The Right Thing To Do
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: This fic is based on a legend, which one? You will have to read to find out.
Warnings: Mild adult situations
The three men crested a ridge and looked out across a wide flat-bottomed valley, a meandering ribbon of green mapped out the course of the river. Beyond this oasis there was just arid scrub. On the opposite side of this valley, perched high on a hill, simmering in the heat haze was a huge white hacienda. Buck, Ezra and Josiah had been sent by Judge Travis to Mexico to pick up a prisoner.
Wayne Gipps, also known as Wayne Green, Ward Gregson and Will Gaves. Wayne was a robber, banks, stagecoaches, stores, mine payrolls; he didn't seem to mind. He would pull off a robbery, disappear below the border, spend his ill-gotten gains and then return to the US to do another robbery. He never broke the law in Mexico, or he hadn't until three years ago when he accidentally killed a man in a bar fight. The judge had been very fair. The other man had started the argument, and thrown the first punch. All Gipps did was push him back. Unfortunately the man tripped over a fallen chair and hit his head on the stone floor as he fell, dying of his head injury two days later. Wayne was given three years hard labour. Only after he was incarcerated in a jail outside Mexico City, did the warrants on him in America come to light. Warrants for robbery, assault, rape and murder. These last two charges referred to the notorious stage hold-up outside Four Corners some five years previously, in which the driver and four passengers were killed, the two female passengers having been abused and stripped before they were killed.
Mexico and the United States had no extradition treaty, but Travis had, with the help of some Washington connections, lobbied the Mexican's to return Wayne Gipps to the US as soon as he was released as an 'undesirable alien'. His friend Don Benardo de Castillo? lived just over the border, the prisoner would rest one night in the cells of the local rurales before continuing to the border. The prisoner would be escorted to the border, and the moment he stepped back on US soil he would be arrested. Simple.
Chris and the judge had debated long and hard about who to send to collect Gipps. Vin was out of the question, even though he spoke fluent Spanish, it was just too close to Texas. Chris didn't like sending Nathan out of town, too many people depended on him, besides there was no way of knowing how the Mexicans would react to a black lawman. JD was growing in maturity all the time, but he still had a lot to learn, too much for a delicate mission like this. Josiah and Ezra were ideally suited, and that left one other person, Chris himself or Buck.
"Judge?" Buck looked up somewhat surprised. "Me?"
Buck shifted uncomfortably on the chair he had been straddling. "Um well, I can't speak Spanish," he offered.
"Don Benardo and I have corresponded for years, his English is quite as good as yours."
It took Buck a few moments to realise he had just been insulted, not helped by Ezra sniggering behind his back.
"Hey!" he protested. "Ain't nothing wrong with the way I talk!"
"Nevertheless you are going," the Judge stated with the kind of finality it was wise not to argue with.
Chris had taken him aside later to explain the thinking behind the assignment. Josiah would go because he and the Don were of an age and the preacher could speak Spanish. Ezra would go because he spoke some Spanish and he was good in polite company, and in addition their host liked to play cards. Chris had warned Ezra to at least let the Don break even. Buck was going because he was a professional and less likely to be distracted by cards and free drink.
"I need someone I can rely on. Besides, you're good company Buck, and the Don's never heard even one of those tall tales of yours."
Buck frowned at him, trying to work out if he had just been complimented or mocked. "Every one of them stories is true, I swear it on my fathers grave."
"They can't be pal, no one could bed that many women, besides you don't know who your father was."
Buck waggled his eyebrows at his oldest friend. "Don't mean I can't swear on his grave."
"He may not have one, he may be still alive."
"True, nasty thought, but true. Alright, for you Chris, I'll go to Mexico and pick up this bastard."
There it was. He didn't want to go, he really didn't, but for Chris, for his friend he would do it. Chris tended to forget sometimes that Buck was only with them because of his loyalty to Chris. He had stayed, even after Chris held a razor to his throat, he had ridden after them to Royal's place and saved their necks, because of that loyalty. Chris Larabee knew better than most, that there was no way to make Buck Wilmington do anything he didn't want to do.
"Gentlemen let us make haste, I for one wish to get out of this heat."
The other two turned to Standish who was pulling on his plum-coloured jacket. Until now he - like the other two - had been riding in his shirtsleeves.
"Ain't ya gonna be a mite hot in that thing Ez?" Buck asked, his jacket, like Sanchez's, was still firmly strapped to the back of the saddle with his bedroll.
