"Sadie!" A voice called, Chris couldn't see who spoke, but she turned to her left.
"Hal," she responded guardedly.
"Step back from the door," he instructed. She frowned but complied. "Is it true?" he asked.
"Is what true?" she asked.
Chris decided to listen but stay back, though he did silently pick up his gun belt and strap it on.
"Word is you got a man stashed back there with the smallpox, is it true?"
Sadie glanced back at Chris and then turned more fully to face the sheriff. "I got a sick man here it's true, don't reckon it's the smallpox though, just a fever."
"I hear he's got spots, nasty dark spots."
Chris frowned, it was true, while the rash had spread across Buck's chest and to the top of his hips, more of the oldest spots where tuning in to what looked like dark blood filled blisters. The question was how did this information get out. Then he remembered he had found the first girl to arrive after Lillie, peering into the room when he returned from a trip to the outhouse. After he shooed her away, he found Buck has once again kicked off the covers. It hadn't bothered him at the time, Buck had no shame about his body, especially in the company of a woman, and the girl had no doubt seen her fair share of naked men. Now he realised she would have had a good long look at the angry rash.
"There's lots of diseases give a person spots, not just smallpox," Sadie defended.
"Yeah, like measles, and scarlet fever and anthrax. You're good Sadie, but we don't have no real doc and we can't risk an epidemic. Now step away from the door."
Anthrax - she hadn't though of that, she'd never seen a case and she wasn't sure what the symptoms were, but she had to admit she hadn't seen symptoms like Buck's before either. Even without thinking she stepped away from the door a little more. Still fifteen dollars a day was a fortune she was reluctant to give up unless she had to.
"Don't reckon it's anthrax, from what I hear he'd be dead by now if it was." She didn't know if that was true, but it sounded right.
"Move away, he's leaving, him and his friend, I know there are two of them."
Even as she was moving, almost involuntarily, she was still protesting that Buck wasn't that sick. Chris decided that now was the time to impose his authority. He walked to the doorway as soon as Sadie was clear. What he hadn't expected was to be facing four men, since he had only heard one. Hand on the hilt of his gun, full Larabee glare in place, he faced Sheriff Hal Jones.
"We're not moving," he stated flatly.
"You and your friend are endangering the whole town, and it's my duty to protect them, so you two are leaving, your horses are all saddled." From somewhere two more heavily armed men appeared leading Beau and Pony. "One of the cinches was broken - looked like bullet holes?"
Chris made no attempt to explain the damage.
"Well anyway we fixed it, no charge, just get your sick pal up on a horse and get out."
"He'll die if you move him now," Sadie protested.
"I'm not moving him," Chris stated firmly. "No one but me has been near him and I'm not sick."
"It proves your miserable little town is in no danger and I'm not leaving."
The sheriff's hand went to his gun but he was nowhere near fast enough and Chris cleared leather and had him in his sights before he had his gun raised even an inch. But Chris was one and they were seven, which Chris found mildly ironic, and he couldn't cover all of them, and six guns were now trained on him.
"What now sheriff? I'm not gonna move him, he can't do it on his own - which one of you brave men is gonna go in there and get him?"
No one moved, then a small, smug smile appeared on Larabee's stern face.
"What are you grinning at?" Jones asked, just as the blade of s truly huge knife appeared at his throat.
"Put the guns down boys, or the sheriff will be very sorry," Nathan announced, in his other hand his gun covered the area behind him, while the razor sharp blade at the lawman's throat didn't move.
"What the hell do you think you're doing boy?" one of the sheriff's men asked.
"Do not call him 'boy'," Chris advised darkly, turning his gun on the offender. "Now back off, 'cause we're not leaving."
After a few more moments silent stand off the town's men backed down. Only when all of them had holstered their guns and were gathered where Chris could cover them, did Nathan let the sheriff go.
"Good to see you," Chris finally greeted, Nathan pulled his medical satchel off Ben's saddle as he tied up the ever placid bay.
"Interesting welcoming committee." Nathan watched the sheriff and his men leave.
"Yeah." Jackson was still walking toward him. "Nate, you best not come any closer, they were right about that."
Jackson pulled up short. "I'm a healer, Chris, it's my job to take the risk."
"I know, but two of us to take the risk, you can tell me what to do."
"And what about when you sleep?"
"I can "
"Chris you look like shit, if I didn't know it was Buck who was sick I'd think it was you."
