I couldnt help but write this story after watching "Love and Honor" about fifty times. I know I melted when Buck saved the fiery Mexican beauty. I bet Inez did too! Once again, thanks Katy!
Warnings: none -- well maybe a little violence
Characters: Buck, Inez, Chris, Ezra and 2 OFCs
Size: Approx 263K
Part 1 -3 | Part 4 - 7
| Part 8 - 11
Part 12 - 14 | Part 15 - 16 | Part 17 - 18
Part 19 - Epilogue
The woman stood in the doorway that led to the kitchen and the rear exit. She didn't know how long she had been standing there, a minute, an hour, an eternity. Right now, she didn't care if any of the men occupying space in the saloon that night got another drink or not. Her mind and her attention were on two men, friends, who were sitting at their favorite table, nursing a bottle of whiskey and laughing at each others tall tales. One was tall and dark with a mustache and laughing eyes. The way he was smiling at this very moment drew Inez's full attention for it was genuine and full of warmth, humor, and love. The very three things that Inez longed to find in a man. He had it all if he could somehow stop being a pompous ass for two minutes. The other man was shorter by almost a full head. He was fair complected with neat, light brown hair and one gold tooth that twinkled even in the dim light of the dark saloon. He was always dressed like he had just walked out of the finest restaurant in New Orleans and was ready for a night on the town. He had a soft Southern drawl that always sounded like honey to Inez. A smile played at the corners of her lips as she looked at him. The man was a gambler, a swindler, a burr under her saddle, and her best friend. She loved both of these men dearly in entirely different ways.
Ezra Standish, the smaller of the two, was like a little brother to her, someone she had to look after. He was constantly leaving his chores undone, not expecting her to but knowing that she would take care of them along with the hundred things she did every day to keep this place running smoothly. Ezra and his mother owned the saloon but Maude's share was just a tiny bit bigger than Ezra's and she had given the job of managing the saloon to Inez just before she left. At first it irritated Ezra to no end but now, he wouldn't have it any other way. The place was clean, a little threadbare, but still the finest saloon in town. And it was all due to the beautiful Mexican woman. Often, after the last patron had left, and the two of them were stacking chairs and replacing bottles, they would talk. They would empty their souls to each other for they had every confidence that whatever they said, stayed between the two of them. Inez often found herself counseling Ezra on the right things to do. His whole life, he had been running a scam, whether it was on his mother, or a guardian, or, when he got old enough, the population at large. No one had been exempt. Until he arrived in Four Corners and his world changed drastically. He met six other men, who although completely different from him in every conceivable way, shared a secret with him. They were all lonely and searching desperately for a place to call home. These six men along with Inez were now his family and he felt at peace for the moment. This was home.
Buck was an entirely different story. He was one of the six men that comprised Ezra's "family". He was, to the depths of his soul, a womanizer. There was no other way to describe him. He bedded anything in a skirt that succumbed to his charms, never staying with any woman for more that a few weeks. He was long and lean, wonderfully skilled in the art of love making (or so she had heard numerous times from the other "ladies" that worked in the saloon), and had a smile that could light up a room. His eyes usually held a mischievous sparkle with a hint of promise that made all the ladies fall in love with him for at least a few hours.
Below the surface, though, lay a white knight. On a moments notice, he would throw caution to the wind and charge, waving his gun in the face of the enemy like a lance. Every woman and child was under his protection whether he was acquainted with them or not. Buck had a spot in his heart that knew right from wrong and it took total control of him at times. Inez had been the damsel in distress eight months ago and during the two days that it took to fight the dragon, she had seen the light burning in Buck's eyes. She would never forget that light. It lingered inside her soul and told her that this man, the constant flirt, the man who would bed any woman that was willing, was the man of her dreams.
It was his way with women that caused the problem. She was petrified of him. And thus, she kept him at bay with her sharp tongue and exceptional wit. She knew that if she let him into her arms, into her bed, she would be destroyed. Every night she fought the dreams, the longing to take him into her arms and kiss that mouth that she had tasted only once, the desire that coursed through her hot Hispanic blood. She had broken down one time and had told Ezra how she felt. She told him that if she let down her guard and let Buck sweep her away, her life would be over. She could never let him go and he would go, leaving her heart so damaged she would never love again. She was scared to death of that happening. So she kept her distance, battled both Buck and herself every day. Ezra had smiled at her and slowly nodded. He had seen the way she looked at Buck when no one else was around. He knew deep in his soul that they were perfect for each other but he doubted that Buck could change his ways and he doubted if Inez would ever trust him enough to let down the wall.
