by May Robinson
Buck made his way back to the saloon where he found five tense gunslingers seated at their usual table. Vin Tanner asked what they all needed to know.
"Where's JD? How is he?" Vin's tone was much sharper than usual. Despite any good intentions Buck may have had, the tracker still didn't like at all the way Buck had treated JD earlier, and he liked even less the fact that the kid hadn't come in with Buck.
Buck normally would take offense to any of the others' objections to his handling of JD, but this time he knew he had crossed the line, and so he actually took comfort in knowing that the kid's other friends were looking out for him. He ordered a round of beers for the table, and began to apologize.
"Fellas, JD and me are just fine. I appreciate you askin' "
Chris, who had been worried earlier when he saw JD heading for the livery stable, interrupted his oldest friend. "Then where is he, Buck? You sure he's all right?"
Buck laughed. "Shit, Chris. You're getting as bad as me. Hell, you all are. Kid's got more brothers than a monastery, for Christ's sake! Uh sorry, Josiah."
Josiah just grinned at Buck's analogy, raising his glass to him, as did the other men. Buck had successfully broken the ice, and so he continued. "JD and I had a long talk and I told him I was sorry for being such an ass. I told him everything about O'Brien and me and, well you know JD, he don't hold no grudges. We're fine."
Buck shifted his gaze to his oldest friend. "You were right, Chris. Once I told JD everything, he actually agreed to stay behind with the Marshall without putting up a fight he just ain't too happy about it. Anyway, since he already saddled that mare'a his for a ride to go and cool off, he decided he'd still take her for a run. He shouldn't be more'n an hour or so."
Buck took a long drink from his beer and nodded to Chris. "Boys, Chris here is goin' to tell ya everything he knows about Bill O'Brien and me, and why JD can't be ridin' with us this time. Just hearing myself tell it once already is enough for me, so, if y'all don't mind, I think I'll take my beer outside and set there for a spell. Come'n get me when you're ready to talk about the job." The tall gunslinger wearily got up from the table and headed for the door. He paused and turned back to his friends.
"Guess I owe you all an apology for the way I acted in the jail. I hope when Chris gets through tellin' ya everything, it'll make more sense to ya." Buck's tired eyes misted as he looked at the group of men seated before him. "Just want you all to know that I'm damn proud to be ridin' with you." Buck then tipped his hat to his friends and walked out the door.
The men were disquieted by Buck's melancholy words. They looked expectantly at Chris, as their leader cleared his throat and decided just where to begin. Buck had given Larabee his permission to tell the men everything, and so Chris proceeded to describe the history of Buck Wilmington's relationship with William 'The Fox' O'Brien. Chris' version was abbreviated from that which Buck had told JD, however it did not leave out the details of the deaths of two young women and one bank guard, or the fact that Chris had a score of his own to settle with O'Brien.
The usually unflappable men were stunned by the story and in total agreement that JD was to be as far away as possible from O'Brien or his gang.
They couldn't know that they were already too late.
JD hadn't planned on riding out this far, but, with the wind in his hair and a horse who loved to run as much as he did, JD found himself arriving at the canyon ridge, in record time. A city boy by nature, this was probably JD's favorite place to be when out in the wilderness. He halted his mare to rest and to take in the breath-taking view. The whole time he was riding out here, and even now, his mind was replaying his conversation with Buck. JD was still upset about not being able to ride with his friends, but the boy didn't want to burden Buck with any more worry.
The kid was worried too about Buck's own frame of mind and afraid that Buck might do something stupid, like get himself killed, while O'Brien was in the custody of the Seven. Okay, well, Six. JD was concerned about his other friends, too. If something went wrong, O'Brien could hurt any one of them as part of an escape attempt, or as a way to hurt Buck again. What the kid really wanted was for Buck to stay home with him, but he knew that was impossible. Buck was Buck, and he fought his own battles. He simply had to be there. JD looked up to the sky and silently prayed that Buck and the others would make it home safely. They were the closest thing he had to family now like brothers.
No. "Buck is my brother," JD stated aloud, in all certainty. Blood had nothing to do with it, or maybe it had everything to do with it, but in a different way than who their parents were. He knew Buck would die for him and he would do the same for Buck. Just hope it never comes down to either.
