II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

Chris came awake all of a piece, after the manner of experienced Indian fighters, not sure at first where he was, only of the Remington reassuringly beneath his reflexively reaching fingers and the thunderous knocking that rattled the door in its frame. Then he recognized the voice calling his name from the other side, threw back his bright-checked quilt, and crossed the room in his bare feet, not letting go of the Remington or consciously noticing the chill of the planks against his skin, to unlock the door.

Buck was standing in the corridor, the lamp that hung from the ceiling illuminating not only his own features but the annoyed and sleepy faces of most of the other guests on the floor, who´d been awakened by his barrage. “Buck? What the hell--?” Larabee demanded.

“JD just got in,” Wilmington told him, in a voice a little less than steady. “Nine hours late and runnin´ such a fever I ain´t sure he really knew where he was at. He wasn´t real coherent, but what he seemed to be sayin´ was that the Sioux hit all the stations from Lodgepole back to Fort Laramie, killed everybody on duty and ran off all the stock--he´d done the whole trip without a change of mount, and I can tell you his horse looked it.”

“All the stations? Are you sure? What would he have been doing riding the relay between Knutson´s and Laramie?”

“Damn´ if I know, but he sure seemed to think he had. He was unconscious again by the time I got him to Nathan´s place. I figured if he was right, if it wasn´t just the fever talkin´, you´d want to know.”

Chris put his gun down on the washstand, struck a match and lit the lamp in the wall bracket by the door. “What time is it?” he asked, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.

Wilmington pulled out his watch. “Seven after one.”

Larabee frowned. “Sun won´t be up for the best part of six hours. No point going out in the dark, but...” He thought for a minute or two. “All right. Get some of the men up. If there´s a Sioux war party around, we´ll need a big burial party, ten or a dozen men. See to it. Tell them to load picks and shovels and tarps onto a buckboard, and make sure they´re armed, sixguns and rifles and plenty of ammunition. Then send someone up to the Fort to tell the Colonel--better yet, go yourself. And get Vin up, we´ll need him.”

“He´s up. He was sleepin´ in the loft and I woke him hollerin´ for Max.”

“Good. When you come back, have Ezra talk to Inez about feeding us early so we can get on the road. We´ll start at first light, that´ll be around five-thirty; we can get to Lodgepole a little before nine. And we´ll need some cold food to take along.”

Buck nodded. “I´ll get on it.” He hesitated. “But I ain´t goin´ with you, Chris. I can´t.”

“Why not?”

The big man looked down, as if searching for words in the weave of the worn runner on the floor, and for the first time Larabee noticed how pale he was. “That kid...God, Chris, I still don´t rightly know what´s wrong with him, but he´s so sick...I could tell, even the little time I was with him. He needs somebody to be there. I know Nate and Rain´ll do their best, but...but takin´ care of sick folks is what they do, and he needs more, needs somebody who-- ” He stopped abruptly, confused. “I guess I didn´t realize it till just now, when he came off that saddle into my arms,” he continued slowly, after a minute, “but-- well, hell, I know now why I bought him them two Remington Navies. I--he--there´s been--somethin´ between us, I reckon ever since that first day.” He looked up, meeting his long-time friend´s eyes, his own bright with emotion. “I spent most of my life driftin´ from one place to another, one job to another. I ain´t committed to anything or anybody except Ma and you--but that kid, Chris, that kid, somehow he got under my skin that first day, glarin´ at me from under that damn stupid hat, tellin´ me he had a friend down in the brush tryin´ to stop a hangin´, drawin´ them Colts of his both at once like some desperado wannabe, standin´ up over that boulder like a target in a shootin´ gallery, sittin´ next to me in the restaurant when I was tellin´ the others what happened to Sarah and Adam and puttin´ his hand on my back, tryin´ to make the pain a little less...I didn´t even know what was happening, but he got to me, Chris. He wormed his way in so deep I couldn´t done anything about it even if I´d known what was goin´ on inside me, and now--”

Chris felt the stir of a half- forgotten emotion, something he wasn´t yet ready to allow back into his own life, and understood how difficult it must be for Buck to find words to describe it; he´d had much the same problem himself, at first, eleven years ago. “You don´t have to say anything else, Buck,” he said quietly, reaching out to grip the other man´s shoulder. “I understand. You´ve needed a family of your own for a long time. God knows you´ve got enough to give to one--and I haven´t let you have much chance to find your own happiness, but I know you deserve it. You´d be no good to us out on the trail. You stay. Someone should be here to look after Company business anyway. Just ask the Colonel if he can spare Lieutenant Mosely and A Troop to go with us for backup.”