"Appearances are everything my friends, Don Bernardo is a true gentleman, we want to make a good impression, do we not?"
"If you say so Hoss, but you are gonna have to make the impression for all of us 'cause there's no way I'm gonna put a jacket on in this heat."
"Amen to that," Josiah added.
Ezra just rolled his eyes as he finished pulling on the jacket and did his best to brush off some of the dust.
The Hacienda was even more impressive the closer you got. There was a great cobbled courtyard, protected by a wall and ornate but solid wrought iron gates. The man at the gate spoke to Josiah in Spanish then hurried away.
"What's the problem?" Buck asked.
"No problem, he has gone to check that we are expected," Ezra explained.
Eventually they were shown into the main house. The cool interior was a blessing after the heat of the day. The three men waited patiently in the tiled, white-walled entrance hall. Ezra strolled over to the picture on the wall.
"Beautiful," he commented.
"Oh yes indeed," Buck commented.
Instantly the other two turned around. "Oh no, I know that tone of voice, where is she?" Ezra asked.
Buck, his eyes fixed and glazed, just pointed through the doors to the courtyard they had just crossed themselves. There, a stunning woman in a tightly corseted black dress was gliding - there was no other way to describe it - toward them, her raven black hair was piled on top of her head and held in place with an ornate black and silver comb, and yet tantalising curls hung down and caressed her cheek as she walked.
"My," Ezra breathed.
"Amen," Josiah agreed.
The vision in black approached them, smiling warmly. "Good day to you gentlemen, you had an appointment with Don Bernardo I believe?" she asked, her accent thick and seductive.
"Indeed, gentle lady," Ezra started, oozing southern charm. "May I take the time to introduce myself, I am Ezra P. Standish, at your service ma'am." The gambler even gave a little bow as he took her hand and kissed it.
"Oh Senor, how gallant you are, please, be so kind as to introduce me to your companions," she cooed.
"My I present Mr Josiah Sanchez."
Josiah smiled at her, one of those smiles that seemed to wrap all around his face and show of each and every one of his flawless white teeth.
"An honour to meet you dear lady." He too kissed her hand. "My I in turn present "
"Buck Wilmington," Buck moved forward and took her hand, encased as it was in a delicate black lace glove. "I am so sorry for your loss, your husband was it?" He didn't kiss her hand; instead he laid his other hand over it, the look on his face the very picture of sympathy and concern.
"How kind Mr Wilmington "
"Call me Buck, please, Senora?"
"Dona Maria Lucia Theresa Domingo de Castillo, but you must call me Maria, Buck." she leaned in, closing the distance between them. "My dear husband passed on last month."
"You bear the loss with grace and dignity." Now he did kiss her hand, while she gazed into his eyes.
"How does he do it?" Ezra whispered to Sanchez.
"I have no idea, but there is a certain fasination about watching. It's like watching a train wreck, you know it's going to happen, but you can't stop it and you can't look away."
Dona Maria went on to explain that when her husband had become ill she had tried to contact everyone he was in correspondence with, possibly the letter to the judge didn't get through, or possibly she missed him out, she wasn't sure.
"I was his second wife you understand. I have written to my stepson, Don Antonio, but he is in Madrid studying, so it will be some time before he returns. In the mean time I do what I can to keep things going. It is not easy for a mere woman to run so large an estate, but I do what I can." She batted her eyes at Buck.
Ezra thought he was going to be sick
"Oh I'm sure you do a wonderful job my I " Buck all but whispered in her ear.
Josiah cleared his throat dramatically. "Um, Senora, if I my interrupt?"
"Oh course Senor Sanchez, what can I do for you?" She turned to stand next to Buck, all but leaning into him.
"We are here to escort a prisoner, Wayne Gipps? Do know of this matter?"
"Oh yes, the rather unpleasant gentleman we wish removed from our law abiding country. I have received news that his release from jail will be delayed by a few days, you gentlemen are most welcome in my home until he is here. 'Mi casa su casa' as we say."
