(Variation One)

an M7 AU

by Sevenstars

When he woke in the morning, Buck wasn't there. Well, did I expect him to be? The way them girls was all over him last night, they likely had to take numbers. He washed and shaved, dressed and headed downstairs. The cantina owner provided fried salt pork, huevos a la mexicana--eggs scrambled with finely minced onion, tomato, and green chili--with beans on the side, a loaf of dark brown bread, slabs of very rich goat's-milk cheese, and an assortment of fruits. Chris didn't hurry; he knew Buck's ways too well. It was two full hours past the time they would ordinarily have gotten on the road when his partner finally sauntered in, freshly shaved and looking very pleased with himself. "Glad you made it," Chris observed wryly.

"You should'a' took me up on my offer," Buck replied. "She had two sisters."

"I'm sure you left 'em all weepin'," Chris retorted. "You eat?"

"Oh, I had my sweets," grinned Buck, flopping into a chair. "Hola, posadero! Comida, por favor, y cafe, con presteza."

They got over the river around noon, passed the night in Orogrande, and a week later found themselves in familiar country. "We'll be sleepin' in our own beds tonight," Buck observed as they passed an eroded butte he knew lay exactly twelve miles from the ranchhouse.

Chris snorted. "The way you was carryin' on in Juarez, I'm s'prised you sound so happy about it," he teased.

"Hell, Chris, you know how I feel about our place," Buck retorted in a mildly aggrieved tone. "And about Sarah and Adam too, come to that. It'll be good to get home. Travel's fine, but havin' a place to go back to is better."

"Yeah," Chris agreed seriously, "I know." He tickled his bay with the spurs. "Let's pick it up a little." For some reason he found himself thinking again of that momentary vision in the cantina, and frowned, shaking his head to dismiss it.

"Somethin' wrong, pard?" Buck inquired.

"Naw, just--never mind," said Chris. Hell, I start tellin' him I been seein' dark clouds and he'll think I got hold of some hempweed down there.

Two hours later Buck checked back, his buckskin tossing her head against the bit. "Is that what I think it is?"

Chris followed his pointing hand and felt a cold lump like a rock settle in his gut. "Smoke."

"Grass fire, you reckon?"

"Naw, it ain't billowin' like it was somethin' still burnin'. Anyhow it's too early in the year for lightning." They looked at each other, neither one wanting to say the words, but both knowing what the only alternative was.

"Might been the barn," Buck observed. "You know how hay is, sometimes takes fire all on its own."

"Be more smoke if it was the barn, and less if it was one of the sheds." Chris's voice was thin and tight. Suddenly he threw down the lead of the five fillies under his charge and spurred forward hard.

Buck watched him disappear over the last rise, swayed down out of his saddle to pick up the dropped line, and followed, the fillies jostling and nipping behind him. At the crest he paused, his eyes searching the scene below. It was the house. The five-foot stone walls still stood, at least partly, but the roof and upper walls had fallen in to form a spiky jumble of timbers and broken logs and charred planks. Buck suddenly found himself remembering the day JD took the coach for Denver, and that momentary vision of darkness hanging over Sarah and Adam's heads. No, he told himself. They could'a' got out. They had to got out.

Then he saw Chris's horse, reins trailing, and Chris himself, kneeling before the ruins of the house, his shape too small and too regular to suggest that he was embracing a wife and son preserved for him. And he knew. Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod, no, no, no, they can't be, ohmygod...


The barn and sheds still stood untouched; the wind must not have been blowing strongly enough, or the right way, to carry sparks or embers to them. The stock was nervous still, the ashes of the fire warm; the fire couldn't have occurred any later than last night. Buck wanted to believe it had been an accident, a lamp crashing over from a vagrant breeze, a curtain getting caught by its flame, something going wrong with the stove flue. But somehow he knew it hadn't; surely in such a case Sarah at least would still have been awake, and she'd have had time to get Adam out. And, as Chris had said, it was too early in the season for lightning. Finding JD's dog lying dead in the yard, shot through the chest, only served as a hint to the other clues that remained. The ruins stank of coal oil; somebody must have crawled up on the roof and doused the whole building with it, then thrown two or more torches up. There were fresh tracks of shod horses, six of them.