Wilmington looked up, delight mixing with amazement and disbelief in eyes that sparkled with wetness. “How could I not have known, pard?” he asked quietly. “I always figured I was pretty good at stuff like this...what with the ladies and all...”

“But this isn´t a lady,” Chris reminded him. “This is...your brother, the other half of you. You didn´t know because that´s the way it happens sometimes. Because, maybe, you were too close to the forest to see the trees. But it does happen, Buck. All the time. I know. It happened to me four months ago. The only difference between us is that I knew it at the time and you didn´t.”

Buck caught his breath. “That´s right. You and Vin.”

“Me and Vin. You and JD. And I´d no more try to keep you from your missing half than you´ve ever tried to keep me from mine.” His fingers tightened briefly on Wilmington´s tense shoulder. “Go take care of the things I told you to do,” he said gently, “and then you can be with him. Nathan probably won´t need you getting under his feet for a while anyway.”

+ + + + + + +

Four and a half hours later Buck watched as Chris, Vin, Lieutenant Mosely, the twenty men of A Troop in “stripped saddle” marching order, and a dozen Company employees, one driving a buckboard full of tools and cold food, pulled out for the bridge at the South Platte Crossing. After they had crossed the top of the slope on the far side of the bottoms, he turned and walked back to Nathan Jackson´s soddie. He noticed peripherally Ezra´s green clawhammer coat and Inez wrapped in a dark rebozo against the early chill as the Southerner turned the woman back toward the restaurant door and escorted her to her kitchen, but he felt no urge to flirt with her as he ordinarily did. Mary Travis appeared at the door of her cabin as he went by, a dark blue wrapper buttoned snugly from throat to hem over her nightgown, her blonde hair hanging down her back in a long thick braid; he didn´t know who had told her about JD´s news, if news it could be called, but at least she seemed to realize that he was in no humor to supply details. He touched his hat to her as he passed her gate, but didn´t pause or check his pace until he got to the door of the dispenary wing of Nathan´s house.

Nathan himself answered the door, his calico shirt half buttoned over a long gray undershirt, vest and sleeve garters not troubled with, only one suspender pulled into place. Buck´s eyes immediately searched past him, across the room to the blood-red Hudson´s Bay blanket that screened off the corner cot from drafts, the lightshaft of the Jacksons´ solar lamp filtering out the crack where it met the wall. There was no sign of Rain, but Wilmington thought he could hear her voice, murmuring soothing things in English and Lakota, somewhere on the other side of the blanket. “How´s he doin´, Nate?”

The healer shook his head. “He ain´t good, Buck. He´s running a high fever, delirious. I ain´t even sure what he´s sick with, there´s so many things that bring on fever, and he ain´t been coherent long enough to tell me what other symptoms he´s got. All I can do is try to bring his temperature down and keep him quiet, and he ain´t makin´ that easy. He´s stronger than he looks.”

A high-pitched, painful moan sounded from the other side of the blanket partition, and Buck caught his breath. “I gotta see him,” he said quietly.

Nathan hesitated a moment, then nodded and stepped back to hold the blanket aside. JD lay on the single-width pine rope bed, cocooned in a buffalo robe, his head rolling to and fro on the cornhusk pillow as Rain tried to wipe his face with a damp rag. He had always been pale, but now he looked like a wax doll, except for the furious red flush in his cheeks. As Buck entered the alcove, he jerked his head sideways and whimpered, “Mamma? Mamma...”

Rain looked up at her husband and said something in the Sioux language; he answered, and she bent forward over the kid. “Yes, my son,” she whispered, “I´m here...”

“No,” he protested, pulling away from her hand. “No...Mamma-a-a...”

Why is it they always want their mammas? Buck wondered. But I ain´t gonna give up on him, not this easy...

The halfbreed woman looked up helplessly. “He knows I´m not his mother. What shall we do now, mihihna?”

“Lemme try,” Buck offered, and stepped forward before anyone could respond. Rain stood quickly and he settled into her straight hickory chair. “JD,” he said softly, “you hear me?”

JD´s head rolled toward him. “Mamma?”

Buck swallowed. “Your mamma can´t be with you no more, kid. This is Buck. You remember me, don´t you?”

Even in his delirium the voice seemed somehow to reach the boy´s mind; his brows drew together as if in thought. “Buck...?”

