The Rancher's Wife


Disclaimer: Don’t own ‘em, Not makin’ money off ‘em.

February Challenge Story

Rating: PG13 for adult situations


“CHRIS!” Buck tried to sit up but the dark hands held him still. He struggled feebly with Nathan but within seconds he was drained and he sank heavily into the mattress. His breath came in short ragged gulps, each one sending pain shooting through his body. He needed to see his oldest friend, to explain to him what had happened but for some reason he couldn’t find Chris. “Where’s Chris?”

Nathan slid the cool cloth over his patient’s forehead once again and tried to comfort him. “Shhhh, Buck. It’s going to be all right. It’s the fever that’s makin’ things look so bad but we’ll get it down and you’ll feel better. You just hush now. Just hush.” Nathan hung his head. He hated lying to the rogue but what was he to do. Was he supposed to tell the dying man that there was nothing he could do to save his life? Was he supposed to tell him that his oldest friend seemed to be so angry with him, that he had abandoned him when Buck needed him the most? Buck had appeared dead when they found him out in the desert. How could it be that he seemed to be going downhill from that time to this? Nathan knew that Buck had a big heart and a strong desire to live. It was the only thing that seemed to be working in the ladies man’s favor. Nathan eased the sheet back up to Buck’s waist, then turned and dipped the cloth back into the cool water. Gently, he wiped Buck’s face and chest in what he thought was a futile attempt to bring down the raging fever.

“Nate, tell him….” Buck’s words were muddled, the swelling of his broken jaw making it hard for Nathan to understand him. Buck’s left eye was open a tiny bit, the right swollen shut.

“Tell who what, Buck?” Nathan bent over him, close to his face so that he could hear whatever Buck had to say. He fought back the fear that must be noticeable in his eyes.

“Chris… Tell him… “ Buck fought to get the words out of his swollen mouth but all Nathan could get was a faint murmur.


Vin watched Chris as he sat at the back table, a lone figure in black. The man had not taken a drink of the whiskey he held in his hands for over half an hour. He simply sat, gazing into the glass of amber liquid, his mind retracing distressing memories from years ago. The hunter made up his mind to approach the lion in his own den.

“Hey Cowboy, can I join ya?” He didn’t really expect an affirmative answer but he sat down beside his close friend anyway. “Ya wanna talk about it?”

The gunslinger looked up, his eyes red and bloodshot. His expression was one of despair and loss. “Wouldn’t do no good. Can’t change what’s already done.”

He lifted the glass and threw the whiskey into his mouth and down his throat. He reached for the bottle but it was already in Vin’s hand.

“It won’t do Buck any good but it might ease some of your guilt. That’s what it is, ain’t it, Chris. You do somethin’ ta Bucklin in the past that ya ain’t too proud of?”

Chris flinched, his eyes closing against the image of Buck’s battered and bloody body. He had witnessed it before, Buck’s battle for life and he had sworn then that he would do everything in his power to keep it from happening again. But then … Chris’s world had collapsed and all he had envisioned for his life had disappeared, including his friendship with the tall lanky fun lovin’ man he had ridden with for so long. He had wanted so much for both himself and Buck back then. Now, Buck lay dying and Chris was helpless to act in preventing it.

He stared at the glass in his hand and then, suddenly, he sent it flying to shatter against the saloon wall. “Damn him. Why couldn’t he just keep his hands off? Why, Vin, why does he do the things he does? It doesn’t make sense? He’s gone and gotten himself killed for nothing but a bit of tail. He can have his pick and he goes and messes with the wife of a hard man like Walcott.” Tears welled up in the green eyes and one slid silently down his cheek.

Vin didn’t have the answers. All he knew was that Buck loved women. It didn’t matter what they looked like or who would get angry with him, he loved them all. Buck had a way with the females that Vin was jealous of at times. Women seemed to flock to the lean gunfighter and he never seemed to disappoint any of them. There was a genuine affection that the women could feel emanating from Buck. They enjoyed his company as he took pleasure in their presence. Vin shook his head. He, himself, was shy around the ladies. The scoundrel was anything but shy. He truly enjoyed the company of the ladies in town. Hell, it sometimes seemed that Buck just wanted their friendship as much as he wanted to bed them. It was still a puzzle to Vin after all this time.

