(Variation One)

an M7 AU

by Sevenstars

When Buck woke the next morning, his room was dark, the shades pulled down to spare him having to deal with sunlight, and Chris was sitting in the corner in a stiff, uncomfortable, heavily-carved chair. "Hey, pard," he said quietly, "how're you feelin'?"

"Like I been drunk." Buck was silent a moment, going over what he remembered of the previous day. "Audra's dead."

"Yeah." Chris shifted, then stood, stretching his kinked back. "I know there ain't nothin' I can say to make it hurt less, so I won't insult you by tryin'. You want some coffee?"

"You been here all night?" Buck asked him.

"Yeah. I put JD with Sarah in our room, figured it'd be better if you didn't have him movin' around and all. He's had his breakfast, but he ain't left the parlor since, not even to go see his pony. He's worried about you."

"He ain't ever seen me drunk," said Buck slowly. "It's best I get sobered up first."

"I'll get the coffee," Chris declared, and went out, closing the door softly behind him.

After a couple of false tries, Buck made it to his feet. Chris had gotten his boots and jacket off, but otherwise had left him fully dressed on top of the bedclothes, with a Morning Star quilt, perhaps filched from his own bed, tossed over him at some point as the night grew chillier. There was water in the blue porcelain pitcher on the washstand; it might have been hot when it was originally brought up, but it wasn't any more. That was all right with Buck. He held his head over the basin and poured out half the pitcher over it, then began bathing his eyes and face. He didn't hear the doorknob turn or the tentative steps crossing the threshold. The first he knew he wasn't alone was when he heard a familiar voice uncertainly speak his name. "Buck?"

"JD, what are you doin' up here? I told Chris I didn't want--"

The boy backed away, his hazel eyes huge with hurt and confusion, and Buck checked himself in mid-career. "Aw, God. I'm sorry, little brother. I ain't mad with you."

JD stood where he was, clearly unsure of himself. "Buck? What's wrong, are you sick?"

"No, JD." Buck's head was throbbing and he felt slightly nauseous, but he knew what he had to do. Slowly he lowered himself to the floor, one leg folded under him, the other flexed up. "JD, it's all right, honest, kid. I had a little too much whiskey last night, but I'll be okay after a while. I shouldn't snapped at you like that. You ain't done nothin'. Come here."

The boy hesitated a moment longer, then rushed into his arms, crying. "Miss Audra's dead, Buck. She's gone like Mamma and we won't ever see her again."

"I know. I know." Buck held his brother close, a hand behind the dark head to steady him. "Chris told me about it. But I'm here, and I ain't leavin' you."

"What's gonna happen now, Buck?" JD asked through his sobs. "You and Miss Audra was gonna get married and we was all gonna live with Chris and Sarah. Are we gonna have to go back to Kansas City now?"

The door opened quietly and Chris came in with a coffeepot and two cups on a tray in time to hear this. Buck looked past the boy's shoulder at him, and Chris set the tray on the dresser and walked over to stand in front of his friend. "You don't either of you have to go noplace unless you want to, JD," he said. "Sarah and me already decided. If you and Buck want to stay with us, you got a home for as long as you want it." His brows lifted in a silent question.

"We couldn't go back to Kansas City now," Buck said. "There ain't nothin' back there to hold us, and all we'd do is think about Audra every place we went. We'll think of her here too, but at least we won't always be seein' places we'd been with her. We'd like to stay and start a new life like we planned, if it's really good with you two."

"It's good with us, Buck." Chris held out his hand, and Buck, his left arm still circling JD's trembling body, took it in his own.

"Thanks, pard. We'll make sure you ain't sorry."

"Never figured to be sorry, Buck. Welcome home."


Buck took a ride up to Raton to say his goodbyes to Audra, and after that he seldom spoke of her again. He didn't drink, either. He found solace from his grief in JD's need of him, Chris's trust, Sarah's gentle comfort ("I'm so sorry, Buck," she'd said-- "I'd so been looking forward to her coming; even though I never got to meet her, I feel almost like I'd lost a sister"), and above all the hard work that was necessary to making a home for all of them.

