Main Character(s): Buck, Chris, Ezra, judge Travis
Disclaimer: don't own any of them, sigh, and no, I don't make any money of this.
Note: a VERY late answer to the 'Ten years later' challenge on Blackraptor. What can I say? I'm just glad I finally managed to finish a story again; it's been way too long.
The stagecoach rumbled into town with its usual amount of dust thrown in the air and curses in its wake. Buck's shoulders slumped in relaxation; a tension leaving him he hadn't known was there until this moment. The damn thing was late by several hours, but it had arrived at last and didn't show any marks of foul play, only dirt, and sweat on the horses.
The tension was back immediately when he saw the third passenger step out. He righted himself with a curse. "Judge Travis."
"That would be Justice Travis nowadays, Mister Wilmington. It pays to know these little details," a sardonic voice behind him said. Trust Ezra to be there the moment the stage arrived.
"Trouble would be even more accurate," he shot back.
Buck heard the sound of saloon doors being pushed open and swiveled around, fast, to follow Ezra inside. "Oh no, you don't, Ezra. Since you own half the town these days, I figure you're the perfect person to go and greet him."
Ezra didn't stop his progress to the bar, but his expression converted into a bland smile, the one that always made Buck weary the moment he saw it appear during one of their poker games. "We are talking about a Supreme Court Justice who was, is and always will be highly suspicious of me and my life style, Mister Wilmington. No, I recommend a welcome by one of the town's heroic sheriffs. It would be a good deal more appropriate."
"You know as well as I do JD's out riding with his kids, giving Casey some much needed rest with their fourth ready to pop out at any moment."
"A colorful way to describe the... process, I must say." Ezra wrinkled his nose. "How JD will be able to live with even more squealing and chaos around him is anybody's guess."
"Oh, come on, you dote on those kids any chance you get and not only on them three either. Don't you think it's time you made an honest woman out of Inez and get some littl'uns of your own? Otherwise I might forget we're supposed to be palls and snatch her away from you." Buck couldn't help a faint feeling of wistfulness as they negotiated their way through the packed place. "It's a damn shame she's practically invisible these days running your hotels. I still think this is just the place for her."
"I will not have her stand behind a bar ever again, no matter how often you beg." Ezra waved his hand at the young man he had hired after Inez and three failed successors. "One of the usual for me, Jamie and no, the sheriff will not get anything for free."
"Ha, ha, very funny." Buck tried to shoo Ezra back to the door. "Just do your civic duty and go entertain the judge, there's a good fella."
"I do not think so. Owning half the town, as you put it, has its privileges and one of them is to avoid unpleasant chores. Besides, you are as much the town's sheriff as JD is."
"Only to keep that fool boy from getting himself killed, you know that."
Buck sighed. Why did the stage have to be late this day of all days? Had it arrived on time JD would still have been around and Buck could have made himself scarce. Maybe have gone to Chris and warn him.
Ezra took a sip from his shot glass and made a fine show of appreciating it. "If you are that nervous about talking with Justice Travis, why not have Josiah find out what he wants?"
Buck grimaced. "I'm already pretty sure about what he wants and y'ain't fooling me one bit, you know it too. As for Josiah... I've got no idea where he is," he confessed, not bothering to hide his frustration. "Probably hauled off with Mrs. Potter. Again."
"Josiah manages to disappear quite a number of times these days. It seems he's finally getting serious about the stalwart widow, which might be a good thing."
"He's the only one of our so-called three deputies who's not always busy with other stuff, like you are, or Nathan with assisting that fancy doctor we have here nowadays. So how's that a good thing?" Buck almost yelled.
Ezra shook his head. "It can not have escaped your attention that no matter how willing Josiah still is, he is getting slower. And his eyesight is unmistakably deteriorating...."
"Don't." Buck knew it, he just didn't want to think about it. He stared at the top of the bar for a moment, before he admitted, "Guess I should talk to Chris about it."
Chris. That brought him right back to the problem at hand.
"Anyways, you're the only one left to help me out here. I'm sure you can find a way to, you know, work on the Judge. Come to think of it, as my deputy I can order you to."
Ezra looked at him with an incredulous look on his face. "Order? I'm only a deputy in name for those rare occasions where you, Josiah and JD need some extra help and you know it. Good Lord, Nathan and I hardly get paid for that as it is, since the town deems two sheriffs and one deputy more than enough to keep the peace these days."
"This is an emergency!"
"I beg to differ. There are no bullets flying around that I can discern. Nor do I see any fighting."
"Sheriff Wilmington," a familiar, deep voice spoke from behind him. Travis had found them. Plastering a smile on his face Buck slowly turned, his smile faltering when he saw the tense look on Travis' face.