The tracker didn’t try to answer his close friend’s outrage. He simply waited for Chris to decide to tell the tale. It didn’t take long. Obviously, the man in black had been stewing on it all afternoon and evening.

“Adam was just turning four. Sarah wanted to go into town and get him some new shoes but I was busy. I told her to look Buck up and get him to ride with her home. After shopping, Sarah headed to the saloon to look for Buck. Sarah had her arms full of packages but she trusted Adam to stay with her. Adam, however, spotted Buck in an alley with five men. They were beating the shit out of Buck ‘cause he had slept with the one man’s wife. Before Sarah knew what was happening, Adam was running at them, yelling for them to stop. Somehow in the scuffle, Adam got thrown against the building and knocked out. Buck went crazy, tearin’ into all five at the same time. When Sarah came charging a them like a Mother bear, screaming at them to stop, four of ‘em decided to run. But the husband, he wasn’t through with Buck yet. He pulled his gun and shot Buck in the back twice.. It was a week before we knew if he would live.”

“I remember being so angry with him ‘cause Adam had gotten hurt or so I thought. I came to realize later that I was angry with him ‘cause he was thoughtlessly putting not only Adam’s but his own life in danger. When he managed to survive, we took him to the ranch to recuperate. I yelled at him, ranted and raved about Adam getting’ hurt. How the husband could of hit my boy with one of the bullets. I made him swear that he would leave the married ones alone. He felt so guilty about Adam, he agreed. He swore to me he would never chase another married woman again. But of course, he broke that promise, just like he breaks every promise he’s ever made.”

Vin watched his close friend carefully. He couldn’t think of any time that Bucklin had broken a promise or backed down from something. He wasn’t the most reliable of people but he always kept his word. “You ain’t mad ‘cause he broke a promise, Cowboy. He’s slept with Blossom and others that was hitched and ya ain’t been mad like this. You’re mad ‘cause he’s dyin’ on ya and there ain’t nothin’ you can do. You’re scared to death of loosin’ him!”

“He promised, Vin! He said he’d be there to watch my back. He promised he’d stay with me through thick and thin.” Larabee’s voice trailed off to barely a whisper.

“Seems ta me, Larabee, you left him. You shoved him away ‘cause he wouldn’t let ya die, ain’t that the truth? Bucklin’s got ta be scared and hurtin’ so bad he don’t know how to go on. And look at what your doin. Don’t he deserve you to be there for him?”

“I can’t, Vin” The black clad gunfighter lurched to his feet and left, riding away into the night.

Vin sat there, feeling lost and alone for the first time since he had met Chris Larabee.


The fever had a tight grip on the scoundrel’s body and it didn’t want to let up until the life was drained out of the man. Agitatedly, he tossed and turned, nightmares and delusions plaguing him relentlessly. Nathan and JD fought to reduce the temperature of their friend’s body but Buck was edging nearer and nearer to death’s door as the hours dragged on.

JD sat beside Buck, his face a mask of determination. He tried his best to keep the man he was so close to calm and still but Buck was fighting flames that the others couldn’t see.

He kicked at the blankets with battered feet. He twisted his body to get it away from the sheet covering the bed. It only served to agitate the broken ribs. His head lifted feebly time and again, his broken mouth calling out names and dangers the other two men couldn’t understand.

Buck could hear voices but they made no sense to him. In his mind, he fought with the men who tied him up and then pulled him unmercifully across the sharp rocks and cactus. He wanted to get up and find Nathan but the sun was so bright and his eyes were blinded by the dirt and grit from the desert floor. He heard the approach of the vultures and knew he had to get up, move around to stop them from their feast. He tried to lash out at them with his arms but something was holding them down.

Suddenly, the images in his mind changed and he was in an alley, fighting with men who wanted to hurt… no, not him, Adam. He saw Adam’s body hit the wooden wall, his little body dropping like a sack of flour. He saw blood on the wall where Adam’s head had hit.

“NNNOOOO!” He screamed and, with every ounce of strength left in his pummeled body, he swung at he villains who had hurt the boy who meant so much to him. His fist landed squarely in JD’s nose but there was no power behind it. JD backed away and wiped quickly at his nose. In that brief moment of time, Buck rolled to his side and would have been off the bed if Nathan hadn’t dove to stop him. That was the end of the struggle for JD and Nathan but Buck’s mind continued to rage at the men who had hurt his Adam. His body felt like a lead weight but his mind was still fighting battles he couldn’t win.