Originally the plan had called for two houses so Sarah and Audra could each be undisputed mistress of their own, set across the ranch yard from each other with the barn midway between. Now there was need of only one. With the mountains close by, timber and stone alike were readily available, and Chris and Buck resolved to make a good house, airy in summer and warm in winter, using both: they built up a flat-stone foundation to a height of five feet, cribbed logs on top of it, and covered the whole with a close-set rafter roof. Keeping hard at it, the two of them got the house up and roofed and the chimney set in thirty-six days. It was a house, not a cabin, the difference being that it was built not of round logs but of squared timbers, eight by eight inches, which could be hewn nicely from twelve-inch logs and had a maximum manageable length of twenty-eight feet--enough to make one wall of a very respectably sized room, or two smaller ones. Looking at it from outside, you could see the sawn-off butt-ends of the interior partitions just protruding past the wall line, keeping each room draft- and soundproof. The inner walls were covered with vertical poplar boards, the floors were board, the doors and windows were framed in heavy sawn planks, and the fireplace was fashioned of rubble stone set into lime mortar; the flat-faced house-logs needed hardly any chinking in between. Planned for the family Chris and Sarah hoped to start, it had a kitchen, dining room, parlor, and two bedrooms downstairs, three more bedrooms up reached by way of a narrow corner staircase. It was long and low, its front gallery covered by a sloping, projecting roof supported on six square posts, four dormers breaking the slope of the house roof above. The largest upstairs bedroom was awarded to Buck and JD to share, the bigger downstairs one to Chris and Sarah, with the smaller one that opened off both it and the dining room intended as a nursery. A section of the back porch was walled in to make a little room for Irene: Buck had offered her stage fare back to Missouri, but she insisted that she had agreed to come West with "her gemmuns" and saw no reason to change her plans.

The barn was a larger undertaking, but this they didn't have to do on their own. Once the logs for it were cut, notched, and numbered, and a course of foundation stone laid to prevent rot, a swarm of neighbors descended for a barn-raising bee, and inside a day the walls were up, partitions nailed, and roof set. After that the five of them moved out to the place and Sarah, Irene, and JD set to work putting the house in order while Chris and Buck got in the season's crop of grass hay--three hundred acres of bottomland, with the horse-drawn mower Chris had purchased, took two weeks to cut--and then began buying up mares, sixty of them in all, mostly tested four- and five-year-olds that had been bred the previous spring and would drop colts next year. They turned them into the big pasture, which they would subdivide next year with posts and rails to be cut over the winter, and kept the three stallions in the barn. They bought and settled some farm stock, raising a pigpen and chickenhouse. It was too late to start a truck patch, but they planted young fruit trees--four apple, three peach, two each of cherry, pear, and plum, a quince and an apricot. Reserving some hundred and twenty tons of hay for their own use, they sold the rest off at four dollars per, which gave them $720 above and beyond what they still had of their savings, enough to support a family adequately for a year.