JD smiled to himself as he thought of Buck's words in the livery stable. Little brother. JD knew that Buck often referred to him as the kid brother when speaking to others, but he would never say it to JD. It was probably because, in his early efforts to prove himself a man to his older friends, JD had resisted Buck's big brother act. But after a while, as JD began to encounter the harsh realities of life on his own in the west, Buck's protective nature gave the kid welcome comfort and security.
Little brother. It warmed JD's heart.
Preoccupied with his thoughts, JD hadn't noticed that Charlie Vale and Ken Chambers, two of William O'Brien's best men, had been following him since his departure from Four Corners. A sometime lawman, Chambers was damn near as good a tracker as Vin, and an expert marksman to boot.
JD hadn't heard Chambers' and Vale's conversation a mile or so behind him, and he hadn't noticed Chambers lining him up in his rifle sites. The boy did however hear the crack of the rifle shot, and for an instant he felt an unbelievable searing pain. JD suddenly felt himself falling, and then, just as suddenly, darkness came and he couldn't feel anything at all.
At Nathan's prompting, Buck rejoined the gunslingers, once Chris had finished telling them about Buck's history with 'The Fox.' Josiah laid a supportive hand on Buck's shoulder as he resumed his place at their table. Ezra found he was at a loss for words, consoling a friend was still unfamiliar territory for the gambler.
Vin and Nathan offered sincerest apologies to their friend. Both were feeling rather guilty for having briefly thought the worst about Buck's treatment of JD earlier in the day. They now fully understood Buck's fears and the tirade that had stemmed from them.
Vin and Chris took the lead in developing a strategy and schedule for their mission. The men were still suspicious about the army not escorting O'Brien all the way from Frisco to West Bend and why the Seven were even involved in the prisoner transfer at all. It was Ezra who finally voiced what they all felt to be true
The Seven were being used by the military as bait, albeit formidable bait, in an effort to capture some or all of O'Brien's gang. Reducing the number of armed men guarding O'Brien to only the members of the Seven, provided O'Brien's men with a window of opportunity to try to free him. At the same time, Chris and his men would present an intimidating show of force in order that O'Brien's top men would not realize this portion of the journey was a trap. The Seven would, in theory, be able to hold their own until the cavalry arrived, literally, to save the day.
Chris was convinced that Judge Travis had not lied to them about their mission, and that he was undoubtedly unaware of the entire plan. However, Larabee also knew that Orrin was an intelligent and experienced man who would have drawn the same conclusion himself. Chris smirked. No wonder he looked so miserable when he left.
Despite the near certainty that the military would provide back up should a gunfight erupt, Josiah suggested to his friends that they not count on this assumption and instead, simply watch each others' backs, as always. All were in agreement.
With the mission strategy and schedule established, the men were beginning to think about other important issues such as dinner.
"What time is it," an anxious Buck asked.
"Why Mr. Wilmington, I don't recollect the sacrifice to me of your beloved timepiece in any recent games of chance. Has it been misplaced due to another hasty departure from the residence of a paramour per chance?" Obviously Ezra was no longer at a loss for words.
"Can it, Ezra," Buck barked. He was beginning to wonder about the kid and had lost his sense of humor again. "Where the hell is he?"
"Buck, you said he was okay. Come on, this is JD we're talkin' about. He'd live on that horse, if he could. Since when does he ever go for a short ride," Chris teased.
Buck's tension eased a bit. Still, he couldn't help thinking about the kid's uncanny knack for finding trouble. "You're probably right, pard, but if it's all the same to you, I think I'm gonna head on out and see if I can find him."
Vin got up from the table along with Buck. "I could use some fresh air, Bucklin. Mind if I join ya?" Vin was getting worried about JD too, but didn't want to add to Buck's burden. He kept his thoughts to himself. Even if the kid ain't still mad, he'd be mighty distracted with all that's goin' on and he's out there all alone.
As Chris Larabee's two closest friends left the saloon, he heard them both cry out.
"Oh, Christ!" Buck's voice was registering panic.
