II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

Epilogue: Returns
You hang on, you bastard, Chris thought for the fiftieth time since Nathan had had Buck carried to his soddy. As always, emotions like grief, concern, worry, were more than he could deal with. He forced them down, suppressed them, let the icy anger flow over him instead and took the strength it could give him. He had to be strong, for JD. He barely noticed Rain refilling his coffee cup. Don´t you dare die. By God, I´ll kill you myself! If anybody´s got a right to shoot you it´s me, after all the grief you´ve put me through-- He cut the thought off as Buck´s laughing voice seemed to echo in his head. “Now there´s a threat, you old war dog.” And, guiltily, he amended it, glancing toward the fireplace where JD sat curled in on himself, pale and trembling, with Vin cross-legged on the floor beside him, trying in his silent way to offer whatever comfort he could. Just like you to step in front of a bullet you thought was meant for someone else. Can´t keep your nose out of other people´s business, can you? Never could. Bad as an old woman...damnit, Buck, don´t you know that if you die that kid will never forgive himself? Don´t you know...don´t you understand how I need to make it up to you for the shabby way I´ve treated you these last three years? How many times have you told me you owed it to Sarah and Adam to keep me going? Who´s going to do that if you´re not here? Don´t you know that the only reason I´ve been able to keep my life even as much on track as I have has been the knowledge--no, not the knowledge, the faith--that no matter what happened, no matter what I did or said, you´d be there?

The door opened and Nathan stepped in, looking drawn and tired, wiping his hands on a length of towelling. “Well, I got the bullet out,” he announced, not waiting to be questioned. “And God grant I never gotta go through a tussle of a surgery like that one again. One thing in his favor, the bullet was fired at close range, so it was pretty hot and cauterized its own wound better´n somewhat. It bounced off a rib, missed the curve of his lung by about a quarter of an inch, and lodged just under his collarbone, not quite touchin´ his shoulderblade. He´s lost a lot of blood, and if that or shock don´t kill him, infection or pneumonia could set in. He ain´t nowheres near out of the woods yet, and won´t be for a while. But he made it this far, and he´s strong. Wounds heal quick on the plains on account of the clear, pure air. If he makes it through the next two or three days without fever, he´ll have a pretty fair chance. Josiah´s sittin´ with him now.”

Chris was about to ask if he could go in, and then he caught a rustle of movement from the hearth and turned, seeing the tautness of JD´s body, the wide haunted eyes, the pallor that was almost as bad as Buck´s own. And he amended the question. “I think JD´d like to see him, if that´s okay, Nathan.”

The healer nodded and held out one hand invitingly. “Come on, JD.”

+ + + + + + +

Hours later, Chris stepped quietly into the dim dispensary, his eyes going immediately to the bed in the corner and the kid who sat beside it, holding Buck´s limp hand in both his own, his head bowed over it as if in prayer. Inez, Mary Travis, and Rain, between them, had somehow managed to persuade the other men to eat and Josiah to go lie down, while the other ladies of the settlement prepared Randolph Potter´s body for burial and stayed with his widow and their children. No one had made any effort to induce JD to leave Buck´s side.

“How is he?” Larabee asked quietly.

JD´s head jerked up. “He ain´t changed since I came in.” A pause, then: “I--I´m sorry, Mr. Larabee, I--I know he´s been your friend a long time...do you want to...?”

Chris met the boy´s pain- filled eyes and realized it wasn´t necessary for him to try to bring Buck back to the world of the living, as he´d been planning to. Buck had someone else who was ready to do that, who would give every atom of his youthful strength and his faith in the right to drag the big man out of the darkness where he was trapped. “Why don´t we both stay,” he suggested, and cast about for another chair.

He heard JD´s faint sigh of relief. “Maybe you should think about getting some sleep,” he said quietly as he placed the second chair at the foot of the bed. “It hasn´t been so long since you were the one in that bed.”

“That´s why I gotta stay,” JD replied in a much-too-even tone of voice. “Buck never left me alone. I can´t not do the same for him now when he needs me.” A hard edge came into his words. “I just wish Lucas James was still alive so I could kill him.”

