Last Patrol

by Joe Lawson


Disclaimer: They are not mine, they were not mine, and they never will be. This story was written for entertainment purposes only; the author does not make a cent with it. <sigh>

Author's Notes: To the two great betas who helped me with this; Antoinette and Ra. Thank you kindly.

Feedback: Feel free to discuss and comment, on-list or privately. I want to improve my writing, so I'm grateful for constructive criticism.

He followed the path of his usual morning patrol, past the old oak, through the dry creek bed, up into the hill country. Steele moved smoothly under him, striding through the paling darkness with powerful, easy grace, his warm presence soothing and familiar. Buck let him choose his own pace; the big gray knew their route as well as his rider and didn't need to be guided like one of Yosemite's rental nags.

He tried to focus on the soft huffs of Steele's breathing; the rhythmic thuds of his hoofs hitting the dry earth; the creak and occasional metallic jingle of the saddlery. Those were good sounds, normal sounds. Not like the labored wheezing of his own breath, or the little moans he couldn't always suppress when something jarred his body. He tried not to think of the blood that was slowly, steadily soaking the bandages wrapped around his torso, or of the dull pain in his gut and back. His belly felt hard now and weirdly taut, hotter to the touch even than the rest of his skin, and that was hot enough. He was burning up.

Don't think about it.

Buck didn't want to die. There were still too many things undone, left unsaid. He'd just found a home, a family, and had only begun to coax the old Chris out of the bitter ashes the fire had left. He wanted to see where they were going, be with them as they left their marks on the world. He wanted to watch J.D. grow into the man he had the potential to be, to see Nathan become a real doctor, and Josiah regain his faith. He wanted to help Vin clear his name and meet the man hiding behind Ezra's crumbling walls of cynicism and reserve. But most of all, he wanted to spend some more time with Chris.

They'd talked, really talked, for the first time since their family's death, only a day before -- tentative at first, relearning each other's body language and tone, wary of all the hurt and the still fresh scars they carried between them. He'd almost forgotten how gentle Chris could be under all that cynicism and the sharp edges, how it felt to have that easy understanding with the man that had made them such an inseparable pair in the war and ever since. Those changeable eyes had been green in the soft light of the morning sun, open and unguarded for once as they'd talked.

Steele sidestepped a small cactus patch in their path and the jostle sent a wave of nausea through Buck's body. He gripped the saddle horn as hard as he could, determined to keep it together.

Not long now.

The night was already losing its battle with the sneaking dawn, and Sleeping Giant Mound -- the first rise in a line of rolling foothills that eventually grew into the ragged, jagged peaks and ridges of the Rocky Mountains -- was right ahead. Steele started up the incline without breaking stride, the bunching and stretching of his muscles as he climbed the steep path causing his rider to break out into a fresh sweat and bite down on a pained whimper.

Almost there.

As they headed towards the crest of the hill, Buck's thoughts wandered once again to the men he'd left behind. They had to have discovered he was gone by now. They'd be livid. They'd be worried.

They'd follow.

That was all right, Buck decided, clinging to the saddle as a wave of dizziness swept through him. He hadn't intended to scare them. He just couldn't stand the thought of dying in that small, enclosed room, in Nathan's cot for hopeless cases, like an old, trusted family dog. He'd lived his life to the fullest, had laughed and loved and walked with his head held high. When necessary, he had fought and bled for his freedom, and he'd never been beaten. He'd never given up.

If he had to go so soon, in such a painful, unpleasant way, then at least he wanted to die like he had lived -- proud, on his own terms, and out under the clear desert sky.

He'd said his goodbyes; had spent the darkest hours of the night talking to each of his friends after Nathan had finally admitted defeat in the face of Buck's wound. Gut shot by Ella Gaines, just before six enraged men had emptied their guns into her body and put an end to her obsession. It did have what Ezra would probably call 'sweet irony' -- that after a life of loving women, he'd be killed by one. Fate really was a bitch. Or maybe she'd been jealous.

A wry chuckle escaped him at that thought. It turned into a hacking, agonizing coughing fit as his one good lung struggled to supply his failing body with oxygen. His pulse thudded painfully. God, he was so tired of the pain, of fighting.

He just wanted to rest.

He wanted to go home.


Steele reached the top of the mound and came to a stop at a hoarsely whispered command. The big gray stood still as his rider all but dropped from the saddle, then leaned against him for a moment. A bloody hand patted the silky neck gratefully, then fell aside when the man walked away. The horse watched as its life-long companion dragged himself to his favorite spot and settled down in the yellow summer grass with his back against a smooth, red boulder and faced towards the little town that had become their home during the last three years.

The sun surfaced from behind its hiding place beyond the shadowy horizon. It flooded the desert with pale gold, running rivers of light through the thin morning haze, over hard earth and tough little cactus flowers. It woke the birds and the insects, who greeted the warmth with still sleepy voices. It kissed the face of the man sitting so quietly on his hill; a sentinel overlooking his territory. Like an ethereal bridal veil, the light caressed the handsome features, peaceful now in repose.

A lizard scuttled away as the thunder of hooves broke the silence. Six horses came barreling up the slope in close formation, led by a big, black gelding. The riders reined in their prancing mounts next to the happily grazing gray, who raised his head and nickered a greeting. Six men slid to the ground with pale, drawn faces; their eyes fixed on their seventh, who for once did not react to their arrival.

The man in black was the first to move. He staggered across the ridge to fall to his knees beside the still body. The others followed slowly, keeping close together as if to draw from each other's strength. They watched as their leader reached out and touched a hand to the cooling skin of his oldest friend, stroking a whiskered cheek, brushing back a strand of dark hair with trembling fingers. They heard his voice break as he whispered his partner's name, and his grief was mirrored in their faces.

When the sun rose over the desert, bringing with her the living warmth of a new day, Chris Larabee bowed his head and cried.

And set his friend free.

Find me the sun
Give me it whole
Melt all the chains in my soul

Tell them I'm all right
I'm coming home

This war is over
I'm coming home

This War Is Over
- Melissa Etheridge

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