And then he heard the words, loud and clear.

“How many times did I warn you, you son of a bitch! You couldn’t keep it in your pants, could you? Now look what you’ve done. You’ve gotten yourself killed ‘cause of some piece of fluff! GODDAM BASTARD!”

“CCHHRRISSS!” The name was clear as a bell to the two men who watched silently as their friend lost his battle and slipped into unconsciousness.



Amelia waited until she heard the snoring of her husband. The guilt she felt over the death of Buck Wilmington was a living breathing force inside her and she had to make amends before it tore her soul to shreds. Through all the beatings her husband had dealt to her, she had kept one thing in her mind. BLUE. She had to keep him safe. But when David stepped over the line and took his fury out on Buck, she knew that it was all her fault.

She had gotten a message to Blue earlier that day and now, as she waited for her husband to slip into the sleep of the dead of night, her resolve was set. When she was certain David wouldn’t awaken, she got out of bed, dressed hurriedly, and made her way to the barn where Blue Daniels was waiting. They embraced quickly and then they mounted the horses Blue had already saddled.


Nathan sat in the rocking chair he had bought two months earlier. He had decided that, with the men he now ran with getting hurt all the time, he would get himself a comfortable chair to keep his vigil in. The dark haired young man was still sitting beside the bed of his mentor. JD’s head lay beside Buck’s head. For hours, Buck had not moved, his body totally drained of any strength. Nathan knew the tall man was still plagued with nightmares for Buck’s face told that story. Anxiety and anger had taken their toll on the boy’s reserves and, exhausted, he had fallen asleep. Nathan couldn’t help but think that JD’s closeness was keeping the scoundrel alive. JD had done well today. He had stayed cool and calm in the face of such devastation. No matter what the outcome, Nathan would make a point of telling JD how much his presence had meant to Buck.

Nathan turned his head as the sound of footsteps could be heard coming from the stairway outside his clinic. He arose to see who it was and got to the door just as a fist knocked on his door. He was taken aback by the man and woman who stood outside.

“Mr. Jackson, I know it’s awful late but do you think you could take a look at Amelia. David’s beat her real bad several times now. This is the first time I could get her out of that place. She hurtin’ real bad, Mr. Jackson.” Blue Daniels had his arm around the petite brunette. Her face was bruised and swollen, her lit split open, a cut above her eye. Tears slid silently down her cheeks.

“Come in, Mrs. Walcott.

JD stirred as he heard the voices outside on the porch. He lifted his head and checked to see if Buck needed him. His best friend was still, seemingly unconscious, giving JD the opportunity to investigate the voices. He didn’t recognize one of them but then he heard Nathan say “Come in, Mrs. Walcott.” The youth stood immediately, ready to defend Buck. As the three people made they way into the room, JD angrily queried the healer, “What the hell is she doing here?”

“JD, she’s hurt. She needs tendin’ to.” Nathan led Amelia and Blue to the small cot at the back of the room.

JD never moved from Buck’s bedside. “Get her away from him, Nathan, or I will.”

“No, JD, she’s stayin’ until I can tend to her. Besides, she ain’t the one responsible for Buck bein’ hurt.” Nathan sat her gently down on the cot and then moved to his cabinet and started removing items he would need.

Amelia’s eyes were riveted on the peacekeeper lying deathly still on the bed. The blanket was at waist level and the numerous cuts and gouges could be plainly seen. She could tell the battered man was having trouble breathing and her heart ached for the pain he must be going through. “Yes, I am.” The woman said softly.

Although the words were softly spoken, both Nathan and JD turned on the woman, anger in their eyes, both bodies tense.

“What do you mean, you’re responsible? What did you do?” Nathan spoke first, beating JD to the punch.

Blue Daniels sat protectively by Amelia’s side and she patted his arm which encircled her. “I have to tell them, Sweetheart, there’s no way out of it. Look at him. I did that, trying to protect us.” Her eyes met his and he nodded slightly. She turned her attention back to Buck’s friends. “I told my husband I was pregnant. I thought he would be proud but instead, he became irate. The next day, David saw me talking to Buck It was purely an accidental occurrence but David got it in his head that Buck was the father. When he told me that he wasn’t able to father a child, he beat me. He demanded that I name the man who had done this to me. I wanted to protect Blue ‘cause I knew David would kill him. Then David brought up Buck’s name and I thought I might be able to save Blue. I told him it was true but that Buck and I were over. I never imagined he would take on the seven of you over this, I swear. I just wanted to save Blue’s life. Instead, I might have cost Buck his. I am so sorry.”