They had no option but to stay. The Mexican authorities hadn't given a specific date for the release, and since Gipps was only being escorted to the border, there were no grounds to hold him once he got there until the peacekeepers arrived to shadow him and once across the border he would be a free man. The plan only worked if the law from Four Corners, 'just happened to be there' when he crossed back onto American. The rooms they were given were wonderfully light, cool and comfortable, Ezra for one wasn't complaining about the extended stay. Significantly he and Josiah had rooms at the back of the house, overlooking the garden; Buck's room was at the front, with a view across the valley and just down the hall from the beautiful widow. Maids were despatched to clean and press the men's best suits (which they had packed on the Judges specific instructions) as they washed up and took a siesta before the evening meal.
Buck was enchanted with the beautiful widow; he liked widows. The tall ladies man was all but singing to himself as he bathed and shaved. Ezra lay back on the large bed and sighed, a few days as houseguest in a large house, with servants at his beck and call - what more was there in life? Well a nice lucrative poker game would make it perfect, but he was happy enough with the luxury and the enforced idleness. Josiah wasn't immune to a little luxury, though he was less happy with servants waiting on him hand and foot. He had however, spotted a well stocked library downstairs, and longed to have a nose around.
At dinner Buck was seated to the right of Dona Maria, Josiah opposite him and Ezra next to Josiah. The conversation was pleasant but neutral; horses, the weather, the architecture of the house, the history of the de Castillo family. Yet there was no mistaking the looks passing between their hostess and Wilmington. Josiah suspected they were playing 'footsie' under the table. Eventually Maria broke away from gazing at Buck long enough to ask the others what they would like to do the next day. Ezra had no particular plans and said he would take the day as it came, Josiah stated his desire to explore the library.
"Oh Senor Sanchez that would be wonderful, I'm not much of a reader myself but my husband did so like to read, it is a shame that no one has looked at a book in months. I myself was thinking of an early morning ride, would you care to join me Senor sorry, Buck?"
"Now darlin', that would be just enchanting," Buck replied, leaning into her.
Ezra looked at Sanchez, mouthing the word 'enchanting' with a raised eyebrow. "Don't look at me, he's been listening to you too much," Sanchez whispered.
Ezra rose at eleven the next day, washed and bathed then strolled downstairs to find Sanchez sitting in the shade on the veranda, overlooking the garden, sipping a long cool drink and reading.
"Good morning Mr Sanchez," he greeted.
"Morning Ezra, have a seat." Sanchez gestured to the empty seat next to him.
"Where would one go to find something to break one's fast?" Ezra enquired.
"Oh just sit here, sooner or later someone will come and ask what you want," Josiah explained.
"How very civilised. My I enquire what you are reading?"
"Don Quixote, the original, not the translation"
"I never did finish that book," Ezra commented.
"Well I have a translation at home, I'll lend it to you, if you want?"
Ezra nodded his thanks just as a maid appeared and asked what she could get for him. Having ordered some breakfast, Standish asked after Buck.
"I haven't seen him or our hostess all morning, the steward said they rode out early."
"What?" Josiah asked, totally mystified by his comrade's strange response.
"I hear the train coming," Ezra explained.
All Josiah could do was laugh, narrowly avoiding spraying his book with lemonade.
Noon came and went and neither Buck nor the widow appeared. The two men took a siesta, then after lunch, Ezra saddled up and went out to explore the town.
"Did you have a good day?" Josiah asked Buck as he spotted him strolling into the house, just in time to wash up for diner.
"I had a great day Josiah, thanks for asking, what about you?" the big man beamed at him.
Oh I bet you did, Josiah commented to himself. "Oh very agreeable, and instructional."
"Where's Ez?" Buck asked.
"In town, so if he's found some idiot to play poker with him, he'll probably be there for hours yet."
Ezra did not return until the small hours and neither of the other two saw him until nearly noon the next day - Sunday. This time it was Buck he found on the terrace. Josiah and their hostess having gone to Mass. After the other two returned and they had lunch, Maria and Buck disappeared.
"Ezra, saddle up you and I are going for a ride," Sanchez announced.
Ezra peered at him over the brim of his coffee cup. "We are?"
"Yeah, come on."
"May one enquire why?"
"Not here no, come on."
Reluctantly and still grumbling, Ezra agreed to join him. They returned in time to join the others for supper. The atmosphere at the meal was frosty to say the least, while Buck and Maria gazed at each other and chatted, the others just ate in silence.
Josiah and Ezra's ride had taken them out into the hinterland around the hacienda. The first place they came to was a small farm, it nestled in the river valley with fields running down to the water, it should have been a very prosperous little farm. On the pretext of watering the horses they dismounted and introduced themselves to the farmer and his family.