So tonight, like so many before, she stood out of view, and for a moment, indulged her fantasies. She remembered the taste of their kiss, the feel of his body pressed tightly to hers, the look in his eye when their lips first touched. She sighed and walked back into the large smoke filled room and took her place behind the bar.
Ezra took a puff of his cigar and leaned back in his chair. He was truly enjoying himself tonight. It was rare that there were only two in attendance at the saloon in the evening. Most of the time at least four of their group would be hanging out, drinking in his saloon, often all seven, tonight was one of those rare times when all but one of the others had something to do or some where else to be. Chris had left this morning for his place out of town, stating that the walls were closing in. Nathan had left in the afternoon to assist in the birth of a baby, but Ezra had not paid any attention as to whose it was. Vin was spending the day at Nettie Welles' place like he did most every Sunday. Josiah had a dinner engagement with the Widow Tompkins. Ezra had the feeling that more than pot roast was being served, for the Preacher seemed to be smiling a lot recently. And JD, along with his girl Casey, were on a hayride arranged by Casey's girlfriend, Belinda Patrick, for some of the younger couples in town.
That left Buck and when Ezra happened to be honest with himself, he had to admit that Buck was his favorite to spend an evening with. He loved them all like the brothers he never had, but sometimes they could really be wet blankets. Nathan and Josiah tended to be on the serious side, Chris and Vin could go for days without uttering a word, and JD seemed to moan and whine a lot recently about the hardships of courting a willful, young lady. It was Buck that made the party. Buck was the one who brought the humor out in all of them. Buck had a million stories to tell, some of them true, some not, and when dinner was over and the whiskey bottle was being passed, Buck would begin. Within the hour, even Vin was contributing side comments and stories of his own. On those evenings, Ezra often cast a sideways glance at Chris, trying to determine just how long it would take to catch the corners of his mouth start turning up in that bemused look of his. Lately, it had only taken twenty, thirty minutes for the icy gunfighter to start to loosen up. Tonight, Ezra had Buck all to himself and they were throwing stories back and forth like cow chips. The gambler's stomach hurt from laughing for hours.
"It's goin' on ten, my friend. Are you plannin' on initiatin' the final phase of communal protection by yourself this evenin'?" Ezra downed the last of the whiskey in his glass.
"Guess so, unless you wanna come along." Buck stretched his long legs out in front of him and smiled at one of the bar maids who was passing by with a tray loaded with drinks.
"Mr. Wilmington, I would be more than happy to accompany you on your inspection of our humble little berg." Ezra's face became serious for a second. "Mr. Wilmington, does it seem to you as though our fellow comrades in arms are becoming rather complacent in their peacekeeping duties? Not a one of them are available this fine evening should a problem arise."
"Well hell Ez, if that means are the rest of the guys busy tonight, leavin just the two of us to watch over Four Corners, than youre right. I dont see any of em goin nowhere though. As long as Chris has his little getaway, not to mention Mary, he aint goin nowhere. Nathan and Josiah are as settled as two fleas on a two bit hound. And Vin, well I reckon it feels pretty damn comfortin to know that he can close both eyes at night. As for JD, that boy is gonna spend his whole manhood right here with that purty little filly by his side. So what if they aint around tonight, there aint nuthin out there that the two of us cant tame. Shall we get at it, Mr. Standish?" Buck gave him a big Wilmington grin.
"After you, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra got to his feet and slid his hat into place. "By the way, Mr. Wilmington, is there more being served at the Widow Tompkins humble abode than I am aware of? Our Brother Sanchez has been feasting on a large amount of pot roast recently."
"All I can say, Ezra, is that Josiahs been wearin a smile recently that I can certainly relate to!" Buck broke into a hearty laugh. He slapped the smaller man on the back and together they moved toward the batwing doors.
Inez watched the two men leave. She smiled and poured another patron another beer.
