Little Buck

by Angie

The dusty terrain shimmered in the afternoon sun as Buck and Vin rode back from Spring Creek. With only a slight breeze stirring the air, both men’s shirts were plastered to their bodies like a second skin. The beckoning shade of a small stand of trees called to them as the perfect place to rest themselves and the horses.

“So, did you end up with the blonde or the red head last night?” Vin drawled softly as he uncorked his canteen and took a swig of the tepid water.

The ladies man chuckled softly before donning an innocent expression. “What was that phrase Ezra used? A gentleman never tells?”

“That assumes that you’d be a gentleman.” The pale blue eyes teased as he looked across the saddle of his horse. Peso blew loudly and swished his tail, striking Vin on the leg. “Cut that out, mule! I’m trying to help you here!”

Leading his horse to a nearby bush and tying him there, Buck lifted his canteen from the horn and carried it to sit against a tree. Sipping the water, he swished it around to remove the dust from his mouth before spitting it out. He waited until Vin finished with his horse and took a seat beside him before he spoke.

“Actually, neither. Did you see the honey with the long, brown hair that was playing the piano? She and I struck up a conversation while I was waiting for the other two to get off work and I ended up with her for the night.”

Vin leaned back against the trunk of the tree and gave a brief snort of laughter. From under the shade of his hat, he scanned the horizon, ever alert for danger. Nothing escaped the sharp eyes as he appeared to be close to dozing off. He also listened carefully as Peso shifted his weight and the saddle leather creaked.

The two men sat for half an hour before climbing to their feet and starting back for home.

JD and Ezra met the stage as it arrived that Friday afternoon. One young woman climbed down and reached back for a curly haired toddler. The resemblance between the woman and child was obvious as was the lack of a wedding ring on her hand. Because she was several years older than the young sheriff, he went to the rear of the coach to collect her bags while the gambler tipped his hat and took her hand.

“Ezra P. Standish at your service, ma’am. Will you be staying in our little warren overnight? My young friend there will be glad to help you with your bags and I would like to offer my services if you should need anything.”

The woman withdrew her hand as she blushed slightly. Turning to make sure that all her bags had been unloaded, she smiled brightly at JD before answering.

“If you would be so kind as to direct me to the hotel, I will require a room for a fortnight. As to the use of your services, Mr. Standish, we shall have to wait and see what need arises.”

Stepping past the offered arm, the woman stepped onto the boardwalk and set the child on his feet. JD smirked at Ezra for a moment before stepping up with the bags and smiling warmly at the woman and child.

“If you’ll just follow me, ma’am. I’ll get you settled into the hotel. Sheriff JD Dunne, by the way. If you need anything during your stay, just ask for me.”

He led her to the hotel and waited while she arranged for a room for herself and the child. The toddler gave a toothy grin before hiding his face in his mother’s skirt tail. JD winked as the boy peeked out again. He was rewarded with a giggle. As he was so engrossed in the little one, he almost missed the exchange between the woman and the hotel clerk.

“Do you know where I might find Buck Wilmington? I was told he lived here in town.”

“He does ma’am, but he won’t be back for a day or two. He had an errand in Spring Creek and he wired that they were leaving there this morning.” JD spoke up when he finally processed what she had asked.

“Thank you, JD. How do you know Mr. Wilmington?”

The young sheriff studied the woman as if he just realized that he’d said too much. He looked to the hotel clerk and then back to the woman. An awkward silence hung in the room for a full minute before the woman sensed that she’d made the kid uncomfortable.

“He is an old friend of mine. You don’t have to look so frightened. My name is Molly Stanhope. I know him from Texas a few years ago. I heard he was here in town and wanted to catch up on old times with him.”

An immense feeling of relief swept over JD as he let his shoulders relax and a smile spread across his face.

“Buck is one of the men hired to protect the town. That’s why he went to Spring Creek, to deliver a prisoner for the territory judge. He’ll be back in a day or two, depending on how many stops they make along the way. Can I take your bags up to your room for you?”

Molly followed the young man up the stairs to her room and thanked him for his help. After telling her about the restaurant, JD excused himself and went to find the others.

“So, an unmarried woman with a child in tow has come to town seeking to renew her acquaintance with Mr. Wilmington. That is an interesting turn of events. It will be most intriguing to see how this plays out.” Ezra fairly drooled as he shuffled the cards and turned another hand of cards.

“How do you know she’s not married, Ezra? You got some crystal ball or something? She may not have a wedding ring or she may have lost it. Those kinds of things happen. She may be on her way to meet her husband at some other point along the stage line.”