"You talk to the children," Sanchez instructed.
"Because you're good with children, Lord knows why, but they seem to trust you."
There were two children, a girl of about ten and a boy of six or so. Ezra spotted that the boy was holding a puppy. Trying desperately to remember his Spanish Ezra approached the two children.
"Hello, it that your puppy?" he asked, squatting down in front of them. The boy nodded. "He's a fine looking puppy." The boy laughed. "Did I say something funny?"
"It's a girl dog, look." The boy held up the puppy so Ezra could see more clearly.
"Well so she is, what's her name?"
"Puppy," the girl responded.
"Well that is a fine name, I have a friend whose horse is called Pony." He smiled at them, the sun catching his gold tooth.
"What's that?" the boy asked pointing at Ezra's mouth.
"What this? This is my gold tooth."
"How did you get it?" the girl asked, with wonder in her voice.
"Well I am not meant to tell anyone this but " He made a great play of looking around to see if anyone was listening, then beckoned the children in closer. " it was magic."
Josiah looked over to were the southern dandy was making friends with the children. It seemed to Sanchez that the only time Ezra really relaxed was when he was around children.
"My name is Josiah Sanchez sir, to whom do I have the honour of addressing?" Josiah smiled at the rather wary looking couple.
"Sir, I am Fernando Lopez, this is my wife Sophia." Josiah bowed to the heavily pregnant Sophia, who had a small child clamped to her hip.
"This is good land you have here sir," Sanchez commented.
By the time they were leaving Ezra had magically produced a peso for each child out of their ear, and another two from the puppy.
"Delightful children," the southerner commented.
"Good people," Josiah confirmed. "Did you notice the chicken coop?"
"Indeed, but no chickens, no cow either. Only one pig that I saw. The children said there old patron was fair, but the new patron is mean - at least that is what I think they said, my Spanish isn't that good."
Josiah nodded. "Sounds right, the parents were more reticent, but they hinted that the rent has gone up. Let's see what the next farm's like."
Everywhere they went it was the same, what should have been prosperous little farms were paying so much rent they were barely feeding their families. In town it was the same, rents and taxes so high no one could make any money. The people were so desperate some were prepared to be openly critical of the Dona Maria. They seemed to have been genuinely fond of the old patron, Don Bernardo, but he changed when he married his second wife. The saloonkeeper was the most openly critical.
"She's no better than she should be that one, a whore if you ask me? Isn't she young enough to be his daughter? She poisoned his mind, he was so so blinded by her he didn't know what was going on, then he got sick."
After the meal they took their coffee out into the garden. Josiah tried to get Buck on his own, but he and the beautiful widow were inseparable. Finally as the couple were ready to retire for the night the former preacher finally had to make a move.
"Senora, do excuse me I need to speak to my friend in private."
"Hell Josiah, you can say anything you need to in front of Maria," Buck responded.
"No, I need to speak to you privately, that is, we do." He nodded at Ezra.
"I am not one to meddle in the affairs of men. It is late, and I am fatigued." She turned to the face all three men. "Good night gentlemen."
Buck watched her go, a goofy smile on his face as he did, then he turned back to face the others. "That is one fine woman," he sighed
"Indeed she is most attractive, and young," Ezra commented coming over.
"What's her age got to do with it?" Buck asked, sensing the accusation in Ezra's voice.
"For you nothing, but her husband was considerably older then her - very considerably."
Buck frowned. "You calling her a gold digger, Standish?"
"Calm down Buck, and just listen to what we found out," Josiah soothed.
Josiah explained that he had spent the previous day mostly in the library. "The window opens directly above the courtyard, while I was there at least three people came to the house and spoke to the steward, all three were complaining about a second rent increase that is due next week. Today Ezra and I made some investigations."
Buck looked back and forth between his two friends. "Just what the hell is going on here?"
"Do you remember what out hostess said when Mr Sanchez asked to use the library?" Ezra asked.
"Something about - it would be nice 'cause no one had looked at them in months."
"Right, but she told us her husband had only died last month."
"Don Bernardo had what sounds like a stroke, more then six months ago he lost the ability to walk and speak. His wife has been running the estate since then, the first thing she did was raise the rents." Josiah spoke softly and calmly.
"There are people out there, on good land, who can barely feed their children," Ezra added.
"You developing a concience Standish?" Buck all but accused.