The work did Buck good; he still mourned for the marriage and family that would never be, but his basic good humor returned, and by the time winter settled on the flats he was even beginning to gain a reputation among the women of Eagle Bend. Sarah was like the sister he had never had, and JD quickly came to love her. Irene took to the new life as well, and Chris was full of ideas. He and Buck discussed the question of which of their mares to put with which stallion; they agreed on a mixture of alfalfa and grass hays for their bottomland, which would hold up even under the trampling of horses and yield two cuttings annually, three in good years. They talked about barley and oats, which they could sell to the Army for twelve cents a pound average; even if they got no more than the minimum yield of about fifteen bushels to the acre, that would be more than enough to support them until their colts started proving themselves. They bent over the kitchen table with Sarah and Irene, deciding what garden seeds to buy and how to lay out the truck patch. During the short winter days they did their chores, cut and hauled logs for firewood and future fences, and hunted meat--fat Canada geese, mallards, gadwalls, green-winged teal, redheads, scaup, bufflehead, mergansers, snipe, blue grouse, quail and turkey; rabbit and squirrel, mule deer and whitetail, elk, bighorn, pronghorn, now and then buffalo, and once a young black bear that had come out for a look around, as bears do, on a warm winter day. Sarah had had to leave school when she was twelve, but since the best readers always seemed to be girls, she had by that time gotten through all of McGuffey and well into "grown-up" books; she took over JD's schooling--for the local school was too far away for him to commute to in winter, even on Shiloh--and taught Irene to write. Chris proved to enjoy reading aloud and did it for a while almost every evening, while Sarah and Irene knitted, crocheted, and sewed, JD played on the rug, and Buck repaired harness or metal pans and kettles or whittled some useful or frivolous thing. They had Godey's for Sarah, The Youth's Companion for JD, Harper's Monthly and the weekly edition of the New York Tribune for all of them, and a mixture of dime novels and twenty-five-to-sixty-cent clothbound editions of good poetry, fiction, and history. Sometimes, instead of reading, one of the men would tell stories of his own youthful experiences or of men and incidents he had heard of. When the weather allowed they would pile into the ranch wagon, to which Chris and Buck had fitted runners, and go to town or a neighbor's for a dance, church social, pound party, taffy pull, spelling bee, or a performance by the local amateur theatrical group. They acquired two cats, and a gentle retriever bitch who, to JD's utter delight, presented them, two days before Christmas, with seven round balls of fur.

Spring came, with colts, dairy calves, and broods of cheeping yellow chicks. More fence went up, the mares were divided into three separate herds and a stallion thrown in with each bunch. A vegetable garden was put in, and berry bushes; Buck built a trellis for grapes all along one side of the porch front. Irene met a black sergeant from the Ninth Cavalry, stationed at Fort Union, and he began commuting the twenty-odd miles from the installation to court her. JD began learning to rope, and plagued the two men with questions about the animal tracks he found around the twenty-acre home yard. He also broke his arm when his pony spooked at a rattler and threw him.

That year brought just the right mix of rain and sun, and three tons of hay to the acre, so much that there wasn't even need of grain for supplemental cash. Irene's sergeant asked for her hand; his time was almost up, and he had plans to settle in a black community called Amistad, out toward the Panhandle. Chris and Buck threw her a wedding that was the envy of the district and loaded her with presents and good wishes; as the mountains turned into a patchwork of autumn fire the two of them drove off to begin their new lives. The garden and trees gave bounty with both hands, and for a couple of weeks scratch meals were the rule as Sarah labored at canning, pickling, and preserving. Then winter again, colder this year, deeper snow, and long cozy nights around the fire. Buck's heart was at peace now; he had integrated and accepted his loss, and except for a lingering sadness, almost more a nostalgia, about Audra, all was well with his world. He had JD, had his best friend and his "sister," people whose love and support had brought him through his loss. He had a home that was really at least part his rather than merely a rented roosting place. He was content; perhaps not happy, but how many people ever knew real happiness?

Unlike many men who have lost a beloved, he didn't try to tell himself that he would never love again. Never was too long a word. Audra had seen and said that he was a loving man. To shut off that part of who he was would be to betray her perceptions. But for now, his "family" gave him all the emotional strokes he needed. When he sought other kinds of comfort and security there were women who were paid to give it, though in actual fact he never needed to pay. His liaisons were with, not Eagle Bend's prostitutes, but its saloon and dance-hall girls, women who had their own places to live and sleep, whose morals outside their working hours were their own affair, who were seldom virgins and who took lovers freely and lived with them openly, but were not whores and resented it if you treated them as such. If truth were known, Buck had never cared to be with whores. It would be too much like being with his own mother, or with sisters. He preferred a girl who had some choices, a spirited girl whom he had to work a little to get. If he ever did marry, he told himself, it would probably be a girl of this class. But not now, not yet. He was still a young man, not even thirty. He could wait.