"Dammit, kid." Vin's lament was much quieter, but just as alarming to the four men remaining in the saloon. Their weapons were drawn as they burst through the saloon doors onto the boardwalk. Each of them registered shock at the sight before them the same ominous sight that had met Buck and Vin, just seconds before. JD's horse was making its way down the main street of Four Corners without its rider.
Nothing short of seeing the grinning face of an adored black-haired boy appearing unharmed before them was going to curb Buck's panic, so Chris didn't even attempt to stop his friend from riding out of town, hell bent for leather, in the direction he had last seen JD going.
Despite their vehement objections, Chris convinced Josiah and Ezra to stay behind and watch the town, while the rest searched for JD. Chris needed Vin to track the kid, and Nathan to patch him up, if the kid's usual luck had prevailed. And Chris had to be there for Buck, if the unthinkable had happened which of course simply couldn't happen.
The boy's hero clenched his jaw.
Chris then remembered his own devastating loss of almost four years ago, and prayed.
About fifteen minutes into the search, Vin had determined JD's likely destination. He and Nathan would bring up the rear however, looking for signs of JD changing direction. Buck and Chris rode ahead to the canyon.
Neither man required Vin's tracking skills to recognize the signs of what had happened at the ridge.
As the two old friends took in the evidence of the crumbled ledge at their feet; the path from a too-recent rockslide, the raging river beneath them, and a clear view that couldn't hide JD no words were spoken. Chris' heart was aching and he approached his friend reverently, careful not to startle him. With a soft touch, rarely used, Chris placed his hand on Buck's arm and guided him away from the ledge. "Buck, I'm "
"JD didn't fall, Chris," Buck choked. "He ain't down there." Buck felt like he was suffocating, but he cut off any of Chris' attempts to console him.
He was in denial.
Chris' words were interrupted by the arrival of Vin and Nathan. Vin's expert eye took in the scene before him. He was on the ground in an instant, almost frantic in his actions. He examined the soil at his feet and froze as he looked at the tracks beneath him. He ran his fingers along the sand and his hand clenched into a fist. As if in a trance, he let the sand escape through his fingers. "His horse reared up here Might have been a rattler that spooked her," he whispered.
Vin then abruptly got to his feet, grabbed a rope from his gear, and readied himself for his descent.
"Where're you goin,' pard?" Chris' tone was soft, but he couldn't mask the hint of fear.
"JD done fell down there, Chris. I hafta see if I can find him."
Buck couldn't bear the anguish he heard in his friend's voice. In a flash he had a tight hold of the tracker and began to shake him. "JD DID NOT fall offa his horse, Vin! HE WOULDN'T," Buck cried.
Nathan was upon his distraught friend in an instant, and in soothing tones, tried to break through to him. Despite having no physical injuries, the healer had been watching Buck closely for signs of shock. Jackson knew of no wound that could hurt Buck more than the loss of JD. "Come on, Buck. Let Vin go," he whispered.
Buck jerked away from Vin as if he'd been struck. He turned to his oldest friend, desperate for reassurance. "You know JD, Chris that kid ain't gonna fall off his horse." Buck's words were stated as fact, but his voice was tortured.
Larabee was torn. He wanted to help Buck, but he also had to help Vin, who was suffering too, and who was about to do something dangerous.
Nathan made the choice for him.
Buck didn't seem to be aware of Nathan wrapping a blanket around his shoulders. Nor did he acknowledge the healer guiding him away from the ridge and settling him down under a shade tree. Buck had gone numb.
And his soul was dying.
Before climbing down the rock-face, Vin had looked through his spyglass with the irrational hope of spotting his young friend. The only thing he could see was the glimmer, behind some rocks far below him, of a metal object; likely a gun. Vin kept these thoughts to himself. In fact, none of the men spoke at all. They couldn't.
Chris and Nathan helped guide Vin's descent along side the canyon wall. Both men vigilantly watched the younger man as he made his way down the treacherous slope. There was really no point to this search, but Vin was adamant that he had to climb down.