Both men were numb, in shock. They couldn't understand it. Horse thieves wouldn't burn the house; they might shoot toward it if they got caught in the act and challenged, but they wouldn't commit intentional arson. Never in almost seven years had they had any trouble with their neighbors, nor had there been any suggestion that any old enemy from either partner's gunfighting days had learned their whereabouts. Down along the Border the raids and counterraids often amounted nearly to war, but the Border was three hundred miles from here; why would bandits bypass all the tempting targets that lay between just to attack one isolated house? And it hadn't been Indians; apart from the shod hooves they found sign of booted feet and cast-off cigarette butts.

They found the charred remains of Sarah and Adam in the big downstairs bedroom, lying against the back wall as if they'd tried to get out the window and been driven back by gunfire from men posted outside. Buck could see Chris changing before him, all the light and color going out of his eyes, face turning tight and flinty. For himself, he was overwhelmed with a sick guilt. Last night. If I hadn't talked him into stayin' in Juarez, we'd been home. It's my fault. My fault. God, how am I ever gonna make this up to him? And how am I ever gonna tell JD?

They dug the graves in silence. Buck was genuinely afraid of his partner for the first time since they'd met; Chris hadn't said a word since his friend came down off the ridge with the fillies. Serve me right if he shot me. My fault. My fault. I ain't no good to nobody. Audra dies on account she's comin' out to marry me, Sarah and Adam die on account we ain't here to save 'em. My fault.

He spoke, quietly, tentatively: "You want to say the words, or me?"

Chris shook his head. "I got no words to say and no time to say 'em. I got six men to find." His voice was flat and cold, not the voice Buck had heard even as recently as twelve hours ago.

It's my fault they're dead, but I can at least help him settle accounts for 'em. I owe him that. "We got six men to find."

They turned all the stock out so it could forage for itself and set out. The trail led south, then west, up into the mountains. For a week Chris and Buck followed as best they could. The murderers had clearly known that someone would make the attempt. They had pulled every trail-hiding trick the country could afford. All that nightmare week the two men kept losing the trail and picking it up again, getting farther and farther behind. At last, in the tangle of ranges around Deming, they lost it altogether. Chris had hardly eaten or slept for the last four days. They were low on supplies, both horses were playing out and Buck's mare had thrown a shoe. "It's no good," Buck said at last, his voice thick. "We ain't gonna catch 'em. We gotta go back and talk to Sheriff Wise. He's gotta know about the fire by now. Maybe he can send out some inquiries."

"No," Chris said shortly.

"Pard," Buck tried again, "I want 'em found near as much as you do. But we can't go on this way or we'll kill the horses--" and ourselves. He looked at his old friend with sad, pleading eyes. "I know you hurt. So do I. They was my family too. I understand how you feel. Audra--"

Chris turned on him. "Don't you say you understand!" he snarled. "Don't you ever say that! Audra was an accident. This was murder a-purpose. And you still got JD! Don't you say you understand! You ain't lost near what I lost and you ain't got no notion what I'm feelin'!"

Buck flinched back as if Chris had hit him. For a moment they were both silent. Chris was rigid and quivering, as if ready to draw. Buck spoke again, heavily. "I know you blame me, and it don't surprise me. It's my fault. I admit that. If you want to kill me for it I won't try and stop you. But I can't help you kill yourself. I can't do that, Chris. I got a brother back East who's gotta know about this, and I can't give it to him in no letter. I'm goin' to Illinois. After, I'll be at the ranch if you want me." He turned slowly, leading his limping mare, and then paused for a last look back. "Adios, mi amigo," he said in soft Spanish. "Buena suerte. Yo deso consuelo para tu. I wish comfort for thee." It was a pledge unto death, and the word he used for farewell--literally, "to God"--was the final way of saying it, used only to one who was expected to be gone a long time--or forever. "Come on, Taffy." And he started down their back trail, the skin of his back tight and flinching under his clothes as he waited for Chris's bullet. But as far gone as he was, Chris wouldn't shoot a man in the back. There was a silence, and then the clatter of hooves as he moved forward again.