Chris and Sarah had been married not quite two years when their son Adam was born. He chose to make his debut on a May night just as one of the violent Great Plains thunderstorms blew up, with high wind, sheets of rain, abundant thunder and lightning, and spatters of severe hail, some of the individual stones being over half an inch through. Buck was willing to ride into Eagle Bend for the doctor, but Chris wouldn't hear of it: the trail, he said, would be a river, every arroyo would be a flood and every shallow depression a lake, and Buck would be lucky if the worst that happened wouldn't be his horse spooking at the lightning and throwing him off in a mudhole. "We can do this, pard," he said. "We've helped mares enough, how different can it be with a human baby?" So, while going-on-ten-year-old JD kept the stove going and water boiling, Sarah's husband and his partner coached her, coaxed her, wiped the sweat off her face, offered their hands to brace on when the contractions hit, and, after fourteen hours of labor, raised her back off the mattress for the climactic push. It was Chris who cut Adam's cord and tied it, but it was Buck who rubbed his body with clear lard while Chris changed Sarah's nightgown and cleaned up the mess.

The baby had dark hair and eyes, but nobody around Eagle Bend thought anything of that: most of them had already assumed that Buck and JD were Sarah's brothers, so it surprised no one that her son should take after her side of the family. That Chris, in recognition of his partner's help at the birth, bestowed the middle name of Bucklin on the child only substantiated the belief. Time turned. The first crop of colts sired by Chris and Buck's own stallions was born. JD grew strong and wiry, and the men began to teach him to use a shotgun, then a rifle. Buck caught a light case of diphtheria--"fever," the doctor simply called it--and recovered. Chris was wounded chasing down some horse thieves, but Buck nailed them and brought his partner and the stolen stock home safe. Adam began crawling, then creeping; suddenly he was walking, striding, trotting. Justin Connelly, who had taken a job with the stage line, dropped by regularly to visit his sister and new nephew, bringing news of Sarah's father and older brothers, who (except for the bullheaded Hank) slowly began making overtures of their own, though distance and family commitments prevented them from coming in person. As JD grew more independent, Buck took occasional jobs away from home, riding shotgun, standing deputy for the local sheriff, putting his pay into the common pot.

At two years old Adam was talking, calling Buck "Uncle" and regarding JD as a kind of honorary big brother--a role in which JD took endless delight. JD for his part, at four feet four inches and seventy pounds, was doing the milking and feeding, caring for the truck patch, digging postholes, harnessing the wagon team and driving it into town on Saturdays, and breaking a mustang pony of his own, demonstrating in the process what Buck had long since suspected--that he had "a way" with horses, an inborn ability to calm the wildest of them and transform it to an amiable pet without resorting to any spirit-breaking harshness. With the many distractions and chores of ranch life to occupy him, his reading had slowed a bit in pace, but he was still bright and interested in everything.

Five years into the partnership, and the first colts they'd bred themselves were sold. People began asking to have their own mares covered by Chris and Buck's three studs, offering twenty dollars a leap. The two men had sound, solid personal reputations by now, and their stock, young as it was, was exciting comment too.

1874: money in the bank, good names locally, stock starting to become known over much of eastern New Mexico and up into Colorado. Adam turned four: no longer a baby, but a lively, sturdy child in whose mischief his "Uncle Buck" and "Uncle JD" were willing accomplices. Irene wrote from Amistad every few months; she had two children now and was expecting a third. Sarah's brothers had accepted her husband into the family, and even crusty Hank gave in, drawn by his only daughter's son.

