Let me tell you something, boy, you’ve got a long way to go before you can ..." Blue watched his father bow up to rail at JD the same way he himself was treated … and giggled.‘Oh, damn, was that me?’ he thought, but couldn’t stop.
Cannon was brought up short. He looked up, found Chris Larabee’s piercing eyes on him and realized they were both again using anger as a substitution for all other emotions. He thought about trying a different approach until Blue’s response filtered through to him.
"I was showing a friend the ranch. Can’t I be proud of it, too? Or is it just yours to be proud of? Whose ranch is …?" But where Blue would usually bow up and explode in hurt equal to his father’s anger, he was still giggling drunkenly, leaning heavily on JD, "Oh, hell, didn’t I tell you how it’d be?"
"He’s good," JD observed sagely, "but when you’ve been railed at by Chris Larabee, ... I’d have to give him a 9 out of 10."
"Nope, not buyin’ it. Ain’t nobody can make ya feel guilty like my Pa." Blue said as he sort of listed away from Cannon because JD, who he was leaning on as a crutch, was migrating toward Wilmington to check out the wound.
"Gentlemen," Ezra mused as he sauntered by trying to avoid Jackson, "if you are that familiar with your father figures, you should get some money put on their reactions. I assure you a few silver dollars will assuage the lectures."
John was puffing up again, all attempts at patience erased now that he was being sassed.
Buck Cannon moved in as peacemaker, "Now Big John, those Com-an-cheros, they’s gonna grab somebody. They had a plan …"
"And it’s only because their plans don’t have the plain dumb luck yours do that you’re even breathing now!"
"Don’t take it out on Uncle Buck!" Blue defended.
JD, who was leaning over studying the three gouges in Buck’s back stood up and moved back to the Cannon brothers. He stared up at the tall elder Cannon and turned seriously to Blue, "I was talkin’ pissed. Nobody’s worse than Chris at bein’ pissed. You talkin’ makin’ ya feel guilty? I gotta go with my Buck."
John Cannon lit into JD like he would another son, "Boy, that kind of sass will get you ..."
"Hey, Pard, if the kid needs talkin’ to I’ll do it." Wilmington carried his argument with Larabee along with him as he moved to enjoin the one between JD and the Cannons.
There came a physical rhythm to the ruckus.
Victoria moved back to accusingly side with Nathan regarding Ezra’s health – in Spanish. Ezra responded in Spanish and then they had to do it all over again in English for Nathan’s benefit.
Buck Wilmington patted Standish on the shoulder as he moved by, overtly to commiserate, but covertly to remind the gambler how much his shoulder hurt; that he should listen to the caregivers. He knew very well that any words would have the Senora and Nathan back to his own wounds.
It was the tone more than the words that had Buck Cannon migrate to Larabee and Tanner to try to run interference. There was something subconsciously familiar and bothersome about the berating that he thought should be dispersed before it couldn’t be taken back.
Josiah made a conscious decision to avoid the multiple arguments ebbing and flowing around him. He circled his flock with the protectiveness of a Great Pyrenees. He passed the time thinking of and tossing out appropriate Bible passages for each conflict.
The territorial governor watched in fascination, like things might come to blows any second. The judge looked on with bemused familiarity. Oh yeah, it would come to blows.
Somehow best pals JD Dunne and Blue Cannon were the first blows to fall. They had come to odds over their mentors and who was the best or ‘baddest’. The two youngsters were now wrestling in the dust.
"You take that back."
"You can’t talk that way to my Pa."
"Buck’s the best..."
"I’m ridin’ with Chris Larabee!"
Across the yard, Nathan had finally grabbed Ezra’s good arm to force him inside. Ezra balked.
Buck Cannon and John Cannon were nose to nose, both turning red with anger and neither hearing what the other was saying.
The ranch hands watched with amusement. Some were placing bets of their own on the various and intermingling altercations.
"And you’re gonna see to that horse just because I told you not to! Don’t think I don’t get it!" Larabee growled as he grabbed Wilmington’s shirt and was vaguely surprised when Vin stepped between them. Larabee had forgotten Buck’s wounded back.
"If you’re too stupid to take care of yourself …"
"… Take that hand off of me or you’ll be pullin’ back a stump."
"Uncle Buck …"
" … You take that back…"
"Vin is the best tracker …"
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow …"
Across the yard, Ezra saw an opportunity for a diversion; "Mr. Wilmington, I have peppermints, an apt reward for your Paladin …" It didn’t work. He thought it was drowned out by the various confrontations.
A deafening clanging drowned out everything. Everyone froze in mid swing, wrestle, glare or mocking laugh.
Victoria Cannon stood in the mix, banging the wooden spoon on the metal water bucket – the contents of which she had just hurled onto her now re-drenched brother.