Josiah studied the cards he had gotten and mentally winced at the poor mix of numbers and suits. He had listened with interest as JD recounted the woman’s casual dismissal of the southerner as she stepped off the stage. The fact that the age of the child and the length of time she had indicated had passed since she had last seen Buck added up almost perfectly was not missed. He pulled two cards from his hand and tossed them out.

Nathan, who was also studying his cards, was deep in thought. He remembered that Buck had worked as a sheriff in Texas before reuniting with Chris as they had arrived in Four Corners over a year ago. Curiosity was not as strong in him as some others but he found himself wanting to meet the woman and see the child that she had brought with her. He tossed out one card and looked to Ezra.

The gambler tossed out the cards to the others before taking two for himself. He studied the cards in his hand before absentmindedly tossing out a coin. Josiah glanced at the man to his left and back down at the cards in his hand. On a whim, he met the bet and looked to Nathan to see his reaction. The healer shook his head at the cards before folding his hand.

Ezra looked down at his cards again as he shifted uneasily in his chair. Something about the way the young woman had dismissed him earlier bothered him. Her face was somehow familiar to him. He scrambled thru his memory for where he might have met her before.

“Ezra? I call.” Josiah tapped the table to draw the southerner’s attention back to the game. Standish dropped his cards and slid his chair away from the table. He picked up his hat and walked away without even looking at the cards.

“Didn’t he win that hand?” Nathan asked after the batwing doors swung back behind the emerald green coat. He leaned out to see what Josiah had thrown down. Ezra’s pair of nines beat the pair of threes that the older man had put down.

“Yeah, hold onto that for him, would you, Nathan? Something is bothering our southern friend and I think I should go and see if I can coax it out of him.” Josiah departed the saloon and headed for the boarding house.

Molly stood on the edge of the boardwalk holding her son as he patted the neck of one of the horses tethered in front of the boarding house. The boy squealed in delight as the horse snorted and shook his head in a mighty sneeze. Imitating the animal, the boy shook his own head and blew thru his lips before laughing and hiding his face in his mother’s shoulder. Setting the boy on his feet, she took his hand and started toward Mrs. Potter’s store.

Josiah tipped his hat as she passed, studying both woman and child. The boy turned to look up at the big, gray haired man before giggling innocently and turning his attention back to his mother. Sanchez then turned his attention to locating Ezra. He had half expected to find him on the boardwalk watching the woman.

Buck and Vin stopped for the night and made camp out in the open. Vin picketed the horses while Buck started supper. They had shot a couple of rabbits and roasted them over the fire. It was cooler in the evening after the sun had dropped below the horizon.

Vin stared up at the purple and orange streaks in the sky as he watched an eagle floating on the air currents. The pale moon was just beginning to show in the sky. As the desert gave up its’ daytime accumulation of heat, the nocturnal animals began to peek out of their homes. Small reptiles raced across the sand chasing the small bugs and insects that gathered around some patches of sage grass.

The smell of the rabbits brought the tracker back to the campfire. Buck had made a pot of coffee and warmed a tin of beans he had brought out of his saddlebags. The two men settled onto their bedrolls with their food and a mug of strong, black coffee. They expected to arrive back in Four Corners late the next afternoon.

Taking in the satisfied smile on the ladies man’s face, Vin asked, “What’cha thinkin’ on so hard over there?”

Buck only smiled wider and turned his coffee mug in his hands slowly. “Thinking about Liza, the girl from last night, she sure knew how to make a man feel good all over.”

Tanner tossed his head as he smiled before gathering his dishes and moving away from the fire to clean them before stowing them in his saddlebags. When he returned to the fire, he settled on his blanket and drew his hat down over his eyes as the desert sounds lulled him to sleep.

Buck lay awake for a while longer. Lately, he had found himself with a hankering for something that he couldn’t put a name to. He stared into the fire as he remembered fondly the hours he had spent listening to Liza play the piano and tell him about the men who had written some of the pieces she loved best.

By the time the other saloon girls had finished up for the night, he found that he had no interest in spending the night with them. He had spent several hours in the saloon talking with Liza and then had returned to his room alone.

The jail in Klinestown was tiny and filthy beyond belief. Ezra had been incarcerated there overnight after a disturbance in the cantina that resulted in several people getting injured. Lying on the cot, he had carefully considered his options. The sheriff and deputy had taken only two of the combatants into custody, both out-of-towners.