Buck hadn't forgotten his resolve of six years earlier to see JD go to college. The boy had gone about as far, now, as Sarah and his independent reading could take him, and his brother was anxious to see him safely back East in school before the siren song of cowboying, horse-hunting, or some other rangeland occupation could lure him off the path. Most of the Midwestern colleges--which Buck favored because of their lower cost and because they generally admitted women on an equal footing with men; JD would have to learn how to deal with the ladies too, and Buck certainly didn't want his little brother to disgrace him--had begun as academies, and the pupils still attended for seven years, three in the prep school and four in the college; in the country districts where most of the nation's people still lived, full nine-month sessions and regular high schools remained so rare that the institutions had little choice but to concentrate on their "academy" departments. Most boys began the college course no later than sixteen or seventeen, which meant that JD would have to go soon or be left behind by his age group.

JD objected. "Why do I gotta go to college, Buck? Why can't I stay here? I already know as much out of books as you or Chris, ain't that enough?"

"No, it ain't," Buck told him. "I ain't sayin' what we do here ain't honest or needed. It is. But I want more for you, kid. I don't want you to have to spend half your life in a saddle even if it is on your own land. I want you to be somebody folks will look up to--a doctor or a preacher or a lawyer, or maybe a teacher or an engineer or a newspaper editor. And for that you need more schoolin'."

"I look up to you and Chris, and you ain't none of them things," the boy pointed out.

"I'm your brother, of course you look up to me. And Chris is about as close as he can get without bein' blood. JD, I told you a long time ago about Ma and what she did and how come we ain't either of us got a father. I spent most of my life showin' up the folks who thought that made me a bounden failure. I want you to show 'em up even more. I want you to be able to say, ‘Look at me, my ma was a workin' girl and I'm a leadin' citizen.' "

"I don't care about none of that, Buck. Ain't nobody ever scorned me none on Mamma's account; I got no axes to grind. I just wanta stay here and go on gentlin' horses and helpin' raise Adam."

"You're goin' to school," said Buck.

The kid folded his arms and set his lips. "I ain't. I'm 'most fourteen now and I can earn my own way. You try to make me and I'll run off."

Buck's heart sank. "What becomes of helpin' raise Adam if you do that?" he asked. "JD, I don't want us fightin' about this. All I care about is you bein' happy and successful. It's all I got to give my life to, since we lost Audra. Please, little brother. I know I could force you if I had to, I'm still a lot bigger'n you are, but I never been a tyrant to you and I don't mean to start now. Just do me this thing, okay? Go to the academy. Give it them three years. You'll be seventeen. If you still feel the same way after, you can quit and I won't never say a word about it again. Will you do that?"

JD looked away and Buck saw a tear appear at the corner of his eye. "I don't want to go, Buck. I don't want to leave here. This is home. You'n'Chris'n'Sarah'n'Adam, you're all the family I got. All I ever dreamed of was one day comin' in as a partner too, maybe standin' next to Adam twenty years from now and helpin' him carry on into the next generation."

"How can you be sure what you want when you ain't seen but so little of the world?" Buck insisted. Then he played his hole card. "Do it for Ma, JD. Think how proud she'd be if you got yourself a degree. Remember what I told you she said about your pa, that he was a real gentleman, smart and schooled. She'd want you to be like him. Make her proud of you, kid. Never mind me, do it for her."

JD swallowed and turned his back, and Buck saw him bring his arm up to wipe his eyes on his gray-and-black plaid flannel shirt. When he faced around again, they were still too bright, but he had his self-possession back. "All right, Buck," he said quietly. "I'll try it for three years."

The man pulled him into a hug. "I knew you'd do right, little brother. Remember, this won't be easy for us either, least of all me. Near nine years I've had you now, and done the best I knew for you. I'll miss you somethin' awful, but this is best. You'll come to see that. And you'll be spendin' summers with us, so it ain't like you'll be stuck back East with never a sight of the mountains all that time."

"I don't care about the mountains, Buck, or the long grass, or the horses, or nothin'. Just about you and the others."

"Then make us proud you belong to us," Buck urged him. "Give it a try, okay?"

"Okay." As always, when push came to shove, JD couldn't face the prospect of hurting or disappointing his brother.