Nathan wondered to himself what his friend could be looking for. Any discovery would only break his heart further. There was no hope of finding an injured JD. The view from their position was sickeningly clear. If JD fell, the only place he could have landed was in the raging water so very far below them. To think about that probability was too much for Nathan to bear, but his mind wouldn't let go of the image. The drop was quite steep, but not entirely vertical. JD would have hit the slope hard first before ultimately tumbling into the water. Nathan prayed that the boy had been knocked unconscious prior to hitting the frigid water. Surely God would not have let him suffer his injuries and the bitter cold. Please, God. The boy couldn't have suffered.
Chris swallowed hard as he watched his best friend pause a few times to touch a rock or a bush. Each time Vin did this, he would look at his hands, and his shoulders would sag a little more. Chris was no fool. Vin was finding blood. When Vin made his way down to a small boulder jutting out from the wall, he picked up a shining object. Larabee watched his friend sit down on the rock and cradle the object against his chest. Chris called down to Vin, but the tracker didn't acknowledge him. Vin bowed his head and made no effort to get up. Chris would give him a moment. And he thanked God that Buck wasn't watching this.
Nathan looked at Chris with dark brown eyes full of despair. He knew that Vin had found what he was looking for what they prayed he wouldn't find proof. The healer turned his attention to Buck, who hadn't moved from his huddled position under the tree. And Nathan thanked God too, that Buck wasn't watching this. His pain was great enough.
Vin wearily got up and placed the shining object inside his shirt. He signaled to Chris and Nathan that he was ready to come up. His climb was slow, but he was no longer looking for anything. Just as Chris reached his hand down to help Vin up over the ledge, Vin paused to look at something. His eyes filled. He gripped Chris' hand and allowed Nathan and he to pull him up. Vin faced both men with tearful eyes, and then quickly dipped his head. Chris started to speak, to say something, anything to ease his friend's pain, but the young tracker turned away from his best friend and made his way over to Buck.
Buck didn't appear to see Vin, but that didn't deter Vin from approaching his friend. He knelt down next to Buck and pulled a much prized ivory-handled Colt Lightning pistol from his shirt. Vin handled the gun as if it was a precious stone. It was precious, but as much as Vin wanted to hold on to it, he knew it belonged with someone else. And so he gently placed the gun in Buck's hand, and whispered respectfully, "JD would want you to have this, Buck."
Vin placed his hand on his friend's shoulder and rested it there for a moment, before turning back to Chris and Nathan. Buck blinked and finally focussed his dark eyes on the gun in his hand. He had turned his attention briefly to Vin and tried to utter his thanks, but Vin had already moved away. No words would have come, anyway. Buck returned his attention to JD's gun, which hung loosely in his grip. Pulling his knees up to his chest, he rested his arms on them and lay his head down. Buck closed his eyes and drifted away into the past he couldn't stay in the present not if JD wasn't with him.
Vin attempted to pull himself together as he returned to report his findings to Chris and Nathan. With a heavy heart, Vin explained what he believed had happened.
Upon arriving at the rock-ledge, Vin had immediately recognized the distinctive imprint of a rattlesnake, along with evidence that a horse, JD's mare, had been spooked. The fresh bloodstains he found down the embankment followed the path of a rockslide, as did a trail of unused bullets, which would have come loose from JD's gunbelt as he was falling. Discovering JD's Colt near the bottom of the gorge confirmed Vin's fears as to JD's fate, and finding a recently shed snakeskin, just before he resurfaced from his climb, confirmed the cause. There was no question in Vin's mind what had happened, but it killed him to believe it. The path of destruction Vin had trailed would haunt him forever, knowing that the kid had taken it as well falling out of control with no one there to catch him when he hit bottom. Vin's heart ached and his stomach churned. He turned away from his friends and heaved.
The truth hit Chris and Nathan as hard as it had Vin. Chris turned his pain inward, as he always would. He had to think about his men, getting them home and breaking the news to Josiah and Ezra. He placed a steady palm on Vin's back, and held it there, until Vin's heaves had subsided. After a few agonizing moments of not being able to breathe, Vin wiped his mouth and looked up at his best friend with eyes full of despair. "We've lost him, Chris."