It's all over, Buck told himself. The best thing I ever had except for JD, and it's gone, it's finished. We're back to how we used to be, just each other.

Good luck, pard.


The forests of cottonwood, hickory, maple, oak, and walnut that lined the Illinois rivers were pale green with springing new leafage when Buck stepped off the stage in Danville, population 9590. It was the seat of Vermilion County and lay at a forking of two streams, with JD's school, the male branch of the academy, directly to the west. Leaving his single bag at the depot, Buck found his way to the livery stable and hired a horse, aware of the speculative glances stirred by his broad-brimmed gray hat, high-heeled boots, and gently chiming star-rowelled spurs.

Most academies of the day were incorporated, private--either sectarian, though rarely affiliated with or controlled by any church, or owned by an ambitious pedagogue--and chartered but almost totally uncontrolled by the state in which they were located; actual government was by a board of trustees. Many were, to put it charitably, none too good: if men with rudimentary educations had nothing else to do, they formed academies, and many a successful minister felt that an academy with a name such as Wesleyan, Asbury, Cokesbury, Ebenezer, or Bethel should be an adjunct to his church building. Some states granted these schools the right to stage lotteries to raise money--and more than a few times "founder" and lottery money simply vanished with no academy in sight. But once they got going, they all emphasized practical education for a life in America rather than the Middle Ages: they taught Latin and Greek, but they also offered instruction in more modern subjects, such as algebra, geometry, bookkeeping, surveying, navigation, history, geography, rhetoric, logic, "natural philosophy" (physics), botany, chemistry, astronomy, and mineralogy.

An academy might not boast a great deal of equipment, but a succession of able teachers could make it notable. In this one, the first year tended to focus on fundamentals and review, but the junior, or second, class studied arithmetic, grammar, Anderson's Popular History of the United States, and, after mastering Caesar and Cicero, added algebra, natural philosophy, botany, and Nordhoff's Politics for Young Americans. Seniors studied astronomy, political economy, rhetoric, chemistry, trigonometry and surveying, commercial law, "moral science" (roughly ethics and theology), Mark Hopkins's Evidences of Christianity, Butler's Analogy, Shakespeare, Virgil, more Cicero, and Paradise Lost.

The school was housed in a handsome two-storey building of buff brick and cream-white terra cotta, with tall chimneys at each end, twelve classrooms, a library and reference room, chemistry laboratory, art room, photographic dark-room, mechanical-drawing room, 30x84-foot gymnasium, and an auditorium with 500 seats and a 27x13-foot stage; there was a real pipe organ in the chapel. It was larger than most, with 432 pupils, who came from distant places, and twenty teachers. It overlooked two rivers at French Point, and there was skating in winter and boating and fishing in summer. The headmaster was an Episcopal clergyman whose stated goal was to educate "Christian gentlemen" and develop "manly Christian character," and who placed emphasis less on scholarship than on godliness, cleanliness of mind and body, and good sportsmanship--for he was the product of a British public-school education, at Cheltenham and Cambridge.

The Reverend Friday was in his office and received Buck graciously. "And so you're John's brother," he said, shaking hands. "He's very proud of you; talks of you constantly."

Buck smiled weakly. "Kid never did know when to shut up," he said. "Gets it from his pa, I reckon, though Ma had a pretty lively tongue too, when she wanted to. Is he doin' okay? I likely missed his last few letters, I ain't been home in a spell."

"He'll end the year in the top ten per cent of his class, I daresay," Friday replied. He peered at Buck searchingly. "Is there some trouble, Mr. Wilmington? It seems...peculiar...that you'd come all this way when there's so little left of the school year."

Buck sighed and nodded. "I need to talk to him, private if that's allowed. Could you send for him? Just don't tell him it's me or he's like to fret."