“That´s right.” Wilmington spoke gently, as if soothing a fretful infant. “Now you settle down, okay? You ain´t got nothin´ to be scared of. You´re safe. You´re in Jamesburg, in Nathan´s dispensary, and him and Rain are here to look after you. And me. Ain´t nobody hurtin´ you now ´less they go through ol´ Buck, son. Just lay still and let us help you.” As he talked, he began stroking JD´s hair and face in an almost hypnotic rhythm, his tenderness surprising in a man so big and often so loud and cheerful. “You just hush, now. Hush and lay still, you´re safe...it´s okay...”

Nathan and Rain watched in astonishment as their patient´s random struggles ceased and he grew still. “Whatever you´re doin´, Buck, just keep doin´ it,” the healer commanded. “We gotta start tryin´ to bring his temperature down ´fore it cooks his brain. Sicé,” he added to his wife, “get me some lukewarm water, will you? We can´t use cold or he might get a chill, and that´ll kill him just as sure.”

“Hin, mihihna,” the girl murmured, and headed for the lowboy stove in the corner.

Nathan pulled a homemade three- legged stool to the other side of the bed and checked JD´s pulse. “He´s been fightin´ us so, we ain´t been able to tend him right. Thank the Lord you come by, Buck, you seem to be gettin´ through to him.”

Wilmington hardly seemed to hear. All his attention was focused on the boy in the bed, whose delirious moans and cries for his mother were slowly giving way to quiet as the big man continued to comfort and reassure him.

Rain arrived presently with a kettle and a big ironstone basin with a huge sponge in it. She set them on an upturned packing box and began peeling back the buffalo robe. She and Nathan had already stripped the wet clothes from the boy and dried his shivering body. Now Nathan began bathing JD´s slight naked form with the sponge, moving it gently down the length of his body and limbs. JD flinched and trembled, crying out as if he were afraid. Buck stepped up the pace of his reassurances and slid an arm around the boy´s thin shoulders. “Easy now, son...easy...it´s okay...it´s just Nathan...you don´t gotta be scared of Nathan, you know that...”

JD´s hand lifted, groping in mid-air, and Buck grabbed it in his own, enclosing it in strong fingers. “I´m right here, kid...you just hold on...I ain´t lettin´ you go, son, I promise...”

JD moaned softly and shuddered in his embrace, turning his face into the sleeve of Buck´s shirt. “Easy, JD...steady now...lay still, okay, just let Nate work...you know he´d never hurt you...”

“Buck...” the kid whimpered. “Buck...”

“Yeah, kid. Ol´ Buck´s right here, what is it?”

Torment was etched on the young face. “Dead...Buck...all dead...Sioux...killed ´em all...” He began struggling again. “No...no...don´t...oh God...Mamma! Mamma!”

Buck grabbed him as he began flailing desperately on the bed. “JD! JD, listen to me, son!” He swallowed the lump in his throat, his eyes bright with tears. “JD,” he said clearly, “you´re havin´ a bad dream. Sioux ain´t got your mamma. She´s safe where they won´t never touch her. You hear me? She´s safe, but she asked me to look after you, till you could be with her again. And that´s what I aim to do, so just settle down. Lie still, now.”

“Mamma...” JD whispered again, and rolled weakly into Buck´s chest. “Hurts, Buck...´m so hot...”

“I know you are, boy. I know.” Nathan drew back his sponge as the big man wrapped his arms around the kid´s trembling form and pulled him close, face drawn into Buck´s shoulder, body pressed against his.

“´M scared, Buck...” JD mumbled. “Don´t...don´t want Sioux...t´get me...”

“Sioux ain´t gonna get you, boy,” Buck promised, his tone fierce. “I´ll shoot any that tries. Just don´t you worry none, okay? I got you now...ol´ Buck´s gonna hold you so tight, ain´t nothin´ gonna get near enough to trouble you...”

“´Kay...” JD whispered, and was still again, so still indeed that Buck had to feel for the pulse at his throat to assure himself that the boy was still with him.

“Ain´t you got no notion at all what this is?” he demanded of Nathan, voice level but hard.

“I wish I did,” the healer told him, his dark eyes sad. “I´m pretty sure it ain´t inflammation of the bowels, or cholera morbus, or the first stages of pox; he ain´t been vomitin´ and he don´t seem to be havin´ cramps. It ain´t spotted fever; that runs its season around the first ten days of June. It might be typhoid, though his pulse don´t seem right for that. It might be measles; he´s been coughin´, and the fever´s been goin´ up pretty steady. If it is, that could mean trouble; some people don´t break out with that, ´specially if they´re grown when they get it--they keep the sickness inside, and the fever keeps on mounting, alternatin´ with delirium--like this--and coma, so if it don´t break, they can die. Might be scarlet fever, too; the early symptoms of that are just like measles, and even a regular doctor can´t always tell ´em apart, but as a sickness it´s ´way more dreadful, and I won´t be sure till I see whether he starts gettin´ a red rash or not. Might be diphtheria. Might be mountain fever. Might be pneumonia, or influenza. Part of the trouble is I don´t know if it come on him sudden or gradual, or if he´s got a headache or a sore throat; the way I was trained, there´s different things to give a patient, and a lot depends on the associated symptoms. That´s one reason why I need to try to get the fever down, so he´ll be coherent enough to answer my questions.”

