A Friend to Me

by Mitzi

The seven men kneed their horses up the rock and shale encrusted rise. Their formation was as subtly out of sync as their sense of camaraderie. Chris Larabee's smoky gelding led as usual, but not from the center of his fellow peacekeepers. Vin Tanner sat his mount to Larabee's right, as had become second nature. He appreciated that Josiah Sanchez rode next to him, attempting some degree of soothing by his mere presence. Nathan Jackson rode in the center, his natural need to heal currently, subconsciously, extended to trying to position himself to mend the rift within his family. Ezra Standish, beside Nathan, scanned the horizon, apparently oblivious or disinterested in any emotional upheaval that didn't effect him personally. That Gambit's head bobbed nervously on an arched neck, and shook his mane as he blew, was a clue that the horse was picking up on something from his master; something humans could not sense. Vin smiled. He didn't miss the fact that the horse gave up the gambler's unsettled discernment. Vin suspected it was no coincidence that Larabee's resident antagonist positioned himself to show support for Buck.

Buck Wilmington. Another action taken on a subconscious level. The tall gunfighter would not allow their youngest member to act as a part of the buffer that the others now represented between him and his old time friend. So JD rode to Buck's right seeking some comfort in proximity and praying for action. He thought he would take any distraction to refocus the anger and frustration that worked its way back and forth among the men like ball lightning across barbed wire.

Vin was disquieted as he watched his best friend for any of the wordless communication they shared and he valued so protectively. Larabee seemed to be consciously fighting the rapport. He and Buck had had rifts before. Chris had been on the outs with the others - Ezra more times than Vin cared to count. But he had never let it spill over into their ability to communicate silently. Something else was going on here. Buck had some hint of what it was, and he didn't like it.

A series of killings had gradually worked its way east. The victims, all men, were usually strangers in the land in which they died. Once identified, the men had nothing in common. They had been fathers, businessmen, ranchers, loners and drunks ... content, ambitious, angry, kind and malicious. The men would disappear from their homes and days or weeks later, they were dead. Even the manner of death held little consistency. There appeared to be no pattern or motive.

As the threat finally approached the outer ranges of the territory protected by the Magnificent Seven, the nighthawks added the element of fire to their attacks. A young boy, Israel Phillips, had suffered painful, permanent scarring from the flames. The husband was missing. The wife was left to comfort her son alone.

The quiet, introspective bounty hunter recognized the haunting grief that, never far from the surface, again had his friend dwelling on those last moments when Sarah and Adam had been alone. Wondering, had Sarah been able to give any comfort to their son in the end?

The timing for all of this couldn't be worse. Vin reflected with more than a little uncommon bitterness. Chris had by no means come to terms with identifying Ella Gaines as the one behind his family's death. It wasn't surprising that when fire and the attacks on families were added to these raids the inconsolable widower saw that woman's touch. He set out to exploit this new lead in his quest to find the murderess.

Chris had bitterly refused to allow Buck or any of the others to accompany him in his pursuit. Wilmington had defiantly refused to wait for Chris to return before he and JD set out on their own to track down the men who threatened their boundaries.

Biting down on the stubby cigar between his teeth, the dark gunfighter cut his eyes down the line of men beside him. He couldn't help it. He was mad at Buck. He knew Buck was mad at him. But Chris felt his own anger was different, justified. With little more than a feeling deep in his gut, Chris believed Ella Gaines was telling him she was still in the area. Was it just his imagination? He couldn't take the chance.

He refused to let Buck anywhere near Ella again. The man didn't have a lick of sense when it came to self-preservation. Ella had killed a woman and child; had been willing to kill men she hadn't even known. But she knew Buck. Or of him. She knew he had seen Chris through the first time he left her. Now the second. He had seen him through the loss of Sarah and Adam. No, Buck wouldn't be anywhere around if he even suspected Ella was in the area. He was too good a target. But his carefree friend would argue away all of these concerns if they were explained to him, so Chris used anger to push him away. And then what was he thinking? With only that damn kid, he had set off to search them out on his own.