"Judg... eh Justice Travis."
"Is Larabee around?"
As usual Travis cut right through the chase.
"I certainly haven't seen him. Excuse me, business calls." Ezra was off through the backdoor like a shot. Buck gave the swinging door a baleful stare before turning back to Justice Travis. He was tempted to say something like 'he moved away years ago', but Travis knew Chris still lived near Four Corners. Giving in to the inevitable, he shrugged.
"Haven't seen him in town for weeks." No lie there, Chris almost never came to town anymore.
"I need to speak to him. Now."
Buck's hackles rose at the tone and he snapped out his reply before he could stop himself. "Maybe he don't need to speak to you."
"I think he does. He sent me a telegram."
"I know. So?"
"So you will come with me to enforce the law if necessary. Or do I have to make sure you lose your badge before you ever come around to pinning it on?" Travis stared pointedly at the place on his jacket where the sheriff's star should have been a shining adornment.
This time Buck managed to swallow down his anger and answer with some calm. It wouldn't do anybody any good if he made this into a shouting match.
"Since Chris ain't in trouble with the law far as I know, I'll just ignore you said that. Sir."
Travis' eyes narrowed, then suddenly his shoulders slumped and he looked his age. Tired, too. He stepped closer until he was near enough for them to talk without everybody else in the saloon overhearing. "I'm not here to make trouble," he said softly.
"Then why would you want to take the law to Chris?"
"I... I didn't mean it like that. Chris sent me word after all, so I expect he'll do the right thing. It's just...."
"Oh." Travis' words didn't make him feel a whole lot better. He should never have accepted the job, not even with JD begging him every second of the day. It was just... how could he ever have left JD on his own, stupid kid still had his head in the clouds most of the time. And after all those years living in Four Corners he had trusted that this time the job would be as it should be.
It had been, until now. Hauling off boys who only wanted to be with their family wasn't why he had signed up. Still, maybe it would be better if he was around. If Chris got into a temper things could get really ugly.
"I'll see you at the livery in five minutes," Travis said, already turning without waiting for a reply.
"You wanna go right now? You've just arrived on the stage."
Travis' eyes flashed and the indomitable man who had ridden the territory as a circuit judge for so long was back full force.
"Young man, I made journeys of ten hours and more without rest before you were even born. Let's go"
'I bet you did', Buck thought, shaking his head at Travis' back as he followed him outside. 'That's the problem, that it was so long ago'.
Ezra was coming out of the livery, his horse saddled and ready behind him, when Buck and Travis reached it. Travis immediately placed himself in front of the fine chestnut horse.
"Going somewhere, Mister Standish?"
"I ah... thought...."
"...I might need a horse, how very kind of you." Travis held out his hand. Ezra stared at it, not moving.
"You really don't want to meddle in the affairs of a Supreme Court Justice, Standish. I could get it into my head to investigate some of your... businesses." Travis made a 'give me' motion with his hand and with a chagrined look Ezra handed him the reins.
"I sincerely protest the implication...."
"If you don't want to protest in court, you will not interfere with my attempt to speak to Chris and Billy on my own terms, is that clear?"
Ezra's eyes darkened. "Crystal clear." He gave Travis a two fingered salute to the brim of his hat and marched off without looking back. Buck sighed. Ezra hadn't even asked for a fee.
"He was only trying to be there for a friend."
"Please get your horse, sheriff. I want to leave."
They rode to Chris' ranch in silence, which suited Buck just fine. He didn't feel like talking right now and sure as hell wasn't going to start a conversation. He was so deep in thought that it took him by surprise when Travis suddenly halted his horse and was already past the man before he noticed. When he turned in the saddle, he saw Travis stare at him with an intensity fit to give any person a headache.
"I know you don't like what's going on, Wilmington, but...." Travis stopped, cleared his throat and started anew. "You still aren't married, are you?"
Buck winced. No, he wasn't and he didn't think it was going to happen either. He had tried, truly tried with Louisa and actually, he still missed her. But even with her he hadn't been able to keep away from other women. He didn't know what it was, only that they called out to him on some deep, inner level and he couldn't resist. Most of the time he was completely happy with it, but sometimes, especially when seeing JD, Nathan or Vin with their families, it hurt.
Then he would see Chris and his two kids, step in as the happy uncle when necessary, and he knew he wouldn't be up to anything remotely like that. He rather lived the way he did now, a good life all in all, with friends and fun and the occasional rush of danger.
"So you don't know what it is to have a child, a son. Or to lose him," Travis said.