Nathan winced at Vin's distraught voice. Nathan knew the truth. He knew it the minute he and Vin arrived at the canyon, but to deal with the truth was another story. We've lost him. Nathan knew in his heart that those three simple words would forever change his life and the lives of five good men. And Nathan was their healer. How could he heal this? He had never seen such emotion coming from the always-placid Vin Tanner, and Nathan knew that the man supporting Vin now was feeling the same emotion. Chris and Vin always shared each other's pain.
Nathan then turned his attention to Buck, who had curled into himself, still in a daze, and Nathan knew that once awakened from this daze, there would be no reprieve for Buck, but rather total devastation.
The worst was yet to come.
It was well past nightfall when four heartbroken men made their way into town. Josiah and Ezra had been waiting for them in nervous silence, sitting side-by-side on the porch of the preacher's church. Mary Travis, their friend, ran out from her office to greet the dusty, weary men.
Spirits lifted momentarily as they recognized the silhouette of Buck Wilmington on his gray, being led down the street by Vin Tanner. The blanket-clad form of Buck, hunched down in his saddle, gave the impression that he was riding double with JD, holding on to the boy, as he had done so many times in the past.
However, as the four horsemen drew closer, it became painfully obvious to Josiah, Ezra and Mary, that they were mistaken. JD was not riding with his best friend, or any of the others, and the bearing of their friends told the three, that they were about to share in a tragedy.
As the riders stopped in front of the boarding house, Ezra and Josiah rushed over to meet them. Mary followed. Ezra started to inquire, but a hardened glare from Chris, and Vin's haunted eyes, stopped him in his tracks. Josiah walked over to help Nathan get Buck down from his horse. Buck's condition had not improved since leaving the canyon ridge. Once his feet were planted firmly on the ground, Josiah wrapped his arms around Buck in a compassionate embrace. Buck recoiled from his friend's hold on him, but turned bewildered eyes towards him. For the first time in hours, he spoke. "He's gone, Josiah JD's gone."
Although Ezra and Josiah needed to know what had happened to JD, this was not the time to ask. Their friends had been through an ordeal and needed tending. Mary too, understood their pain, and respectfully left them at peace, but not before placing Chris' hand in hers and offering to help in any way she could. Chris squeezed her hand and whispered his gratitude and then turned his attention to Buck.
All five men escorted Buck to his room. Nathan lit a fire in the stove. He was still worried about shock, and wanted to keep Buck warm. Buck returned to his silent state and settled in a chair. None of his friends could convince him to lie down and Nathan did not want to agitate him, so he didn't push the issue.
There was nothing more Nathan could do for Buck, and so he returned to his clinic with the intention of preparing his medical kit for their mission. Ezra would retire to his room and an exhausted Vin insisted on riding patrol this night. Josiah and Chris would stay with Buck.
As the night wore on, neither Chris nor Josiah were able to reach Buck. There was no point in both of them being there, so Chris sent the preacher to his church, asking him to say a prayer and to light a candle each for the boy and for his oldest friend.
As Josiah stood at his altar, lighting one candle for the boy he adored, and one for the man who the boy adored most, he talked to his god. He yelled at his god, and ranted and raved at his god. And then he cried.
Josiah lit five more candles for himself and for the men who had grown to care for the boy as much as he had.
JD's was a soul that didn't need saving, one of the few Josiah had encountered in his life. JD's soul was pure and good and Josiah wondered if that was why he was lost to them. Maybe heaven was in need of angels.
The preacher smiled.
Heaven is in for a surprise.
Ezra Standish remained in his room less than an hour. His thoughts kept turning to the boy; a boy so unlike himself. The kid, whose open face and expressive eyes could never pull off a successful con, who knew nothing of greed, nothing of deception, and therefore nothing of Ezra, and yet had managed to accomplish a feat few others could.
He had penetrated Ezra's heart.
Ezra returned to the merriment of the saloon, not to share in it, but to hide himslef in it. A slick game of cards would take his mind off JD. But, even with the distraction provided by his vocation, Ezra's thoughts kept turning to the kid.
JD was the most selfless individual Ezra had ever encountered with the most generous heart.