Buck sat slightly forward over his borrowed horse's neck; tense. He couldn't relax back in the saddle. Buck had been furious when Chris insisted on looking for Ella Gaines alone. Buck knew that bitch now. He'd only heard stories before. She knew everything there was to know about Chris - how to play him, how to reel him in, how to get to him emotionally. Buck tried to hold on to the anger, but when he thought about what his friend had been through, it was lost to a more painful emotion - grief. A great sense of loss.

Buck felt someone watching him and looked up in time to meet Vin's companionable blue gaze. But Buck sensed the other man was gauging his emotions through his eyes. He knew he was being read and tried to hide what he was feeling.

Vin sighed. He remembered sitting in front of the Sheriff's office with Chris after his returned. He had come back with only the certainty that these dangerous men were nearby - and then to find that Buck and JD were missing ...

Well after sunset Chris's glance would drift toward the east end of town. "I don't rightly expect them back tonight," Vin offered, "Knowin' Buck ... "

"Yeah. I know Buck," Chris had grumbled and headed for the bar and a bottle.

Chris's patience had been pushed beyond endurance the next mid-morning, seeing Casey Wells, stirrups flying as she pumped her horse into town. Her breathless account of men coming in the pre-dawn hours infuriated him. "We have to get back. Help her." She had pled. Casey's offering that, "Aunt Nettie made me leave her. She thinks they might be the ones you're after," had them horse bound in record time. Chris's mind reeled with what these men were capable of.

Anticipating what they would come up on, the ashes, and the smell ... for just the briefest of moments, during that race to the ranch, dreading what they could find, Vin could put himself in his friend's place that day, long ago. What a horrific, waking nightmare, to ride up on ...

Vin was jolted from his reverie by the flutter of small wings. A mourning dove flittered from a scrub mesquite as they passed. For several yards, the soft gray bird seemed unable to get one wing to work. Finally she took off into the air. Vin shot an embarrassed grimace toward Chris for being caught so unaware. It wouldn't do for them to be come upon by these men because he was distracted. Chris finally, begrudgingly, acknowledged Vin's earlier protective regard with a half-grin. "Guess we've all been a bit high strung, lately."

Vin chortled at his friend's acquiescence to the situation. Knowing the intense Chris Larabee was on guard, Vin couldn't seem to help but let his thoughts drift back to the day before. What were the chance course of events that had Buck and JD show up at Nettie's just as Chris's anger had reached the boiling point? There had been little real damage to Nettie's place, a few lost hens, and foodstuffs, her medicinal whiskey. Where Vin had been relieved at this sight, the thought of what they might have found had yet to let go of Chris's mind and body.

"They had a Southern accent, boys. Not as smooth as Mr. Standish, but they were Johnny Rebs." Nettie had been toward the end of her story when ...

"Who?" JD asked as he dashed in like a windstorm. "What happened? Is everybody okay?" Chicken feathers scattered like a fox had been in the hen house, broken corral posts and broken windows, had startled the boy. He ran up onto the porch and burst inside. He had been met by Chris's overeager trigger finger. Chris pulled up immediately. He was on a short fuse. He could have pulled the trigger.

"Damn it, JD, don't you ever learn? Running in without thought to the situation... "

"I ... I saw ... outside ... "

"Even more reason to be cautious before you barge in!"

"He thought since your horses were out front, Pard, you'd have things under control. Boy mighta even thought to be safer with you." Buck followed JD in and quickly defended the boy's actions. "I'll set him straight. Don't want Chris Larabee shoving a gun up your nose." Buck's quick smile and light tone of voice was in conflict with the tension in his body and the protective 'leave him alone' glare he threw at Chris.

"I was worried, Miz Nettie, " JD offered as an apology. "Are you and Casey alright?"

"Casey's just comin' outta the barn, Kid. Go ask her yourself."

JD willingly vacated the electrified room. "Ease up on the boy, Chris." Buck's tone was threatening.

"What does it take, Buck? For you to act responsibly? You knew these men were in the area."