"Hi Buck. After your rounds, ya got plans?" Ida Mae was walking out of the saloon at the same time as the two regulators were departing for their rounds. She had put in her time working the cowboys and drifters who occupied the saloon tonight. She had been pinched and poked, propositioned and proposed to. She had smiled through it all but now was her time and she had her sights set on one tall lean lawman. Ida Mae wasnt what anyone in town would call a real beauty but she usually made her share of tips. She was a full figured woman who had black hair, pouty red lips and pretty blue eyes. What made her attractive to the men who frequented the saloon was her happy go lucky attitude. She had a way of making a man feel special. She almost always had a smile on her face and a nice word to say, even to the biggest jerks in the place. She loved life, laughter and loving. In other words, she was Buck's kind of woman.
"Why Ida Mae, is that an invitation?" Buck cocked his head and smiled his womanizing smile that lit up his whole face. Women seemed to love that smile and it got Buck into a lot of bedrooms.
"Now sugar, would a lady be that obvious?" She smiled back at the man with the mustache. The two of them had spent several nights together in the past three months since she had arrived in Four Corners. She couldnt think of anyone she would rather roll in the hay with than Buck Wilmington. And she certainly wasnt going to be coy with him at this time of night. "Of course it is, honey? And what is your answer?" She walked up to him and whispered something in his ear.
Buck broke out laughing and then said, "Give me half an hour, darlin', and I'll show you a thing or two in that neighborhood. See you later." He tipped his hat and turned to walk away with Ezra. He didn't notice the young man in the shadows behind Ida Mae. "Ya know, Ez, as long as there are willing women like Ida Mae here in town, I think I'll stay right where I am. This town and these people are real comfortable." Buck smiled to himself. " I think I might have me a late breakfast tomorrow."
Ezra chuckled and fell into step with Buck. He had been thinking recently about how settled he had become in this small prairie town. It was nothing like the big cities he had gambled in or the burgeoning cattle towns he had run most of his cons in. It was becoming home. What a strange word for him. He glanced sideways at Buck and thought of how much he had come to care for the six men he had thrown his lot in with a little. They had been together for almost two years now and he couldn't remember a time when he had felt so settled. He, for one, intended to stay put.
Ida Mae walked across the main street and turned into the alley that led to a staircase on the side of the hardware store. The staircase led to several rooms that Ida Mae and her friends rented. She was about to set her foot on the first stair when she felt a hand on her arm. She turned, fully expecting to see Buck at her elbow. Instead, she found herself disappointedly looking at the young man who had followed her.
She sighed. "What do you want, Rory? I told you a million times, I'm not interested. Now go on home to your daddy's ranch. It's late and I'm tired." She turned to go up the stairs.
Again he grabbed her arm, this time with a firm hand. He spun her around to face him. His breath reeked of stale alcohol. "How come you're too tired for me but not for the gunfighter? What's he got that I ain't? HUH?" He spat into her face.
The young man weaved slightly. He had been a thorn in her side for over a month now. He was all of twenty years old and the spoiled youngest son of Saul Ferguson, a tough, no-nonsense, rich rancher. Rory thought the world was his to do with as he pleased. All his young life, he had gotten his way. His mother had died shortly after his birth and his father had doted on him as he grew to manhood. His older brothers had gotten him out of most of the trouble he had instigated during his teen years. Now that he thought himself a grown man, he still expected to be able to do whatever pleased him. He had tried numerous times to get Ida Mae to sleep with him but she had found him to be callous and selfish. She wanted nothing to do with the brat.
"Why won't you give me a chance, Ida Mae? You know I've wanted you for a long time now. I could make you real happy and content as a pussycat." He closed the gap between them and rubbed himself against her. She turned her face away from him and his foul smelling breath. She pushed as hard as she could, her hands against his chest. "Just give me a chance, baby doll." He forced his lips onto hers.
She could smell the whiskey on his breath and knew he was intoxicated. She had seen him in the saloon earlier but she had avoided his table. With all the strength she had, she finally pushed him away from her. "You're drunk, Rory. Go home!" She turned and tried to run up the stairs.
She had gotten to the fifth step when she felt his hand grab her leg. He pulled and down she went, her knee smacking the wooden stair solidly. She swore and turned to kick at him Even though he was drunk, he was still agile enough to avoid her kick. He pulled her back to him and slammed her up against the wall. Again he forced his attentions on her, trying to pull up her skirt while he pressed himself against her. She fought to break free but he was six foot tall and about two hundred pounds. She didn't stand a chance. He ripped her underwear and grabbed at her, scratching her. She screamed as loudly and as long as she could.
Buck and Ezra were about a block away, checking the doors of the bank when they heard the scream. Immediately, they turned toward the sound and ran, their hands fingering their guns. Rounding the corner of the hardware store, they found Ida Mae sprawled on the ground by the staircase to her room. Her face was red from a hand striking her.