The school Buck had selected, after several months of comparing prospectuses, was located just outside the country town of Danville, in eastern Illinois; after nine years in the open spaces of New Mexico he didn't want to subject JD to the hurly-burly and crowding of a city. It would mean some 1100 miles of rail travel each way, plus a stage from Eagle Bend to Denver, where the railroad had arrived in 1870. Sarah hemmed sheets and table napkins for JD to take with him, cut lengths of terry for towels, sewed shirts and knitted socks and patched three quilts. Buck took the boy into Eagle Bend and had him measured for three new suits with short sack coats and full-length trousers to be tucked into knee-high gaiters or worn with dark stockings and lace-up shoes: a dark woollen for Sunday, a gray tweed for winter, and a brown linen for warm weather. He sent a bank draft East for school expenses, with a letter authorizing the headmaster to dole out thirty-seven and a half cents--"three bits"--of pocket money to his brother every Saturday. From Denver JD would take the KP to Kansas City, change to the Missouri Pacific for a brief trip north to St. Joseph, take the Hannibal & St. Joe to Macon, Missouri, and change again to the Ohio & Mississippi, then the Illinois Central, which would take him to Champaign; there he'd board a mail stage for the last leg of the journey. With the layovers the journey would take him about a week. Buck provided him with money for his fares, including the extra two dollars a day for the sleeper car, and meals and lodging at his transfer points, and in the customary fashion put it in an envelope and pinned it inside the boy's drawers. "And see you keep it there, you hear me?"

On a day in late August the whole family rode into Eagle Bend to see JD off. Adam was bewildered, unable to understand why "Uncle JD" was going away, knowing only that he was losing one of his best playmates; his grief actually helped JD to retain his own self-possession. Sarah covered him with kisses and fussed over his tie and the hang of his jacket, dabbing at her eyes with a camphor-scented handkerchief. Chris shook hands and bestowed fatherly advice while Buck saw the kid's leather satchel, colorful carpetbag, and new brass-cornered split-cowhide trunk loaded onto the stage, then came over to say his own goodbyes. "You write, understand? Every other Sunday. Let us know if there's anythin' you need."

"I will." JD was beginning to look a little like a startled deer, ready to bolt. He'd given his promise, but he didn't have to like it. "Take care, big brother."

"Same to you doubled, little brother." Buck clasped hands, then shrugged and said "Aw, hell!" and yanked the boy into a crushing embrace. He still topped JD by sixteen inches and weighed nearly twice as much. "I love you, kid," he whispered into JD's ear. "Never forget that."

"Love you too, Buck."

"Better get aboard if you're comin', son," the driver called down.

Buck watched till the coach was out of sight and pulled his bandanna up to wipe his eyes. Chris's hand fell on his shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. "You're doin' the right thing, pard."

"I know that, but it don't help much," Buck admitted in a muffled voice. "I ain't felt so alone in my whole life, Chris, and he ain't hardly clear of town."

"You still got us," Chris reminded him. "Come on and we'll have a drink before we go home."

"Home," Buck repeated softly. "Yeah, it still is, ain't it? Though it won't feel quite the same till he's there again too."

"I know, but it's time. You wasn't such a lot older when you went farther than he's goin', and you didn't even have a school at the other end to look out for you. Can't keep him tied to them apron strings all his life, pard."

"I know." Buck glanced toward the buckboard where Sarah and Adam were sitting on the seat. He had never been a fanciful man, but for just an instant it seemed he saw a shadow hovering over them even in the bright August sunlight. Then he shook his head sharply to dispel the vision. "Let's get that drink."