"We were looking for those men. Here, Eagle Bend, what does it matter where we focus the search? One more night ... "

"One more night?" Chris's voice was a low, feral whisper. "How long before you tell JD 'one more night' and he comes home to worse than this?"

Buck blanched. The color left his face as if he were one week dead. He knew exactly what his old friend referred to. Let's stay one more night The Mexico Trip. It was one of many they'd taken, but this one was forever, 'The Mexico Trip'. They had stayed one more night. It had been Buck's idea. When they returned ... the charred wooden ruins ... the memory...

Buck had been blindsided. There was no way he could have known what happened here at Nettie's. No way to prevent it. No way to know why it brought this blow from his old friend. But Buck never defended himself against this one attack by Chris. Chris could never blame Buck more than he blamed himself for that day. Buck, too, had lost Sarah and Adam. And Buck had lost his best friend. Ezra's first thought was that he was glad JD hadn't been witness to this altercation. Nathan had to look away from the despair and shock he saw in Buck's expressive eyes.

Chris saw it, too. And he shut his eyes. The dead ends, chasing the nightriders, the fires, the deformed child, Buck taking his risks, the attack on Nettie's place, the memories of Sarah and Adam ... and Ella. They mirrored each other, magnified his pain and anger, and reflected it all back stronger than before.

So why did he always focus that hurt on the friend who had walked that lost trail with him? It was because Buck knew his secrets, his weaknesses, knew he cared in a way none of the others could. Or at least the enigmatic gunfighter could deny it of the others, or so he thought. They hadn't been there. But Buck had been there and represented emotions that could tear him open again.

Chris opened his eyes. How long had he been lost in thought? Buck was no longer in the living room. Nathan and Josiah had busied themselves helping Nettie clean up. He could see Buck through the window checking Pal's fore hoof. JD was with Casey by the corral. Vin was giving him space. And Ezra. There was a look on his face that was unexpected. Some barely contained emotion. Ezra must have sensed Chris's eyes on him because just as quickly the passive mask replaced the emotion. And Ezra left the house.

Now, in the open countryside, these were the events and resulting feelings that kept the bounty hunter from giving full attention to his surroundings. Vin hadn't missed the look on Ezra's face either. Or Josiah, or Nathan. He knew his friend had regretted some of the things he had said as soon as they were out of his mouth. And then he learned Buck's big gray had picked up a stone bruise which had contributed to their delay in getting back to Four Corners; that they had only been at Nettie's because it was closer than town.

"Maybe you could stay here, JD." Buck had suggested. Vin suspected the older man didn't want the kid around Larabee in his current frame of mind.

"It's my job." The young sheriff had responded. Casey started to protest. JD turned to her. "We're after the men who did this. I want to make sure they don't come back." Nettie pulled Casey away. She would talk with her later. To Nettie's way of thinking, a woman shouldn't pull a man from his responsibility.

"We'll take good care of Pal here, Mr. Wilmington." Nettie said to change the subject. "We'll see she gets to town when she's better and shuffle the animals around later." She took up the reins of Buck's horse and handed them to Casey.

"Thank you, Ma'am." Buck mounted the horse Nettie loaned him and readied to ride out.

+ + + + + + +

Vin thought back on the events. The emotions rode along with them now. He looked over at Chris. At least it seemed his best friend was mellowing. And Buck, well, Buck was Buck. He'd come around with just a little time. But for now the bushwhackers were still out there. And Larabee made sure none of his men patrolled alone. Not the shadowy night streets of Four Corners, not the isolated ranches, not the desert-chilled open spaces.

The seven rode together, tense, trying not to choose sides. They finally crested the slight rise. The sight that greeted them was a surprise even though it was what - more than what - they had hoped to find.

Two men had just dumped a corpse and were making their way out of the deeply carved creek bed.

Impulsively, Buck spurred his horse forward. "Buck!" JD was with him like he was a part of him. Chris gritted his teeth as he spurred forward, following the others in to back up their reckless friend.

Buck rushed his horse to meet his opponents on the gradually sloping near bank of the creek. The far side of the creek, a ten-foot high craggy rock face of limestone and granite slab, had been carved by flash floods down through the ages. A man could climb the cliff, but it was too steep for a horse.