In the next cell, the man on the cot had been stabbed with a broken bottle. By morning, the man had bled to death. Upon finding the man dead, the sheriff had become enraged. Unlocking the other cell, he had beaten and battered Ezra with both his fists and the butt of his gun. Only the timely arrival of the deputy had kept the man from killing him.

Mark Shelby was young to be a deputy. He had aspirations of riding with the Rangers in a few years. It bothered him to see Sheriff Davis abuse the prisoners. He had been in the saloon when the fight broke out and the fancy dressed gambler had not been completely at fault. The Nordstrom brothers were notoriously bad tempered and quick to draw on anyone they thought they could bully. They had underestimated the man playing cards and paid the price in broken ribs when the bar fight ensued.

He carried a tray for the prisoners when he heard the unmistakable sound of a one-sided fight taking place inside of the cell area. Dropping the tray on the desk, he had drawn his gun and rushed to see what was happening. By the time he got Davis out of the cell, the gambler was curled up on the floor in a puddle of blood.

Sometime later, Ezra realized that the fists and gun were no longer raining down on his body. Unable to open his eyes due to the swelling, he panicked for a moment. A gentle, cool hand grasped his shoulder and held him down. Finally, his brain realized that he was lying on a soft bed with clean blankets and that the stale smell of sweat and human waste had gone.

“Just relax. You’re safe here. Sheriff Davis won’t be bothering you anymore. Don’t try to move; the doctor says you have broken ribs. He stitched up the cut on your head. Can you take some water?” The voice was soft, like the hands that touched and reassured him.

Ezra winced as the hand lifted his head. The cool rim of a cup touched his lips and he sipped the water. After a moment, the cup was withdrawn. A soft, clean cloth wiped the excess moisture from his chin before his head was lowered back to the pillow. With a sigh, he sank back into the darkness.

Sitting outside of the jail that evening, JD watched carefully for any hint of danger as the cowboys from the nearby cattle ranches rode into town. He could see Chris down the boardwalk, sitting outside of the saloon. Josiah was at the church, working on the doorframe of the sanctuary. He knew that Ezra was in the saloon playing cards.

The door to the boarding house opened and Molly and the little boy stepped outside. As soon as the toddler saw the young sheriff, he giggled and ran from his mother’s side. JD caught the boy just before his unsteady gait landed him on the dirty boardwalk. The child smiled his big, toothy grin as he reached for the bowler hat on the young sheriff’s head.

“Jules! You can’t run off like that! You could get hurt! Leave the Sheriff’s hat alone. You won’t keep a hat on your head, anyway. I’m sorry Sheriff Dunne he’s getting faster and faster everyday. It’s getting to be a real challenge to keep up with him some days.” Molly apologized as she moved to take the child from JD’s arms.

“Oh, it’s no problem, Ma’am, I like kids. He sure is a cute little guy.” JD shifted his attention to the toddler who was now trying to remove his badge from the lapel of his jacket. Smiling at the boy, he eased his hand away from the silver badge and handed him back to his mother. “Must be pretty hard all by yourself.”

A knowing smile crossed Molly’s face as she caught JD’s eye. “I’m not married, Sheriff. I’m quite sure that someone has told you that already. It’s just Jules and me.”

“Just call me JD. It really isn’t any of my business, Ma’am. I know how hard it can be for a young mother all alone with a child, my ma raised me by herself after my pa was killed in the war. I turned out okay, so I guess your little guy will be fine, too.” JD felt a warm blush creep into his cheeks.

“Thank you, JD. I appreciate you sharing that with me. Too many people have said some pretty unkind things around and about me so I tend to get a little defensive. I’m sorry I was cross with you. Have you had supper yet? I was just about to take Jules to the restaurant and get us something to eat. Would you like to join us?”

JD looked up the boardwalk to where Chris still sat. “Just let me go tell Chris where I’m going and then I’d be glad to join you.” Returning her smile, he strode quickly down to tell Larabee that he was going to supper.

Inside the restaurant, Molly and Jules were already at a table and JD moved to join them. Setting his hat on the empty chair to his left, he immediately turned his attention to the toddler who was trying to climb into his lap from the highchair his mother had put him in. Rescuing the boy from the chair, JD sat the child in his lap and tickled his ribs gently.

Molly was grateful to have another pair of hands to help with the child. It gave her a chance to eat and she thoroughly enjoyed the company of the young lawman. JD was completely at ease with Jules. Her son ate everything the man offered him, even after turning his nose up at it when his mother offered it to him.