"I'll go down to the library and you can meet here," Friday agreed. "It will take a few minutes to find out which class he's in just now and send someone for him."

"That's all right. It'll give me time to figure out what I'm gonna say to him. I'm obliged to you."

At going on fifteen JD had finally begun to get some size on him; he was just a hair under five feet and moved with a grace and assurance that came as much from ball games, boxing, and cotillion lessons as from the horseback riding of his childhood. His hair hung almost shoulder-length and was center-parted in the currently fashionable style. "Buck!" he burst out in astonishment when the monitor showed him into the office. "Oh, God, Buck, I've missed you so much--"

"Missed you too, little brother," Buck told him as the kid flew into his arms. God, I'm glad he's still kid enough to hug. And I know how it sounds, but I thank You he was safe back here when them six bastards done what they done. I know it's selfish, but if I lost him--

"Buck?" JD had assured himself that his brother was real and now pulled back a little, his hazel eyes searching Buck's face, picking out the new lines of weariness around his eyes and mouth. "Buck, what are you doin' here? somethin' wrong at home?"

I should'a' figured he'd guess. After all, there ain't no reason for me to come all this way 'less Chris'd throwed me out or we didn't have no home left. "You better sit down, kid," he said, and led JD over to the green carpet-covered sofa.

"What is it?" JD demanded again as they settled down. "Is it Chris? Adam? Sarah?"

Buck took a deep breath. God give me strength to help him through this. "It's all of 'em, kinda." And, as gently as he could, he explained about the trip south and what they'd found when they returned.

JD listened, saying not a word, but his face got whiter and his eyes bigger with every sentence. "Oh, no," he whispered when Buck finally finished. "Oh, sweet lord Jesus, no. It can't be true."

Buck shook his head. "I wish to God you was right, little brother. If I've told myself once these last three weeks, I've told myself a hundred times, I'd give everything I owned to be able to turn the clock back and get me and Chris home in time to do some good. But they're gone, JD. All we can do is hope the smoke got 'em before the fire did."

JD's eyes filled. "Oh, God," he whimpered, and hid his face in Buck's vest, his slender body shaking with sobs.

Buck held him tightly, rubbing his back and rocking unconsciously to and fro, his own eyes scalded blind with tears. His long journey up from the Border to Santa Fe, where he'd left Taffy in a livery stable and caught the Kansas City Mail stage, and from there north and east, had given him a little time to come to terms with his loss, but the wound was still tender, and JD's grief ripped the forming scar open afresh. Yet even with that pain, he knew he couldn't have broken the news by letter and allowed JD to face this bereavement alone. No one but his brother could possibly understand what it meant to him, or have any chance of knowing how to comfort him--if he could be comforted.

He had no idea how long it took for JD to run himself out of tears and give way to dry choking sounds and convulsive shudders. "What about Chris?" the boy asked.

"Still followin' 'em, I reckon."

"You shouldn't left him," JD said reproachfully.

"I had to, little brother. The way he was goin', all he'd do was get us both dead, and who'd you have left then? Just like always, you come first with me. I couldn't let you come home end of term and find nothin' but a burned-out house and two new graves. Anyhow, he don't want me with him no more. He made that pretty plain." He repeated the last exchange between himself and his old friend.

He hadn't thought it would be possible for JD to get any paler, but somehow the kid managed it. "What's gonna happen now, Buck?"

"I told Chris I'd be back at the ranch if he wanted me, if he changed his mind," the man replied. "The stock's still okay and the barn's standin'. I reckon I got some responsibility to try and keep the place goin' a spell."

"You goin' back?"

"Yeah. I'll stay here with you a few days, then I'll head home." He smiled bitterly. "Not that it'll be much like home now. But it don't matter what Chris thinks of me, I owe him at least that much."

"I'm goin' with you," JD told him.

"No, you stay till the term ends," Buck ordered. "I'll have to put up some kind of shack for us to live in, and I wanta try and clear off what's left of the house. It won't do neither of us no good to have to keep lookin' at it all the time."