The two cowboys sat their mounts and awaited Buck's approach. Vin noticed they didn't appear nervous. With retreat blocked by the cliff and the law in front, they should ... he cut his eyes toward his best friend as their horses matched pace down the slope. Same conclusion.

"Buck!" Chris bellowed, "Ambush!"

Chris's words had no effect on Wilmington, determined to get some answers. It was the two men who responded. They dove from their horses; went for their guns. Buck mirrored their dismount as he fired and hit one in the upper thigh.

This series of events saved Buck. A bullet meant to take his head off sent his hat sailing across the grass instead. Several men opened fire on the posse from the boulders on the higher cliff. Bullets bit at JD's heels as he ran to join Buck.

Vin splashed his horse across the thin rivulets of spring water in the otherwise dry creek bed before he threw himself from the saddle. He slammed against the base of the cliff and waited. No bullets came his way. The men above couldn't get an angle on his position. Then Josiah was there beside him. The preacher could move when needed to.

Vin and Josiah looked around for their friends. They saw Ezra wrench his rifle from the scabbard as he reined his mount to a dancing halt; then slap the gelding's flank to hurry him out of the line of fire. The gambler sought the first shelter he could find. The low boulders were little protection from their attackers who had the high ground and a good angle on everything below. Nathan was pinned down in a similar position to Ezra. All he could do was try to stay behind cover. Any attempt to get off a shot would make him a certain target.

Near the creek bed, the largest of the boulders where Buck and JD took refuge was easily four feet tall. A gnarled oak tree, partially protected by the stones and established before the creek bed shifted, had somehow survived the years of flashfloods. Buck stood behind the oak. JD crouched behind the boulder.

Buck's brilliant smile reflected a reckless, adrenaline induced euphoria. This gunfight was an outlet for darker emotions he refused to analyze. These men, murderers, the enemy, not friends, they could be an outlet for his anger.

Chris recognized the near self-destructive look on his friend's face as he dove for cover behind the smaller boulders on JD's left. As was too often the case lately, it was Chris's anger that led him to his oldest friend's side.

As he snapped off another shot, Buck playfully reached down and threw JD's bowler to the ground between them. "Told ya, Kid, keep ... "

JD unthinkingly dove for the hat as Buck spoke, "Damn it, Buck ... "

Chris caught JD's arm and pulled him back against the boulder. It was the only thing that kept the next volley from above them from hitting the young man. "Damn it, Buck! Think! Before you get him killed like ... "

There was a moment frozen in time. The unfinished sentence echoed in Buck's mind Like Sarah and Adam ...like Sarah and Adam ... like ... Chris's earlier reference to that day was still too fresh. Buck, who had just stepped from behind the oak to take a shot, couldn't move. Their eyes met. For too long, Chris had conditioned himself to displace worry and care with anger. And so it was anger Buck saw reflected back at him. To JD's horror he realized his best friend had broken cover and made no move to return. Chris held the boy tight as he struggled to get to his friend.

Larabee had reproached Buck angrily, "Damn it, Buck, think! Before you get him killed like you're tryin' to do yourself ... "

The look on Buck's face brought even Chris Larabee up short. He had no way of understanding that the real words he said never registered in Buck's mind, never filtered past what his own blame and regrets had him hearing. like Sarah and Adam ... like Sarah and ... it wouldn't leave Buck's head.

A ricochet bit into the tree by Buck's temple. Wood and shrapnel pelted him, brought forth pinpricks of blood and reawakened him to his surroundings. He grabbed JD's second gun from its holster and, both blazing, ran at and up the shale lined escarpment.

Larabee held JD in place. "Let me go!" The youngster demanded as he struggled to follow and at the same time lay down cover for Buck.

