(Variation One)

an M7 AU

by Sevenstars

The next day Buck dropped JD off at the house of one of his school friends, where they had a standing invitation to Sunday dinner, and rode on out to Miss Audra Maybrick's house. It was one of the oldest "fine homes" in town; she had inherited it from an aged aunt, and to support it, and herself, had converted it to a school. The suburb where Buck and JD lived lay between it and the heart of town, for it had originally been a country house, with extensive fields and grounds, which over time had been sold off, though there was still a cow pasture and a couple of small plots dotted with hog sties and bordered by apple, plum, cherry, and peach trees. The house itself was a great gray stone edifice (Miss Audra often said she thanked Heaven it never needed to be painted) set well back under tall sugar maples, with a wide entrance hall centered by a wide winding stairway and flanked by double doors, on the left to a thirty-foot parlor, on the right to the sitting room, dining room, and kitchen. All of these except the last were used as schoolrooms, with pocket doors dividing the first in two, and Miss Audra herself, with her cousin, "dear Mary Briggs," who helped her teach the "infant classes," lived quite comfortably in the five bedrooms on the second floor, while the third was given over to storage, a large playroom, and quarters for the maids. The ceilings were fifteen feet high on the lower two floors and twelve on the third. A huge tall trellis covered with Concord grapevines divided yard and garden, and a lilac-lined path led along the flower plots to the chicken coop, stable, barn, and truck patch. In spring the grounds were bright with crocuses, lilies of the valley, lilacs, and snowball, in summer with roses, hollyhocks, mignonette, babies'-breath, larkspur, dahlias, and sweet William.

In a day when public schools were often less than optimum, and many parents preferred to educate their young at home or send them to private ones, Miss Audra's was typical. The "infant classes" were made up of the younger children, JD and his fellows, aged about six through ten; the older ones, on the other side of the hall, were taught generally by a succession of pompous or ineffective young men, often reading law or studying for the ministry, to whom teaching was chiefly a way to make a little money before or during college. The Reverend Stoddard migrated from one set to the other to impart the lore of history, and by what Buck knew from JD did it very well. The four classrooms were well supplied with desks, maps, blackboards, and books, with McGuffey's Primer and his six Readers the core of the curriculum, supplemented by arithmetic, geography, grammar, Bible, and music.

Buck timed his arrival to give the ladies time to get home from church; he seldom went himself, but a teacher, after all, had to keep up appearances even if she wasn't being paid out of public tax money, or else no one would think her fit to be trusted with the guidance and training of their children. The cook and maids had Sunday off to be with their own families, and it was Miss Audra herself who opened the door. She was twenty-six and had been teaching school, first for hire and later independently, since she was "finished" at eighteen. Her hair was a deep maizey gold, dressed in Madonna style, drawn into a large cadogan or chignon at the back; her eyes were a deep midnight blue with little lights in them like the stars in the nighttime sky. Buck had never been able to understand why such a smart, pretty woman--and with a valuable property of her own, no less--hadn't been snapped up long ago, but perhaps her education made many men uneasy. She wore a blue dimity gown that featured an overskirt open in front and looped back on either side to form the newly stylish bustle draping, which fell in a complicated array of folds to the train at the back; an apron front accompanied it.

"Why, Buck!" she exclaimed. "JD told me you were out at Fort Hays."

"I was," he agreed. "Just got in last afternoon. Miss Audra, I know I likely shouldn't come by when there ain't nobody in the house to chaperone us, and if you ask me to go I will, but I got some things I'd like to say, and if I don't get 'em said I ain't sure I'll have the time or the courage to do it later."

"Then we'll sit on the porch, where anyone who passes by can see us," she decided. "It's a beautiful day, so why not? Would you like some lemonade?"

"Lemonade would be fine, ma'am."

Audra hid her flinch. Having passed her twenty-fifth birthday without a husband, she was considered an old maid, and society felt justified in addressing her by that title rather than "miss." "Make yourself comfortable, then," she invited, "and I'll bring it right out."