JD leaned his head against Buck's chest. "I feel like somebody ripped my heart out, Buck."

"I know you do, kid. I do too."

"How could anybody do that?" the kid demanded. "If they had a gripe with you or Chris, why didn't they call you out? Six against two they'd still had a good chance to take you--"

Buck shook his head. "I wish they had, kid. I wish they had. If it wasn't for knowin' I still got you to take care of...I swear, I'd sooner have died than let Sarah and Adam come to harm."

"Wish I'd been there," JD declared in a tight voice. "I'd cut 'em down from the house with my rifle. They'd never done it if I'd been there." He looked up, his young face fierce. "I told you I didn't want to go to no fancy school. See what happened when you made me? Wasn't neither of us there to protect our family. I'd saved 'em, if I'd been there."

"You can't know that, JD. And much as I miss 'em, I thank God you wasn't. Sarah and Adam bein' gone and Chris hatin' me is bad enough. Losin' you, that'd be more'n I could live with." He put his arms around the boy again and pulled him close. "At least we still got each other. Thank God, we still got each other."


By the time JD returned to the ranch around the end of June, Buck had managed, with the aid of a couple of hired hands, to catch up on the spring branding and gelding, clear off the ruins of the house, and run up a two-room log shack with a lean-to at one end and a porch shed at the other. Chris had had a homeowners' insurance policy, and the settlement money, which the company never denied was due in a case of arson, was more than enough to pay for a modicum of furniture, bedding, kitchenware and dishes, and a four-holed cookstove with an iron hearth in front, and replace most of the personal gear Buck had lost with the house. But, as he'd said, it didn't seem like home any more. Even having JD with him again did little to ease the ache in his heart; it only made him feel more ashamed of how he'd held up the journey in Juarez and prevented himself and Chris from getting back in time to save the boy's home and family for him.

He thought JD sensed his feelings, but they didn't talk about it. For the first time in their shared lives, there was a veil between them like the one that had fallen between the states in those last terrible months before the election of 1860, and no Douglas to break through it. It wasn't that either of them held the other to blame; it was more that each reproached himself for not having been there when they were needed. Not a day went by when each brother didn't think it: I wasn't where I should've been. I let 'em down. I let 'em die alone.

Buck half expected JD to put up a fight about going back to school, but JD had given his promise to try it for three years, and he kept his word. The elder brother was actually relieved when he could put JD aboard the stage and be alone.

Now and then, in the first eight or nine months following the fire, word came to him of Chris. The man had been in Mexico, probably following some real or imagined lead on the murderers, then had been seen in Albuquerque (probably to tell his father-in-law of the deaths), and later in Pueblo. He was said to have assumed a style of all-black clothing and to be drinking heavily. Reports credited him with a changed character, the misanthropic personality which was typical of many gunfighters but which the Chris Buck had known had never had. His temper had grown savage; it was said he'd killed men simply for jostling him at a bar or otherwise "gravelling" him. He made no attempt to contact his old partner. Buck knew what he was doing. Having despaired of finding his family's murderers, he was courting death for himself, hoping to be reunited with his loved ones. But somehow, even in spite of the alcohol, he was too good; nobody could take him. Buck ached for his friend as much as he did for his brother and his lost "sister" and godson.

Sheriff Wise had asked questions all over the county and put out feelers in every direction. He'd picked up descriptions of several strangers who'd been seen in the neighborhood around the crucial time, and even one name, Cletus Fowler; but there was no evidence to connect any of them with the fire or to suggest that they'd even had any interest in Chris or Buck. Still, he agreed with Buck that it almost had to have been an act of revenge. Maybe, he said, the killers had thought the two men were at home and had doubted their own ability to stand against them in fair fight. It was the only thing that really made sense.