After supper, Molly asked the waitress for a towel to clean her son’s hands and face. Normally, Jules resisted being washed but when JD took the towel, the child sat absolutely still and allowed his hands and face to be washed and dried. The toddler then climbed onto JD’s shoulder and lay his head down. He was asleep within minutes.

“Thank you, JD. This is the first time since I left home that I have been able to finish my meal without having to chase him down or clean up a mess. You have a way with little ones. Do you want me to take him? He’s out for the night.”

“He’s okay, Ma’am. Go ahead and finish your dessert, I got him.” JD rubbed his cheek against the soft, brown curls and felt the boy’s hands tighten on his shirt. Steadying the child with one hand, he picked up his coffee and sipped it as he watched Molly finish her apple pie.

Molly insisted on paying for JD’s supper in gratitude for his help with Jules. He offered to carry the boy back to her room for her, knowing that if he was jostled too much he would wake up again. After depositing the sleeping child on the bed, JD tipped his hat and prepared to leave.

JD was surprised when Molly embraced him and placed a light kiss on his cheek. “Thank you, for everything. I really appreciate it.”

A hundred butterflies took flight in the young sheriff’s stomach as the warm blush lit his cheeks. He ducked his head, tipping his hat again as he slipped out of the room. Upon reaching the saloon, Inez was the first to comment on the lovely shade of red that glowed on his face.

The Mexican bar maid pressed her hand to his forehead as he took a seat at the bar. Across the room, Nathan noticed Inez looking with concern at JD and pushed away from the table to go to the young man’s side.

“JD, are you feeling all right?” Inez asked as she shifted her hands from his forehead to his cheeks. Almost immediately, Nathan’s hands replaced Inez’s.

With an almost angry shrug, JD shook off Nathan’s hands. “Will both of you just stop! I feel fine and I don’t have a fever! You two are worse than Buck sometimes.”

The dark skinned healer studied the boy for a moment longer before chuckling and walking away. Chris had told him that JD was having supper at the restaurant with the young woman who had come in on the stage. Inez wrung her hands on the towel at her waist before asking if he wanted anything.

“No thanks, Inez, I just ate. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be cross with you.”

“That’s okay, JD. Sometimes we forget that you are a man and not the boy you appear to be with those big, beautiful eyes and long dark hair.” Inez tossed a teasing look at the young sheriff noticing the blush deepening and spreading to his ears.

JD left the saloon and went for a walk to cool off. He had been having these crazy flashes for the past few months. Sometimes he felt so tense that it almost made him sick to his stomach. Other times, like today, he would take a blush that stayed on his face for an hour or more. When he finally made his way to his room for the night, he lay awake for a long time, tossing and turning until he slipped into a dreamless sleep.

Buck turned uneasily in his sleep. The aching emptiness caused him to fret for several minutes before he was able to settle again. A breeze blew across the camp, causing the fire to surge up briefly and he suddenly found himself sitting up, clutching his chest as his heart beat wildly under his hand. Looking across the fire at Vin, he saw that the tracker was undisturbed by whatever had so disturbed his sleep. The half moon shone brightly overhead and he could see that the horses were still calmly standing at ease on the picket line. Drawing a couple of deep breaths, he finally lay back down and tried to sleep.

Saddling Chaucer in the livery, Ezra continued to relive the weeks he had spent in Klinestown. It had been days after the beating before he was able to see anything because of the swelling around his eyes. All that time, the gentle voice of the woman had been like a lifeline. She had tended to him and fed him. The deputy had stopped by to check on him a time or two and the doctor had returned daily to check him over, but the woman, Molly had stayed with him around the clock. She had read to him for hours on end when he couldn’t sleep. It was clear that she was an educated young woman.

In addition to the broken ribs, he had taken several blows to his back and was unable to move his legs without intense pain. His first vision of her came as she leaned over him in the night, rousing him from a nightmare. In the pale light of the room, she looked like an angel with her dark hair framing her face. He had clung to her, shuddering thru the after affects of the nightmare.

The night before he was released from the doctor’s care, Ezra had overheard the doctor and his wife talking quietly in the next room. It seemed that young Molly was with child and had refused to tell her father who was responsible. The man had flown into a fit of rage and had beaten the girl nearly to death before her mother had shot and killed him. Molly’s last name was Davis and the sheriff was her father.

He rode out of town the next morning and never saw Molly again but her face and touch had haunted him for months afterward. He had almost gone back to the town to see if she had married but things kept coming up that prevented his return. It had to be a coincidence that the young woman at the boarding house had the same first name. Didn’t it?