"You okay?" Buck started to help her to her feet.
"I'm fine. It was Rory Ferguson. He tried to rape me. He hit me when I screamed and then he turned tail and ran down the alley. Get him, the son of a bitch!" She was more mad than hurt.
Bucks face turned hard. His eyes took on an icy expression that Ezra recognized. He had seen it once before at Wickestown, just before he shot old man Wickes. Ezra knew his friend had a big chip on his shoulder when it came to men abusing or threatening women. Ezra knew Buck would charge head first into a situation involving a woman so he tried to hold the big man back but Buck charged down the alley, not really caring if Ezra followed or not.
Ezra ran full out to catch up with his fellow regulator. Both men had their guns drawn as they reached the bend in the alley. Both came to a sudden halt. Until the turn, the alley had been illuminated sufficiently by the street fires to see. Ahead of them, there was only dim moonlight to light their way. They moved ahead slowly. Cautiously, they made their way down the alley, looking as best as they could by every box and container in the alley. The darkness enclosed them and Ezra could barely make out Bucks imposing silhouette six feet ahead of him.
It was a small noise but it caught Ezra's attention. He glanced quickly at Wilmington to see if he had heard the noise too but Buck was proceeding down the alley. Ezra wanted to tell him to stop but didnt want to give away their position if Rory was still in the alley.
The gambler heard the noise again and he stopped to look behind the barrel up against the far wall. His revolver was gripped tightly in his right hand and as he pulled a crate away from the wall he half smiled. It was only a small cat scrounging for a meal. He shook his head and turned back, straining to catch a glimpse of Buck. The clouds finally shifted and a beam of moonlight allowed him to see Buck in front of him, about thirty feet away. Ezra assumed Buck had checked all the places between Bucks currant location and where he stood that could hide a grown man. Suddenly, one of the shadows moved and Ezra saw the glint of moonlight on the gun.
It was all he had time for. He aimed and fired at the shadow. Two shots rang out almost on top of one another. The shadow melted into the ground and Ezra could, once more, see Buck ahead of him. As if the world had screeched to a halt, Ezra watched as slowly, Bucks knees buckled and then he toppled to the earth. Ezra ran forward and quickly knelt by the body of Rory Ferguson. He grabbed the gun out of his hand and pushed the body over to confirm the life was gone from it. Then he ran to Buck.
"Buck, speak to me! Buck, oh God, don't be dead." He carefully turned Buck over. Buck's eyes were open and as Ezra lowered his head to Bucks mouth and nose, he heard the slight gasping sound as Buck tried to suck air into his lungs. "Hold on, my friend. I'll get help!" He gently lowered Buck back to the ground and then he ran back to the head of the alley and saw that men were already running towards him, some with lanterns. "Back here!" He ran back to where Buck had been shot. He was surprised to see Buck trying to sit up. "Stay put, Buck. Help is on the way."
Again Ezra knelt by the handsome ladies man and helped him ease himself back down to the packed dirt. Buck looked up at him and smiled. Not his infamous smile but a small, weak, smile. Slowly, quietly, Buck closed his eyes and Ezra's heart caught in his chest. He leaned forward and put his ear near Buck's mouth. Thankfully, he heard a slight gasp and felt the tiniest puff of air on his cheek. He choked back a sob as several others joined him. As quickly and gently as they could, they carried Buck across the street to Nathan's rooms. As they climbed the two flights of stairs, Ezra, who was by Bucks head, heard the soft moan of pain escape the lanky ladies man. Entering the small clinic, they laid him on the bed.
"Hardy, go get JD. Hes on that hayride with Casey. Al, Josiah is with the Widow Tompkins. Does anybody know where Nathan is?" Ezra sat on the bed beside his companion. His mind was racing in a thousand different directions but the one thing that kept repeating itself was, Get Nathan! He needs the healer!
The three men in the room with him shrugged their shoulders, and then, Hardy and Al turned to fetch other members of the Magnificent Seven. Suddenly, Ezra was alone with Buck. He reached out and pushed the dark hair off of Bucks pale face. "Please dont die, Buck. Not now, now like this. Ah hell, Buck, how did the miscreant get between us. Why didnt I fire just an instant sooner. I am so sorry, Buck. I was supposed to be watching your back and I failed miserably, didnt I!"