"Buck," Josiah cut in. " next week she is demanding another payment, a one-off to pay for a statue of her late husband."
"They can not possible afford to pay," Ezra explained.
"What has all this got to do with me?" Buck wanted to know.
"Because she might listen to you."
"Me, preacher! You want me to tell her what to do in her own home?"
"It's the right thing to do my friend, these people have no one to speak for them, if they have to sell their winter stores to make this payment they will starve come winter. She has absolute power over them; she owns the land, all of it. If they don't pay, she has the right to just take it." There was an edge of anger creeping into Josiah's calm voice.
"Show me proof," Buck challenged. "After all when did you ever meet anyone who was happy t' pay rent, people always gripe about their landlord," he reasoned.
Despite his demand for proof, a gnawing doubt that had surfaced after Buck's all day ride with Maria, began to grow. They had passed though farms and villages where poverty was all too evident. The people were deferential but wary of the beautiful widow. Having waited for a suitably decent time Buck padded down the corridor to Maria's room and knocked softly. There was a short delay before she eased the door open and let him in.
"Mmm, my handsome gringo," she cooed, running a finger down his cheek. "We must make good use of our time, who knows how much longer you will be here."
Buck's hand snaked around her slim waist pulling her in close. Mirroring her actions he stroked her cheek before he bent to kiss her. "I'm all for making good use of time." With that he led her to the bed.
Tequila sat in a bucket of ice beside the bed; candles illuminated the room, while the thin muslin drapes at the windows fluttered in the pleasantly cool breeze. Maria held her glass out for Buck to fill.
"Oh Buck, you don't know how wonderful it is to have real man in my bedroom. Mexican men expect their women - even their mistresses - to be 'proper', demure and passive. Mexican women do not drink, or " she reached out for one of the thin cheroots, not unlike the ones Chris smoked, she kept in the drawer and waited for Buck to light it. " smoke."
Buck watched enchanted and aroused as she lay back, her silk robe falling away to reveal her white lace corset. Sitting on the edge of the bed he bent and kissed her, not passionately but gently, tenderly, even lovingly. "Has it been a while, since there was a man in your bed?" he asked, moving to trace her collarbone with gentle kisses.
"Not as long as it could have been, my husband was sick for a long time before he died, I am young, I have " She returned his kiss with one of her own. " needs."
A slight weight was lifted from his shoulders, she wasn't trying to hide the fact that Don Bernardo had been incapacitated for a long time, and Buck wasn't one to criticise anyone for infidelity.
"Well you just let ol' Buck here take care of those needs for you darlin'."
In his heart of hearts Josiah was still a man of God, so what, he wondered, was he doing standing watch at three in the morning, while a no-account southern gambler broke into the private safe of a respectable member of the Mexican aristocracy?
"Lord," he whispered, " your mysterious ways are very hard to fathom, I do wish you could give me a clue sometimes, you know? Is that too much to ask?"
"We are trying to be stealthy Mr Sanchez, so could you and the Almighty keep it down?" Ezra hissed from behind him.
Josiah just cast despairing eyes up to the Lord and went back to watching the corridor. Suddenly Ezra was pulling ledgers from the safe and flicking through them. He beckoned to Josiah. "I'll watch, you read - your Spanish is far better then mine."
Buck was - as ever - up early, he beat both his friends down to the veranda where they seemed to have established a routine of taking breakfast. That night, when Maria was at her most unguarded and relaxed Buck had asked a few questions and hadn't liked the answers. Now he sat, feeling torn, and tried to decide what to do. Maria was wonderful. She was young but she was definitely a woman not a girl. Her body was soft, rounded in all the right places, warm, supple and inviting. She was smart and sassy, she made him laugh, she made him happy and he wanted her. But much as he wanted to hide it, there was something deep with in him that knew that under all the voluptuous, Latin delights was a heart of stone. That she was or had been a 'working girl' was clear to him, he knew the signs all too well. He knew the kind of poverty that drove girls to sell their bodies, even their souls and he knew what it could take from you. His own mother had fought all her life not to lose the love inside her, she said it was Buck who kept it alive, that was why she never sent him away to school or gave him up for adoption. But his mother had died when he wasn't much more then a boy, how would she have fared, older, less attractive, her son all grown up and flown away?