The freak storm blew in over the mountains and dropped unexpected amounts of water. Vin and Buck struggled to find shelter from the stinging rain and wind. The sky darkened until it was almost black and the horses were becoming difficult to control when they reached the river. Over the howling of the wind, Vin thought he heard a scream of anguish.

The wagon wheel had slipped when the road washed out and the wagon had tumbled into the river. Orpha Wilson was clinging to the side of the wagon and to her two children. Ralph had been swept away by the swift moving water. The wagon shuddered as the ground beneath it was washed away further.

Vin looked at Buck as he slid from the saddle. The wagon was on the far side of the river and both men knew there was no way they could get to it from where they stood. The tracker pulled his rope from the side of the saddle and tied it to the saddle horn. He began to drop the rope on the ground until he came to the end and started to wrap it around his slim waist.

“Let me go across, you can control both horses better than I can.” Buck yelled over the wind as he took the rope and tied it around his own waist. Removing his gun belt and boots, he shoved them into his saddlebag. He noticed that Vin had blindfolded the gray gelding to keep him calm after tying the reins to Peso’s cinch strap.

“Be careful, Bucklin. I don’t want to have to explain to Chris and JD if anything happens to you.” Vin stared long and hard into the older man’s eyes before nodding.

Buck walked down to the water’s edge and stepped into the swirling maelstrom. The swift current immediately cut his feet out from under him and he struck out with a strong stroke toward the woman and children clinging precariously to the wagon.

Molly was sitting in the restaurant, trying to coax Jules into eating his breakfast when she saw him coming toward her. At that moment, she almost prayed that her son would hurdle his breakfast across the table or do anything to help her to avoid the man standing at her elbow.

“Excuse me, may I have a few words with you, please?” Ezra asked as he stood, nervously rolling the brim of his hat in his hands.

When the woman finally lifted her eyes, Standish felt himself tense. Those were the same eyes that had haunted his dreams for all those months after Klinestown. One final memory wrapped itself around his heart as he remembered the night he had caught hold of her after a particularly bad dream.

The dream had no connection to either the town or his beating but it had left him crying out in his sleep. She had come to his side and had gathered him into her arms. The dream was from his teenaged years.

Maude had brought him to New Orleans during Mardi Gras with the intention of fleecing the many wealthy men who flocked to the town for the big party that would go on for a couple of weeks before she would board a steamboat for the trip north to St. Louis. It was a circuit they had made before and it was usually a lucrative use of their time.

By the time he was a teenager, Ezra could beat almost any adult he encountered at cards. Because of his innocent look, it was easy for him to get into games as the older men wanted to put the young upstart in his place. It was also too embarrassing to admit that the upstart had bested them so there were few recriminations for his actions.

It was purely an accident that had brought them together, Ezra returned to his room to change his shirt after a mishap at the breakfast table and encountered the young housekeeper. The girl was absolutely terrified at having been caught in the room and had gone to pieces, crying and begging him not to tell the manager. It had taken him several minutes to calm the girl and assure her that he would not betray her.

The encounter had aroused a tenderness in the young man that had not been there before. He asked around and found out that the young girls who cleaned the rooms earned just barely enough to feed themselves, many turned to prostitution to provide for themselves. Without telling Maude, he had begun leaving a few coins for the girl, Claudia, along with a treat or two whenever he could.

Just before Mardi Gras ended, Ezra overheard a conversation between a couple of the older housekeepers. It seemed that Claudia had been caught with the coins and dismissed from her job. Her mother’s boyfriend, enraged that the girl was no longer earning her keep, had strangled her and left her body in the street. When Maude found him crying in their suite, she had scolded him severely for getting emotionally attached to the girl who was only slightly higher on the food chain than a Negro slave.

Upon waking from the upsetting dream, Ezra had sought comfort for the physical ache he felt in Molly’s arms. In spite of the pain in his still healing ribs, he had taken her into his bed and had made love to her. By the time it had registered on his mind that it was wrong, it was too late. He had burned with shame for days afterward until she told him that she had wanted it as badly as he had. It didn’t connect in his mind until that moment that the child he was staring at may very well have been sired that night.

Buck reached the wagon and worked his way toward the woman and children. He grabbed the smaller child and worked toward the shore with him. Setting the boy on the ground, Wilmington shouted to him to run up the way and get down near the rocks that the river had cut into in years past. Suddenly, he heard another anguished scream and turned to see the blond head of the other child being swept away by the water.