The words hurt more than he thought possible. The image of Sarah holding a laughing Adam, her own face lit up with that sweet smile of hers flashed through his mind, followed by Mary, escaped strands of golden hair framing her lovely face. "I know more than you think," he spat. "I was right there when Chris lost his family, right beside him both times. And you... you...." He couldn't find the words. Instead he turned his horse back to the trail and galloped off, judges or justices or whatever be damned.
It wasn't until he topped the last rise in front of the ranch before the anger had died down enough to make him think again. He turned half in the saddle to check how far behind Travis was and if he needed any help, only to see him already coming up the slope. He debated briefly if he would wait or ride on and decided to wait.
Travis was panting slightly when he pulled up beside Buck, but all in all Buck had to admire how the old man had held up the pace. They sat their saddles in silence, simply watching the ranch down below, two houses and a huge barn sprawled behind two corrals, one with a horse in it, a small foal beside her. To the right, about fifty yards away, a huge third corral stood just below the hills, empty, its double gate open. This corral was divided in two with a narrower part in between, shut off from both halves with gates that could be lifted upwards. Behind the houses, in a small pasture right before the trees hovering over the creek, a cow and three goats were grazing. Chickens walked everywhere and Buck would have sworn he could hear them all the way to where he sat.
A blackbird sang in one of the bushes before the spread. The fragrance of the grass crushed beneath the hooves of his and Travis' horses, coupled with the beautiful sound and the peaceful sight in front of him, started to relax him.
"There are two houses," Travis finally said.
"The other's Vin's."
"So he takes care of...."
"He and Chris are partners now, the ranch is theirs together," Buck interrupted immediately. How dared Travis assume *that*? The sharp anger was back and again Buck kicked his horse into a gallop. Damn, he missed old Bart, his big white gelding. Not that his replacement, a gift from Chris and Vin, wasn't a fine animal, but old Bart had been really fast when the mood struck him or his owner.
When he reached the ranch yard, he pulled the reins and brought his horse back to a sedate pace. If Chris or Vin didn't kill him for reckless riding where their kids normally ran around, Vin's wife surely would. Chris' house looked empty, so he rode on to the second one. Sahpooly met him on the porch, rifle in hand. Buck stuck his hands up and grinned at her.
"Now, darlin', you weren't thinking of shooting good ol' me, were you? You know you love me."
She gave him an annoyed look before going back to keeping an eye on Travis.
"He's safe. Don't worry, he's only here to talk to Chris."
"Then why you run away from him?"
Shoot, of course she would've noticed. "I got angry," he admitted. "That don't mean he's a danger."
She snorted and finally some of her humor shone through. "When a man gets you angry, Buck Wilmington, the man is remarkable."
"You don't know the half of it. Kids inside?"
"They stay there until I know about this man for myself." She suddenly stepped forward and aimed her rifle with skilled ease, a result of Vin's many lessons. The sound of horse hooves behind Buck stopped abruptly.
"Eh, good day, Ma'am. I don't mean you no harm, I'm just here to see Chris Larabee."
"You come and ride that fast where children live, you do mean harm," Sahpooly called back.
Buck twisted in the saddle and saw Travis hadn't even reached the middle of the yard yet. He grinned at him and Travis gave him a dirty look. "Sheriff, if you would be so kind as to introduce me and tell this lady I am no threat."
"Sure, Judge, eh, Justice." Buck bowed his head toward Sahpooly. "This is Sahpooly, Vin's wife. Sahpooly, meet Justice Orin Travis, our former boss and Billy's grandfather."
Sahpooly instantly lowered the rifle and muttered something under her breath Buck couldn't make head nor tale of. Probably Kiowa and very likely a curse too.
"Billy's Grand Father?" she repeated.
She glowered at him. "Do not 'yes Ma'am' me, Buck Wilmington. This is too much fun to you." She stepped forward until she stood on the top stairs leading down from her porch and gave Travis a polite nod. "You are welcome in my house, Grand Father of Billy."
"Thank you, Ma'am, but I was hoping to talk to Mister Larabee and see if my grandson is still here and all right." Travis came closer, this time at a sedate pace.
"They are not here now, but they will return soon."
"Where'd they go?" Buck asked.
"They went to get the horses. The foals need to be branded and they want to pick out the young ones to train."
"Vin, Chris and the boy, Billy."
"What?" Travis bellowed. "They took Billy to do what? That boy is no cowboy! With how many are they?"
Sahpooly stared at him for a second or two, then shrugged. "Vin, Chris and the boy. They do not need the boy, but he wanted to come."
"Just the three of them?"