Ezra played through the night, employing all of his skills, and all of his heart.
And Ezra Standish lost every hand.
Nathan had returned to his clinic. The healer knew that he and his friends needed rest, but he couldn't sleep. There was work to be done. In just over twenty-four hours, five men he cared deeply about were going to be heading into battle, and he knew in his heart that it would be their last together.
JD's loss would surely bring about the end of their union. Buck won't survive...and that forgone conclusion broke Nathan's heart. Not that he wouldn't try to keep Buck alive but it would only be a matter of time before Buck would find a blaze of glory. Nathan knew it. And Nathan also knew that for the others, the town would no longer be home not without the kid JD provided the heart that made Four Corners their home.
This would be their last ride together, and Nathan would have to prepare a medical kit.
And so Nathan started sorting his utensils, and bandages, and blankets and other supplies, and laid them out on his bed. As he was preparing a mental inventory of the items before him, tears came to his eyes. He shook his head and smiled, thinking about the bravest boy he had ever laid his eyes on. But, as Nathan's thoughts turned back to the canyon, he felt anger. "Dammit," he cried. "I could've fixed him up, like always, if only !" He grabbed his blanket, contents and all, and threw it against the wall.
Nathan took a moment to regain control. His breathing settled. The healer then walked over to the wall, gathered his blanket and the items buried within it, and began sorting them again.
There's work to be done.
Vin Tanner would not sleep under the stars tonight. Because tonight the stars represented everything in nature he loved and had shared with a bright-eyed city kid, who knew nothing of nature. But whose desire to learn about its wonders was so genuine and infectious, it had compelled the tracker to show the boy nature's beauty, including one of his favorite places a canyon with mile high walls and a raging blue river beneath it a canyon where that boy's life had ended.
It had been almost twenty-five years since Vin had known family. Yet, in these past six months he had become part of one. Josiah, Buck, Nathan and, even Ezra, had become his brothers, and Chris Larabee was even more than that, a kindred spirit and soul mate.
And then there was JD. Vin had never before experienced having someone look up to him, nor had he actually wanted that role of teacher and older brother. But JD's faith, will and love of life had helped Vin open up his heart again and believe in the possibility of family.
Yes, in these six months Vin had found a family, but in mere minutes he feared it was lost.
Upon Josiah's departure from Buck's room, Chris had tried once more to talk to Buck, but his attempts were half-hearted. Chris knew all too well the depth of his oldest friend's grief. Knowing how unreachable he had been for so long after the loss of his wife and son, it seemed only respectful to allow Buck some time, and some solitude.
Chris left Buck alone in his room, but he didn't venture far. It would only be a few hours until daybreak, so Chris settled himself on the floor in the hallway outside Buck's door and waited for the inevitable.
Buck must have heard Chris close the door behind him, because shortly afterwards, Larabee could hear the creak of Buck's chair as he rose from it and began to pace. Chris barely acknowledged the sound of shattering glass a whiskey bottle, or maybe the mirror. The bashing and crashing of drawers, chairs and other objects that followed was punctuated by an occasional anguished cry. Chris didn't get up. He knew Buck needed a release and he wasn't worried about Buck hurting himself.
Not yet, anyway.
The commotion died down and ended with one heavy thud and a few muffled cries.
Tonight's storm was over.
Chris sadly got up from the floor and made his way to his own room, settling into his bed. He closed his eyes and an image came to him; a fresh-faced, dark-haired kid, looking up at him with eyes full of adulation. That sweet kid's face then melded with that of a much younger boy, lost to him four years earlier, who had the same dark hair and same adoring eyes. Both innocents. Both lost. With tear-filled eyes, Chris prayed that wherever these boys were, they were all right, and he took comfort in the knowledge that both simply had to be, for they were each with their mothers.
It was he and Buck who'd been left behind.
Buck awoke with a start. He was sitting on the floor next to his bed and his body and soul ached, but he wasn't sure why. It was still pitch dark outside and he felt completely disoriented. Something was wrong. It must be the kid. Buck thought he had heard JD call his name. Poor kid must be having a nightmare, or maybe he's sick.