“Buck wouldn´t want you to kill a man in cold blood, JD.” For a moment Larabee wondered at the depth and tightness of this bond, which seemed to contain elements of both his own deep friendship with Wilmington and the instinctive, inexplicable trust and attraction he had found with Vin that day on the gallery. Perhaps it was only because he had experienced the latter himself that he could accept the reality of this one and understand something of the demands it placed upon the kid. Hell, he knew that if it were Vin lying there, he´d be behaving the same way--and he felt just a little guilty at the relief he experienced, knowing he didn´t have to provide that kind of emotional support for two men. It astonished him to realize consciously, perhaps for the first time, that these men and this job were pulling him back into the land of the living. He wasn´t sure whether he wanted that, or liked the idea. He knew that the prospect of caring again scared him. But he was wise enough to understand that there was no turning back. He sighed. At least JD had someone on whom to focus the anger he felt. Chris hadn´t even had that when his world was yanked out from under him.

The rage and cold fury--emotions with which Larabee was all too familiar--drained from the young face and gave way to grief. “I guess I know that,” he said quietly. He searched Chris´s contained expression. “Has he always been like that?”

“Like what?”

JD gestured helplessly. “I don´t know...I...it´s just I don´t think I ever met anybody with such a...with...”

“With such a big heart,” Chris supplied softly. “Yes, that´s Buck. His compassion takes in the whole world. He´s been that way as long as I´ve known him. He´s only ever given in to hate once that I know of, and that was when--when we lost our family.”

“He told me about his mamma, about what she did,” JD observed. “How she raised him pretty much all by herself, like mine did me. She did a great job, you know? I wish I could´a known her. I wish my mamma could´a known her. They must´a been a lot alike.” He suddenly dashed tears--of frustration and self- rebuke as much as grief--from his eyes. “It´s just-- he looks so bad--”

A sigh from the bed, then a weak, wincing chuckle. “Hell, kid...that...ain´t hardly possible.”


+ + + + + + +

Sixteen days later:

Buck sat half-upright in his bed, propped on a stack of pillows, and listened as JD read the election news from the patent insides of the November 10 number of the Jamesburg Clarion News. Although people in the Territories didn´t have the privilege of voting in national elections, and the results from California, Oregon, and Texas were not yet known and probably wouldn´t be for weeks, the telegraph wires that laced the country east of the Mississippi had enabled the general slant of the electorate´s will to be seen early on. Bell, the planters´ choice and representative of the conservative Southern Unionist vote, had carried Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee- -basically the Upper South. Breckinridge had taken the remaining slave states, but neither had carried any of the free ones. Douglas, though he ran second in the popular vote, had captured only Missouri and three of New Jersey´s seven electoral votes. Abraham Lincoln and his running mate, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, had swept the country north of the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River, including six of the nine most populous states. They had edged Douglas by probably no more than half a million votes, and had taken perhaps forty per cent of the total; only the breakup of the Democratic party had permitted their victory. It was hardly a mandate, but the trend was plain.

Mary had written a carefully worded editorial analysis of the returns, avoiding any statement that could be construed as slanted. They clearly proved, she said, that most Americans didn´t want a war over slavery. Lincoln might be the victor, but he lacked any clear commission, even from the North, to hold the Southern states in the Union by force. His support came from people with a broad assortment of political and social attitudes--from crusading abolitionists and social reformers who were prepared to accept civil war (which, as they understood from Southern utterances, was made inevitable by his victory) for the sake of ending, at long last, the “curse” of slavery and of imposing upon the aristocratic South their own ideal of equality and democracy; through former Free-Soilers and free- soil Whigs who expected him only to prevent the institution´s further spread, and nationalists who shared his nationalism and looked to him to preserve the Union without force if possible; to Democrats and others, like President Buchanan, who strongly opposed armed coercion. “If Mr. Lincoln truly seeks to stand at the helm of a nation unsundered by partisanship,” Mary concluded, “he will take care to refute those fanatics of his own party who preach irreconcilable conflict. It is their radicalism, and their repeated articulation of their views, which has overwhelmed the calming attempts of the moderates, and tainted all the North, until, to the Southern states, where an entire generation has no memory of life without pressure of some sort coming at them from above the Mason-Dixon Line, he is linked with the loudest spokesmen of the party under whose banner he campaigned. That his experience in the national arena has been limited to two years in the lower house, with two unsuccessful candidacies for the Senate, cannot but ensure that he will be seen as an inevitable figurehead, dominated by such radicals as Seward and Chase. Although he has repeatedly declared that he is not an abolitionist, even the most scrupulous reading of his past public statements will show him to be the most evocative spokesman for the principle that slavery is morally wrong. The South will remember his declaration of two years since that it is an evil, but not that he knows of no easy way to end it in the states where it is legal. It will remember that he stood for the confinement of the institution upon which a region´s economy is founded, and will fear that if that institution cannot spread, it must in the end fall. It will recall his repeated statements that he hates slavery, but not his repudiation of John Brown or of all violence, bloodshed, and treason intended to eliminate it. Although he has asserted that he has no purpose of interfering with slavery where it exists, and believes indeed that even his election as President would give him no right to do so; although at the Cooper Union he clearly proclaimed, ‘Even though the Southern people will not listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can´; he is but one man, and cannot stand against the tides which surge in from either side to crush him. We venture to say that if all party orators were as logical and temperate as he; if, like him, they appealed to reason rather than passion; these bitter and lamentable differences which threaten our country´s peace might yet be amicably adjusted. Yet the images and issues which are raised whenever slavery is discussed are so visceral that it is, sadly, all but impossible to resolve the questions related to it in a composed and tranquil manner.”