"Hell, it's not the same as cattle driving and Chris and Vin know what they're doing," Buck said despite his own misgivings. He'd given up reasoning with Chris about this years ago.
"Oh yes? How can Chris go and drive a herd?" Travis asked coldly. "That means it's Vin and Billy and Billy has never done such a thing."
Says you, Buck thought. Billy was almost eleven when Ella came back in Chris' life and it had been impossible to keep him home when it came to the horses, or going with Chris. He didn't say it though, no need to aggravate Travis more than necessary, although he wasn't going to let the slight to Chris go.
"You don't know one bit about what Chris can or can't do", he snapped. He took a deep breath and as calm as he could, suggested, "Why don't we go back to town, Sir? If we go now we'll be there before dark. Sahpooly 'll tell 'em you're here and I'm sure Chris or Vin will bring Billy tomorrow to see you."
"I'm not going anywhere until I've seen Billy." Travis turned to Sahpooly. "Where did they go, Ma'am?"
She made a gesture to her left. "Where the horses are." Not waiting for a reply she turned and went inside her house, which told Buck she wasn't happy with the conversation either. He jumped off his horse, flipped the reins over the porch rail and followed her in.
"Buck!" three voices squealed. He only had a second to brace himself before he was assaulted by two small bodies. It was a good thing he'd been expecting it.
"Sarah Mary," he grinned, ruffling her golden hair. Next he messed up the dark hair of Vin's feisty three year old. "Apiatan, you be careful with an old man like me." Both kids giggled and when Buck swept them up in his arms, holding them close, they giggled even more.
"Hey, Stephen," he greeted the eldest of the children, who stood looking from a little distance. He felt the familiar pang in his guts, the one he always felt when he saw the boy. The seven year old looked so much like Adam. He had Chris' face and eyes, just like Adam, but unlike Adam his hair was the same gold as his father's. And unlike Adam, who had been a happy, outgoing child like Sarah Mary, Stephen was as quiet and reserved as his father. He had been ever since the dreadful day his mother died, five years ago, only days after Sarah Mary's birth.
Their mother, Mary, also had had that same golden blond hair, Buck thought, the sadness inside deepening. He put the younger kids down and looked to where Sahpooly was taking care of her and Vin's youngest. "He all right?" he asked, nodding at the sniffling one year old.
Sahpooly smiled at him and nodded back.
"Can we help you with your horse, Buck, can we?" Sarah Mary asked, pulling at his hand. "Can we brush him?"
"Yes, yes," Apiatan, her loyal follower, immediately chimed in. Buck grinned and shook his head in mock despair.
"I don't know, I think you'll have to ask Stephen, he's the one who knows how to take care of a horse the best."
Stephen's eyes lit up at the praise and Buck asked him, "What you say, Stephen. You willing to take care of Beau out there and let these two help you?"
"Good, let's do it. But first I'll introduce you to Billy's grandfather."
"Billy has a grandfather?" Sarah Mary asked, her eyes huge and round with the wonder of it.
"He sure does."
"And a grandmother? Are they ours too? 'Cause Dad says Billy's our brother even if he didn't live here."
"We have Miss Nettie," Stephen said, voice indignant with the idea his sister might like a true grandmother better than Miss Nettie. Sarah ignored him; she was already halfway out the door, Apiatan close on her heels. Buck quickly followed. Outside the two youngsters had come to an abrupt halt, taking in the man who was standing beside his horse, reins loosely in one hand.
"Justice, I don't think you recognize her, but this here is Sarah Mary and this is Apiatan, Vin's eldest son." Buck half turned and waved his hand at Stephen who stood in the doorway, weariness on his face. "You might recognize Stephen."
"Hello," Travis said solemnly. "My name is Orin Travis and I'm here to visit my grandson."
"He really is a granddaddy," Apiatan whispered none too softly to Sarah Mary. She only gaped.
"Yes, he is and he's gonna wait here until Billy gets back. So, could you guys take care of his horse as well? We'll take off the saddles and then you can do the rest."
They had just finished the horses, Stephen the only one who was a real help, and put them in the empty one of the two small corrals, when the animals pricked up their ears and turned to the hills, whinnying. From behind Buck an answer came.
He turned around to a magnificent sight. A horse topped the hill behind the big corral to the side, then another and another. Some stood quiet for a second, heads held high and their whole stance one of watchfulness before they walked down the gentle slope, following the lead mare. When about half of the herd was on its way down, Buck saw the stallion appear. He stood, proud, waiting for the rest of the herd to pass him. Vin came soon after, hat pulled low, his horse walking as relaxed beside the herd as the rest of the horses were.
"King, there's King," Sarah Mary shouted, pointing at the proud stallion.