The kid had more courage than most men twice his size, but since moving in next door to Buck, JD's occasional nightmare or fever-induced dream would awaken his friend. The first few came right after their return from the Seminole Village. Hell, that fight was good enough to give Buck recurring dreams. The most recent episode had been after Buck had been kidnapped and JD had been stabbed by Morgan Coltraine's men. That shook up the boy more than he was willing to admit. Buck hated to see the kid hurting in any way, still he couldn't help but feel warmed in the knowledge that lately JD had been calling out for him, and not his ma, like he used to.
And Buck would always do the same. He would quietly walk into the kid's room, sit next to JD on the edge of his bed, and gently stroke his hair until the boy would wake or settle. And if the kid were sick or hurt, Buck would take JD in his arms and hold him.
In the stillness of the night, and the aftermath of a bad dream, JD's wall of manhood would easily crumble. And all that remained was a scared seventeen year old kid, all alone in the world, but for the bastard son of a whore, who teased him like a little brother, but loved him like a son. Buck would tell JD that everything was all right; that he was there for him, and his ma was watching over him, so everything would have to be okay. And when the kid would fall back to sleep, Buck would watch over him to make sure he was safe, before returning to his room to face the day not knowing if JD would even remember the night before, and never bringing it up because if he did, he knew it would embarrass the hell out of the kid.
As Buck opened the door to JD's room and saw the unmade and empty bed before him, he moaned. He felt his knees weaken as he made his way over to JD's bed before collapsing into it. Buck lay his head on the kid's pillow, crumpled his blanket into a ball, and wrapped his arms around it, holding on for dear life. And then Buck wept.
It was in that moment that Buck realized it wasn't JD having the nightmare at all, but he.
And it was a nightmare from which he would never wake.
"You ain't actually gonna let him ride with us?!" Nathan's eyes flashed, as he snapped at Chris. It was now morning and Vin had discovered that Buck had gotten up before daybreak, loaded his horse with his guns and gear, and left Four Corners.
Josiah, Ezra, Vin and Nathan were all terribly worried about their friend, but Chris remained calm. He promised that he would head out now to check on Buck, certain that Buck had gone back to the canyon, and then he would bring him home before riding tonight to meet O'Brien's military escort. Chris' decision was not going over very well.
"Buck ain't in no condition to handle O'Brien and JD bein' gone, for Chrissake!" Nathan was livid.
Chris knew the healer's words were true, but he also knew there was no way in hell Buck Wilmington was going to stay away from this fight his fight. Nathan was absolutely right, but there was nothing Chris could do about it, and that made him angry. He turned to Nathan and growled. "Nate, Buck's a grown man who's gonna do whatever he wants to do, and there's no way in hell he's gonna leave O'Brien to us. Especially now! Leave it alone!"
Nathan's hands were clenched in tight fists he couldn't believe that the man before him, Buck's oldest friend, was willing to let Buck ride to his death without putting up a fight. As Nathan seethed, Vin stepped in and spoke up in his quiet, soothing drawl.
"Chris, Buck's gonna get hisself killed out there. You know that. He ain't in no frame of mind to be in a gunfight. Hell, he shouldn't even be out at the canyon, now."
Vin was also right. Chris had concerns all along about Buck riding with them on this mission, but there would be no stopping him. It was Buck's fight, after all. Chris had no right to ask him to stay out of it. Until yesterday though, Chris had faith that Buck wouldn't get reckless and wind up dead.
Buck had always been cocky, taking too many risks with his own life in the heat of battle. And when things got personal, Buck would lose any semblance of control he had. But Chris had noticed lately that Buck was being more careful, and Chris attributed this caution to a new self-interest borne not at all from fear or cowardice, but borne from a greater sense of responsibility JD needed Buck to live, and Buck simply would do anything for JD.
But now JD was gone, and Chris knew Buck wanted to die. Just as Chris had, when Sarah and Adam were lost to him. What right did Chris have to ask Buck to live, when Chris still didn't know himself, what his own choice would be?
Chris didn't have that right, but just the same, he would ride out now to check up on Buck, just as Buck would always do for him.