The others, however, backed Buck's reckless move. Nathan and Ezra left cover, scrambled, zigged and zagged to confuse those shooting at them. Bullets nipped at their feet as Buck, Ezra and Nathan ran forward. A bullet bit at Buck's shirtsleeve and tore away some cloth. Ezra stumbled and recovered when a bullet splashed water from directly in front of his back foot. Josiah and Vin offered what cover they could when the ambushers would lean out into their sights, but it was clearly only a matter of time before the men above got the range. Vin and Josiah backed away from the cliff, rifles blazing trying for better shots. An acrid smudge filled the air. Chris methodically fired at muzzle blasts and puffs of smoke when they came. JD was too busy covering his friends to continue the attempt to follow them. Nathan's shot felled the second of the two men who had originally dropped the body.

Josiah began to despair when the sounds from the rifles above them suddenly doubled. Until he noticed that the number of bullets hitting near his friends immediately decreased. The firing stopped. Josiah and Vin scaled the upper bank to find nothing but dust from retreating horses. Blood on some rocks and grass told the tale that some of their bullets had hit their marks. That the ambushers would not leave dead or wounded behind presented several possible conclusions. Reading of any other sign was cut short as first Josiah then Vin turned back to the angry voices below.

"Damn it, Buck, you're not bullet proof!" Chris was yelling. He never had to raise his voice, in fact, the lower it got, the more threatening it became. But his old friend had always been able to get him yelling. "What were you thinking?" Chris continued to demand. Buck turned to walk away. Chris grabbed his arm and spun him back around. "I want an answer."

"I was thinking I wanted to take on people I knew were trying to hurt me. I now how to handle that." Buck breathed as he swiped at the blood that trickled down the side of his face. He only succeeded in smearing the coppery red across his temple.

"What are we gonna do, Buck? I don't want a friend getting killed because they were stupid enough to back your damn fool play." Buck tossed the lethal gunslinger an enigmatic smirk that threatened something deep in his heart. Larabee refused to show it had touched him. Finally Buck wordlessly turned and walked away.

Larabee's head didn't move, but his eyes shifted to Tanner who had come up during the rather one-sided confrontation. He read the question in Larabee's eyes - what was that look he just gave me?

"He's your friend, too." Was all Vin said.

If Larabee had been inclined to pursue the statement, he was stopped as Nathan dragged the injured man up to him. "The other one's dead." Larabee took in the stranger, including Nathan's quick handiwork on the thigh wound

"Anyone hurt?" The brooding man in black asked without taking his eyes from their prisoner.

"Nothing bad." Nathan replied as he watched Buck hunker down by the meager spring, put water to his bandanna and clean the already drying blood from his temple. It didn't look serious, but Nathan would check it to be sure, now that he didn't have to get between Buck and Chris to do it. Before he turned back to the prisoner Nathan saw JD had retrieved Buck's hat and offered it to him. Buck's genuine smile at the relieved look on the boy's face had Nathan shaking his head and laughing to himself. That boy was always the best medicine for their other overgrown kid.

Nathan's attention was drawn back by angry questions thrown at the prisoner. "Who are you? Did you kill that man? Who do you ride with?" No answer.

The man's face showed anger. His stance showed defiance. His lips held a smirk. Not as full of hurt as Buck's had been, but still ... . Chris swung his right arm around and knocked the man to the ground, right out of Nathan's grasp. That's one smirk I can wipe off one face. He strode away with nary a backward glance. Five sets of eyes drifted back and forth between their two friends who had their backs to each other and distance between them.

"Why would they kill those men?" JD asked as he and Buck joined the others.

"Maybe we'll get some answers, now," Josiah suggested as he cleaned his fingernails with his massive Bowie knife and glared meaningful at their prisoner.

"Any ideas who backed us from up there?" Nathan asked.

"Nothing close in. I could scout further out." Vin offered.

"Not yet." Larabee's voice broke into their conversation. He used the toe of his boot to nudge the man Nathan had killed. "We find out who this one and the other one are, we may get closer to what's goin' on."

"Admirable strategy. If we are able to ascertain what the stakes are before we ride in, it will proportionately increase the odds that we will all be able to ride back out."

"Round up their horses. Load up the bodies." Chris referred to the murdered man. "His family deserves to have him back."

