This story was moved to blackraptor in March 2022.
Hot. That was the only word that described the windless, cloudless summer afternoon. Even JD Dunne, the youngest and most vocal of the seven peacekeepers, had become quiet in the face of all the unrelenting heat. They were on their way back to Four Corners, having spent the past five days helping to track down a group of desperados who had caused a great deal of destruction – to both people and property – in the territory. Their duties discharged with the capture and arrest of those men who had survived the shootout, they were on the way back to their regular duties.
As the burning sun perched itself at the zenith above them they reached a waterhole. With only a bit of persuading, the other six convinced Chris Larabee to make noon camp near the inviting looking water. They picketed the horses on the bank, allowing the animals to drink and graze at their leisure. Staking out various puddles of shade, the men relaxed in the relative coolness.
From where he sat, JD found himself mesmerized by the lazily rippling surface of the pond. Knowing he was risking harassment by the others, especially Buck of course, he pulled off his boots and socks. Rolling up his pants, he padded to the water's edge, plopped to the ground, and gingerly dipped his bare feet under the cool surface. Sucking in his breath at the temperature change, he smiled and sighed.
Oh hell, he knew it. Buck was going to give him a hard time. "What?" he asked with resignation.
"How's th' water?"
He realized suddenly that the sun had been blotted out. Squinting upward, he saw that Wilmington was standing over him. The big man was smiling down at his younger friend.
"Mind if I join, ya'?"
With a shrug that only partially hid his relief in not having to spar with the man, JD scooted a bit closer to the edge, his calves twitching at the cold water's touch. He felt someone approaching from the other side, and turned to find Vin squatting down next to him. With a grin toward the other two, Tanner pulled his footwear off and joined them.
"Y'all looked mighty comfortable, thought I'd join in."
"Glad I already filled my canteen. Don't think the water's gonna be fit to drink now." The trio looked up to find Josiah approaching. He too had removed his boots and rolled up his pant legs. Using Buck's shoulder for leverage, he lowered his large frame to the ground next to the gunman. Easing his feet into the water, he smiled, "ahhh, sweet as nectar."
Still in the shade, the other three peacekeepers watched with barely veiled amusement. Looking at the other two men, Nathan shrugged as if to say 'why fight it' and slipped out of his own boots. With a few quick strides he took a seat next to Vin.
Shuffling his ever present deck of cards, Standish was less than successful at hiding his own growing desire to partake in the camaraderie on the grassy bank. Nearby, Chris lit a cheroot and leaned back against the tree trunk that offered him some protection from the merciless sun. There was no hurry to return to Four Corners, things had been quiet. They had been in the saddle for most of the past several days, a break was in order. Besides, the water was looking better every second. He pulled out his flask and took a drink, the whiskey inside burning in a different manner than the sun had burned into them on the ride. Finally, tossing the little cigar to the ground, he pulled off boots and socks and joined the others.
It took only a few additional minutes for Standish to join in. His pants were hiked higher than the others, neatly folded back in an even and precise manner that surprised no one. He sat on the other side of Josiah as if using the bigger man as a screen to keep him from exposing his lapse in decorum to the others. Ezra had to admit, though, that the water was quite soothing.
"Boys," Vin's soft drawl broke the silence, "reckon there's only one thing that'd feel better." As the others turned toward him, he pulled his suspenders off his shoulders, following it with his deep blue shirt. As they watched, he very casually slipped out of ever stitch of clothing and stepped off into the placid water. The others had yet to say a word. Taking slow easy strokes, he moved toward the center of the pond then turned back toward the others. With a broad, easy grin, he challenged them to join him without saying another word.
One by one, throwing caution to the wind, the other men disrobed and entered the water. The chill seeped into their trail worn and overheated bodies, bringing tired smiles to seven faces. Suddenly joy had returned to life, if fleeting. The water became a play land and the seven men boys at play. Even the dark countenance that was Chris Larabee's every day face slid away as he helped Buck dunk JD under water. He laughed along with his old friend as the youngest member of their group fought back to the surface, spitting, spluttering and cursing.
Not to be outdone Nathan and Josiah, taking advantage of the distraction, tipped the lanky tracker into the cold water as well. Not as surprised as the younger man had been, Vin exacted immediate revenge. While the two men awaited his reemergence from the water, the wily tracker butted into them, sending them under water as well. That accomplished, he broke the surface, a broad grin already plastered on his handsome face. With a howl, he swam quickly away when the two larger men reappeared.
"You can run but you can't hide," Josiah choked out as he coughed out the water he had swallowed.
"Think you're forgettin' who you're talkin' about," Buck offered between gasps of laughter. The two older men glared first at the sharpshooter then at the ladies man, but only for a few seconds before they too succumbed to the humor of the moment. Ezra fell next, literally, bobbing quickly back to the surface spouting words the others had rarely if ever heard from the Southerner. Buck was upended by Josiah and JD, giving the others a scare when he held his breath longer than expected and resurfaced several yards away. Not even Chris Larabee was exempt; Tanner and Wilmington conspiring to get him as wet as the others. They only half believed the promises of revenge he bestowed on them, but no one came close to the man for some time.
Finally they began drifting back onto the grassy bank, the trail dust and heat soaked from their bodies by the cool water. Taking the lead once again from Tanner, none sought their clothing, choosing instead to stretch out in the grass to dry before getting dressed. Relaxed for the first time in days, they drifted into various stages of stupor. As men are often wont to do, their minds drifted to various topics that served to bring about physical changes to certain parts of their anatomy. Soon seven men were finding themselves growing once more uncomfortable. The afternoon heat had little and nothing to do with that discomfort this time.