The gambler shook his head, trying to gather his thoughts. He needed to act and to do it quickly if they were going to save the loveable rogues life. He stood, taking one last glance at Buck, and then he moved away from the bed. Ezra lit several lamps, placing them near the bed, and then looked down at Buck again. He was laying there, his eyes closed, struggling to breathe. There was no sign of any wound on him. He looked fine. Ezra sat beside him on the bed and gently pulled him to a sitting position. He saw the blood on the bed first. Then he looked at Buck's back. His shirt was soaked with blood. The bullet hole was in the left shoulder blade.
Ezra eased him back down. He had no medical training what so ever. In fact, he hated the sight of blood which wasn't good considering the line of work he found himself engaged in on a regular basis anymore. He knew enough though that he had to stop the rush of blood that was leaving Buck's body. He searched Nathan's cabinets for bandages and was soon back by Buck's side, applying pressure to the wound.
"Ez?" Buck whispered.
"Don't try to talk right now, Buck. Just hush."
"No time. Get Chris. I . need Chris."
"You need Nathan right now. We've got to find Nathan."
"Chris," Buck seemed to be calling out to him.
Just then, Josiah came running through the door. He stopped immediately when he saw the blood on Buck's back. He moved forward and held Buck so Ezra could get fresh bandages. The others were already soaked through.
"Do you know where Nathan is? Dammit, Josiah, they are all out of town somewhere. No one was here to go with Buck tonight. Where's Nathan, Josiah?" Ezra started to shake. The adrenaline was starting to take over. Tears poured down Ezra's face as he stood frozen, himself gasping for air. He fought to gain control of his body.
Josiah took control of the situation. He was still holding Buck in a sitting position and he didn't want to leave him just yet. He yelled, his voice booming in the enclosed area, "Ezra, get ahold of yourself. You aren't doing Buck any good by just standing there. Come on now, think. What needs to be done?"
JD came running into the room. He froze when he saw Buck. Buck was ash white, red blood covering everything around him. JD felt nauseous but he fought back the feeling. He moved forward and sat beside Buck and Josiah on the bed. He tentatively reached out and touched Buck's face. "Oh my God! No, no, no. Not you! Oh, God, what happened?"
"No time for that now! JD, do you know where Nathan is?" Josiah demanded, his rich voice commanding response..
"He's delivering a baby at the Wilson's. He left about three this afternoon."
"Go get him. Bring him back right away."
JD stood and stared for another minute, shocked by the sight of his mentor bleeding so profusely. Buck was so much more than just a friend to JD. The young man admired and respected Chris, Nathan, and Vin. He often sought Josiah's counsel. He was amazed by Ezra's quick wit and cunning. But it was Buck who had taken the boy under his wing and turned the fledgling into a man. It was Buck who was always there to ask questions of, who never seemed to loose patience with the young man. It was Buck that he cherished above all others except maybe Casey. He took one last look at the red blood and then he turned and ran, out the door and back down the stairs to get his horse.
"Josiah, can you stay with our friend?" The voice was barely a whisper. "I have to go get Chris. Buck needs him." Ezra had regained his composure. He knew that he had to be the one who broke the news Chris. None of them knew how Chris would respond to this news, the news that his oldest friend in the world was dying of a gunshot wound. Ezra knew, however, that the gunfighter would probably blame him. He knew that he did.
"Go." Josiah turned his full attention back to Buck.
Josiah moved quietly back to the bed. Another bandage had to be replaced. The flow of blood had slowed but it had not stopped. He sat by his friends side once more and pressed down firmly with the new bandaging. He prayed for the life of the Lothario that they had all come to love. Buck was a good man and a wonderful friend. Josiah felt his heart constrict with the thought that Buck Wilmington might be gone by morning. He also prayed for Nathan to arrive and work one more miracle for the Seven. He spoke softly to Buck, although the big man seemed unconscious. He tried to reassure the wounded man that Nathan would heal him but it was difficult when he knew the bullet wound was probably a fatal one. He kept the pressure on the wound and, by the time JD was back with Nathan in tow, the flow of blood was minimal.