Summer gave way to fall and fall to winter. JD, as he had promised, wrote twice a month. At first he was terribly homesick--for his family, their pets, the horses, the freedom and open spaces and clear dry air of New Mexico. But his school gave almost as much consideration to physical development as to book-learning (which was one reason Buck had settled on it); there was a farm attached to the campus where students could daily observe the mechanics of farming (and a course of lectures to acquaint them with the newest scientific developments in it), horses to ride, a football team and baseball nine in each of the classes, and opportunities to box, fence, shoot, and dance. Coming as he did from the "Wild West," JD found that he was utterly fascinating to the other boys (the girls' academy was in town, on the other side of the river), and he soon began to make friends. His superb horsemanship increased his status too, and while he still wasn't sure that a learned career was what he wanted out of life, he was so smart and quick that despite his patchy formal education he found his academics easy to keep up with. The first year was, in any case, chiefly reviews and fundamentals, to make sure all the pupils were up to the same mark, and he put most of his effort into composition and declamation, penmanship, reading, orthography, geography, and general history.

As November began, a wistful tone sounded in his letters; he was already thinking of Christmas, knowing there was no way he could go home to celebrate it. Then he began getting offers from his new friends to spend it with them and their families, and that restored his spirit tremendously. In the end he narrowed the choice down to three, and made a deal with the boys: each would have him for one of his three years at the school, and order would be decided by drawing lots. The winner for that year proved to be a boy from Chicago, and JD was dazzled by the prospect of seeing something of the city.

At the ranch, Sarah packed a huge Christmas box for "our boy"--warm underwear and clothes, books (his Youth's Companion subscription had been transferred to the school address), boxing gloves, skates, a butterfly net to use in the spring, a microscope packed in a little red morocco box, a pickled buffalo tongue, one of their own sugar-cured hams, summer sausage, cheeses, a five-pound can of Wilbur's cocoa, Malaga raisins and Zanta currants, an assortment of candies, a steamed pudding with raisins in it, rich spicy hard gingerbread, oatmeal cookies and Scotch Fancies, and an array of pickles, preserves, jellies, and jams made by her own hand. Buck drove into town with it and shipped it off by Wells Fargo express, and three weeks later a letter arrived to let them know that it had reached the boy safely and that he (and the friends with whom he had shared the food) were thrilled.

The holiday itself had a bittersweet flavor for Buck, who missed his brother terribly: even when he'd been working for the KP, he'd always contrived to get home long enough for them to spend Christmas together. Then the New Year arrived and he began counting off the weeks until the end of June, when school would close and JD would start home for his vacation.

In February he and Chris decided to make a trip south to Mexico, where they had heard a ranchero near Flores Magon had particularly fine young fillies he was willing to sell. It would be best, they agreed, to get the journey out of the way now, before the spring work had to be done and while the weather around the Border was still cool. The round trip would take about a month, counting in time to look over the mares and bargain with the owner. Chris urged Sarah to send for Justin or hire someone to help her out with the chores--so far only he was privy to the fact that she would be having a second baby in July--but she wouldn't hear of it. "I grew up on a farm," she reminded him, "and I'm as healthy as one of our own horses. Haven't I told you--hasn't Justin told you!--what a terrible tomboy I was? I can feed and muck out stalls as well as any man alive, Christopher Larabee, and don't try to tell me I can't!"

Her laugh took the sting out of the rebuke, and he chuckled and gave in. He'd never been able to deny her anything she really wanted, and he saw how important it was to her that she prove she could take care of herself and Adam while he and Buck were away. Still, a little voice in the back of his mind whispered that he half wished Buck hadn't sent JD back East. Well, no help for it. Even if he went over Sarah's head and brought someone in, she'd probably just let them go as soon as he was two days down the trail.

So the two old friends set out for Mexico. It was a pleasant change of pace to be alone together for a while, to camp out, to swap reminiscences best not shared with women and children. The journey was uneventful, and the ranchero and his family warmly hospitable; the fillies proved to be everything they'd heard. When they turned northward again, it was with ten of the pretty animals strung on leads behind them.