"I'm okay," Larabee protested, but even as he said it he knew it was a lie, every bone ached. Before the adrenaline rush of the confrontation with the sheriff, he had been having trouble concentrating; so bad had this become, that he had only just stopped himself from placing a poultice on Buck's shoulder that was at boiling point rather than just hot. He was also aware that he stank and was in needed of a shave.
"Five dollars a day, you can have the room next door, clean sheets and a hot bath." Both men had all but forgotten Sadie, still standing a little way down the long porch.
"Ten the whole week," Chris countered.
"Done," she turned and hurried back into the saloon.
"Does this mean you're gonna let me in and take some rest?" Nathan asked.
+ + + + + + +Poor terrified Beth was placed on trial only a week later, a jury made up entirely of men, some of whom knew the dead man and others who depended on his father for their living sat in judgement on her.
"This is wrong," Buck argued with the sheriff, a man he had considered a friend.
"I know you like the girl Buck, but she did it."
"It was self defence for God sake!"
"Oh come on Buck, she's a common whore, you can't take her word over poor Andy Cooper, he was a fine, God fearing boy."
"If he's so fine what was he doing in an alley with a saloon girl?"
"She no doubt lured him there, every one knows Bar C hands get paid on a Friday."
Buck continued to try to get the trial moved or put back, despite the sheriff telling him to back off and stop making waves.
The trial didn't take long, less then two hours and the jury was sent out to consider its verdict, they took just fifteen minutes - just long enough for a drink.
"Have you reached a verdict on which you all agree?" the judge asked the foreman.
"How do you find the defendant, Elizabeth Mary Riley, on the charge of murder?"
Beth gasped then turned her eyes on the judge. "But thats wrong sir, he was trying to kill me, please sir, I got the right to defend myself - don't I? Please "
The judge banged his gavel several times and demanded that she be quiet. Buck stepped up and put his arms around her. "I know darlin'," he whispered, "hush now you're only making it worse, hush now," he soothed.
When the room was once more quiet, the judge continued. "The sentence of the court is death, sentence to be carried out tomorrow."
At the sound of the final gavel fall, the trembling young girl in Buck's arms went limp.
+ + + + + + +
"Beth!" Buck shouted hoarsely, struggling to untangle himself from the bedclothes wound around his legs, just as his two friends came into the sick room.
"Who's Beth?" Nathan asked, as he darted forward to help Chris held down the distressed Wilmington.
"No idea, but he seems very concerned about her, keeps asking me to rescue her." Chris looked at Buck, his sweat drenched head tossing and turning on the pillow. "Hush now Buck, she's safe, hear me she's safe."
The tossing and turning slowed, eyes, which were still unfocused did turn toward Chris. "Safe?" he asked.
"I got her, she's okay, so relax now."
"I swear, now hush, sleep."
Nathan let Chris deal with this mini crisis, as it was something he had clearly done several times before. Only when Buck was once more resting peacefully, did he begin to question Chris and examine his patient.
"Well it ain't smallpox," he announced.
"You sure?" Chris asked, it was what he desperately wanted to hear, but was almost afraid to believe.
"Quite sure, I have heard of this fever with a rash on the legs and hands, all I remember is the fever lasts a long time and it don't appear to be contagious."
Chris nodded, with this weight lifted from him, Chris suddenly felt as tired as he actually was. "How bad is this fever?" he asked, sinking down into the chair beside the bed.
"I won't lie to you, it's bad, very bad, and all you can do is wait for it to burn itself out." Nathan looked up from Chris and frowned. "Go to bed Chris, I don't need two patients."
Chris looked torn, desperately in need of sleep but not wanting to leave his friend, his anchor.
"Go Chris, I promise I'll come get you if there is any change."
Chris finely nodded. "Remember, if he asks, Beth is safe, you rescued her, he'll never settle if you don't tell him that." Larabee stood slowly, suddenly stiff. "Hang on in there Buck," he commanded tenderly as he headed for the door.
"Howdy." At the end of the row of rooms sat one of the armed men from the earlier confrontation, a scatter gun across his knees, both barrels pointed at Chris.
"What are you doing?"
"Making sure you don't leave them two rooms, not for anything - 'sept the out house. Sheriff's orders."