"I am able to assume, then, that we will be returning to what this rustic region of the back country refers to as civilization?" Ezra drawled.

"We'll all go to Sweetwater tonight." Larabee decided.

"Be harder to get answers from him once we get there. Sheriff Turner's right ornery about keepin' his prisoners alive and in the same condition he receives 'em in." Buck observed.

"You want to stay out here? Who was shooting at us? Who was shooting at them? How many men got away from us? How many can they bring back?" Chris demanded.

"Just meant I could take the bodies to Sweetwater. Ya'll could head on home with the prisoner." Chris was surprisingly uncomfortable now that he knew these hunters of men were within his borders. "We ride to Sweetwater." There was no way one of his men would ride alone.

Buck shrugged indifferently. On the trail, he was a little too loud, a little too boisterous as he amused himself at JD's expense. It was almost an act of defiance. A show that Larabee's dark mood didn't touch him.

+ + + + + + +

The seven and their prisoner rode into Sweetwater well after sunset. The bodies had been divided among the horses that were rounded up after the shooting stopped. The street fires sent their long shadows dancing across the buildings' facades. Few lights still burned except for the inevitable beacons of the night, the saloon and the jail.

Chris and JD led their prisoner to the lockup. Buck and Vin led the horses to the livery. Josiah took the bodies to the undertaker. Nathan and Ezra made for the saloon. They would order and have supper waiting when the others arrived. No one seemed to be much in the mood for conversation.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and JD found their way to the saloon after telling their story to Sheriff Turner. Chris entered and stood to one side of the batwing doors; a solid wall to protect his back as he took in the feel, sound and looks of the unfamiliar yet familiar environment. Even though he knew at least three of his men, his friends, were here and had already done the same, he scanned the smoky, loud, gaudy bar for potential danger. JD stood beside him proudly, and tried to see the room as Chris Larabee was seeing it. The youngest of the seven knew it could save his life someday.

A man materialized in front of them. He confronted Chris Larabee by his mere presence; looked him straight in the eye. His face was weatherworn and creased beyond its years. It came across as ruggedly handsome rather than aged; tanned instead of leathery. He had pounds on the deadly shootist, maybe an inch or two. He wore a black hat and bandanna, a bright white shirt buttoned at the neck and a knee coat. His long black hair was pulled back at the nape off his neck. His attire appeared rakish compared to Larabee, but his presence was just as deadly.

If this stranger sensed the other three who now formed a semi-circle at his back, he didn't acknowledge them. The man's eyes flickered to JD. Chris didn't move. JD forced himself to meet the man's deep brown eyes. He resisted the temptation to push his bangs away from his face, as the action would move his hand away from his gun. Keep yourself ready. Buck's voice whispered through his mind. Was his face staying as impassive as he hoped?

The dangerous looking man cut his eyes back to JD's taller partner. "Hell, Larabee, never knew you to be in the habit of picking up strays, except for ... oh, goddamn ... " the man blurted out as Buck entered followed by Vin. "See?" He taunted with undisguised relish, "Once you feed 'em, you can't get rid of 'em."

A hint of a smile threatened Larabee's lips as he took in the source of this man's observation. "Clay." He acknowledged, rather socially.

"How ya been, ya Old Dog?"

"Managin', I reckon."

"And Buck? You still managin' him, too?" The big man circled his arm around Buck's neck and pulled him into a brotherly hug. Buck begrudgingly returned the embrace and smiled.

"This is just what I need," Buck mumbled; forcing a good-natured tone into his voice. A little too abruptly, he brushed aside the heavier man. He grabbed JD by the neck and pulled him along. "You gents come up with supper, yet, or what?" He called to Ezra, Josiah and Nathan.

"I believe we have found a repast at least filling, if not the most palatable, I've enjoyed."

"Well, hell, that sounds good enough to me."

Chris Larabee introduced Clay Kestrel to the others. He explained that he had run into the old time friend during his last outing and made plans to meet up in Four Corners. As things worked out, here they were in Sweetwater. When the man shook Ezra's hand, he met the Southerner's eyes with a contact that seemed to try to relay some information. Ezra hid any reaction, but studied the man. He looked familiar. By necessity, Ezra had a good memory for names and faces. He should be able to place this one but couldn't.