By late November Buck knew he couldn't stay at the ranch any longer. It wasn't home any more. He welcomed the solitude, yet the loneliness was painful. All the stability and security the place had offered him before had gone with the people he'd shared it with. Chris obviously wasn't coming back; he was on a personal search for either oblivion or the release of death. Buck sold off the stock, the wagon and buckboard, and everything moveable that he couldn't put on a horse. He arranged with the bank to put exactly one-half the proceeds aside for Chris and to send him any amount he might request. He wrote JD and told him what he was doing. He wrote the Reverend Friday that the bank had instructions to forward JD's board-and-tuition money at the beginning of each semester until the kid finished his three years at the academy. What was left he transferred to Santa Fe to draw on as he needed. At last, on Christmas Day, he fired the empty barn, mounted his mare, and turned away from the only real home he'd ever had.

March, 1878

JD Dunne, going on eighteen, sat at the window of his furnished room and gazed out at the coarse snow, covered with weeds and twigs, that still blanketed the lawn. It had been almost a year since he had seen his older brother. They had arranged to meet in St. Louis--Buck swore he wasn't venturing east of the Mississippi again for as long as he lived--and had spent two weeks together, most of it in a protracted exhausting wrangle about the boy's future. JD had pointed out that he'd kept his word, stayed his three years at the academy and gotten his certificate, and now he wanted to be with all the family he had left. Buck had yelled and stormed and sworn and refused to hear of it. He was determined that JD would go on to finish the full collegiate course. He had already consulted by letter with the Reverend Friday and gotten a quote for what it would cost to put JD through the first year of the co-ed collegiate branch of the school. Seventy-five dollars for tuition, ninety to a hundred and seventeen for meals (depending on whether JD ate in the girls' dining hall or, if he was unable to bear its formality, joined an all-male dining club, which had the advantage of being slightly cheaper as well), and thirty-six for a room, plus laundry, a clothing allowance, pocket money, and incidentals. In the end, sick with the feeling that he'd somehow lost Buck's love and bitterly aware that he had almost no money of his own, JD had given in.

In the months that followed, he had gone through the motions of studying and tried to work out just what had gone wrong between them. It had taken him a while, but he thought he understood now. Buck was still trying to get past the loss of their family and home, and he thought he needed to be alone. Maybe he didn't want JD to see just how he was dealing with it. "Hell, Buck," JD said softly aloud, "don't you know there ain't nothin' you could do would ever make me think any less of you? You're my brother. We belong together. You need me."

Buck needed him. Somehow he was more certain of it, now, than he had been when the realization first came to him. He looked down at the dropped writing surface of the old butternut slant-front bureau desk. "No reason to stay now," he murmured, scanning again the formal phrases of the paper that lay there. He'd been politely asked to leave.

"Well, I asked for it," he mused. "Hell, it took you all long enough." As soon as he'd come to an understanding of what he had to do, he'd also comprehended that he'd somehow have to accumulate some money of his own to get out West on. Fortunately he knew just how to do it. An older brother of one of his classmates had taught him to play billiards while he was staying with the family over his sixteenth Christmas season, and he'd quickly discovered that he had a keen aptitude for it. He remembered Buck telling how he'd earned a fair part of his living hustling at pool in California when he was just a kid. If Big Brother could do it, why not Little Brother? And so, these last six months, schoolwork had taken a back seat to the local pool halls. JD had never before felt so thankful for his looks. Everybody who saw his slight boyish form--he was still barely five feet four and weighed no more than a hundred and thirty pounds--and fresh, innocent face figured he was an easy mark. It didn't take them long to find out the truth, but by then he'd usually taken them for a decent sum of money.

When he wasn't playing, he was learning to shoot. Not a long gun; he already knew how to handle one of those. Buck had been a gunfighter a good part of his life, probably still was. If JD meant to persuade his brother to let him stay, he'd have to prove that Buck wouldn't need to be fretting over his safety all the time. Besides, he had a score to settle with the people who'd destroyed his home and family. Like most reasonably sized communities, Danville had its shooting galleries, run by local gunsmiths; they didn't cost much, and as he got better he was able to earn enough in prizes to cover his fees. All that had stopped him from leaving before now was that he didn't know just where Buck was. His brother still wrote, erratically, but each letter bore a different postmark. Mostly, though, he seemed to be spending his time in Colorado and New Mexico. "Got to start somewhere," JD told himself. "Once I get out there I can start askin' for him. He's still goin' by Wilmington, and I reckon he ain't changed how he looks, much."