When they were both settled on the porch swing, with the lemonade pitcher, glasses, and a platter of doughnuts on a little cast-iron table within easy reach, Buck sat without speaking for a while, turning his broad-brimmed gray hat around and around in his hands and staring at the floorboards between his feet. He'd never been shy with women, but this was different. After all, he'd never come to one planning to propose marriage, either. He knew all the things a man was supposed to do, according to expected convention: have a ring in his pocket, get down on his knees before the girl, beg her to make him "the happiest man in the world." But that wasn't Buck Wilmington. "There was a letter waitin' for me when I got home yesterday," he began, "from an old friend of mine, a man I was in the War with, name of Chris Larabee. Before I found out that our ma had died and I had JD to look after, me'n'Chris was talkin' about goin' out to New Mexico and startin' a horse ranch. Afterward we both decided that with JD bein' as little as he was, it'd be better if I stayed here a few years, and Chris went on out alone. Now he's about to get himself married up, and he wants me to be his best man and JD to come too. So we're figurin' to head out next week."

"That's very nice--for your friend, I mean," Audra observed.

"I got a notion he's hip-deep in love," Buck agreed. "He don't say it right out, but I got to know him good enough that I can kinda hear it in his letters. The girl's name is Sarah Connelly; seems her pa was in the Mexican War, and afterward he decided Albuquerque looked good and fetched his family out there.

"JD's goin' on eight now," he proceeded, "and even if he ain't ever likely to be too big, he's growed a lot from when I first got guardianship of him. I'm thinkin' he needs a new land to come up in, somewheres that he won't have to deal with all the competition he'll have if he tries to make a life here in Kansas City. And I'm figurin' Chris'll have to make some kind of home for Sarah, so might be he won't object to me bringin' JD out to stay and goin' in with him like we planned before."

"You'll be leaving town, then? Giving up your job with the railroad?"

"Figure to, yes, ma'am. Ain't no railroad out there yet, so I couldn't keep on bein' a troubleshooter. But I got money saved, and I spent time out that way when I was younger; land's cheap, mostly free. We'll make out, Chris and me."

"That will mean we won't have JD here at the school any more," she said. "I'll miss him. He's so bright and eager to learn, and he's never caused a bit of trouble."

"He's a good kid," Buck agreed. "But I'm thinkin' it wouldn't be right for the two of us to drop into Chris's new wife's lap and expect her to take care of us. I'm thinkin' I need to have more to offer than just money and experience; I need a wife of my own."

She was silent a moment. "Are you proposing?"

"I reckon I am," he admitted. "I know it don't sound particular romantic. And I know I ain't an educated man and I don't talk fancy. But I got money put away like I said, and I'm a worker. I figure we've been goin' together long enough that you got a pretty fair picture of the kind of man I am, and I know enough about you to know that we get along. I know you and JD get on, and that means a lot; I couldn't even think of makin' a woman part of my life if she didn't already understand that me and the boy come together." He paused, turning his hat again. "There's things about me I maybe ain't ever told you. When I was younger, back before the War, I earned a livin' with my gun; that's how I come to have as much money saved as I do. But I always stood on the side of the law, and I never killed nobody that wouldn't have it no other way. And I mean to give that up and be a respectable rancher from now on." He took a deep breath. "Apart from that, I ain't one to lie, and you ought to know that the name I'd be givin' you ain't exactly mine. Wilmington comes from where I was born at, the one in Delaware. I never knew my pa; I don't even know who he was. There's some that would say I ain't respectable on that account. I know bein' respectable means a lot to a woman. I'd just...sooner you knew it goin' in than have you maybe find it out later and be hurt to where you'd leave me. Startin' out a marriage on a lie ain't a good thing. I know that even if I ain't ever been married before."

Audra said nothing for a minute or two. What Buck didn't realize was that she had known of his beginnings, and JD's, all along. The black servant class in any town was full of gossip, and little went on that was hidden from them. Buck's housekeeper Irene was in fact a great-niece of Miz Abigail's Mammy Ida, which was how Buck had found out she was available for hire in the first place, and sometimes she met Audra's cook Rachel while shopping and they talked. And if your cook or housekeeper trusted you, as Rachel did Audra (having known her literally from childhood), she sometimes passed on tidbits of what she heard. Audra knew that the brothers were illegitimate, knew where their mother had worked, and knew too of Buck's relationships with the easier women of Kansas City. She was pretty sure that this wasn't knowledge shared by the parents of her scholars; had it been, there would have been words said to her about his courtship. And New Mexico was, after all, a long way from Kansas City; it would be a new place, where no one except this old friend of Buck's would know either of them or anything about them.