"Dad, Dad," Apiatan shouted equally loud.
"Whooo, not so fast." Buck was barely in time to grab the two and stop them from running toward the herd. "You know you can't do that, you might scare the horses away and then your dads would have to go after them again. Now, what did your dads teach you about running and horses?"
"Never run when there's horses around," Sarah Mary said, a long suffering tone in her voice.
"Exactly. And why not?"
"Cause it makes 'em think there's danger and they gots to run away." Sarah Mary went from suffering to downright annoyed.
"So what are we gonna do?"
"Wait?" Apiatan asked, sounding disappointed.
"Yup, we wait. When the horses are in the corral you can go to your dads."
Beside him Travis tensed when two other figures appeared on the hill, the last to do so. Chris sat his horse with his customary ease, keeping an eye on the herd and any animal that might want to wander off, while beside him Billy was obviously in the middle of a grand tale if the gestures he made were any indication. Buck had to grin when he saw the sixteen year old so lively. Even over this distance he radiated happiness.
When he turned to point this out to Travis, he realized the man had seen it too. There was a look of profound sadness on his face. Not knowing what to say he turned back to watch the herd.
The lead mare ambled through the open gates into the readied corral and went straight to the feeding troughs. The other horses followed and even the new mares that were looking around with nervous tosses of their heads soon settled back into relaxation.
"Oh," Sarah Mary gasped. She pointed at the lead mare. "Lady won't let any of the others eat with her."
"She's the queen, stupid, she's got a right to her own oatmeal," Stephen said, giving her a 'you're such a baby' look. Sarah Mary glared right back and with an angry toss of her head marched off.
"Hey," Buck yelled, but she only increased her speed, although she didn't start running again.
"I'm going to Dad, I'm gonna tell him Stephen's mean!"
"Me too," Apiatan yelled, following her at a run despite what Buck had reminded them of. Since he slowed to a walk as soon as he reached Sarah Mary, Buck let it go. By the time they reached the huge corral the gates would be closed.
"I guess that means I'm going as well," he said to Stephen with a wry grin. "Coming?"
The boy nodded and fell in beside them. His thumbs were hooked in his belt and it made Buck aware he was doing the exact same thing himself. When he looked over his shoulder, he saw Travis was following them.
The stallion drove the last of his herd through the gates just as Travis, Buck and the children passed the barn. Chris rode up to close it behind the animals, but before he did, he and the stallion stopped and gazed at each other. King stepped forward and stretched his neck, his head only inches from Chris. Chris' horse Pony stood perfectly still as Chris leaned forward, bringing him and the stallion even closer. Buck couldn't hear it, but he was sure Chris talked to the stallion, his voice probably soft and low, as it always was when he worked with a horse.
"Dad is thanking King for his help," Stephen said. When Buck looked down, he saw the seriousness on the small face. "Dad always thanks him. He says King's as much leading the ranch as he and Vin are." The young voice became proud. "But he's the only one King lets come so close."
The stallion immediately proved Stephen's statement when Vin rode near. The proud animal tossed its head back, turned and went straight for the feeding troughs, nipping the mares and yearlings out of his way. Chris leaned to the left, grabbed one gate and nudged Pony forward so he could close it, while Vin took care of the other one.
"Pony's pretty smart too," Buck said with affection. No matter what horses Chris had trained since he started the ranch eight years ago, when it came to true ranch work he still chose Pony.
The two men turned their horses and trotted toward them, Billy following slowly. He must have seen his grandfather.
"Dad!" Sarah Mary squealed, again forgetting all the rules as she rushed forward. Chris urged Pony on and when he reached his daughter, he bent down and swept her up. Buck groaned when he saw it. Damn fool was showing off for Travis, no doubt. Vin passed the two and with a yell did the same with Apiatan, settling the laughing boy on his shoulders.
"Buck, Judge," he shouted as he galloped past them, straight toward his house and his wife, standing on the porch with their youngest son.
"I thought galloping wasn't allowed?" Travis asked a bit sourly.
"Normally not. I guess it's different with all the kids accounted for in safe places. Hey, Chris."
"Buck." Chris didn't look at him. His eyes were on Travis, his face revealing nothing. "Justice Travis."
"I take it you're here to talk to Billy?"
Travis nodded. Chris looked at him a second longer before nudging his horse toward Stephen and extending his left hand, the one without a glove.
"Want a ride, Son?" he asked, a smile on his face for the boy. Stephen smiled back, grabbed his father's hand and jumped. He settled behind Chris with the ease of long practice. Without giving Buck or Travis another look, Chris went straight to the two small corrals, also going into a gallop when Sarah Mary yelled 'faster, faster, Dad!'