So could he condemn Maria? She had gained what most young girls respectable and disreputable dream of - a rich husband. Now she was a rich widow, but for how long? What would happen to her when her stepson returned? In her position who wouldn't grab as much money as possible while they could? But taking the family jewels was one thing, bleeding decent, already poor, hard working people dry was another. Still holding a now almost cold coffee in both hands he gazed out across the immaculate garden.
When Josiah walked out into the sunlight he could see instantly from Wilmington's body language that something was different.
"Morning," he said quietly.
Buck just nodded.
"You spoke to her?" He got no response from the younger man so he pressed on. "Didn't like the answers," he speculated.
"Ain't all black and white, preacher."
Josiah looked over to his friend to find himself looking into these expressive compassionate eyes. "No. No it's not, life is full of grey, but we have do what we can to keep the grey as light as possible."
Buck turned back to the view. "You find some proof in the safe last night?"
Ezra appeared - uncharacteristically early - in the doorway. "How did you know?"
Buck rolled his eyes. "You two are about as silent - what with the bickering and the boots -" He pointed at Josiah's large feet. " as a bull in a china shop, yer lucky I didn't shoot you."
Josiah pulled a paper from his pocket and handed it over. "You'll have to trust me when I say that what it is, it is a copy of a letter sent to all the tenants. It says they have to pay a one off payment of about $2 for a statue of her husband and that at the end of the month their rent is going up by 20%. I know it doesnt sound much but to these people it's crippling. They can barely pay the rent now."
Buck couldn't read the letter, but he didn't need to be able to read Spanish to see the figures.
"There's more," Josiah said quietly.
"She's sending the money away, probably to America," Buck ventured.
"Yes, California," Josiah confirmed.
"She told you," Ezra assumed.
"No," Buck stood up, " she didn't need to."
The other two looked at each other and shrugged as Buck strolled out into the garden.
It was an odd day, Maria had some things to attend to and news came through that their prisoner would arrive the next day at noon and rather than spending a night in the cells he would be released instantly. Come the evening meal it was clear Buck had made up his mind, though their hostess didn't seem to notice the change in him that to his two companions was so clear.
He came calling on her as he had the two nights previously.
"I cannot believe this is our last night together, my very own caballero," she purred.
"Oh Maria, why do you have to be so beautiful?" he asked.
Maria bent back to look at him. "I do not know, because God made me that way?"
"God and not the Devil?"
"You think I am El Diablo?"
"I think you have the power to bewitch men."
Some hours later they lay together, sated and happy, basking in the after glow.
"Maria," Buck started.
"Yes my lover, my stallion, my God." She punctuated each complement with a kiss.
"I heard something today, about the people around her, your people." Buck forced himself not to be distracted.
"What was that?" She kissed his shoulder.
"That you raised their taxes six months ago and that soon it will go up again, and you want them to pay for a statue of your husband - is it true?"
She propped herself up on one elbow and looked down at him. "What of it, my husband had not raised the rents for years, the estate was barely making money at all."
"Fine, but to do it again, they're poor people, I saw them, when we went for a ride, and again today, when I went for a walk. You know what it is to be poor, don't you Maria?"
"Si, and I am not going to be poor again. Do you know what my so-called stepson will do when he returns?"
Buck shook his head.
"He will give the peons their land give, not sell - all that will be left is the ranch. He is a radical. Letting him go to Europe was a mistake, he was sent to Madrid, but he has been in Paris and London as well," she explained with obvious disdain. "I need a drink and a smoke."
Clearly unhappy with where the conversation, she got out of bed and walked over to the dresser and collected a bottle of tequila and some glasses. She returned to the bed with the bottle, the glasses and took two cheroots from the drawer.
She held them out to him. "Got a light for a lady?" she asked.
Buck leaned over and pulled his matches from the pocket of his shirt hanging on the end of the bed and lit both cigars, while she poured the tequila.
She didn't look at him as she answered, she didn't even question how he knew. "Yeah, Los Angeles, that's were I met Bernardo - I did love him you know?" She sighed. "He wasn't that old and he was so sweet and charming, and well dashing, like a matador, a real caballero, but we were only married for two months before he was ill, then my caballero was a dribbling, bed-ridden old man." Buck couldn't help feel sorry for her, but that loss was no excuse.
"It wasn't their fault," Buck said simply as he poured himself a shot of tequila.
"Too bad, life isn't fair, if life was fair you would be rich and I could marry you and that would solve everything. Antonio will sort it all out and they will love him and forget me, don't worry."