He stood, walked to the old brass bed, and unscrewed the knob that tipped the post on the left side of the headboard. Using the slender poker from his fireplace, he probed around until the little backturned hook caught on the sturdy rawhide drawstring of his buckskin purse. He quickly fished it up, opened it and spilled out the contents on the candlewick spread. Crumpled bills, mostly tens and under; silver dollars, quarter and half dollars, twenty-cent pieces, dimes, half-dimes, three-dollar gold coins, eagles and half-eagles and a few doubles. Sitting on the bed with one leg tucked under, JD tallied his hoard. Two hundred seventy-four dollars and forty-seven cents. With what the college and his landlady would have to turn back to him for the time he wasn't staying, it would be enough. "Bet you never figured I could earn that much money in six months, did you, Buck?"

He looked at the Gothic steeple clock on the mantel. Better to get moving; the stage to Champaign would be due in less than two hours. From the bottom bureau drawer he pulled out his money belt, a length of heavy canvas webbing with slotlike pockets all around. Quickly he distributed all the bills and most of the coinage through the pockets, saving out just enough for the coach. He unbuttoned his waffle-patterned vest, pulled up the tails of his white linen shirt, and strapped the belt around his middle. Then he began packing. He wouldn't bother with the linens or his trunk; he wouldn't be needing those. His carpetbag would hold everything he really needed. Sunday suit, shirts, socks, longjohns, clean collars and cuffs, ties, suspenders; his toothbrush, nail brush, silver comb and silver-backed hairbrushes; the books the family had sent him that first Christmas; his leather-covered writing-case; the lump of gypsum off the hills behind the ranch that he used as a paperweight; the photograph of his mother and the one of Buck when he joined up, side by side in a cowhide folder; the family picture, in an embossed black case, of himself, Chris, Sarah, Adam, and Buck that had been taken just before he left New Mexico. He'd been quietly selling off his other stuff over the last week, ever since he'd first heard the rumor that he was going to be expelled. "Sorry I made you waste a year's expenses on me, Buck," he said, "but it's partly your own doin'. We had a deal that if I wanted to quit after the academy you wouldn't say a word, and you said a lot of 'em. I kept my part of the bargain; you're the one who didn't. Serves you right, kinda."

When he was sure he hadn't left anything vital, he strapped the bag shut, slipped the notice of dismissal into its envelope and tucked them into his inner jacket pocket so he could prove to Buck that he didn't have any other place to go. He pulled the jacket on, then his woollen gloves and heavy brown woollen coat: March could still be bitter cold. He hesitated a moment over the brown bowler hat for which he'd laid out eleven and a half dollars at the beginning of term; he could just imagine what Buck was going to say when he saw it, but it had been that or a cap, and a college man couldn't be seen in a cap. "Hell," he said, "Bat Masterson wears one just like it," and he jammed it defiantly onto his overlong hair and slung the muffler Sarah had knitted for his one and only Christmas box around his neck. If he had money enough after he got the rest of what he needed, maybe he'd buy a proper Stetson, but if not, well, he was a man, damnit, and he could choose for himself what he was going to wear.

By nightfall he was in Champaign, settled in an inexpensive hotel to wait till the next downbound train came through. During the dark hours the wind changed and a sudden thaw rode it up from the south. As he headed south, then west, then north and west again, on a succession of trains, the roads that intersected the tracks seemed to smoke in the sunlight. There was a good drenching rain, then a short freeze, and then the snow abruptly peeled off, and when he got to Kansas City he found the place a sea of mud. He picked his way through it, choosing a saddle and blanket, bridle and bit, a wagon sheet, soogan, and two pair of California blankets for a bedroll, a pair of saddlebags, a lariat, and at last a pair of matched Colt Lightning double-actions, full nickel-silver plated, with ivory handles, and a buscadero double belt to carry them in.