Travis stood rigid, his eyes on Billy.
"Hello, Son," he said when the boy reached them.
"I'm not your son, I'm your grandson." Billy tried to look defiant, but he failed miserably. Buck hastily turned away and started walking back toward the houses and the yard.
"Billy, I...." he heard Travis say behind him.
"I have to take care of my horse." Buck cursed silently when the boy sped past him and stopped to wait for Travis. Even if he was still mad at the man, he couldn't bring himself to abandon him, not now, not knowing how painful this must be.
They walked toward the two small corrals side by side, not saying a word until Travis gave a short gasp. Buck looked at him curiously, but Travis' eyes were on Chris who had jumped off his horse and stood balancing on one foot as he pulled the cane free that was strapped to his saddle.
Travis didn't say a word until he saw Chris limp into the corral, his gloved right hand around the specially made knob, a child at each side and Pony following him dutifully.
"It still looks bad... almost as bad as back then, just after it happened."
"Yeah, well, Ella had her men shatter his ankle, there's no cure for that." Buck tried not to sound bitter, but damn, it was hard, even now. That bitch had cost them too much, Chris the most, but him too. First Sarah and Adam and then Mary... he missed them, all of them. She also had cost him the Chris he had known, the man he had been so close to. After the second tragedy Chris wouldn't let anyone get close to him anymore, not even Vin; only his kids, he hadn't been able to deny them.
And then there was Billy... no child should have had to deal with what Billy had dealt with, witnessing his father being murdered and then, years later, losing his mother to brutal assault as well. And, in a sense, his second father.
"I still can't believe she did that," Travis said.
Buck stared at him. "She was as crazy as a loon," he finally said.
"But her craziness revolved around her supposed love for him." Travis nearly choked on the word love. "Killing his wives to get him back I can see as a part of her... her delusions, but why hurt him when she professed to love him?"
"'Cause even as crazy as she was, she must've sensed he wouldn't stay with her voluntarily. Making sure he wouldn't be able to run might've made perfect sense to her. As was shooting his right hand to pieces, I reckon. He did try to shoot her. Damn those bastards she hired from stopping him before he succeeded."
"It's...." Travis fell silent, his eyes still on the scene in the small corral where Chris and Vin kept the riding horses when they weren't in the barn. Chris was tugging at Pony's cinch and Stephen was right beside him to help. Sarah Mary's chatter reached them as a distant buzz.
"I see he wears his gun left now?"
"He's become as fast left-handed as he was right-handed, don't make no mistake about that," Buck warned, grimacing at the memory of many painful practice sessions. "He can still defend himself and his family."
Except when a crazy bitch brought half an army, but then, what could a man do against such odds no matter how strong and fast he was?
A spirited whinny made Buck look to his right and he saw Vin come toward the corral at a sedate pace, Apiatan now sitting behind him, small arms holding on tight around his father's waist and little Padalti held securely in front of him. When he looked further to the right, to Vin's house, he saw Sahpooly had gone inside.
A minute later Vin was handing first Apiatan, then Padalti to Billy before he jumped off himself. By the time Buck and Travis reached the corral he was already carrying Chris' saddle as well as his own toward the barn. Stephen followed him with the reins, Apiatan hard on their heels.
Chris still stood at Pony's side, holding Sarah Mary up in his left arm, so she could reach Pony's back with a brush, his right arm stiff as if it were an extension of the cane he leaned on.
Buck grabbed Padalti, who had gotten away from Billy, just before he dove underneath the fence. "Damn, you're quick, boy, walking this good already," he groused. "Apiatan was too," he told Travis. "I swear that boy walked when he wasn't even a half year old." From the corner of his eyes he saw a clearly relieved Billy start taking care of his own horse, his eyes anywhere but where his grandfather stood watching him. When Buck looked toward the corral it was right into Chris' eyes. What he saw in them made him lower his head.
Dragging footsteps made him look up to see Chris limp away, still holding Sarah Mary in his arm.
Stupid fool. Had to be hell on his ankle. Chris tried not to show it, but they all knew it hurt him, bad.
"He's still mad at me," Travis stated as fact when Chris had passed them without a word.
"Not exactly. You got Tanner his pardon so he could come back here 'stead of having to stay hidden with Kojay's tribe. And you made it possible for Nathan to keep practicing healing, even if it's gotta happen as an assistant to Doc Thompson. Those are things none of us are likely to forget, not even Chris. But you did try and take his kids away and I don't think any of us'll forget that either."