Chris arrived at the canyon rim and found Buck's horse grazing in the long grass. At first Chris saw no sign of Buck and for an instant he froze. He had been so certain that Buck would not kill himself, but could he have been wrong? But then Chris spotted his oldest friend, huddled again under the same tree, and with a sigh of relief, Chris approached him.
As he took in the sight before him, Chris couldn't stop the groan that had escaped from his lips. Buck was sitting under the tree, his dark eyes mournfully gazing at an all-too-familiar bowler hat he was holding in his lap. With dying eyes, Buck looked up at his friend, and it was then that Chris noticed the scrapes and bruises on Buck's face, and his torn shirt-sleeve, testament to his solitary climb back into the ravine. He wanted to give his friend hell for pulling a damn fool stunt like that, but he couldn't. Chris would have done the same.
Buck's eyes began to show some clarity, as he finally spoke to his old friend. Shifting his gaze to JD's bowler, he whispered, "I found it 'bout a half mile along the riverbank some rocks made up a small whirlpool in the river. It was there."
Chris sat down next to his friend and gently touched the boy's hat. He placed a comforting hand on Buck's shoulder and remained quiet. He knew his friend as well as anyone, and he knew Buck had more to say. So Chris would let Buck take his time, and he would listen.
Buck's voice was soft, and his eyes brimmed with tears. "Chris, I've spent my whole life movin' from town to town, never really takin' responsibility for anyone or anything. Hell, I've never committed to a thing workin' girls and married ladies well, you know me "
Buck looked at his friend, whose compassionate eyes told him he understood. It was true. Chris knew exactly what Buck was talking about. As long as he had known Buck, Buck had run like hell from anything even resembling commitment. The closest he had seen Buck come to taking responsibility for someone else, was with Sarah and Adam. But they weren't his sole responsibility either, they were Chris.'
But then JD came along and that's when everything changed for Buck. JD was his. Chris understood.
Buck's tears began to fall, as he continued to speak. "But JD, Chris. He got to me right down deep where I couldn't do anything about it, even if I wanted to. Before I knew what hit me, Chris I was responsible for him and that made me happy."
Buck looked at Chris with bewildered eyes. He looked so lost. "Dammit, Chris I promised to take care of him."
Chris could feel Buck quake beneath the hand he still had resting on Buck's shoulder. He maintained the contact, although he didn't know if his grieving friend would even feel it. Buck's whole body was trembling and Chris could feel Buck's struggle to regain control. As his breathing grew calmer, Buck turned again to his friend. His eyes still registered infinite pain and loss. "I failed him, Chris. I failed "
Buck's voice trailed off to nothingness. Having experienced such grief himself, Chris knew that trying to reason with his friend would be hopeless, but still, Chris couldn't stand hearing Buck punish himself like this. Chris had to try.
"Buck, how do you think JD would feel listening to you say that? Jesus, Buck! You're the best thing that ever happened to him. It's not your fault he's gone." Chris' voice was rough with emotion. "You gotta believe me, pard. JD would never blame you for this. God, Buck. I know what you're going through you know that. I lost my boy, too. Blaming ourselves won't change anything."
Buck blinked at Chris' words. I lost my boy, too. The younger man stared at his friend, realizing that Chris knew him too well. Everyone always said that Buck and JD acted like brothers, and well, they did. But that didn't mean that JD wasn't more than that to Buck. Chris did understand. Buck had lost his boy and it was killing him.
While Chris felt he still had Buck's attention, he decided to try to talk his friend into riding back with him. "Buck, everyone at home is worried about you. Come back with me. It's time."
Buck's eyes filled. "Can't go back there no more, Chris. Can't stay there. It ain't home for me. Naw, I got everything I need to take care of this job and that's all I'm gonna need."
Chris didn't want this. "Buck "
Buck shakily stood up and faced his friend. He was still clutching JD's bowler. "Chris, I've made up my mind. I'm gonna stay here, by myself for a bit. Come three in the morning, I'll meet y'all at Baker Pass. That'll keep us on track for the meet. Tell everyone not to worry ole Buck's fine."
With those final words, Buck Wilmington turned and walked away from his oldest friend.