To save time, he took the KP only as far as Topeka, then changed to the AT&SF, which had reached Pueblo some time before. Through Newton and Dodge City he rode, ignoring the awed reactions of the Easterners who shared the train with him. After all, he was from New Mexico; he'd seen sights like these, if on a smaller scale, in Eagle Bend.

In Pueblo he learned for the first time that they'd changed the coach route. The main line went through Four Corners now. He remembered Buck writing about the place. He'd said it had a pretty wild reputation, but it wasn't forty miles from Eagle Bend, where the bank might be able to give JD some idea where his brother had been the last time he'd messaged for money. He wouldn't have to stay long; he'd buy a horse and be out of town again before he could get into any trouble.

Two relay stations out from his goal he heard the news. A drifter who'd just come from Four Corners had stopped to water his horse and get some food, and he was full of the story. Some trail hands had tried to lynch a fellow back in town, he said, a black man who was as close as the place came to a doctor. Two strangers--a cold-eyed man in black and a long-haired one in buckskin--had stepped in and faced them down, scared the mob off without hardly hurting anybody. Then they'd begun asking if anyone wanted to come help them defend an Indian village. The healer had said he had a friend who might be interested. A fancy Southern gambler had been somehow coerced into joining the group. Some drifter who'd been sparking one of the saloon girls had found out the man in black was an old friend of his and agreed to come.

"Why would an Indian village need white men to defend it?" JD asked.

"Well, they ain't wild Indians. They're Seminoles, civilized redskins from the Territory. Don't know how they ended up out here. Anyway, what I heard, it seems there's some old die-hard Rebs been makin' things tough for 'em, and they ain't got the numbers or skill to beat 'em off."

JD felt a jolt of adrenalin. If, when he found Buck, he could say he'd had a part in some such fight as seemed to be in the making, his brother could hardly deny that he had what it took to care of himself, or refuse to let him stay.

As the coach thundered into Four Corners he caught sight of a group of men gathered by the livery barn. A man in black, a long-haired one in buckskin, a Negro, a slight wiry fellow in a dark crimson jacket who might fit the description of "a fancy gambler," a couple of others. It's them! he realized, and he grabbed his saddle and threw open the stage door and jumped off without waiting to get further into town.

He sat up, brushing dust off his jacket and resettling the bowler jammed down on his ears. The buckskin-clad man and the one in the red jacket, who were closest, had turned and were looking at him in astonishment. The man in black was conferring with another whose back was turned to JD but who nearly matched him in height and wore a broad-brimmed gray hat and short canvas jacket. A big man with Indian beadwork on his trousers paused in the act of tossing a on Mexican serape and tilted his head curiously at the newcomer. A tall black man, obviously the healer, looked at him over the back of the horse he was saddling. "I hear you men are headin' for a fight," JD said. "My name is JD Dunne, and I can ride, and I can shoot."

"He can fly, too," murmured the man in buckskin to the big fellow.


JD looked up and joy surged through him. "Buck?...Chris? My God, I don't believe it!"

Buck and Chris, side by side for the first time in three years, stepped forward as one to confront him. "What the bright flamin' blue hell are you doin' here, boy?" JD's brother demanded.

"Bein' where I'm supposed to be," JD retorted. "With you guys." He ignored the half-incoherent expostulations that followed. He knew Buck too well. He'd convince him. It might take a while, but he'd do it.

He looked around at the other men. Seven, with him. The big one looked interested enough to be a possible ally, and the one in buckskin couldn't be a lot older than he was. The gambler just looked as if he was still trying to figure out how he had gotten pulled into this situation. The healer, JD suddenly realized, was wearing a spread of throwing knives sheathed on a harness strapped over his shoulder. That was interesting. Put holes in their hides and then patch them up after?

Seven, he told himself, and three of us are family. Well, two, anyhow. Yell all you want, Buck. I'm stayin'.


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