“You told that mean son of a bitch you’re married to that Buck and you were lovers? You signed his death warrant, lady!” JD advanced on her but Nathan and Blue were instantly between Amelia and the young sheriff.

“JD, take it easy. Ain’t nothing we can do about it now but make sure the truth gets told.” Turning back to the woman, the healer inquired, “Does your husband know where you are?”

“No, he was sound asleep when Blue and I left. Mr. Jackson, please, you got to believe me, I never meant for anyone to be harmed when I fell in love with Blue. I feel terrible about Buck.”

“Yeah, I s’pose ya do. JD, go get Chris and the others. We got to get prepared for Walcott’s arrival. He’s gonna be out for blood.” The healer quickly went to work doctoring the young woman’s injuries. JD ran down the stairs to round up the rest of the Seven.


Vin slowly climbed the stairs. Awaiting him were Josiah, JD, Ezra and Nathan. Their leader was conspicuously absent. Vin had searched town but quickly came to the realization that Larabee had escaped his memories and demons by leaving town for his shack with several bottles of red eye whiskey for company. The sun was rising as the five peace keepers met to plan for the assault of Walcott and his men.

“No sign of our esteemed leader, Mr. Tanner?” Ezra casually leaned against the porch railing, running his ever present deck of cards through his fingers.

Vin shook his head and looked at JD. “Somethin’ is eatin’ at his craw, JD. This happened before and it’s got him scared.”

“Hell, Vin, all of us are scared! You think I’m not scared to death of losing him? But I didn’t run from Buck. It’s not right. They’re suppose ta be good friends. Don’t look like it to me.” JD wasn’t ready to let anyone off the hook for the vicious attack on his ‘big brother”, not Mrs. Walcott, not David Walcott, and not Chris Larabee.

The ex-preacher put his arm around the youth’s shoulders. “It’s history, Son. Even if we knew the whole story, we still wouldn’t understand all that Brother Chris is going through. JD, Buck is a brother to him, not a friend. Friends you can leave behind when they disappoint ya enough. Brothers are for life, no matter how mad or hurt ya get. He’ll be back before too long. Right now, we have to focus on Walcott and what kind of mood he’ll be in when he arrives.”

“We don’t have time to debate, Josiah. I hear ‘em comin’.” Vin cocked his mare’s leg and headed back the way he had just come, followed by the others except for Nathan who went back to Buck’s side.

David Walcott was riding hard when he entered town. Behind him, five of his ranch hands rode lathered horses, ready to back their boss in whatever action he wanted to take. Three of the five were the ones that had been with him the night they had taken Wilmington out into the desert. They knew that one of their own had helped the boss’s wife run. None of them had a clue as to why.

Four men stood abreast in the middle of the street, their hands resting comfortably on the butts of their guns. Four sets of eyes were focused on the enemy as the horsemen came down the dusty street. Not a one of the peacekeepers flinched as the ranch owner and his men came to a halt a mere ten foot away.

“I want what’s mine and I want her now. There ain’t gonna be a debate on this.”

Walcott glared directly at Vin Tanner. He knew who the most deadly of the seven was, after Chris Larabee.

“She’s hurt and bein’ tended to. We have other business with you, Walcott. You’re under arrest for the attempted murder of Buck Wilmington, a totally innocent men, I might add.” The tracker took a step forward. His gun rested comfortably in the crook of his right arm. His sharp blue eyes pierced into the rancher’s brown ones.

“What do you mean, innocent? She told me it was him. Everybody knows he beds anything with a skirt on, spoken for or not. Don’t try to play that innocent card on me, Tanner. I did the population a favor by draggin’ his carcass across that desert.” Walcott was not intimidated by the four gunmen. He coolly got down from his horse and moved to stand directly in front of the tracker. “I want my wife.”

“I do not believe that will be occurring in the near future, Mr. Walcott. You see, incarceration is what is in store for you, Sir. I suggest you come along peaceably, for my accomplices are quite incensed over your treatment of our brother in arms. I’m sure any one of them, myself included, would be more than willing to put a bullet through that black heart of yours.” While speaking, Ezra had moved slowly to Vin’s right and JD and Josiah had moved to stand to the left and slightly behind Walcott.