JD looked up at Buck´s weary exhalation, folded the paper and let it slide to the floor. “Y´okay?”

“Yeah, I reckon so. Hell, she´s right. Ever since Garrison started the Liberator almost thirty years ago, we´ve been movin´ toward this. It had to come, sooner or later.”

“Do you think the South will really secede?” JD asked.

“I don´t know if all of it will,” Buck admitted. “South Carolina´s been sayin´ it would go if an anti-slavery candidate won the election, but South Carolina´s only one state. Sometimes I think if it and Massachusetts could be towed out into the Atlantic and sunk, we´d be rid of a whole lot of the worst agitators on both sides.”

“What if it does, though? I mean the whole South? What will that mean? Will there be a war? Will you and Mr. Larabee have to go fight in it? You´re really still Army, after all. And what will Ezra think? He´s Southern--or Vin, he´s from Texas.”

“I wish I could answer them questions, son,” Wilmington told him sadly, “and I wish I could make it so things would just keep on the way they are. But I can´t, and neither can you, or Chris, or any of us. We´ll just have to wait and see, and meanwhile try to think what our consciences expect of us.” He changed the subject. “Heard anything from Stuart James?”

“Not a word,” JD admitted. “Ezra sent his Indian boy out to tell him to come get his nephew and his men.” He smiled faintly at the memory of how the Southerner had removed a hundred dollars from Lucas´s pocket before the body was carried out of Inez´s room, then pointed out calmly that since one of James´s employees had relieved him of his personal weapons, it was only correct that James, through his nephew, provide him with the monetary means to replace them. “He came, and Mr. Larabee had a talk with him in the office, told him about that Company money that was on the pack horses. Owen told me he said he knew he didn´t have any evidence that James had had anything to do with the robbery, and as far as he was concerned, for now at least, he´d recovered the payroll and that was all he figured Company expected him to do. He didn´t say he´d be keepin´ his eye on James, but I think James heard it anyhow.”

Buck nodded against his pillow. “Kinda like what the South´s been hearin´ all this time,” he said. “I got a notion we ain´t heard the last of him.” He yawned. “I guess I´ll take a snooze, why don´t you go on out and get some fresh air and somethin´ to eat, maybe?” JD hesitated, and Buck reached out and knocked his bowler askew, tousling his hair. “Hey, you heard Nate, I´m doin´ real good. Wound´s closed up, didn´t have but a little bit of fever for the first day or so, my pulse is steady, my color´s comin´ back--I´m gonna be fine.”

“You better be,” JD told him.

“Or you´ll do what?” Wilmington demanded with a grin. “Shoot me? Been done. Ow. Don´t make me laugh.” His grin broadened at the gimlet-eyed glare the kid directed at him. “You been takin´ lessons from Chris? You got a ways to go yet, boy.”

“Well, I know who I´m goin´ with,” JD retorted, “and that´s all I care about. So you mind you do get better, ´cause I´ll be damned if I´m gonna lose you after all this.”

“Ain´t figurin´ to get lost,” Buck told him. “Go on, take a break.”

Somewhat reluctantly, JD moved toward the door and went out. Buck waited until it had closed behind him, then reached down cautiously, wincing at the pull on the fresh scar, to gather up the pages of newsprint and scan for himself the items JD had just finished reading.

The End

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To Be Continued in Trials of the Heart