Did she love him? She didn't know. They'd never talked about that, up to now, and of course a lady couldn't confess to feelings for a man until he "declared himself." She knew him, all about him. JD bragged incessantly about his big brother, worshipped and adored the man--and Audra knew enough of children to know that they might respect or be in awe of a parent or other adult, but didn't talk about him in the terms JD used unless they loved him, unless he was kind and always there for them. As for her own experience with Buck, it had been positive. His manners had always been without reproach. He kept himself clean and well turned out. His reputation with the railroad was excellent, and she knew from the condition of JD's clothes, the glow of his skin, and the completeness of his material preparedness for school that Buck made good money and wasn't afraid to spend it for the regular needs of life. The sum of his kindnesses, compounded with the knowledge that he loved her at least enough to resolve to be honest with her, made her aware that he was a man any woman would be lucky to get. Although she herself made a decent living from her school, she didn't want to live out her life as an old-maid schoolma'am; she wanted a house she didn't have to share with eighty or a hundred pupils, children of her own, a man to help her face the trials of the world. She knew they could have a good life together; that was all, really, that a woman got out of this world.

"I think," she said slowly, "that I respect you more than I ever did, for having the courage to say that. As for your education, fine schooling isn't all there is; it's pleasant to have, but it doesn't necessarily make a difference in a man's character. As for your birth, that wasn't your doing or your choice, and I have no right to think less of you on account of it. And I know there have been other women. I know there are other women, even now. And I don't hold that against you. You're a loving man...more so than others, I'd say. Knowing that makes me think you would be equally as loving in a...conventional relationship. A good husband, a good father."

"I'd try the best that's in me. I promise you that."

"I'm sure you would."

He put his hat aside and reached over to capture her hand. "Will you, then?"

A woman wasn't supposed to say yes the first time a man asked for her hand; delicacy demanded that she should, at least, ask for "time to think it over." But time wasn't something Audra Maybrick felt she had a lot of. Until Buck came into her life, no man for two years had shown an interest. Did she dare to seem to reject him now? Perhaps it was a mercenary attitude; she preferred to think of it as realistic. If he and JD had to go to New Mexico in a week, there would be a lot of things to do. And the school year was almost over, and certainly Buck and his friend would need all the opportunity they could get to find some land, put up buildings, and assemble a herd. There wasn't time to waste. "Yes, Buck. I will."

His worried look hung suspended on his face a moment as he struggled to absorb and believe, and then his beautiful smile burst into being like the sun coming up in the east. "I ain't got a ring to give you," he told her, "but I'll get one tomorrow if you like, soon as the stores are open."

"It can wait, until the wedding band," she said. "You'll need to keep as much of your savings as you can, to start the ranch with your friend and to live on until it's a paying proposition--Heaven knows I have experience enough of that myself, to know it's true."

"You'll be wantin' to finish out the term, I reckon," he observed.

"Yes, and I'll have to either sell the house and make some provision for Mary and the servants, or else transfer ownership of the school to her. We'll need to talk about that, Mary and I."

"Wasn't figurin' to do it right off," he replied. "I'll need to go out and talk to Chris, work out some things. I got it in mind I'd be the one to come back and buy up two or three good stallions, maybe in St. Louis. That'd mean I'd be passin' through here twice, goin' and comin', and we could get our affairs settled then. You could take the stage out wherever and we could get married out there; I'd want Chris to stand up for me, like I'll be doin' for him. I'll ask Irene if she wants to stay with me; that'd give you company on the trip and somebody to help you around the house."

"I see you've been thinking about this," she said with a little laugh.

"'Most all last night," Buck admitted. He hesitated. "We can be good together, Audra, I'm sure of it--you and me and JD and Chris and his wife. And I'll do my best never to hurt you and always to see that you've got everything you need to be comfortable and safe. And I won't never leave you, no more'n I'd ever leave my brother. I ain't ever quit a job halfway and I don't mean to start now."

"I'm sure you don't," Audra agreed, "and I'm sure you're right--about being good together, I mean." A twinkle appeared in her midnight eyes. "Since we're engaged, you may kiss me if you want to."

"I reckon I do," he said, almost as if the realization surprised him, and he did.