The five men with the rancher shifted nervously in their saddles. Jim Grisham knew his friend would never willingly go to jail. He slid his hand to his gun and pulled it from its holster. As he aimed, Vin slid his mare’s leg into position and fired. Grisham fell. The smell of blood and the loud sound spooked all six horses. They moved all at once but in different directions, and the men on the ground scattered to stay out of the way of sharp hooves.


Three of the four people in the clinic heard the gunfire. Nathan moved to the window, straining to see any part of the gunfight going on in the street below. He so wanted to join the others, wanted to stop the evil which David Walcott had brought to town, but he knew that if Walcott and his men got past the other four, he and Blue Daniels were the last defense Buck and Amelia had. So, he stood his ground, listening for footsteps on the stairs outside.

Startled, Nathan spun around at the sound of the door being opened. “Where do you think you two are going? You’ll both get mowed down out there.”

Blue had his arm around the love of his life, guiding her out the door. He stopped and looked back at the black man. “If Walcott gets through them, this is the first place he’ll look. He knows how bad she’s hurt. I got to get her out of here before the fights over or I don’t stand a chance. I know the Seven of you are good, but there’s only four right now. I can’t risk her life, Mr. Jackson..” With that the two of them were out the door and down the steps.

Nathan looked back at Buck who was starting to stir. The injured man had managed to kick off the blanket and was tossing his head back and forth, in obvious pain. Nathan knew his place and he went to settle Buck before he tore open the numerous deep gouges in his skin.

“Easy Buck, try to lay still. You’re gonna tear open all them wounds again. Shhhhh, quiet Buck, please try to lay still.”

“J…D, shots,” Buck mumbled past his swollen jaw.

“It’s all right, Buck. The others got it handled. JD’s just fine. You got to lay still now.”

“Nathan, tell him… tell him,” Buck’s words slurred to the point where Nathan could not understand them. He seemed to relax back into the bed but Nathan knew the fight was gone from the man. The healer quickly fetched some cool water and placed soaked clothes all over the man’s body. The fever held a tight grip on his friend, refusing to let go. The battle for Buck’s life was at its pinnacle.


David Walcott rounded the corner of the building just as Blue and Amelia reached the bottom of the stairs. Fear crossed the face of Amelia Walcott, not fear for herself but for Blue and to a lesser degree, Buck. She knew he would spare her life, not because he loved her, but because he owned her. She was a prize for him to show to his friends, the pretty young maiden he kept to do his bidding.

On the other hand, the woman knew without a doubt that her husband would kill the man who had gotten her pregnant. At the moment, that man was Buck Wilmington. Amelia knew Blue Daniels, however, and her attempt to spare him definitely rubbed him the wrong way. Blue hated the fact that Buck had almost been killed for his transgression. He loved Amelia and he wanted the world and David to know. The rancher’s wife also knew that Blue was a gentle soul and that he was lousy with a handgun. He could never beat David in a fast draw.

David came to an abrupt halt when he spotted his wife with Blue Daniels. A malicious smile turned the corners of his mouth up and he took three steps toward the man and woman. Blue pushed Amy behind him, trying to protect her from her abuser. Both men fingered their guns. Not a word was spoken for one long drawn out minute. Gunfire could be heard from out in the street and then abruptly, it stopped. None of the people standing at the bottom of the stairs noticed the silence.

“Amelia, come here. You are coming home where you belong. Daniels, I don’t know how she talked you into helping her run to her lover but it will cost you your job. I don’t ever want to see you again, boy. You got it?” David sneered at the quiet young man he had hired eight months ago.

Blue’s spine straightened and he looked the rancher square in the eye. “She ain’t goin’ nowhere with you, Walcott. She’s done puttin’ up with your bullshit. She and me, we’re leavin’ this part of the country and goin’ somewhere we can make a life together. Ya see, Walcott, ya got the wrong man when ya dragged Wilmington across the desert. It was me all along. This wonderful woman was trying to protect me from your temper. But it ain’t worth another man dyin’. Amelia, get yourself to the livery. I’ll join ya in a minute.” His gaze never wavered from Walcott’s angry eyes. “Go on now.”