Buck took a deep breath and counted silently to ten. “All right. I know you´re doin´ the best you can, Nate. I just-- ” He gestured helplessly with his free hand. “I can´t--”

“I know, Buck. I knew back when he got hurt last month. And I tell you somethin´, I think he knows too, that´s why he´s respondin´ to you. Can you stay? It might make a big difference.”

“Chris wanted me to look after Company business while he was gone, or at least he said he did,” Wilmington told him.

“I got a notion Chris don´t always say what he really means, and you´ve knowed him long enough to know that,” Nathan observed. “I tell you what, I´ll send Rain over to Mary´s and ask if Billy can run down to the office and tell Owen to take care of things. Now, let´s see if we can cool him down any...”

+ + + + + + +

At Lodgepole Station Chris left off the buckboard and the Company burial party before heading up the trail with Vin and A Troop. “We can move faster alone,” he told his men. “We´ll gather up the bodies and put them someplace where they´ll be under shelter, mark it with a scrap of cloth and let you come on along behind and take care of them. If anyone escaped or survived, I want to get to them as quickly as possible.”

The RM&W men nodded somberly. Vin came up, leading Peso, his face as inscrutable as a Comanche´s. “See anything, cowboy?” Chris asked him quietly.

“Rain´s done wiped out most of the sign,” the hunter replied. “Reckon they must´a done the raid Saturday or Sunday, not yesterday. Cain´t even be plumb sure how many of ´em was here. Pretty sure it was Sioux, though. Maybe you noticed they slit all the throats from ear to ear; that´s a Lakota trademark. And the feathers on the arrows is fastened to the butts with strips of rawhide dyed red, which is the Sioux way of doin´ it.”

Larabee nodded shortly, his face flinty, and Vin understood that he was seeing again the bodies of his family and their escort, the arrows he and Buck had recovered from that scene. “Let´s go,” he said, turning to gather up Blackhawk´s reins.

At the second swing station the scene was much the same. Knutson´s, the only home station short of the one at Fort Laramie, had put up a stiff resistance; Vin found dried blood in several locations in the grass around the stockade. The Lakota had been their usual creative selves with regard to mutilation, particularly of the men, since they believed that the ghost of a mutilated enemy would present less of a threat to the killer. All the victims had been throat-slit, most scalped or partly scalped. Ears, noses, hands, arms, feet, legs, forearms had been amputated in a random pattern, skulls broken, sinews of arms and legs cut away, bodies knife-slashed, breasts and bellies ripped open; in some instances the warriors had made a pincushion of arrows in the bowels or a sieve of buffalo-lance holes through the kidneys, or excised the genitals and left the violated corpse spraddle-legged. Martha Knutson had been spared most of this, but her body was stripped bare and she´d been scalped. There was no sign of the three children, living or dead; they must have been taken captive. Sergeant Beckman shook his head sadly. “That poor kid,” he said, “havin´ to see so much of this kind of death all in one day. Be a mercy if his mind ain´t gone. Or maybe not.”

Chris shot a cold glare at him, hiding his own concerns behind a veil of anger, as he did all troubling emotions. “That kid,” he said flatly, “is a seasoned Pony rider and helped us stand up against twenty men at the river four months ago. He´s a lot tougher than you think he is, Sergeant.”

Beckman´s eyes slid away from him. “Yes, sir.”

The party barricaded the bodies in a half-fallen shed and went on, Vin making sweeping feints in all directions, searching for sign, until they camped for the night just beyond Dalton´s Station, where they found the situation to be much the same as at the previous three. Remembering that the westbound stage would be coming through Jamesburg tomorrow, Chris sent one of the privates back with a note, instructing Buck to send a few men with fresh teams on along the route to meet it, and to instruct the driver to take it easy; there weren´t enough Company horses in the settlement to replace all the stolen stock, and the tired teams would have to be led back, grazing by the way, since there was neither shelter nor feed for them at the usual intervals.