Kestrel readily joined them in their meal. He allowed JD to draw out several stories of the time he rode with Larabee and Wilmington. He was a slow, smooth talker, with a subtle, calming, indiscernible accent. The tales were bigger than life and daring. They told of wild, thrill seeking young men that no one could keep up with except each other. Buck never challenged the telling of the stories. Surprisingly, neither did Chris. The yarns and resulting reverie seemed to calm the rift between Chris and Buck. The man seemed like a salve between the two. Larabee felt comfortable with this man; trusted him. And trust was not something Chris gave easily. "Old Dog," Clay nodded to Chris, "Big Dog," he acknowledged Buck who had yet another whiskey in his hand, "and I was War Dog. Damn, those were some wild and wooly days ... "

"So, what brings you to these parts, Mr. Kestrel?" Josiah asked.

"Old obligations." The man replied. "Looks like they'll lead me to Four Corners." For all intents and purposes the statement should have seemed meant as a reference to Larabee or Wilmington. But when Kestrel said the words he met Standish directly in the eye, as if speaking to him alone. And again Ezra had the foreboding sense that he should recognize this man. And that he was a threat to everything that he had come to hold important over the last short months.

As the night wore on, Larabee, as was his custom, migrated to an obscured corner table. He allowed Clay Kestrel and Vin to accompany him. Buck was rowdy, boisterous at the bar; holding court for the ladies and helping them tease JD unmercifully.

It was interesting though, that everything Buck did was carefully orchestrated to, in the long run, make his young protégé more comfortable around the fairer sex. Ezra made this observation as he sat across the bar and absently played his hands of poker against competition that required very little of his attention. He watched his fellow law keepers and pondered. What was it in young Mr. Dunne that Mr. Wilmington saw as a ghost of what Larabee used to be? His sense of justice? A willingness to stand up for what was right no matter what the odds? An idealistic belief in the goodness of man? Had that been a part of the now cynical and bitter gunfighter at one time? Did anyone else notice that Buck's protective instincts toward JD were proportional to how much Larabee was resisting acts of friendship? Did Buck? Of course not. And, Ezra was sure, it did nothing to detract from the older man's affection for the boy. If anything, it showed his level of devotion - that he was so willing to risk that kind of rejection again. Not that it would ever happen. JD was devoted to Buck. But had Larabee at one time been so devoted? Even worse, before his family's death, had Buck held JD's role in Chris's life? Ezra shook off the thoughts, took a shot from his glass and tried to convince himself he didn't feel something for Buck and whatever demons he hid behind a quick smile and careless lifestyle. Ezra distanced himself from the emotional turmoil everyone was denying by playing at the poker table. It was a conditioned response.

Josiah and Nathan set at a separate table near Chris's party, but were content to stay to themselves. Buck was drinking more than usual. Nathan tried to remember if he had ever actually seen the man drunk. Tipsy, to be sure, Feeling no pain, oh, yeah, but drunk? Nathan couldn't help the feeling of foreboding that crept up his spine.

Vin sat at the table with Chris and Clay. No one spoke. The two time-proven friends seemed at ease with the silence. But where usually Vin would have relaxed in the security of the quiet camaraderie, something was off. Clay had regaled them with tales of young lions living hard and living for adventure. He seemed to wait until Ezra excused himself to the gaming table before he boasted that, had the three of them known each other during the war, they could have single handedly ended that little skirmish several months earlier. On the surface he reforged the bond of friendship between himself, "Old Dog" and "Big Dog". But subtly, almost too elusive to recognize, and mostly at Buck's expense, he had seemed to hit all of the issues that were working to wedge the two old friends apart. Chris got drunk and more withdrawn. Buck got louder, but, in his own way, he used the rowdiness and mischievousness to keep his world in disarray so he could concentrate on that and he too could withdraw from what might torment him. No, whatever was between those two hadn't dissipated and Kestrel was a master at seeding the storm clouds.


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