She took advantage of the silence. "Sam and Joe," the two ranch hands tried to melt into the crowd at the sudden attention, "will see that all the horses are cared for. Pedro will give them dried apples and carrots for bringing my men home safely." Grabbing the peppermint from Ezra she walked over and dumped them in Wilmington’s hands. He fumbled to hold onto them.
"You may go reward your horse," she stated.
How did she make that sound sensible? John Cannon mused.
"… but only because it suits me by giving us time to get Mr. Standish settled again."
Ezra’s head spun around at that. "What, I …"
Wilmington grinned. Standish’s subterfuge seldom backfired on him. That lady had his number. Buck turned the grin on Larabee. He knew how much his friend hated it when he was stubborn. Chris’s glare promised retribution.
"Then you," she pointed the spoon forcefully at Buck Wilmington, "will have your wound tended to and I expect you to do everything Mr. Jackson tells you in the foreseeable future."
The spoon spinning around to zero in on him almost physically knocked the smirk off of Ezra Standish’s face. He had been silently jeering Buck who couldn’t respond with Victoria watching him, "You will follow those same orders immediately." She raised an eyebrow defying an argument. It didn’t come.
"You," she waggled the spoon between Chris Larabee and John Cannon, "will not raise your voices in anger the rest of the day and you will tell each of our heroes how grateful you are they have returned safely."
"You," the spoon found JD and Blue who, still on the ground, crabbed backwards, "will not. . . Will Not resolve issues among friends the way these two do." The spoon again focused on Big John and Chris, "Not under my roof."
"Do not laugh, Buck Cannon. Do not encourage them!" She didn’t even have to turn around. She knew what he would be doing.
Buck swallowed the laugh and chokingly got out, ‘Yes, Ma’am, Miss Victoria, Ma’am."
"You," the spoon of fate aimed at Vin Tanner. Before the thought, ‘what did I do?’ was complete, she gave him his orders, "You will see that all of my suggestions are carried out and that all of these men are clean and at my table by the time breakfast is served." The spoon made the rounds one last time directed at each man. It barely missed Buck Wilmington mouthing to Buck Cannon, ‘suggestions?’
"Do I make myself clear?"
With that she swished around to head inside only to be stopped by a slow Texas drawl, "Ma’am?"
"Yes, Vin?" she responded sweetly. She had picked up that no one used his last name. Victoria Cannon was nothing if not observant. That’s how she kept the men in her life in line. And she didn’t care why they avoided his last name. He was a good man, he rode with good men and he had been instrumental in getting Blue, Buck and Manolito back to her.
He ambled up, put out his hand and said, "Might I …"
Before he finished, she spun around, swatted Manolito on the butt with the spoon.
"Ow, ow, sister!"
"You will peel potatoes for being an agitator." With that she turned back, officially handed the spoon to Vin, and walked inside.
Vin patted the spoon in his palm and looked at the semi-circle of men around him. He didn’t say a word but sported a surprisingly evil, Larabee-like grin.
"If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, can we postulate the woman’s spoon is mightier than the gun?" Ezra opined to John Cannon and Josiah who were standing beside him. As one educated man to the others, they sighed in resignation.
Tanner raised an eyebrow at Standish and continued the rhythm of the wooden spoon into his palm. Ezra slid inside with as much dignity as possible.
The Brothers Buck, as Blue and JD had come to call their mentors, were headed toward the corral. Wilmington was leaning heavily on Cannon, but too stubborn to not follow through and feed his horse.
JD and Blue were right with them. Manolito took one step to follow.
"Manolito Montoya!" Victoria’s call had him shaking his head and moving toward the kitchen.
The judge and governor headed inside, laughing like school boys and repeating some of the more colorful phrases they had just heard.
Tanner spun the spoon across his knuckles like a baton and, along with Nathan and Josiah, followed the crew to the corral with every intention of milking the situation for their own enjoyment.
The cowhands dispersed to go about their business and secure the prisoners what with the action being over.
And, as it had all begun, that left Chris Larabee and John Cannon. Chris pulled out two cheroots and shared one in amicable silence.
It was Larabee who broke the silence. "Buck’s mom wasn’t married when she had him. Her father must’ve been a mean one. Got it in his head the father was Algonquian tribe. Referred to his "Little Buck”. A three year-old-kid don’t know sarcasm or meanness. Thought it was Gran’pa’s nickname for him. It lost all its bad meaning when Buck loved it so much. His Mom let him keep it, even after she had to run away for so many ugly reasons." After a pause he added, "I don’t know if Buck remembers his real name, either."
There was another amicable silence then Cannon spoke. "Well, guess we better go mind Victoria."
And they followed their families toward the corral.
"Ain’t gettin’ sappy, though."
"Hell, no, ain’t carryin’ on like no woman."
"Couldn’t match Victoria anyhow."
"Buck would think he was dyin’ if I was to get too … too …well, you know …"
"Oh, hell, yeah."
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