Nathan and Josiah stripped the shirt off of the injured man. Cautiously, the healer turned Buck over onto his stomach and examined the wound. Nathan was sure the bullet had to come out but he also knew that the bullet was probably buried in Buck's lung. If that were the case, then he could do nothing further for Buck and Buck would be dead before dawn. He could see from Josiah's face that Josiah knew the wound was a fatal one. Tears shone in Josiah's eyes. Nathan had never, in all the years he had known Josiah, seen the man cry. Tears sprung up in the healers eyes also. He couldnt bare to see the loveable oaf die. He wiped his face with his shirt sleeve and gazed down at his friend. He had fought so hard for years now to keep them all alive. He had stitched knife wounds, he had removed bullets, he had used every remedy he had knowledge of to fight their fevers. But this he had no magic herbal tea to repair a lung that was filling with blood. He stood up and slowly walked over to the stove and put the water on to boil. He dropped his favorite knife and forceps into the water to sterilize them. He reached for a bottle of whiskey he kept in his cabinet. Silently, he made his way back to Buck. He pulled the gun belt loose and dropped it on the floor beside the bed. The sensitive black man looked up at JD who stood near Bucks head. JD looked at Nathan with hope in his eyes.
"You can fix im, cant ya Nate? Hes gonna be alright, aint he?" Tears rolled down JDs face.
Nathan couldnt look at the expectation in those brown eyes anymore. He dropped his head and softly replied, "Ill try, Kid"
The healer poured the whiskey into the wound and then quickly held Bucks body down as it tensed and bucked from the fiery pain the alcohol caused. Carefully, Nathan wiped the area clean, removing as much of the dried blood as he could. The black man then made his way back over to the stove to retrieve his surgical instruments. Carefully carrying them, he made his way back to Bucks side and sat down to begin the procedure that would probably prove fruitless.
Josiah sat on the opposite side of the bed. He saw the gentle black hand tremble. "JD, you best wait outside. Tell the others well be out as soon as were done." He nudged the boy out with a couple jerks of his head. Then he turned back to his old friend. "You can do it, Brother."
Nathan couldn't force his hand to use the knife he had just sterilized. He knew he had to begin the process of cutting into the wound, but he dreaded what he would discover. He didn't want to find the bullet in Buck's lung. He didnt want the truth to be waiting at the end of his search for the offending piece of lead. Finally, he could wait no longer.
"Hold him, Josiah." His hand poised over Buck's back. Since the war, he must have taken out a hundred bullets from the flesh of men, women, even a few children. It had become rote with him. But this time, he knew that a friends life was about to end. He could sense it. He said a quick prayer and then, without any further hesitation, he cut down into the flesh. Carefully, he moved through the flesh and muscle, searching for the bullet that had caused so much bleeding. His knife cut into Bucks left lung. He couldnt stop now, no matter what additional damage he may be causing. Finally, the knife touched metal and with his forceps, Nathan pulled the offending object out of Buck's body. Buck had moaned during the probing but he never moved. Nathan put a couple of stitches into the fleshy tissue and rolled Buck back onto his back. Buck was pure white, his lips and fingers starting to turn blue. Nathan rose to wash his hands. He never looked directly at Josiah for if he did, he would have to confirm Josiah's fears. There was nothing more Nathan could do for their friend.
Ezra made his way to the small shack that Chris Larabee had built about ten months ago. Chris was a solitary man by nature and he had wanted a place that he could go to where no one would bother him. He had found that place by a small creek about a half hour's ride from town. He and Buck and Vin had built the small one room dwelling and corral in three days. Since then, Chris had built a shelter for his horses and an outhouse. It was perfect for Chris to get away from civilization. He had never invited anyone but Buck or Vin to come along with him when he decided enough was enough. There was no one else he wished to share his private space with.
Ezra had to travel slowly by the three quarters moon light. He had only been out to the shack on two other occasions. Both times had been during the day when Chris was needed back in town. So, this time, he had to back track twice to get his direction straight. At last, he could see the outline of the building and he could smell smoke coming from the chimney. There were no lights on in the cabin. He stopped in front of the shack and was about to get off his horse when he heard the rifle being cocked behind him.
"Chris, it's me, Ezra." He held his hands up in the air to show he was unarmed.
"Why are you here?" The voice was almost beside him.
Ezra turned and faced the gunfighter. He had seen Chris Larabee face death before but it had usually been his own. At those times, Chris was ice cold, his glare ripping through the toughest of outlaws. As the gambler looked down at the man who was standing right beside him now, the ice was gone and something else was evident in the gunslingers eyes. Could it be fear? Ezra closed his eyes for a second and when he looked again, there was only shadowy green eyes staring at him, waiting impatiently for Ezras news. He bit his lip and decided to just blurt it out. "Buck's been shot. He's asking for you." Ezra hesitated and then he added, "We have to hurry, Chris."