Chris frowned, he could make an issue of it, after all they weren't planning on going anywhere else, even if he told the man Nathan thought it wasn't contagious he probably wouldn't believe him and besides there really was no point arguing with this clearly none too bright underling. So Chris just shook his head and headed into his own room.
+ + + + + + +Buck carried Beth in his arms back to the jail, for Beth he kept his own emotions in check, but inside his gut was churning. There seemed to be nothing he could do, this thing, this terrible, awful thing, this thing that was so wrong, so unjust and contrary to his natural sense of justice and his in built need to protect the weak, that he could barely comprehend it. He laid the now conscious and weeping young girl back on the bed in the cell.
"Save me Bucky," she begged as he began to back out of the cell.
"I will," he heard himself saying even before he had thought about it.
All that day he tried to find a way to save poor Beth. He begged the judge for clemency, to change the sentence to life in prison, but he wouldn't, he tried to get a stay of execution, but since there was no question about who had killed Andy Cooper, he wouldn't hear of it. The execution was set for dawn, and with just three hours to go, with the town finally quiet he set out to liberate Beth and make a run for the Mexican border. He didn't try to go in through the front. The sheriff knew how upset he was and insisted he take the night and the following day off. There was no way he wanted to hurt, let alone kill anyone. So, with his horse saddled and laden with supplies he crept to the back of the jail. The walls were made of adobe bricks, it didn't take long for him to get some bars loose. Young Beth was thin and by discarding most of her clothing she was able to shimmy out of the small window and into Buck's arms, unfortunately the very moment her feet slipped out of the window the sheriff had decided to check on his prisoner.
Buck was arrested. He spent two hours in the adjoining cell to Beth. Just before dawn a priest came to hear her confession and then she was literally dragged out to be hung. She begged and cried and clung onto the bars, but nothing could save her. Her desperate, terrified screams, begging repeatedly for her life, rang in Buck's ears, almost right up until the ominous thud of the scaffold's trap door and the sudden silence of the crowed. So deep in shock was the young Buck that he barely even registered what happened to him after that terrible day.
+ + + + + + +
Chris wasn't sure how long he'd been asleep, he'd had had to fight to keep from falling asleep in the bath water, and only just managed to shave himself, before collapsing into the bed. He was woken by a pounding on the adjoining wall and Nathan's urgent voice. As he stumbled into the room next door in nothing but his long underwear, he was greeted him by Buck, standing naked on very shaky legs and holding a gun on Jackson.
"What the hell?"
"Sorry," Jackson apologised, "I told him Beth was safe but he wouldn't believe me, I turned my back to call you and " He waved his hand at Buck. "Didn't think he had the strength."
Chris tuned to Buck. "Buck, come on it's me, Chris, put the gun down."
"I failed it's too late I ain't gonna let you get me too!" The gun waved wildly and neither man was at all sure Buck was even attempting to aim at them.
"No one's gonna get you, just put the gun down and everything will be okay."
"No, no don't you see, it's too late she's gone, poor little thing." Tears ran down his face.
All the time Chris was holding the sick man's attention, Nathan edged around the room, trying to get close enough to grab the gun.
"What happened to Beth pal, tell me, tell me what happened to her?" Chris asked, keeping his voice calm and level.
"She's so scared, she doesn't wan' t' die, so young a girl I can't stop 'um. I tried Chris - I tried but I couldn't stop 'um."
At that moment Nathan's long arm snaked out and grabbed the barrel of the pistol and wrenched it up and out of Buck's feeble grasp. Even as Nathan's hand was on the gun Chris was moving. Wrestling Buck back into bed didn't require much effort, he was as weak as a kitten. Standing had burst some of the blood filled blisters on the soles of his feet, and Chris had to continue to hold him down while Nathan tended them.
"Le' me go!" Buck protested weekly. "Can't you hear her? She's so scared, I have to be with her Le' me go!"
"Just take it easy pal, relax, let Nathan take care of you."
"Don't lock me up, please don't close that door - I had to do it, I had to she was innocent, don't you see, she was innocent, I had to do it le' me go!"
But eventually the fight went out of Buck, he stopped struggling. "She shouldn't have died like that, not hung, not for what she did." Finally his eyes closed and he seemed to be asleep.
Chris sat back and watched Nathan work, appreciating the man's professionalism and efficiency.
"Did I hear right?" Jackson asked. "They hung this Beth girl."
"That's what I heard too."
"And Buck did time for trying to rescue her?"