Without hesitating, Buck moved back into the water and made his way to the hysterical mother who was trapped by the wreckage spilling from the wagon. The woman battered him, screaming for him to go after the child. He finally had to slap her to stop her from pummeling him long enough to get her free. By the time he shoved her onto the shore and turned back to look across the watercourse, Vin was gone.

Tanner had seen the child slip free of her mother’s grasp. Without hesitating, he shucked off his gun and boots and dove into the water. He skimmed the water quickly, striving to get to the child before she went under again. After what seemed like an eternity, his fingers brushed against her petticoat and he wrapped his hand in it and drew her to him. Turning onto his back, he tried to get her head above the water. As soon as he stopped swimming, the current carried him quickly around the bend of the river and into the narrow gorge that was walled on both sides by smooth sandstone. There would be no getting out of the water until they reached the other side now.

“Ezra? Are you all right? Sit down for a minute. You’ve gone white as a sheet!” Mrs. Morgan, who ran the restaurant, guided him into a chair and shook his shoulder gently. She had seen him approach the woman at the table a few minutes earlier. Almost immediately, the woman had dropped money on the table and rushed away. Mr. Standish had continued to stand, transfixed, by the table.

One of the waitresses fished into Ezra’s pocket and put his flask into his hand. He drank from reflex, not tasting the burning bourbon until it reached his stomach. A hard shudder passed thru him and he closed his eyes for a minute as he gathered his wits.

Peter ran into the saloon and straight to Nathan. “Mr. Jackson, you better come quick! Something has happened to Mr. Standish! He’s over at the restaurant.”

Nathan, Chris and JD burst from the table and hit the street at a dead run. By the time they reached the restaurant, Ezra was sweating and shaking as Mrs. Morgan retained her grip on his shoulder. His eyes were blinking rapidly and he was panting.

The three men surrounded the gambler and searched the room warily for whatever had put their friend into such a state. Nathan checked Ezra’s wrist for his pulse, which was strong but rapid. He reached up and gently turned the southerner to look into his eyes.

“I think he’s in shock. Let’s get him over to the clinic, away from the crowd, and try to talk to him over there. Take his arm, Chris. Come on Ezra, let’s go for a walk, okay?” The gentle urging tone combined with the pressure on his arms brought the man to his feet but he moved as if unaware of anything happening around him.

Mrs. Morgan caught JD by the arm and told him what she had seen. The young sheriff nodded and thanked her before heading out after his friends.

Buck felt his heart leap into his throat as he spotted the buckskin clad tracker knifing thru the water after the girl. He was now trapped on the wrong side of the river without his horse and with the hysterical woman and the boy. Taking the woman by the arms he tried to explain to her what he wanted to do.

“Ma’am, I’ve got to get across the water to get to the horses. I’m going to put this rope around your waists. When I get over there, I’ll pull you across and we can use the horses to look for my friend and your daughter. Do you understand?” He dug his fingers into her arms and shook her to get her attention away from the rushing water. Finally, she nodded. Buck pulled the rope from his own waist and wrapped it around the woman and child before entering the water again. He used the rope to pull himself across the swift moving current.

Nathan guided Ezra into a chair and waived his hand in front of the unseeing green eyes. He had never seen the gambler so shaken up and really didn’t know what to do for him. Gently tapping his cheek finally brought another shudder and the eyes tried to focus. Chris spun a chair around and straddled it in front of the southerner.

“Ezra! Snap out of it! What happened to you over there?” Larabee’s voice was loud and he watched as it helped to bring Standish out of whatever reverie he had slipped into. Snapping his fingers sharply in front of the green eyes elicited a slight response.

Racing up the stairs to the clinic, JD opened the door and stepped into the room just as Ezra announced softly.

“Molly had my son.”

“WHAT?” The three voices chorused as one.

Vin coughed as the water splashed over his face again. He was growing more and more tired as he struggled to keep the little girl above the water. The temperature of the river had dropped as the cold rainwater added to its volume. The shear walls gave him no option but to keep floating and holding the child.

Buck crawled out of the water and struggled to his feet. Thanking Vin as he approached Peso, for the animal was blindfolded and would not shy from him when he reached for the end of the rope. He untied the rope and looped it over the horn once as he began to pull up the slack. The woman hesitantly stepped toward the water as the rope drew her forward.

Orpha saw the wagon shift at the last moment and dug in her heels. She wasn’t going into the water again! The rope tightened around her and her son and she was forced to take a step forward to keep the slack she was using to try to untie the rope.