Six of the seven had the good sense to try and pretend that they were completely alone. Buck Wilmington had seldom shown a great deal of good sense. Pushing himself up to his elbows, he scanned the group around him. He chuckled more than once as he tried to gauge what his companions were day dreaming about. From the looks of things, Nathan was probably thinking about the last time he'd been at the Seminole village visiting Rain. Vin had been seen pretty frequently heading for one of the outlying farms under the pretense of helping out a widow with two or three pretty young daughters. It was a safe bet that Chris was recounting his last visit to Purgatorio. He wasn't certain about Josiah or Ezra, although he thought he had seen Josiah leaving Maude Standish's room the last time she had come by to visit. And he was certain that JD's mind was filled with thoughts of Casey. Suddenly his laughter was replaced with a yelp.
The others looked up, half expecting to find themselves on the wrong side of an ambush. Instead they found Buck glaring at JD Dunne with a mixture of anger and envy. The young man squirmed uncomfortably under the sudden scrutiny.
"Buck! What the hell are you doing?"
"Damn it all t' hell! It ain't fair's all…it just ain't fair!" The big man was fairly dancing now, his mercurial nature taking hold of him. "Just ain't fair's all!"
The other five men were following his gaze now, their expressions ranging from simple humor to pure envy. The object of their attention was scrambling to find a position that would allow him some measure of dignity. Unfortunately for JD, if he turned to get away from one set of eyes, he came into full view of another pair. "Would you all please stop staring at me like I'm some prize bull or something?"
With a chuckle, Josiah offered, "less like a prize bull and more like a stud bull son."
Nathan, the only one who had ever had occasion to see the young man au natural in the course of his duties as healer, smiled. "Reckon your secrets out JD."
Unable to stand it any longer, Vin doubled over with laughter, "poor Buck," he gasped between chuckles, "don't reckon I've ever seen y' lookin' downright green."
"Green, that's the only way to describe it," Chris agreed, just barely retaining his usual stoic countenance. Staring pointedly at first the furious gunman and then at the young sheriff, he concluded with a nod, "green with envy."
While Wilmington continued to storm, naked, at the edge of the pond, JD's expression changed as well. Realizing that, for once, they weren't making fun of him, he began to smile. The smile grew quickly toward a full-fledged grin. Relaxing, he propped himself up on his elbows, stretching out on his back to reveal that part of his anatomy that was very obviously the cause of Buck's anger. "Can't help what nature and the good Lord gave me Buck," he said with mock humility.
That was enough for Chris. He joined Vin, and both men were rolling on the ground laughing. It was several minutes before either could join the conversation again.
Josiah clapped a big hand on Nathan's shoulder. "The Lord works in mysterious ways."
"Amen", Jackson agreed. His broad grin threatened to split his face as he watched the still angry gunman.
"Hey Buck?" Sanchez called. "Reckon we know what all that howlin' was about in the hayloft that night?"
That sent JD into a fit of laughter himself. Flopping back onto the ground he managed to imitate the howls that had echoed through the livery the night he and Emily had slipped into the hayloft. Suddenly it didn't matter so much that nothing had happened.
Once he was able to control his laughter, Vin stretched out on the ground as well. A child of nature, the young tracker was comfortable exposed to both the elements and the others gaze. While he begrudgingly admitted to himself that he was nearly as envious of JD at the moment, it was not so much that it got in the way of his helping to annoy the big man. Nudging the young sheriff next to him, he coaxed the younger man back to his elbows. Both adopted smug grins and watched as Wilmington, only now beginning to calm down, grew agitated once more.
"Hell Bucklin," Vin called out, "what's th' matter? Afraid of a little competition?"
"Competition? Competition! " Wilmington spluttered. "Takes a lot more'n equipment t' be any kind'a competition for experience."
"That must be it," Ezra, silent until now, chimed in with a smug look that belied his shocked tone. "I've heard of such things happening. Why Mr. Wilmington, I believe it is that very thing that has led to your…shall we say, predicament?"
"Yeah, I remember readin' 'bout that very thing," Nathan picked up on the gambler's train of thought. "Buck, answer me this would you? Do you remember bein'…well, bein' bigger before?"
"What?" The big man asked over muffled snickers.
"Before…when you were say, young as JD…did you have…uh…"
"Bigger equipment?" Ezra asked with feigned innocence.
"Nathan," Vin asked, trying not to choke on a laugh, "Ya' don't mean that all that carousin'…"
With a nod, his face serious now, the dark healer said, "Yep. He's wore it down."
"Damn," Vin whistled.
"Y'all can just stop right now," Buck said as he tried to hide his growing concern. "I ain't buyin' none of it. A man don't 'wear it down'. Just ain't possible."
"Not a normal man," Chris joined in the conversation now. "But Buck, you've got to admit, you ain't normal…not when it comes to women."
"Oh my yes," Ezra picked up the conversation now. "Why, with your…appetites shall we say…I for one am amazed that you've anything left at all."
Sitting up and squinting toward the angry man's exposed crotch, Vin said, "well, reckon it is lookin' a mite puny."
Dunne added, "reckon it had anything to do with all that animal mag-atism?"
"You go t' hell Tanner, and you too, Kid." Wilmington was quickly approaching hatred for the other men. "All of y' just go t' hell." Heedless of his present state of undress, he stormed toward General. Stepping up into the grey's saddle, he jerked at the reins and rode away from the others.
Turning to one another with looks that mixed shock and humor, they watched him riding toward town.
"Reckon he'll simmer down 'fore he reaches town?" Vin asked.
"Don't know for certain. Reckon if he don't, Mary'll have something for the front page of her paper," Chris said with a shake of his head.
"I can see the headline now…" JD offered as he described the text in the air. "BUCK NAKED."
The air rang with laughter as the six men watched their seventh member ride into the distance.
* Author is deceased