Three and a half days out of Flores Magon, they entered Ciudad Juarez, the sister town of El Paso across the Rio. It was the last considerable community they'd pass through till Alamogordo, which wasn't all that big, and Buck was feeling expansive, wanting to celebrate the good bargain they'd made. He began coaxing and cajoling a full day out, trying to persuade Chris to stay over a night. Chris wasn't sure. Sarah would be showing by now, and he missed her and Adam as much as ever Buck had missed JD. But the trip had been so easy and fruitful that he finally gave in. They did deserve a little chance to cut loose and have fun. Neither of them had ever been in Juarez before, but Buck had a hound's nose for the best places of amusement, and he soon found a large lively cantina with clean beds upstairs, a good cook in the kitchen, and pretty girls in the barroom. There was good dark Mexican beer, Jerez brandy, and mescal de puchega from Bacanora, distilled through the breast meat of the wild turkey, and a little band that seemed to know its business, guitar, fiddle, cello, mandolin, trumpet, clarinet, and accordion.

The two partners ordered a stewed chicken, which had been cooked with herbs and chili and spices, then fired over a grill and served with cheese sauce; the meat just fell off the bones, and with rice mixed with peas and peppers and black beans, hot crisp tortillas to spoon it up with, frijoles refrescas, baked pumpkin, and a side dish of smoked shrimp, it was a delicious meal that reminded them both of their younger lone days. For dessert there was a light, rich egg custard called flan, browned with carmelized sugar, and ice-cold slices of pink melon with the rind carefully cut away, and more of the strong Mexican coffee flavored with coarse brown sugar. "If I don't work some of this off," Buck declared, "I'll founder. Come on, pard, let's get us a couple of girls and have a dance."

"Naw, I ain't in the mood," Chris told him, and settled down for a marathon of dominoes with a raven-haired hostess, watching amusedly as his partner, dark eyes flashing, joined the locals in reels and waltzes and square dances of the utmost complication, following the caller's directions with as much ease as they. He always did speak better Spanish than me, Chris thought, smiling to himself at sight of the competition among the bright-skirted girls for the handsome Anglo's attention, and keeping a gunfighter's eye alert for possible jealous suitors. It wouldn't be the first time he'd had to bail Buck out that way. Still, it was good to see that he seemed to have gotten completely past his loss of Audra. All he needs now is JD and he'll be whole again.

God, what's it been now--almost seven years we've been together? And a damn good ride too. Buck, JD, Sarah, Adam, the new baby comin'--hope it'll be a girl this time--our own place, the horses, money in the bank, reputation--we've done real well.

The music changed to the old dance called the aforrado:

Aforrado de mi vida!
Cómo estás, cómo te va?
Cómo has pasado la noche,
No has tenido novedad?

Chris frowned a little. Somewhere he'd heard that that first line meant something like "measurement" or "appraisal of my life." Funny he should have just been reviewing his own...

Aforrado de mi vida!
Yo te quisiera cantar,
Pero mis ojos san tiernos,
Y empezaran a llorar.

Buck was laughing, flushed with excitement and wine, his arm looped around the waist of a girl with the gray eyes and ivory skin of Castilian blood, whose hair was pulled back through a silver ring and trimmed with a yellow rose. Her long earrings swung and glittered in the lamplight, and their foreheads touched, Buck's eyes slyly downturned to the little hammered-silver pendant swinging between her breasts, revealed by the flimsy, almost transparent chemise draped low over her shoulders. For a moment it seemed that a shadow hovered over Buck's dark head in the brightly-lit room, and Chris felt a twist in his belly.

De Guadalajara vengo,
Lidiando con un soldado,
Solo por venier a ver
A mi jarabe afarrado.

Naw. All this time and nobody's come after either one of us yet--why should anybody now? I had too much to eat, is all.

Y vente conmigo,
Y yo te dare
Zapatos de raso,
Color de cafe.

Chris snorted to himself, dispelling the vision. "Satin shoes the color of coffee." Hell. If that's all you get out of "appraisin' your life"'re gettin' old, Larabee, jumpin' at nothin'. You better call it a night. Nobody's called Buck yet, ain't likely anybody's gonna, and he's a big boy, he can take care of himself. He politely disengaged himself from his dominoes partner, though she pleaded with him to stay, and quietly headed upstairs to their room.


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