Buck yelled for the woman to leave the rope around her waist. He could only just barely see her in the dark, rainy light. Finally, he decided that he would have to force the issue. Grasping the rope firmly, he yanked on it, pulling the woman off her feet and into the water. Her scream was cut short by the water that closed over her head before she began to try to swim. It took only a couple of minutes, but Wilmington didn’t relax until he had the woman and child out of the water.

Chris looked at the gambler for a moment before turning to JD. “Go and find the woman and bring her here, now! Ezra, are you sure it’s your son? How do you know? I thought you said she brushed you off when she first arrived.”

“I knew her a few years ago. Klinestown, Texas. Dear God, I never even thought about it! I wanted to go back but I just kept going farther and farther away.”

The door opened and JD came in with Molly and Jules. The look of concern on Molly’s face was also tinged with fear. Ezra came to his feet as soon as he saw her and she jumped back into JD as she clutched the toddler tighter to her chest.

Nathan reached out and pushed the gambler back into the chair as JD guided Molly toward the bed and motioned for her to sit down. Chris looked from one face to the other before sitting down again.

“Now, I want to get something straight. You rode into town a couple of days ago looking for Buck Wilmington. Now Ezra tells me that he thinks that he is the father of your child. I don’t want to get involved in your business, young lady, but both of these men are friends of mine and I would just like to know what kind of deal you’re running here.”

“He isn’t the father. I never said he was. I wasn’t even sure it was the same man until tonight. My business is with Mr. Wilmington and I have no desire to discuss it with either of you. I’m sorry Ezra, I didn’t realize what you must have thought.”

The set of the southerner’s shoulders was taut as he listened to her words. Another deep shudder ran thru him and he tried to come to his feet. A firm hand kept him in the chair.

“Are you certain? He looks just as I did at that age.” A trembling hand ran over the chestnut hair and Ezra reached out as if to touch the child. “May I hold him for a minute?”

Molly lowered Jules to the floor and turned him toward the gambler. The boy stepped toward the man in the bright colored coat, smiling his toothy grin. He shied away from Chris as he moved into the shaking, outstretched hands. Ezra lifted the boy and eased him onto his lap. The toddler reached out and touched the bright red jacket and then the brocade vest beneath.

With the uncanny skill that young children have, Jules reached out and snuggled under Ezra’s chin and giggled softly. Everyone else in the room saw the rapid rise and fall of the red-coated shoulders as Standish held the child against his chest. Chris could almost feel the pain rolling off of his friend as he nuzzled against the child.

Finally, with a loud sniffle, Ezra eased the child away from his chest and studied his face. A trembling hand caressed the side of the boy’s head. After several hard swallows, he set the boy on the floor and released him.

“You’re absolutely certain?” The words came out in a whisper as he swiped at the tears that had gathered in the corners of his eyes.

“I’m sorry, I was already carrying him when you and I met.” She gathered her son into her arms and left the clinic with him. JD followed her out of the clinic and back to her room at the boarding house.

Buck decided to put the woman and boy on his own horse and try to ride Peso himself. He had never ridden the black beast. After making certain that his horse was all right under the load, he set his foot in the stirrup of Vin’s horse and pulled himself up. The animal immediately recognized that it wasn’t his owner on his back and flattened his ears against his head and began to prance lightly. Wilmington leaned out and yanked the blindfold out of the bridle and prepared for a wild ride. Peso turned his head and looked at the man on his back before looking at his companion. To Buck’s immense relief, the animal settled and waited for direction.

Vin felt the rocks under his feet and used the last of his strength to crawl onto the gravel spit with the girl. Wrapping his cold, trembling body around the small form, he attempted to share what little warmth he could with her. Exhausted, he closed his eyes and dropped into a deep sleep.

The storm finally blew itself out around mid afternoon. The black, deeply angry clouds continued on their path across the mesa as the sky lightened slightly. Buck steered Peso along the watercourse, searching for any sign of Vin or the child. From behind him, he could hear the woman softly bemoaning the loss of her husband and daughter.

After a couple of hours, Buck called a halt to the search to give the horses a chance to rest. He eased the woman from the saddle and guided her to a fallen log. The boy jumped down and tied Peso to a sapling before moving to Wilmington’s side.

“Think you could gather some firewood? I’ll get us a fire started, if Vin is anywhere near, he’ll come to it. Also your momma looks like she’s pretty cold. What’s your name, son?”

“Ralph Junior, but my pa calls me RJ. Do you really think your friend and my sister are alive? Missy can’t swim too good and she’s been sick.” The boy looked hopefully into the mustached face.