She knocked back another drink, then climbed on to the bed again. "Now, how are you feeling, are you refreshed my darling?" she asked, nuzzling at his ear.
"Oh I think so," he murmured, pulling her lips to him.
Three hours later they were both exhausted and very drunk, but drunk or not Buck hadn't lost sight of his mission.
"Do it for me darlin', sort of a goodbye present," he suggested.
"Oh, my dashing cabellero, I like you, but no that much." She rolled over and wrapped her legs around him. "Besides I would be giving up so much, what will you give up?"
"I ain't got no money darlin' but if you think of something I can give up I'll do it - well everything except Max, I'm not giving up my horse, sorry."
Maria rolled away and took a pull on the tequila, they had long ago given up using glasses and were sharing the bottle. For a good half-hour they shared the bottle and tried to work out what Buck could sacrifice in return for Maria cancelling the new taxes.
"You are going to do what?" Ezra asked incredulously, once he had got over the shock of being woken by Sanchez.
Buck just shrugged. "We were drunk. Look I got her to cancel the taxes didn't I?" Buck protested. That he regretted the bargain was an understatement, but it seemed a small price to pay. "I just don't want to upset anyone, you know how papa's get about their daughters, so could you ?"
"Could I what?" Ezra asked.
"You and I are going into town, sort of pave the way you might say, come on get dressed man." Sanchez took hold of the sheet and pulled it off the bed, only to discover Standish wasn't wearing a nightshirt.
"Mr Sanchez!" Ezra bellowed as he was grabbed the sheet back.
Laughing and deciding that Ezra's mishap was an omen, Buck strolled off to get his horse ready for the morning's main event.
By ten minutes to eleven, the appointed hour, Buck and the other two were on the edge of town. Somehow Wilmington had believed Maria would let him off at the last minute, but it was not to be. She sat atop her Andalusian on the small hill over looking the town, able to see what was happening but not close enough to compromise herself. Max had no saddle; it was strapped to the back of Josiah's, his saddlebags were across Chaucer's back. There, in nothing but his pants and boots, Buck stood beside his horse, the Dona Maria's ever-loyal steward beside him.
Time seemed to all but come to an end as they waited for the appointed hour. Finally, after the longest ten minutes of his life, Buck heard the clock strike eleven. Glancing at the ground once, to ensure he wasn't about to tread on a cactus or scorpion, he toed off his boots, and with a quick glance at his friends, both of whom were steadfastly examining the cloud formations, he dropped his pants and stood before the world as nature intended. The steward was, in contrast to his diplomatic friends, staring straight at him. Buck just stared balefully back at him. Then putting long legs to good use, he swung himself up on to his horse and, as agreed, at a slow walk, set out down the centre of the main street.
At eleven o'clock on market day it should have been crowded but it was deserted, every window shuttered, the livestock for market stood quietly in makeshift pens, the odd dog ran down the street, chickens scratched in the dust but other than that is was a ghost town. He was about halfway down when a sudden gust of wind raised the dust, and just ahead of him a shutter banged in the wind. As he got closer, he could hear the voices in the room behind the flapping shutter, a girl crying and a woman, scolding. More than that he didn't understand. Max seemed to understand the gravity of the situation and walked on at a brisk even pace. Buck wasn't a man who was shy. He had no qualms about skinny-dipping with friends or romping naked with one of his paramours, but this was different. He couldnt pin down the emotion, not shame, not embarrassment, not even resentment, but whatever it was it just didn't feel right. The street was coming to an end, the church stood there facing him, getting ever closer. At the end of the street was a dark figure, for a moment he thought it was the priest but then he realised to his horror it was an old lady. She was standing, staring straight down the street. As he got ever closer she never moved. Eventually when Max was practically on top of her, she did finally looked up, moving toward the sound of the heavy equine breathing. And as her head came up Buck could see why she was the one standing there - she was blind.
"Senor?" Despite her age and infirmity, her voice was clear and strong.
"Um yes, that is Si."
"Senor, gracias, muchos gracias." Her bony hand stretched out and found Max's flank, she gave him a pat. "Bueno caballo." Then she ran the hand down the horse's side and encountered his riders naked leg and foot. Gently she closed both hands over his foot and bent to kiss the top of it. "Gracias," she repeated, and then stepped back, to let him continue.