In the morning they proceeded to Overlook, where again there were no survivors. A few miles past it they found what was left of the eastbound stage, which had apparently been ambushed and overwhelmed, though whether this had occurred before or after the stations were attacked they couldn´t tell. Close by, near the east end of Wildcat Ridge, Vin discovered sign of what he believed was a rendezvous of two parties, though there was little except a high volume of horse droppings to support the idea. “I´m bettin´ some pretty high-rankin´ brave had hisself a good medicine dream,” he said, “and figured to make a big raid afore the first snow. The way they was able to take Knutson´s, had to´ve been anyways twelve or fifteen of ´em. Most likely the party split in two somewheres along here--maybe upriver a ways--and half took the upper five or six swing stations while the rest went on down toward Jamesburg.”

“Can you find any sign of the Knutson children?” Lieutenant Mosely asked.

Tanner shook his head. “Not after the rain. Cain´t even tell if any of the loose ponies was loaded heavier than others, or if any of the warriors was leadin´ any rode horses. But it ain´t like Injuns to hide the bodies of any but their own dead, and only that if they´re in a hurry. If we didn´t find the kids at the station, they was took.”

“What will happen to them?” Mosely demanded, his voice carefully controlled.

“I ain´t met ´em, but I hear tell the girl´s about fifteen and the boys is twelve and seven. Most likely the youngest one´ll be safe enough; one of the braves´ll take him into his lodge for a son or a brother. The big boy ain´t old enough to be counted a warrior, so they might keep him a spell and then offer him for ransom, at Fort Laramie, maybe. Iffen they don´t sell the girl back too, she´ll spend a couple years as a camp servant, learnin´ their ways, then get courted like one of their own girls; whatever man owns her ´ll let her choose the man she wants, but he´ll sell her for horses and not give no gifts in return, like he´d do if she ´s one of his own daughters. That´s s´posin´ she ain´t budded yet. If she has, all bets is off.”

Mosley clenched his teeth and something seethed behind his eyes. “There´s nothing we can do about it now,” said Chris. “There aren´t enough of us, and it´s going to take us at least three days just to make it up to Fort Laramie at the best pace we can manage. We´ll talk to the CO there; he might be able to recover them.”

At a leisurely pace, Cavalry and a pack train did only ten or twelve miles a day, and at its best, hampered by support wagons and wheeled gun carriages, it could make no more than twenty-five. But under light marching orders, without either one, and travelling at the regulation “hard” pace of walk, trot, canter, trot, walk, dismount and lead, and repeat, it could cover up to sixty-five miles in twenty-four hours. A little after one o´clock on the third day they pulled into Fort Laramie, probably fully forty miles ahead of the Company burial party. Chris stopped off at the home station there and verified that JD had indeed covered a double relay. He arranged with the agent to send out work parties to begin the task of clearing off the debris at the raided stations and erecting temporary buildings in which men and stock could shelter over the winter, set up a system by which to provide at least half the expected horse changes for the stages and the Pony until the task could be completed, and hired men to start cutting and hauling logs to season for full-scale construction in the spring. The program would proceed from both ends simultaneously, with a similar array of relief and work parties sent out from Jamesburg and going as far as Wildcat. This done, he proceeded to the CO´s office and told him what had happened and what Vin suspected regarding the fate of the Knutson children. The Laramie CO was an experienced frontiersman and agreed that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to physically track the warriors back to their camp, given the weather factor and the elapsed time since the raid, but promised to do everything he could, through his scouts, his contacts with the tribes, and his regular patrols, to find them. He extended the privileges of the post to Chris and the men from Sedgwick; Vin, ever conscious of the Belknap want on him, had stayed behind in the nearby civilian community, keeping out of sight of the local military personnel.

The burial party caught up the following day, reporting that they had had no contact of any kind with Indians. Remembering Vin´s estimate of when the raids had occurred, Chris guessed that by now they were well on their way to their village if not already there. He gave the RM&W men permission to stay at the fort for twenty-four hours and get drunk if they wanted to, then gathered up Mosely and his men and turned homeward. He had things to do, and a report to write to the Head Office in Leavenworth.

+ + + + + + +

JD´s temperature levelled off during his first day in Nathan´s care, peaked that night (after the manner of fevers, which always went up then), dropped again quickly, and then reversed itself and rose on the third day. The healer worked over him steadily, helped by Rain when she wasn´t tending the baby, Inez when she could get away, Mary, Mrs. Potter, and Buck. He gave it as his cautious opinion that both typhoid and scarlet fever could be eliminated from the roster of the kid´s possible ills, since there was no sign of the rashes characteristic of either, and that his lungs didn´t sound congested, which ruled out pneumonia. His throat showed none of the swelling and membranous coating that would point to diphtheria. His delirium had eased, though he remained comatose and very weak. On the third day he began displaying symptoms very similar to those of a bad cold. Jackson concluded, by process of elimination, that what JD had was influenza, doubtless aggravated by having gotten wet in the rain. This at least gave him some idea of what treatment to administer, and he began dosing the boy with thirty centesimals of belladonna every two hours, propping him in an upright position in bed rather than allowing him to lie down, and keeping him from jarring movement, noise, and light.