Chris Larabee was waiting at the chief hotel of Santa Fe when the stage pulled up in front of its long ramada and Buck threw the door open and swung down. "You old dog," he laughed, "you look great! Sarah must be good for you."

"JD must be good for you," Chris returned, shaking hands. "Hell, this can't be him, can it? He's grown a foot!"

"He has that, just exactly," Buck agreed. "JD, this is Chris Larabee, my old friend from the war."

"I remember him, kind of," JD said. "Only it seemed like he was taller."

"That's 'cause you were a lot smaller the last time we met, JD," Chris told him. He shook hands with the boy, then set to work helping Buck claim their bags. "Sarah's waitin' at an old school friend's house," he explained. "She'll stay there till after the wedding, then we'll move into a boardinghouse. I got a room reserved there for the two of you, but tonight we'll eat at the hotel here, my treat."

"Sounds good to me," Buck declared.

Sarah Connelly, when they met, proved to be a freckled, auburn-haired girl who was tomboy-tough in a ladylike way. Her gown, a light blue calico with dark blue buttons down the front, wasn't fashionable in cut, but Buck thought it attractive: a bell-sleeved thing with fine lawn undersleeves and five tape-rimmed flounces, the two uppermost of which were drawn up at two places in front and two in back. She'd been scarcely five when her mother died, the lone girl among seven brothers, ranging in age from three to seventeen. Encompassed thus by masculinity, she'd had to develop a doughty spirit in self-defense. She liked men and liked having them around; she liked to feed them and she liked their talk. Men, responding to this, had flocked to her like flies to a sugar bowl, ever since she was fifteen; but it was Chris she had chosen. Her five oldest brothers were now off living their own lives, three of them married and starting families. The sixth, the one who came just ahead of her, had shared their father's uncertainty about Chris's suitability. But the seventh had been all in favor of the match, and when he inadvertantly found out about the planned elopement, he'd helped them to get away and promised to lay a false trail for their father to follow, before losing him and circling around to meet them and be at the wedding.

Chris explained that he'd picked out a place for them to live, a town called Eagle Bend on the other side of the Sangre de Cristos. Buck was familiar with the place, having visited it briefly during his sojourn in Taos in '61. With the mountains close by, water from snowmelt and springs should be readily available, grass good and the underlying soil rich. For his part he told Chris and Sarah about Audra and the tentative plans they had made--"that's if you'd still like to have me come in."

The ex-gunfighter and his fiancée looked at each other in delight. "We were planning to ask you," Sarah declared. "Chris has talked so much about what good friends you were in the War, about how you'd made plans--this just makes it better. It'll be lovely to have another woman or two around to keep me company while you men are off working."

That evening Chris and Buck conferred at a favorite saloon of Chris's, working out logistics. Chris agreed that, since St. Louis was one of the best livestock markets in the country and Buck would need to go back to Missouri to wind up his affairs there, the task of choosing and purchasing stallions should be left to him. "We can stop off in Eagle Bend and file on the land," he suggested, "and then you can leave JD with Sarah and me while you head back. I'll start in on fences while you're gone, then when you get back we can build a house for each of us and start on a barn. With luck we'll still have time to buy up some mares before winter sets in."

Two days later Chris and Sarah were married by the local Justice of the Peace. Buck, JD, Sarah's kid brother Justin, and her schoolfriend Louisa Hammond were the witnesses; Buck was best man and Louisa was matron of honor. Two days after this the four of them headed across the mountains with a buckboard, Chris driving, Sarah and JD on the seat beside him, and Buck riding his friend's horse. Sarah wore a new travelling dress she'd had made while they waited for Buck and JD to arrive, a cape-yoked moss-green velvet basque, edged at yoke and closure with fine embroidery, with a brown-on-yellow plaid bow showing at the neck and full matching plaid sleeves, and a rice-straw bonnet trimmed with violets and white tulle.