“If anybody could save your sister, it’s Vin Tanner. He’ll take good care of her until we find them. By the way, my name’s Buck. So, you get some wood together and I’ll see if I can rustle us up something to eat, okay?”

RJ nodded happily and dashed over to the nearest fallen branches.

Josiah looked up as the doors to the sanctuary opened. From the set of his shoulders, he could tell that something was bothering the gambler. Laying down the lathe he was using, the big man quickly moved toward the smaller man. Ezra staggered into his arms and began to shake with gut wrenching sobs.

As he shed his anguish, the young southerner clung to the rock of a man who held him up. For a few brief, glorious moments, he had a son. Jules was beautiful, charming little boy who, by all accounts, was impossible not to love. He clenched his hands in Josiah’s back as he poured out his grief.

When Ezra’s sobs eased off and he began to relax, Josiah guided him to a pew and guided him down. Fishing into the gambler’s pocket, he drew out the flask and pressed it into his hand. Moving around behind him, the preacher massaged deeply into the southerner’s shoulders and continued until he heard the deep sigh.

“You want to talk about it now, son?”

With a snorted huff, he raised his hands as if to gesture around him. He drew a breath as if to speak but shook his head for several moments. He raised his hand again as if to make a point and let if fall uselessly to his lap again. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times before setting down the flask and dragging his hand thru his hair. Finally, he turned to face the man who sat behind him.

“How many times have I told you that I am not now, nor will I ever be, your son? That word is fraught with meaning that I cannot begin to fathom.” The tear filled green eyes bore into the sky blue ones for a minute. “Today, for a few, brief moments, I thought I had a son. Josiah, it was the deepest, most wonderful feeling I have ever experienced. And then, like a knife ripping out my soul, I found out that the child in question is not mine. I feel such emptiness inside right now that I can’t breath because of it. It hurts too much, I can’t bear it!”

Vin opened his eyes as the sun began to shine on his face. The little nest of warmth at his chest moved and whimpered. Lifting his head, he looked into the face of the little girl and smiled. In spite of her fear, the girl tried to smile back.

“Hi there! What’s your name?”

“Missy, Missy Wilson. What’s yours?”

“Vin Tanner. Do you think you could go for a walk with me?”

The little girl sat up and looked around. Her eyes welled up with tears and her lower lip quivered slightly. “Where’s my momma?”

“She’s somewhere upstream. We need to get moving that way to find them. What do you say? Wanna go for a walk to see if we can find your momma?”

Missy smiled and climbed to her feet, holding out her hand to Vin.

After settling her son into bed for a nap, Molly stepped to the window and looked down onto the street below. As the wash of memory settled over her the room faded away, to be replaced by another room in another town over a hundred miles away.

It had not been easy being the daughter of Sheriff Roy Davis. To say that her father was a stern disciplinarian would have been an understatement. Molly had her share of old broken bones to show for a childhood of not meeting up to his expectations. Her only escape had been school. All the fond memories of her childhood centered on the days and months she had been able to escape the tyranny in her home and just be a kid.

The most serious disagreements in her life started when she came of age to begin dating. Her father was not at all pleased with her choice of companions. Eventually it had reached the point where none of the young men in town would have anything to do with her for fear of having to deal with her father.

A whimper from her son snapped Molly back to the present and she mopped tears from her eyes as she checked on her son. She loved Jules more than she could have thought possible.

Josiah stared at the forlorn figure before him. Ezra had just poured his heart out and the older man wanted to give him a chance to recover before saying anything. When the green eyes finally lifted from the floor, he rubbed his hand across the rose colored jacketed shoulders.

“I guess the word son is fraught with more meaning now than it was before, especially for you. There can’t be anything in the world that feels as good as the love of a child. To lose a child, I can’t imagine anything that can hurt worse. It kind of makes you think, doesn’t it? Men go around, laying with this woman and that one, without thinking about the consequences.”

Seeing the chestnut haired head bob slightly, Josiah continued.

“I have often found myself wondering if there are any children out there resulting from my sinful lusts. Sometimes it scares me. Thinking about the way Vin grew up, or JD for that matter, without a father to love or guide them.”

A thought rolled slowly into Ezra’s mind and he poked at it tentatively. The tightness in his chest eased a little and he drew a ragged breath. The longer he thought about it, the better he felt about it.

Josiah could see that the young man was doing some serious thinking and he sat quietly. He found himself wondering how he would deal with a situation like the one his friend was in at the moment. He had done his share of rutting around after leaving the priesthood. The names of the women had faded but the faces were burned indelibly into his mind.