The gunfighter never said another word but quickly saddled his horse and led the way back to town. Ezra figured it had been about two hours since Buck had been shot and he doubted if Buck was still alive but he never said a word to Chris and Chris didn't ask. They pulled their horses to a halt in front of Nathan's and Chris ran up the stairs. He saw Josiah outside on the landing. He saw the tears in the Preacher's eyes.
Josiah took a ragged breath and shook his head. "He's waiting for you." It was all that needed saying.
Chris entered the room and saw Nathan sitting at the table, his head in his hands. By the bed sat JD, his hands folded in prayer. JD looked up when he heard Chris enter and he stood, making way for Chris by Bucks side. Chris stood about ten feet away from the bed, looking at the gregarious life-loving man who had been his friend for almost half of his life, laying so still on the bed. The only noise in the room was the small gasping sounds Buck made as he struggled to breathe. Ezra followed Chris into the room and he moved ahead of Chris and took JD by the arm.
"Let's go out for some air, JD." He pulled the young man out the door.
Chris slowly crossed the ten feet to kneel beside the bed. He reached out his hand, touching the gray skin of Bucks cheek. Then, from somewhere deep inside him, he pulled out a name he hadn't used in ten years.
"I'm here, Scarecrow. It's goin' to be all right now." He choked back a tear.
Buck didn't open his eyes but he smiled tiredly and moved his hand toward Chris. Chris took the hand offered to him and held it tight. With his other hand, he stroked Buck's hair. They stayed that way for several minutes.
Finally, Buck opened his eyes. He gasped loudly several times and then he whispered, "Chris ... I had ... see you" Buck stopped and coughed. A small trickle of blood fell from the corner of his mouth. "Maggie. Tell her I love her. Take care of JD." He closed his eyes, his chest heaving violently with the effort to communicate. "Can't breathe." He struggled to take each breath and Chris had the awful feeling that the next one would be his last. But Buck wasn't quite through with life. "Chris stay."
"Of course, Pard, I'll stay as long as you need me. Dont you worry, I'll telegraph Maggie and then go see her. Okay?" Chris wiped the tears from his face. No one was going to see him cry, no one but Buck had ever seen that side of him before and now, no one would ever see it again. He tried to smile as he said, "You big son of a bitch, what am I going to do without you, huh? You've always been there to pull my butt out of the fire. Ya dont expect Vin to do it, do ya? Thats your job, Buck!" He wiped the blood from his friends lips. "You were supposed to go in bed, remember? Thats how you always said you wanted to go, in the arms of a woman. Not like this, Pard. Not like this." He couldn't do it. He choked back another tear. "Oh God, Buck, don't go." Tears flowed freely down the face of the gunfighter with ice in his veins.
Nathan walked up behind Chris and put his hand on his shoulder. There literally was nothing he could do for either of them. He felt so useless, his body sagged with the depression he felt. Why would this happen on a night when there was nothing going on in town. The seven of them had been through many gunfights and skirmishes and always they had escaped with only minor injuries which Nathan could mend for them. But this, he had nothing up his sleeve for this wound. He doubted if a doctor could help Buck through this wound.
Almost reverently, Chris softly said, "He knows that this is the end, doesn't he, Nathan? Dammit, why did I leave town this morning. If I had just been here " Chris hung his head.
"There was nothing you or Ezra or any of the rest of us could have done about this, Chris. It was a quirk of fate, a moment in time that none of us could have predicted. The way we live, you had to figure one of us would take a hit that couldn't be fixed. I just never thought that it would be Buck that went first."
Chris stayed with Buck for an hour. The deadly gunslinger consoled the man who had been by his side forever it seemed. He wiped his face with a cool cloth, he whispered words of encouragement, he relived the best of times that the two men had shared together. But mostly, Chris watched the life drain slowly out of his oldest friend. Buck never regained consciousness. He never moved. He simply struggled and fought for every breath he took. Finally, the effort was just too much. The breathing got shallower, Bucks face became a gray mask, and Nathan pronounced that the end was near. Chris rose and placed Buck's hand on the big mans chest. He took a deep breath, wiped away any remaining tears from his face, whispered good bye, and walked outside. There he faced JD, Josiah and Ezra. He seemed in perfect control, just as he did before a gunfight.