Amelia took two steps away from Blue and then she stopped. She saw the look of pure malevolence in David’s eyes. She knew that look, she had seen it the night he had beaten the tiny new life out of her body.

The rancher sighed and leaned casually to the left. “Where did you find a backbone, Daniels? It just don’t seem to fit the yella bellied coward I hired. All of a sudden, ya got balls, boy!”

Blue was slightly taken aback and the tide turned on a dime. Walcott saw the slight bit of confusion in the young man’s eyes and he chose that moment to strike. He pulled his gun and fired.

Amelia Walcott had only loved one man in her life. Her father had been a cruel, selfish tyrant. He had basically sold her to David Walcott for a nice piece of land. Her husband had always been harsh and demanding with her, abusing her in many ways. She stayed with him for that was a woman’s fate. But when Blue Daniels appeared from out of the blue, he changed her life forever. He was gentle, caring, fun, and passionate. Her made her life a joy whenever they could find time to be together. She would not let her husband destroy something as good as Blue.

Amelia lunged in front of her one true love. The bullet that had been meant to kill Blue Daniels found her heart and she died immediately. Blue caught her body as it fell, not caring if David shot him next. The rancher’s hand shook with rage as he aimed his gun at the man who had claimed his wife’s love.

Four guns cleared leather, four fingers squeezed triggers, and four bullets hit David Walcott in the back. The body lurched forward two steps and then fell, right in front of the kneeling Blue Daniels. The four gun fighters silently watched as Blue Daniels picked up Amelia’s body and gently carried her towards the undertaker’s.


Vin Tanner slowed Peso and walked the cantankerous mustang into the yard of Chris Larabee’s one man shack. Chris had been brushing his horse in the small corral beside the house. He set the brush down on the fence post and eased his lean body through the rails. Silently, he watched his best friend get down from his horse. There was a long moment of silence.

“It’s over.” Vin had on a poker face that would have made Standish jealous.

Larabee felt his knees tremble but his face remained impassive. “When?”

“Sun up. Both of ‘em are dead.”

The statement caught the man in black by surprise. “Both?”

The tracker remained impassive. “Both Mr. And Mrs. Walcott.”

Chris felt his throat constrict. “You weren’t talkin’… He’s not…?”

“Do you care?”

“You know I do! Goddam it, Vin, is Buck still alive?” Chris closed the gap between the two men. His green eyes held a hint of moisture.

“Was when I left. JD and Nathan are doing everything they can to keep him that way. Thought ya might like ta know, Buck had nothin’ ta do with Amy Walcott. Her husband got it in his head that Bucklin was the man and she went along with it to save her boyfriend, one of Walcott’s hands. We all jumped to the wrong conclusion, all but JD.”

“You come out here to rub it in?” The green eyes glared at blue. Larabee could feel himself getting defensive with the young man before him.

“Nah, just thought ya should know.” Vin turned his back on his best friend and remounted Peso. “It ain’t too late, Cowboy.” With that he was gone.


Two days later, the fever broke. JD was still by Buck’s side. He looked haggard and worn but he smiled when the midnight blue eyes cracked open and he saw recognition in them.

“Hey, we were startin’ to think you were Rip Van Winkle or somethin’. Nathan says you’re getting’ better.” He wanted to pull his big brother into a hug but there wasn’t a place on the tall man’s body that wasn’t bruised or scabbed over. The eyelids were drooping already. “How about some water, Buck. Nathan says we gotta get some fluids back in ya. Here, drink before ya go back to sleep.” He held the cup to Buck’s battered mouth and lifted his head slightly.

In a slurred whisper, Buck managed, “You look like shit.”

“I wouldn’t talk if I was you. Ya got scabs on top of scabs and enough thread in ya to sew a lady’s dress. But the main thing is, you’re gonna live.” The youth’s eyes teared up and he quick wiped at them with the back of his hand. “Good.” The scoundrel managed a big of a smile and then fell into a deep sleep with only a trace of pain showing on his lacerated face.


The next time Buck woke up, JD was gone. In his place sat a very quiet, very gloomy Chris Larabee. Buck looked at the man who seemed to be miles away, lost in thought. One of Buck’s nightmares came to life and once again he heard the hurtful words his old friend had spouted at him. He moved his head a little to the right and a moan escaped his throat, a sharp flash of pain closing his squinted eyes. When he opened them again, he saw Chris looking at him.