The land laws of the day were easily used by speculators, land companies, and corporations--and by ranchers, who had, or could accumulate over time, more capital than the small farmer would ever hope to see. Though Federal land could only be acquired in parcels of 160 acres, the law didn't specify how many such parcels could be claimed: it was completely legal for the same person to take up a homestead and a pre-emption claim, 320 acres total, although in the case of the latter he had to be able to cough up $200, where the former cost him only a total fee of $18. It was also not an uncommon practise for a man and woman, united by clergy or common law, to erect twin "claims shacks" with a common wall on the boundary of adjoining tracts, and each file for a homestead, thereby getting twice as much land. In addition, there was still "soldier scrip"--warrants awarded to veterans of everything from the French and Indian War onward up to the Civil--floating around, some of it in blocks of up to 12,000 acres; most of the soldiers who got this scrip had quickly sold it a steep discount, and it continued to circulate.

Making shrewd use of the provisions of the law, Chris, Buck, and Sarah between them filed on a total of 960 acres, all in line astraddle a stream, which allowed them to claim all the land facing it for fifteen or twenty miles, as far back as the ridge that formed the water divide. That gave them effective control of 9600 more, or 31.5 square miles, and Audra, once she came out, would be able to file on still more. Because horses trample as much grass as they eat, they required more acreage per head, but you could make a good living off less of them because their selling price was higher; with good underlying soil a ranch of this size was enough to support over 1900 head, but the men figured a hundred mares, plus their offspring, would be plenty, and forty or fifty would do for a start. Meanwhile they could use some of the extra land to buy and finish yearling steers, selling them off locally when they turned two, or to raise oats and barley, which could readily be disposed of to local stables and other users, or to the Army at Fort Union or Fort Sumner. Like most small ranchers, they would do a little small-scale farming, but for their own use: poultry, pigs, two or three milk cows; a vegetable garden, berry bushes, some fruit trees; hay to carry their stock through times of deep snow and blizzards--about a ton per head per year.

Once the papers were signed, Buck left JD in Chris and Sarah's care and caught a stage to Denver. He paused there long enough to visit the bank and arrange to transfer his money to the one in Eagle Bend, then took another stage to Fort Hays and the train to Kansas City. He went to the railroad's headquarters office and handed in his resignation, then to his landlord to let him know the house would be coming vacant, and to the bank, where he arranged for a draft (safer than cash) for his trip to St. Louis, closed out what was left and had it transferred. Audra's cook Rachel was middle-aged and had family locally, but Irene was young enough to adjust easily to a new home and had willingly agreed to go with her "Mister Buck" and "Mister JD" to New Mexico. She set to work packing everything that hadn't come with the house--clothes, JD's toys, her favorite cooking pots, and the like--while Buck helped Audra to get the house on the market; Mary Briggs had decided to take a position that had been offered her by a local girls' academy rather than assume full responsibility for the school and property.

Buck took a boat downriver and spent about ten days looking for good stallions. He found three: a blaze-faced chestnut Missouri fox-trotter, a three-quarter-bred black from Virginia, and a solid little half-Steeldust, half-Ozark bay. Loading them aboard an up-bound boat, he got back to Kansas City to learn that Audra's house had been sold, and that she and Rachel had packed up everything she wanted to take with her or have shipped out. Irene had done likewise, except for the upright piano Buck had bought secondhand two years ago; this Buck himself had crated up and loaded aboard a dray, to be sent out on the next freight-wagon outfit.

"You and Irene better take the stage, like I said before," he told Audra. "I'll have to come along slower with the horses and JD's pony--he'd never forgive me if I left Shiloh behind."

The Santa Fe Trail, which ran some 775 miles, could be covered by a wagon train in eight or ten weeks, a rider in a bit over two, though the stages of the Kansas City-Santa Fe Mail could do the trip in slightly under five days, if you didn't lay over. Stagecoaching in summer was a dusty proposition--fine, powdery dust sifted through the coach, covered the passengers, and unless they wore tightly woven dusters thoroughly permeated their clothing--and in winter it was a cold one; runaway teams might cause upsets or breakdowns, wheels and running gear sometimes yielded to the strain as the vehicle dropped into a deep rut, and Indians and road-agents were always a threat. Treacherously steep and rough trails caused many a coach to crash or overturn, as did runaway teams of half-broke horses, and occasionally a more than half-drunk driver. In addition there was usually a weight limit, and if you exceeded it you had to pay a tariff on every pound over. On the whole, except for short journeys, coaching was a poor substitute for roomy covered wagons. But it was faster, and it didn't require you to camp out every night for weeks or months at a stretch.