Buck left his side only to visit the privy, and once, when Chris´s note arrived, to go down to the barn and give the necessary orders. He coaxed JD into swallowing water and broth and assumed the entire responsibility of sitting with the ailing boy at night, when JD seemed to feel worse. It eased him a little to know what the boy´s problem was, since he´d seen influenza in his boyhood; he knew it was a severe and sometimes a fatal illness, but somehow it seemed less frightening than many of the other possibilities Nathan had at first suggested. But he was troubled by the way the fever hung on. Most cases he remembered had involved high temperatures for no more than three days; JD´s remained well beyond that point.

On the basis of his training as a homeopath, Nathan believed that JD´s vital force had been depleted by the shock of discovering what the Sioux had left in their wake. While he could treat the simple physical symptoms, they were really only the outward manifestation of the attempts of that force, disturbed by stress and the effects of the weather and JD´s extended ride, to redress the imbalance and restore order. He needed to be reassured and made to feel safe, and having Buck with him seemed to serve that end, as his reaction during the early episode of delirium demonstrated. So Wilmington stayed. He would have wanted to stay in any case; the possibility that he could actually be of some help only strengthened his resolve.

Buck had never been a deep thinker; though he was intelligent enough and capable of considerable insight, his character was based more on reaction than reflection. Yet the way he had responded to JD´s late arrival, the discovery of his condition, and the kid´s fevered terrors, the words that had poured from him in his attempt to soothe JD´s fears, were so dissimilar to anything he had ever done before that he was determined to understand just what was going on with him. He thought about what he knew of JD--the things the kid had confided about his past, the reputation he´d made as a rider, the way he had jumped in when Nathan´s life was threatened. And while Buck´s sympathy and affection for the kid had certainly been increased by the discovery that JD, like himself, had never known his father and had been raised by--and lost-- a beloved mother, that he´d been to some extent a social outcast among the other boys he knew, he realized, in reviewing the history of their relationship, that, as he´d told Chris, there had been something there from the very beginning. At first it astonished him that a kid he´d known barely four months, and seen only intermittently during that time, could have made such an impact on his life. But now he began to see that in four minutes he´d been lost. The kid´s spirit and tenacity, his devotion to his ideas of right and wrong and friendship, his quick mind, easily engaged sympathy, courage, and sheer likeability had gotten to Buck so subtly, yet so powerfully, that there was now no possibility of ignoring it. Like it or not, JD was, somehow, his. And--as he had said without even thinking about it, in his attempts to calm the boy´s delirious fears--he had accepted that responsibility and made a promise to take care of him. His own words came back to him: “Your mamma´s safe, but she asked me to look after you, till you could be with her again. And that´s what I aim to do, so just settle down.” For a man who had spent his entire adult life avoiding responsibility, it was a strange and unsettling feeling--yet it was also a very positive one. He felt as if a void inside him, one whose existence he had never before suspected, had been filled in with something warm and living and full of promise. The kid needed someone to look after him, someone who would care enough about him to help him learn the things he needed to know in order to stay alive in this new environment he had resolved to make his own--and Buck needed to be that someone.

Chris had said he´d been needing a family. Wilmington considered that concept. For a long time he had thought of the Larabees as his family. Adam especially had regarded him as a kind of honorary uncle, and Buck had taken deep joy in that role. When the boy and his mother had been killed, it had hurt Buck to the core. He hadn´t dared to express that hurt, though, because he had seen that Chris´s hurt went far deeper--had, in fact, almost destroyed him. And so, as a way of soothing his own pain and performing what he felt was his duty to their dead, he had driven his captain almost to distraction by worrying about him--and, in the process, had actually widened the breach between them. For the first time in more than three years, he now realized consciously just how much of a transformation their long friendship had gone through. It wasn´t just a question of Chris having found Vin, or of Vin having replaced Buck in Chris´s life. In one sense, Buck no longer had a place there for Vin to take. And probably never would again. That, he realized, was why he held no resentment or jealousy toward Tanner--because, knowing Larabee in the special way he did, he had sensed long ago that their relationship was altering. That, sooner or later, Chris would find someone better suited to help him deal with his demons--and that Buck must be prepared to step aside and find someone of his own, someone who would need him as Chris had done.