"Did sound that way."
They both knew how hard that would hit a man like Buck, to have failed to rescue a young girl from a fate like that, must have been devastating.
+ + + + + + +Buck's own trial past in a haze of grief, remorse and self loathing, he barely even register that he, having been found guilty of 'assisting a prisoner to escape', had been sentenced to three years hard labour. Only when he found himself in prison uniform and locked in a tiny stinking cell for the first time, did it hit him. The cell was small, but there were four bunks in it and seven other men.
"Well, well who do have here boys, fresh meat?" The speaker was a huge man with lank dirty blond hair and rotting teeth.
Buck paid him no attention, just walking with as much confidence as he could muster to the only bunk that seemed to be unoccupied.
"This one free?" he asked, doing his best to sound nonchalant - he was a deputy sheriff after all, not to mention a bordello bouncer since he was 13, he could take care of himself - right?
"Maybe." Came the response from the big man.
"Well is it or not?" Buck turned to face him.
"Like I say, it depends. What's yer name boy?"
Now or never Buck, show him who's boss or you're dead meat. "My name is my business, so unless one of you guys claims this bunk I'm having it - right?"
The big prisoner, clearly the leader of this little gang, decided it was time to exert his authority, such as it was, and he swung at Buck. It was a haymaker of a punch, so telegraphed that Buck even had time to decide how to block it, in the end he just captured the flying fist, and use his superior leverage to force the man back. After that they left him alone, eventually he ever formed tentative friendships with some of the men. But most of the time prison was a day to day struggle to survive, even for someone with Buck's intelligence and knowledge of the seedier side of life. He didn't belong with the men he was confined with, he didn't share there 'dog eat dog' philosophy, and he wasn't about to get used, dragged into fights or embroiled in gang politics. He'd always been able to take care of himself, now he learned to pretend to be something and someone he wasn't. He learned to keep himself to himself, in prison what people knew about you, could get you hurt.
When he was finally released, he wasn't any taller but he'd filled out, and put on a lot of muscle. No longer the carefree open boy he had been, he was a man now, and he kept this personal feelings close to his chest, he covered this new reticence with good humour and a loud desire to live life to the full and cherish his freedom. With no family and no ties, he drifted, living hand to mouth, for more than a year before being recruited into the cavalry of the Union Army, where he met a young officer called Christopher Larabee.
+ + + + + + +
Getting up and waving his gun around had drained Buck of all energy, and that gave the fever a chance to spike. For what seemed like a lifetime, but was only six hours, Chris and Nathan tried to keep the fever from consuming their friend and Buck hung on to life with all the obstinate, stubborn, tenacity they both knew he possessed. But as the day faded to dusk Nathan detected a minor drop in Buck's temperature for the very first time Chris saw the light at the end of the tunnel. It was hard to believe, looking at him lying there, so still, deathly pale under his normal tan, dark circles under his eyes, lips dry. And yet he was there, breathing, still a little fast, a bit shallow - or so Nathan told him - but there, alive. And why not? Buck Wilmington was stubborn, and tenacious, there were mules less stubborn than Buck, and no one knew that better than Chris. If he had to bet on someone beating this fever it was Buck.
As Nathan lit the lamps Chris settled dawn again to keep watch.
"They'll bring some supper soon, then you better get some sleep Nate, you look done in," he suggested.
"Yeah, I'll do that, reckon he should rest quietly for a bit now."
"Is he gonna make it? Tell me the truth."
Nathan took a deep breath. "I can't promise you that, there are no guarantees in this world, but he's come this far, that's real good, and he's "
"Stubborn, yeah I know."
Just then there was a knock at the door followed by hurried footsteps. Once they had eaten Nathan went next door to get some sleep, while Chris settled down for another vigil he drew the lamp a little closer and pulled out the copy of Homers Odyssey Josiah had lent him sometime back but he never seemed to finish. After a while he was lost in the tale of Odysseus and Telemachus, every now and again he'd look up and check Buck really was still there, still breathing, he'd wash him down, replace the cold compress on his brow, then return to his book. The fever didn't break, Buck's body still radiated heat, but even Chris could tell it wasn't the furnace-like heat of just a few hours before.
Around dawn, having reached the end of a chapter and finding it hard to concentrate on the small print, Chris put the book down and once more turned his attention to his friend.