"JD, Josiah, go in and tell Buck good-bye. It's time." He turned slightly and faced the gambler. "Ezra, what happened?"
The oldest and the youngest members of the seven, their heads hung low, patted Ezra on the back and walked into the room. Ezra was standing by the railing, his hat in his hands. The sun was just peeking above the horizon and a tiny ray of light touched Ezra's face. Chris could see his red eyes and the tear stains on his cheeks. Ezra did not look at Chris. Instead, he stared at the red ball of fire that was making its way up in the morning sky.
"It's goin' ta be a beautiful day." He turned and faced Chris. "Why did it have ta be me, Chris? Any of the rest of you would have shot Rory before he had a chance to even aim at Buck. Why me?" He lowered his eyes to the planking of the deck. Quietly, without emotion, he told Chris about Ida Mae and Rory. Suddenly, the tears flowed unchecked. "The shadow moved and I fired. It wasnt quick enough. There were two shots. Lord, the noise was so loud." Ezra wiped at his eyes but the tears would not stop. "The shadow was gone and I saw Buck falling to the ground. I called for help and we carried him to the bed in there." Ezra stopped. He took a ragged breath before continuing. "The way he was laying on the bed, you would have sworn he was just fine. Then I lifted him up and the blood ... the blood was everywhere. Oh God, I'm so sorry, Chris! Not Buck, not Buck." He was sobbing into his hands, his whole body shaking. He turned back to the railing.
Chris just stood there, letting the words sink into his consciousness. He never moved toward the man whose pain was so evident. He stared at his back, apparently not feeling a thing for him. Finally, he shifted his feet.
"Ezra, it wasn't your fault. There was nothing else you could have done. I know he doesn't blame you. You did what any of us would have. Come on now. He doesn't need your tears, he just needs to know we're here. Dry your eyes and go make your peace with him."
Ezra turned and looked at Chris. All he saw was cold, hard features and eyes that blazed right into him. He dried his face on the green wool of his jacket and walked past Chris and into the room. No one saw Chris stumble down the stairs and run to the little church that Josiah called home.
JD sat by the bed and cried. He wasnt ashamed of his tears, for Buck had told him long ago that he could share anything with him, even tears. The man who had taught him how to survive, the man who had risked his life for a green horn kid from back East within a week of meeting him, the man who was more a brother than a friend, was going to die and there was nothing JD could do or say to bring him back. So he sat, his face streaked with tears, saying his final farewell to the man he loved so much. "Bye, Buck. Ill never forget ya. Ill love ya forever and Ill tell everyone wholl listen about the man that drew women like a dog draws fleas. We wont let anyone forget how brave and true you were, Buck." He gently kissed Bucks forehead and then gave his place to the ex-preacher.
Josiah was finishing a prayer when Ezra entered the room. He moved so that Ezra could kneel by Buck's head. Ezra had no idea how to purge his soul to this lovable man they all would miss terribly. He lowered his head and silently sent a prayer to God.
Sniffing back a tear, he said, "I am so sorry for letting you down, my dear friend. The bastard is dead. At least I did that right for you." He swiped at the tears running down his cheeks. " I will miss you, we all will. I promise you a glass of beer on your coffin, Buck. I'd stuff a lady in there with you to keep you company but I don't think we'd find one to cooperate. None of us quite have your way with the women." He smiled slightly at the thought of how the ladies man could somehow sweep all the women off their feet. All but the one he truly desired. "Good night, sweet prince, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Keep a light shining for the rest of us, my brother, we'll see ya on the other side." He stood and walked out of the room. Ezra joined JD and Josiah out on the balcony
"I'm goin ta git Vin. He doesn't even know yet." The youth looked around, expecting to see their infamous leader. JD sadly shook his head, his heart crumbling in his chest. "Where did Chris run off to this time? He is some piece of work, ya know, Preacher! His oldest friend is not even a tear, Josiah. He walked out of there like it was some stranger. Damn him!" JD wiped away the tears that blurred his vision and then ran down the stairs. He knew he should stay, be at Bucks side until the end, but he couldnt force himself to watch his friend pass away like he had his sick mother such a short time ago. It had been too painful to listen for the next breath, to wait for her to open her eyes one last time, to reassure him with a pat on his hand. But it never came and he had to face the fact that he was totally alone. He couldnt do it again. He wasnt that strong.
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