"I know. It's just... Evie and I honestly thought it was the right decision for the children," Travis said softly. "You know how bad off Chris was back then and with his ankle and right hand ruined it didn't seem like he could take on a tiny baby and a two year old."
He didn't mention Billy, which made Buck want to say some choice bits. The little head resting under his chin, filling his nose with the sweet, soft smell only small children had, kept him in check. He couldn't let it go though.
"You still took Billy away."
"What did you expect? He's my grandson, my family, he's all Evie and I have left of our son and as I said, it didn't look like Chris could take care of them... him."
"To hell with that! For three years Chris had been his father and they were close even before that." Padalti wriggled and made a small sound of distress, so Buck instantly lowered his voice back down. "You took him away from his father, you took him away from his brother and sister too. They had a right to at least see each other regularly."
"I'm not going to apologize for it, it was my right. But...."
"But you're gonna apologize for trying to take the other two as well?"
Travis heaved a deep sigh and bowed his head.
"Buck, hey, that little rascal givin' you any grief?" Vin suddenly stood beside them, damn the man for always managing to sneak up on him. He must have heard at least part of the conversation, but didn't comment on it, simply took his one year old from Buck's arms and lifted the laughing boy up on his shoulders. Buck looked around for Stephen, the last thing they needed was for the boy to hear all this crap. Luckily he was in front of the barn with Billy and Apiatan.
"Me and the boys gonna finish the horses, feed them some." Vin looked straight at Travis, his eyes hard. Yep, he'd heard them. "Maybe you should go and talk to Chris. Apologize for making things worse back then." Travis might have gotten Vin his pardon and with that his loyalty, Vin would still speak his mind, especially when it came to defending his friends. And Chris was his number one friend, always had been since the day they met.
"I know," Travis said.
"Good." He turned and walked back to the barn without giving Travis or Buck a chance to say more.
"Chris isn't the only one still mad at me."
"Like I said, it's more complicated than that, Sir." Buck rubbed his hand over his face, hesitant, but then continued anyway. "You weren't there when we found him with Ella and her men and... and Mary. And you certainly weren't there when you and your wife left with Billy after Mary's funeral, with the threat that you would come back for Stephen and Sarah as well. But yeah, Chris is the one you need to talk to. Come on, I'll get Sarah Mary so you two can finally have it out."
"I just came to take Billy home."
"So... you'll let it go again?" Buck didn't hide his disappointment. This man had been a really good friend of Chris once. Under his breath he added, "Never did figure you for a coward."
"What?" Travis looked livid, but Buck matched him stare for stare. He was in the right and Travis knew it.
Travis did. His anger fell away, leaving again the tired old man Buck had seen glimpses of all during this afternoon. "Okay, I'll try. If Chris lets me."
They were silent as they walked up to the wooden house Chris had build with such care for Mary and Billy, creating a happy home that had been ready for little Stephen and his baby sister as well, until Ella barged in with her men. Over the years the scars of that encounter had been worked away, sanded over, smoothed out, but Buck would never forget how it had been almost five years ago when he and the others rode in on the mess Ella had created.
It was a miracle no one else died that day besides Mary, although Sarah Mary came close to not surviving. If Rain hadn't just given birth as well and had had milk enough for two.... Buck didn't even want to think about it. She had survived, which was all that mattered.
He also remembered the day Chris had stood with a torch in his hand, ready to burn everything down until he and Josiah had managed to talk him out of it. They had reminded Chris this was the place where he and Mary had been happy together, the place where he had left the past finally behind when they all mistakenly thought Ella was dead and Chris dared to move on. Although Buck was fairly certain that Chris' conviction he would never be able to build another house, not as a worthless cripple as he kept calling himself in those days, had also played a part in Chris' decision not to burn the place down.
It still had taken Chris a long time to come live here again. And only after they had made sure not a trace was left of what had happened, including the bed. Chris' hatred of all the pitying looks thrown his way in town finally had driven him back, together with the need to provide for his two small children. It had been a relief when he took more and more control of the ranch, it had been hard to keep it going between them until he did.
Buck stopped at the edge of the porch and grabbed Travis' arm. "You even realize Chris would have died too if those two kids hadn't been there for him to take care of?"
Travis sucked in his breath, a shocked look on his face. Yeah, Chris always came over as strong, not wanting anyone to know what his vulnerabilities were.
"Just how much do you think a man can bear?" he asked before jumping up the porch, not bothering with the few steps.
Inside Chris stood leaning against the side table next to the stove, so he could use both hands; his right holding vegetables, the black fingerless glove still on, while he chopped them up with a huge knife in his left. He gave them no more than a quick glance. A pan stood on the stove, steam slowly beginning to rise above it. The delicious smell told Buck it held more than water. Sarah Mary stepped out of the storage room, arms filled with carrots, onions and some potatoes.