"Ma'am, you don't have to thank me. I was happy to do it," he explained, knowing she didn't understand, and not doing anything about the tears running down his cheeks.
The blind old lady patted his horse once more as he rode on.
Josiah and Ezra had galloped around the town and were now behind the church with his clothes. With a sigh he pushed Max on to complete the last leg, crossing the square and reached the church steps. That was the deal, up the street, across the square and to the bottom of the church steps. He'd made it, even as Max's hoof touched the step he looked up at the hill side, she was still there, as he watched, her white parasol lifted once in salute and he knew she would keep her bargain. He had made this sacrifice for her, it didn't matter what it was, for the first time ever a man had given something up for her. Men in her world had only ever taken, had only ever asked or insisted that she give things up, her freedom, her body, her life. Now Buck understood what he felt - used, he had been used, and he didn't like it. Was this how Maria felt? Was this how his mother felt? He thought he understood them, but there was no end to the learning curve that was women, and he chastised himself for forgetting that.
As soon as he was around the church he slipped off the horse and grabbed the pants Josiah held out.
"Hand it over Standish," he demanded.
"Sir, to what are you referring?"
"Ezra!" Buck growled.
Sighing dramatically Ezra handed over his hip flask.
Buck took a long pull from the flask, savouring the fine Kentucky bourbon. "Damn that's good stuff. What's the time?" he asked.
Ezra looked at his watch. "It is twenty after eleven."
"Really?" Buck looked up from buttoning his shirt. "Felt like it took longer." Buck finished dressing while Josiah put the saddle back on Max, then he mounted up. "I'll meet you at the river, as planned."
"Buck," Josiah looked up at him, his hand on the reins.
"Ah shit Josiah, don't you start, tell the old lady thank you for me, tell her, tell her aw hell you know."
"Yes son, I know."
With that Buck was gone.
Once Buck was clear, the priest rang the church bell once and life suddenly resumed. No one had peeked except one teenage girl, who had dust blown in her eyes before she saw anything. Both the priest, to whom the poor girl was dragged by her mother once she could see again, and Josiah, said it was divine retribution.
Wayne Gipps arrived protesting loudly that he was being unjustly treated. Despite Josiah and Ezra's protests that they needed to get going, the three escorting guards insisted on staying for an extended lunch. Thus they and Gipps heard all about the days excitements.
By the time they finally made it to the river it was late afternoon.
"Where the hell have you been?" Buck wanted to know as the other two crossed the river to join him.
"Don't ask," Ezra muttered.
They watched Wayne cross the river under the guns of the guards, dismount reluctantly from the horse he had been riding once he made it to the other bank, and send it back to Mexico.
"Wayne Gipps, you're under arrest for murder, rape and robbery." Buck held out the shackles, he always relished locking up a rapist.
"So you're the one." The prisoner grinned evilly.
"Look you!" Buck grabbed the man by the throat. "You don't get to talk, no one word, got that? Do you see a fourth horse here?" Gipps didn't respond. "I asked you a question, bastard."
"Right, and if you think any of us is gonna transport your stinking carcass you can forget it so you're walking, and if ya want to do it in boots ya best shut yer mouth from now on - got it?"
The man didn't answer - he couldn't, he was turning blue.
"Buck," Josiah joined Ezra at Buck's shoulder. "Put him down Buck, now."
There was a seconds delay then the vice-like grip relaxed and the wretched Gipps began to breath again.
After two days, they were nearing Four Corners. Wayne trudged dejectedly; his hands shackled behind his back, forced to walk in the dust kicked up by Max and Chaucer. If he slowed, Cardinal, following behind, would bump into him. In front Ezra spied the town and instantly began to attempt to brush dust from his jacket.
"Hells teeth Ezra, why do you bother? You're covered in dust," Buck observed.
Ezra looked at him sideways, a sly smile on his lips, gold tooth glinting. "Unlike some I need adornment to look my best. 'Buck naked Buck' do you think it has the same ring as 'Bareback Larabee'?"
"Such a noble sacrifice should not go unheralded."
"Perhaps Mrs Travis could write a story for her paper."
"I'm sure Mr Tanner could come up with some heroic poem."
But it was too late, Chaucer was off and running for home.
Lady Godiva rode naked through medieval Coventry in return for her husband easing the tax burden of the people. The people of Coventry deserted the streets until she had passed; all except Tom, who peeked, and was instantly, struck blind. Hence the term 'Peeping Tom'.
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