On the last day of June Buck saw his fiancée and housekeeper aboard the westbound stage, Audra crisp and stylish in a gray Irish-poplin travelling suit trimmed with velvet and fringe and a bonnet of field-gray taffeta and velvet, trimmed with a tuft of lace on one side, grape tendrils on the other, a tulle ruche under the brim, and a velvet band in back, Irene in a black-and-white calico, lightweight scarlet shawl, and a bonnet bright with flowers. "The minute you get into Eagle Bend," he said, "you ask somebody to show you where Mrs. Hanson's boardinghouse is. That's where Sarah and JD are stayin', and they'll be expectin' you. I'll get in about ten days after you if the creeks don't rise. That'll give you plenty of time to rest up from your trip and get acquainted with Chris and Sarah, and then we can take out the license and get married."

"I'll be waiting," Audra told him. "Take care, Buck."

"Better believe I will, with you and my brother waitin' on me." He kissed her and handed her aboard, then stepped back and waved to the driver. "Let 'er go, jehu."

The following day he turned in the house keys to his landlord and set out with Shiloh and the three stallions on lead behind his roan Cherry. The trail was well-marked after more than forty-five years of use, and every few nights he overtook a freight caravan and was able to share camp. The stallions proved to be thoroughly trail-broken, and since he'd timed his departure to take place after Cherry last went out of season, they didn't even fight. On the sixteenth of July, right on schedule, he pulled in to Eagle Bend and found a familiar figure sitting in a battered kitchen chair outside the livery barn. "Hey, Chris! You didn't have to come all the way into town early just to tell me welcome home!"

Chris stood slowly, his face shuttered. "I didn't," he said. "These the studs you got for us?"

"Yeah, figured we could keep 'em here for tonight, anyhow. How've the fences been goin'?" Horses, unlike cattle, have an unfortunate habit of pulling out for their home range in the spring, even if the grazing is good where they are, and so have to be kept within fence.

"I got the main pasture all enclosed, and a shed and corral built where we'll have our headquarters," Chris told him. "I've been levellin' off the ground for the house and startin' in on the cellar. Come on over to the Shamrock and we'll have a drink."

"Okay," Buck agreed. "Then I better get me a bath and go see Audra and JD."

Chris winced but said nothing. At the Shamrock, the saloon where they had made their plans a month before, he ordered a bottle and two glasses from the owner, a native of County Mayo married to a striking Mexican woman from Hermosillo, and took Buck back to a corner table. He poured two drinks but didn't touch his own until Buck lifted his glass in a toast. "Here's to stallions. Now we can say we're really gettin' started."

"To stallions," Chris echoed, and sipped. "Buck...there's somethin' I have to tell you."

For the first time Buck realized that his friend wasn't acting the way he would have expected. He peered sharply through the shadows at Chris's taut mouth and lined brow, and felt his heart drop onto his stomach. "My God, is JD--?"

A mockery of a smile twisted Chris's lips and he reached quickly across the table to grasp Buck's forearm. "No, Buck, JD's just fine. He's with Sarah at Mrs. Hanson's, waitin' for you just like we planned it." He paused and took a deep breath. "I wish it could be anyone else but me sayin' this. I remember how it was for you three years ago. But I know you wouldn't want to hear it from somebody that didn't know you as well as I do or care about you as much. It's Audra, Buck."

Buck's breath caught in his throat. Chris could see him marshalling his resources, preparing himself to face it. "How bad?"

"She's dead, Buck. I'm sorry."

There was no moment of held-in air this time, only a slow slump of Buck's dusty-jacketed shoulders. He was silent for a minute or two, his eyes on Chris's face as if he needed to reassure himself that this wasn't some kind of cruel prank. "What happened?" he asked eventually.