He remembered the day he´d first met the kid, all pride and temper and devotion to what he saw as the duties imposed by friendship--a devotion with which Buck was intimately familiar. He remembered yanking JD back behind their concealing rock when he´d seemed about to reveal himself in his eagerness to get a look at the situation; at the time, if he´d thought about it at all, he'd have said he was doing it because JD´s getting exposed would have meant the same for himself, which wouldn´t have done Nathan, or Chris, any good, but he was beginning to realize now that there had been a deeper motive. He remembered the indignation with which he had rebuked the boy for breaking cover and “standing up like a target”--and the clawing terror that had filled his chest that day three weeks ago when JD rode in with a bullet wound in his side. And abruptly-- like Vin in the street four months ago, watching Nathan´s reunion with his wife--Buck found himself experiencing an epiphany. Not about the vital importance of warmth and belongingness; he had already known those, with his Ma and the ladies, with Chris and his family. No, this was more of a revelation about the role he had been put on Earth to fill. He had always thought, before this--when he thought about it at all, which he seldom did--that what he had described to Vin as his “job and place” was to bring delight to the women and be a friend and support to Chris Larabee, a brother to his wife, and an uncle to his children. Suddenly, now, he knew differently. Oh, those things were still important and always would be. But far more so was this kid lying in the bed. Buck had met many men and boys in his life, and had learned to know potential when he saw it. In JD he sensed perhaps the highest level of it he had ever known. This kid had the capacity to become one of the best, greatest, most honorable man the country had ever seen. But he needed someone to help him find the right path and make the right decisions, and to teach him the skills he would need to stay alive long enough to reach that potential. To guide him, protect him, and raise him up to be everything he could be. Buck knew JD hadn´t had a father to fill that role; his mother had done an amazingly good job, but a boy needed a man to teach him about being a man. Buck realized that, for JD, he was that man. He had found his true life´s work, the most important thing he would ever do, something to take pride in. More than that, like Chris with Vin that first day, he had found the other half of his own soul. The bond had been immediate and permanent; the difference had been that neither he nor JD had consciously recognized it for what it was.

“I´m a damn fool, ain´t I?” he asked quietly aloud of no one in particular. “Hell, Chris always said I thought below my belt, and maybe he was right. I should´a known it, just like I knew when I met Chris that it was for always. Well, I know now, and I can start makin´ up for lost time.” He looked up toward the willow-pole ceiling and abruptly removed his hat. “Miz Dunne? Can you hear me? You been doin´ a great job watchin´ out for this kid and gettin´ him this far, and I reckon you´ll always worry on him; that´s what a mother does. But you can relax a little now. I got him. I´ll take care of him. You got my word on it.”

It was probably just an errant drift of air, but he could have sworn he felt something brush against his shoulder, like an unseen hand patting it, and then his cheek, like a feather-light kiss. He smiled, knowing that his pledge had been accepted.

JD stirred restlessly in the bed. “Mamma?”

“No, son.” Buck reached out to fold the limp hand within his own. “Just ol´ Buck. Steady down, now.” The one thing he didn´t want was for the kid to get upset and delirious and start thrashing around again; that would shoot his temperature up even farther, maybe high enough to kill him.

“Buck...?” And to the big man´s indescribable relief, JD´s eyelids fluttered and lifted, to reveal a hazel gaze still bright with fever but truly aware of what it was seeing. His eyes shifted in a bewildered way. “Where...?”

“Just lay still, boy. You´re in Jamesburg, at Nathan´s place, and you´re awful sick. You got influenza.” He laid a big hand gently across JD's forehead. The kid was still way too hot, but even to Buck´s admittedly untrained perceptions it did seem that his temperature wasn´t quite as high as it had been before.

JD coughed dryly, blinked, and squinted against the glow of the low-turned solar lamp. “Throat hurts,” he whispered huskily, “´n´ I ache everywhere.”

“Yeah,” Buck agreed. “That´s what influenza does. Like a cold, only worse.”

JD blinked again, his face drawing into a thoughtful frown. “How´d I...get here?”

“Your pony brought you. You were out on your run--you remember?”

JD struggled with his memory for a minute or two, and then a look of dull horror settled on his features. “Oh, God. The Sioux--they--”

“--I know, boy. I know. You already told us that. Chris and Vin and some of the boys and Lieutenant Mosely from the Fort are off checkin´ it out. There wasn´t nothin´ more you could´a done than what you did. You brought us the word, and that was plenty.”

“How...how long?”