“Here, Nathan wants ya to drink this. Don’t make a fuss, ya need it, all of it.” He lifted Buck’s head and didn’t release it until all the willow bark tea was gone.

Buck stared at the man he had ridden with for almost twelve years. At the moment, he couldn’t remember why.

Unnerved by Buck’s silence, Chris inquired, “Do you need anything else?”

Buck shook his head slightly. Every little movement hurt and he was so tired of hurting. He caught his breath and held it until the brief burst of pain passed.

“You know I … hate to be … called that.” His speech was improving and Chris had no problem understanding.

Chris was perplexed. He had no idea what Buck was talking about. “Called what?”

“Bastard.” Buck’s face, or the little Chris could see of it through the bandages, showed the extent of his disapproval.

Chris’s back straightened as the memory of his outburst grew fresh in his mind. He hadn’t realized that Buck was even conscious when he had assaulted him. Immediately, he became defensive. “I was angry. You promised a long time ago to never sleep with married women. You never intended to keep it that promise, did you?”

“You had … no… right, Chris. I ain’t … never… broke … a promise… that was … important.” He was winded and sweating from the minor exertion and tension.

“You never stopped sleeping with married women. Don’t bullshit me, Wilmington. I could name a dozen right here in Four Corners.” Chris’s anger returned.

“All of ‘em … husbands gone … or didn’t … care. Nobody else … would get hurt.” Buck closed his eyelids, breathing hard.

“And you think your dying wouldn’t hurt. My God, Buck, you got women fallin’ over themselves to get to ya. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BED THEM ALL! You son of a …” He stopped himself. He fought to contain his anger. He furiously turned his head away.

“The way ya yelled, I thought then … you might have a point. But ya don’t Pard. It’s my life … and you ain’t got … no right to tell me how to … live it.”

“Your life? Don’t you know what you mean to JD, to the others, to this town?”

“To you?”

“Yeah, to me, you big ass. I was scared out of my mind when I saw you lyin’ here. I don’t want to lose you like that. Facing the bad guys, that’s what we do, Buck, but dyin’ cause ya slept with someone’s wife! I can’t watch you do that, it’s suicide.” Chris was still turned away from his old friend.

Buck glared at the back of his long time friend. “I knew Walcott … was a crazy possessive brute. You should have … known that … I wouldn’t touch her. You don’t … know me … at all, do ya?”

Chris slowly turned back to face the man he had known for almost half his lifetime. “What do you mean, I don’t know you? We’ve been through hell together. Hell, we fought a war together. You stood up with me at my wedding, you were my son’s godfather, for Christ sake! I know all there is to know about you!”

“You don’t know … me at all. You know the … gunfighter, the jokester, the … outside. You have no idea … what’s in here.”

Chris stared in disbelief at the man beside him. He knew everything there was to know about Buck Wilmington, didn’t he? He quickly lowered his eyes. In a sudden flash of truth, the dark gunslinger realized that he had never bothered to dig beneath the surface, at least not since the fire. Not since he had turned his back on the one person who had stood by him in his time of crisis.

He had welcomed Buck back into his circle of friends when he needed another gun for a fight but he had not let Buck back into his life. And he had not bothered to get to know him again, not the man he was now.

Softly, he conceded, “You’re right.”

“I never broke … a promise … to you. Not really. And I never … turned my back … on you.” Buck’s whole body clenched with the pain that raced through his shoulders and down into his chest.

Immediately, Chris was back by his side, soothing, trying to ease the fiery pain. When the pain subsided, Buck lay drenched in sweat, his eyes tightly closed. Chris ran a hand through course black hair.

“But I did, didn’t I?” Chris said softly. “Do you think we could ever get back to where we once were? Could we maybe try that friendship thing again, Pard?”

“You ain’t no … friend of mine, never was.”

Chris’s heart clenched as he was forced to see what he had lost, not a friend, a brother. “If that’s how you want it. I’m sorry, Buck, for turning my back on you, for the way I treated you.”

“Larabee, you stupid … son of a bitch … you’re family. Can’t get rid of family, can ya?” Buck opened his eyes to look right into the green eyes of his long time friend. The two men held the gaze for a long time before Chris dropped his eyes to study his hands. Relieved, he finally lifted his face back to Buck, a slight smile hinting at the corners of his mouth.

“No, I guess ya can’t.”


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