"The stage had changed drivers about twenty miles before," Chris explained, "and the new one asked Audra to sit up on the box with him, since there wasn't a shotgun guard that trip." Buck nodded slowly. On any coach trip, at least one passenger would be invited, space permitting, to ride with the driver, and it was he who decided who it would be--a pretty girl, some fellow he knew, the most distinguished person on board, or just someone his eye lit on with approval. "She wasn't quite easy about it, the other passengers said--it looked like the man had been drinkin'--but she thought it would be a good way to get an idea of what kind of country she was gonna be livin' in, so she agreed. They told us he was talkin' all the next three relays, about his snug cabin and his horses and his mine. She kept tellin' him she was engaged, but he wasn't really tryin' to grab a kiss or anything, and I guess that's why she didn't ask to get back inside. Anyway, they changed teams just before Raton Pass and started up. You know how steep the road is right there; you just came over it yourself. Nobody knows exactly what went wrong, whether the horses spooked at somethin' or one of the wheels slipped off over the edge or what. The stage tipped over the bank and went down into the ravine. Irene was still inside, and she made it--cracked her head, broke her arm, but she's with the doctor here in town and she'll be okay. She was the one told the stage company to contact Sarah and me. Audra was thrown clear. She broke her neck." He paused. "I know it ain't much consolation, Buck, but they said she died instantly, can't have felt a thing. She didn't suffer."

Buck sat very still for a few minutes, no sign of life about him except his eyes, where the bright spark of humor gave way to a flat coldness like a snake's. He reached for the bottle, poured a brimming drink and tossed it down. Then he said, "I'm gonna kill that driver. He didn't have no right gettin' up on the box if he was drunk."

"I'll agree with you there, pard. But he's dead too. Slammed headfirst into the bank when the coach went over."

Buck shuddered once. "Does JD know?"

"Sarah told him. He took it pretty hard, Buck."

"Yeah," Buck agreed softly, "he would, poor kid. She's the only teacher he's had these two years. He's--he was real fond of her."

Chris leaned forward to put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "He's waitin' on you, Buck. He needs you bad. Come on with me to Mrs. Hanson's so he'll know he ain't lost you too."

Buck brought up his hand and roughly pushed Chris's away. "Leave me be."


"I said leave me be!" Buck shouted, and Chris pulled back immediately. The saloonowner, behind the bar, looked up from the glassware he was polishing, trying to gauge the likelihood of a real disturbance. But Buck, once freed of Chris's hand, had settled back into quietness.

"Just...let me...I need to be alone for a while," he said softly. "I ain't...I won't do nothin' crazy, Chris. I just--I can't--"

"All right," Chris agreed gently. "If you want to talk..."

"I'll find you."

He didn't. Chris went back to Mrs. Hanson's long enough to assure Sarah and JD that he was back and had heard the news, and then established himself at a front corner table near the bar where he could keep an eye on his old friend. Buck didn't move from the back of the room for the next six hours. He just kept drinking, with a long thoughtful interval between glasses, until finally, around nine o'clock, Chris decided he'd had enough and walked back to rejoin him.

Buck was drunk, but not free of pain as he craved to be. It was the state that defines "stiff"--well past good sense, but not even approaching oblivion. He knew Chris was there and knew who he was, but didn't object as Chris got him onto his feet and turned him toward the back door. "Come on, pard," the ex-gunfighter coaxed, "let's get you to bed, okay?"

"You know somethin' funny, Chris?"

"What would that be, Buck?"

"When I asked Audra to marry me...I wasn't...I didn't...I never told her I loved her. I reckon I wasn't plumb sure I did. I just wanted...I didn't feel like I should...I didn't wanta saddle Sarah with lookin' after JD'n'me as well as you. I wanted to...I was tryin' to pull my share of the weight."

"I never thought you wouldn't, Buck," Chris assured him quietly.

"I never told her I loved her," Buck repeated, "but the way I hurt now...I know I did. I just never...I reckon I didn't know how to recognize it sneakin' up on me. I ain't been...used to proper decent ladies, you know?"

"Ain't a woman on this earth wouldn't be lucky to get you, pard," Chris told him.

Buck shook his head slowly. "You're just sayin' that."

"No. Sarah said it too, after we got the news. She said she was sure Audra died happy, knowin' she was comin' to be with you."

"Where is she?" Buck asked, as they made their way along the rear faces of the buildings toward the side street where Mrs. Hanson's house stood.

"They buried her in Raton," Chris told him, naming the first town south of the Pass and the territorial line. "It'd been...she'd been dead a good day and a half when they found her."

"I gotta go up and see her," Buck mumbled; the drink was getting to him at last. "I gotta say goodbye...gotta tell her..."

"I know. I know you do. Not now. It's late. Come on, your bed's waitin', and JD and Sarah are worried about you..."


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