“You got in--” Buck paused to consult his watch-- “just under seventy-two hours ago now. You been slippin´ in and out on us ever since, but mostly out. You´re still fevered, but this is the first time you´ve seemed to really know what you were sayin´.”

“The mail...?”

“Max took it on. Miz Nettie sent him back with a note, said they´d hole up at the ranch a few days and keep good watch, and to let her know as soon as you was strong enough to have visitors.”

“My pony?”

“She´s okay. The boys at the barn had to work some over her, she was pretty done up, but she´s gonna make it just fine. Plenty of rest, good hot mash, rubdowns, we´ve taken good care of her.”

“I want--” JD had to pause and cough.

“Never you mind what you want. You let us worry about things.”

“No,” JD insisted, “this...this is important. I want...can you ask Chris...Mr. Larabee if...if I can buy her from the Company? I don´t...I don´t want her to ever have to...do anythin´ like that last run again. I got almost--” a cough-- “eight hundred dollars saved...I´ll pay him half that--”

Buck frowned and shook his head. “Ain´t no horse west of the Big Muddy worth that much unless it´s blooded or for breedin´ or both. Company paid two hundred for her, tops. You don´t offer a cent more.” He lifted a hand to forestall protest. “Now that´s enough talkin´. You wanta make that throat feel worse´n it does, or what? Nate says you need fluids. He left some soup and tea on the stove, said I should give you some if you seemed to be able to take it.”

JD grimaced. “I ain´t...ain´t sure I can...eat anythin´, Buck. My stomach feels awful queasy-like...”

“Then you can have the tea,” Buck decided. “It´s got ginger in it, that´s good for a twirly stomach.”

JD sighed and nodded weakly, not up to further protest. Buck stood, stretched, and crossed the room to the lowboy stove where the strong tea was keeping warm over the banked fire. With a gentleness surprising in such a big, loud man, he helped JD sit up higher in the bed and held the mug to his lips until he indicated he´d drunk all he could manage for a while, then resettled him and arranged the covers over him so he´d be warm and snug. “Now you go on back to sleep,” he ordered, “and don´t fret on anything. I´m here, and Nate and Rain, and you´ve had Inez and Miz Travis and Miz Potter comin´ over to help out too. You just worry on gettin´ well, okay? We´ll take care of everything else.”

“Buck...Sioux...what they done...”

“I can guess what they done, boy. I seen what Comanches leave behind, in Texas. But if you figure to stay in this country you best make up your mind to it that you´ll be seein´ plenty of things just that bad. Like they say, if you can´t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. If you can´t face up to it, best you head on back East.” God forbid, when I just realized what I´m here for...but if it´s the best thing for you, then I gotta let you do it.

JD shook his head. “Ain´t nothin´ for me back East, Buck. And I seen things almost as bad there too. Seen a man trampled by a horse, a man crushed by a beer wagon, a man that got a leg caught between the incomin´ Brooklyn ferry and the dock...it´s just...those were accidents, and this...”

Buck bit back a sigh. “Son, Indians don´t know they´re all bound for hell and damnation when they die, and they ain´t as smart as us about the reasons folks get sick. They think that after you lay dead for a spell you just wake up, sort of watered down and hard to see, of course, and go on about your usual business, which is devilment if you´re an Indian. So they suspect the haunts of dead enemies every time they catch cold or have a toothache, and they like to leave anybody they kill in poor shape to haunt ´em. It´s self-defense, kind of. That´s all. Nothin´ personal.”

“It don´t help much,” JD told him, and shuddered.

“Ain´t anything I know does,” Buck agreed. “You likely won´t ever forget it, and I won´t lie to you and say you will. But it´ll blur over time, and get distant and tolerable. That´s the way our minds are made; if they weren´t, we´d never get through our threescore and ten without goin´ crazy. You take it from ol´ Buck, okay? Time don´t exactly heal all wounds, but it does make ´em easier to bear.” He hesitated a moment, and then, knowing what the bond demanded, he asked: “I ever tell you about my ma?”


“Well, she was a workin´ girl, like the ones that come to Ezra´s saloon every night. And she was a saint.” Seeing JD´s puzzled frown, he explained. “She could´a given me up when I was born, or tried to make sure I didn´t get born, or sent me off to boardin´ school as soon as I was seven or eight, but she didn´t. She kept me with her and made me know I was loved, saw to it I never went hungry or cold and always had decent clothes and sound shoes. She made sure I knew how to read and write and cipher some, and every Christmas and birthday she´d get me some kinda present. I always figured it was on account of I looked a lot like my pa, though I never knew him.

“Then when I was seventeen I came back from a couple seasons workin´ in New Mexico and went home to Kansas City for a visit...”


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