"Buck!" she squealed as soon as she saw him, almost dropping her precious load. "Dad, can Buck stay? Please?"
"I don't know, Sweetheart. I haven't heard his plans yet." Finally Chris did look at them, at him. "How's Casey?" he asked.
"Round as a barrel and complaining every minute about it."
Chris gave him a tight smile. "And JD?"
"More nervous 'n a sheep finding itself in a wolf's den," he grinned. "Luckily Rain's around a lot to help Casey and take some of the pressure off the poor boy. Since she's already got four kids, she's the only one Casey wants to listen to. And before you ask, yeah, everybody else is fine too." This wasn't the time to bring Josiah up. Instead he knelt before Sarah Mary. "Hey, Princess, why don't you let me help with that? You need more?"
"More potatoes," Sarah Mary said as she carefully walked to her father. When she stood beside him and held up her full arms, Chris smiled down at her, the smile lighting up his whole face. He was still busy carefully removing the vegetables from her arms to the table when Buck arrived with another armful, mostly potatoes this time.
"Thanks," Chris said, his face shuttered again. It was the difficulties he had with these small things, like fetching and carrying with only one arm available because of his need for the cane, he still had a hard time dealing with. Having someone else but his friends stand there and watch didn't make the situation any better for him.
"Why don't you come with me, Sarah?" Buck asked, holding out his hand. "I think your Pa and Billy's granddad got some talking to do."
"But I need to help Dad with the cooking."
"I can do that," Travis said, finally stepping forward from where he had been loitering in the doorway. "I may not look it, but I do know a bit about cooking, young lady."
Sarah giggled at being called young lady, then she looked up at her father with a pleading face. The one Buck could never say 'no' to himself.
"It's all right," Chris told her. "You go with Buck and see what the others are up to."
"Yeah!" She immediately grabbed Buck's hand and pulled him toward the door.
"Play nice," Buck warned before leaving the house, scowling at both men equally. He gladly escaped with Sarah Mary, not in the least interested to be present at the long overdue talk.
Outside he saw Billy and Stephen hauling bales of hay, while Vin, one son in each arm, was standing beside the big corral, the one where the herd was in. King stood at attention, his eyes on the man, although he didn't come closer like he would have with Chris. But then Chris had had the stallion years before Vin came into the picture as co-owner of the ranch.
Buck remembered Chris' pride when he came home with the young stallion, one of the first horses he bought for the ranch, right after they all thought they'd killed Ella. He'd finally been ready to move on and, also finally in Buck's eyes, to start repairing things with Mary, mostly through his deepening relationship with Billy. That had been... oh, eight years ago, about two years after they all came together, he, Chris, Vin, JD, Nathan, Josiah and Ezra, to defend the small Seminole village which still existed nearby back then. The village where Nathan had met Rain and thank God he'd married her, or she would have been deported with the rest of them.
The thought of that deportation still made Buck sad. They'd tried to stop it, but there had been no way. Kojay and his tribe luckily had managed to disappear on time.
So much had changed since those days.
"Buck?" Sarah Mary asked. She was tugging at his hand and he smiled his apology down at her.
"Sorry, Princess, just thinking."
"Happy thoughts?" she asked anxiously, the same thing Buck had heard Chris ask her so often when she was off in daydreams and forgot her chores.
Buck hesitated about what he would say to her when he realized that yes, actually, they were.
"Very happy thoughts, Darling."
"'Bout what?" she asked, inquisitive as her mother had been. She was going to be as beautiful and strong willed as Mary, he was pretty sure of that.
"I just realized that your father and me, and all our friends, been living here at Four Corners for ten years now."
She frowned, her whole face puzzled, clearly in no way understanding how that fact of life could be a happy thought. But to Buck it was. Because he had suddenly realized how long it was since the days they defended the Seminole village and how much had happened in the years following, both good and bad.
And what a miracle it actually was that they were still here, all seven, all alive and doing pretty well despite the odds they had faced - and still friends with each other. Still ready to weather anything together, if it was worried grandfathers, babies on their way or the dangers of the West.
Yeah, that's what they were, unbeatable. No Orin Travis or anything else could change that. They would be here for Chris if he took Billy away again, for JD if something might go wrong with the birth of his fourth child, for Josiah when he finally had to give in to old age. They would survive it all, like everything else they had survived.
With a whoop he lifted Sarah Mary up and threw her in the air before settling her on his shoulders. Under her encouraging shouts he galloped toward Billy and Stephen, ready to tangle with the boys as well and have some fun.