"Why didn't you ever tell me about Beth? I know what that must have done to you. My friend Buck, the most protective man I know, the momma grizzlies to end all momma grizzlies, protector and defender of all women, but you couldn't save her could you pal? They hung her, poor thing and locked you up. For how long I wonder, and where? It amazes me sometimes how little I know about you. You were always there for me, I just wish I could have been there when you needed someone."
"'Is?" The name was little more than a breath, but Chris seized on it. Leaping to his feet to get closer to his friend.
"Buck, pal? Can you hear me, it's Chris."
"Yeah I'm here, open your eyes for me al, let me see those blues." As he watched Buck struggle to open eyelids that seemed to be as heavy as lead, but finally he was looking into blearily unfocused eyes. "Well hello there Big Dog, good to see you again."
"Beth," the voice was still breathy and weak but the name was clear enough.
"What about Beth?"
Clearly he had regained at least some of his senses, but Chris still took his time, he wasn't sure quite where in time Buck was.
"Yeah pal, she's dead," he confirmed softly.
Buck looked at him, the pain all too clear in his eyes. "I tried."
"I know you did, I know, it wasn't your fault. You need to rest now."
"No, no, I failed, not good enough not good enough, failure they died they all died too late." He was getting agitated again, clearly mixing his failure to save poor Beth with the loss of Sarah and Adam.
Chris had once blamed Buck for their deaths, for that extra night in Mexico, once but not now. If he had been there he might have saved them, if he had reached them in time - and that was questionable. The blackened timbers were all but cold when they reached the ranch, it was more then possible that had they come straight home they would have arrived to the sight of an inferno. It was also more than possible that had he and Buck been there, they would also be dead, or worse, they would have killed Buck and left him alone, totally alone.
"No pard, you're not a failure, never think that," Chris assured. "You are my good friend Buck Wilmington, protector of the weak, friend to the friendless, lover of women, the most loyal and the bravest man I know. So rest now, rest and get strong again, I need you - you big cowboy."
Buck seemed to be listening, but it was hard to tell, but then he muttered sometime that made Chris smile.
"N't a cowboy, you cowboy," he slurred, before his eyes closed.
"Yeah that's right, I'm the cowboy, rest my friend, my brother, sleep."
+ + + + + + +
Outside the word had reached the townspeople that a man who might have smallpox was at The Lucky Star. The sheriff had put a guard on the room, but that didn't stop a crowd gathering. At first the gathering was small.
"Well Miss " The very proper Mrs Holden had never spoken to any saloon girl, let alone bothered to discover their name.
"Gibbons, but you can call me Sadie. What can I do for you Mrs Holden?"
"This man, the one who's sick, why did you let him come there?"
"I have some skill at treating the sick, I saw it as my Christian duty to take the poor man in, him and his friend." Sadie folded her arms as she stood in front of the gathering of about ten.
"Christian? You? How dare you claim that?" Matilder Spiny spluttered.
"Yes me? Why not? Don't I provide food and drink to weary travellers? Don't I tend the sick - never asking if they have the money to pay me first mind? Well?"
"Food and drink isn't all you provide for the travellers," Mrs Spiny countered.
"I have one thing to say to you madam - Mary Magdalene," Sadie responded.
Before the age-old argument could spiral out of hand, Harold Jenkins stepped froward.
"The point it this man is probably carrying some dangerous contagion, the word is its the smallpox, and we want him out of our town, away from our children."
"Your children never come anywhere near this place, but we have children here you know, and I'm not worried about them. As I have told the sheriff it is not the smallpox. His friend, Mr Larabee telegraphed the healer from their town and he agrees."
"I'm told he's a Negro, you can't take the word of a darkie, what does he know? Probably can't even read," Jenkins countered angrily.
"Mr Jackson is a very learned man, he's heard of this fever before, says it's not contagious."
"Well what is it? Did he tell you that?" Jenkins asked.
"No, no he doesnt know, not exactly."
"So there is a chance it could be catching, even if it isn't smallpox?"
"No I don't think so, not really, Mr Larabee has been with him all that time and he's fine."
"You think, you think! You're not a doctor, who knows what his man has or what he could pass on, he has to leave, now!"
"How?" The sheriff strode along the sidewalk to stand next to Sadie. "That man is out of his head with fever, are you going to go in to that room and drag him off his sick bed - well?"
The argument had gathered more people and the atmosphere was getting ugly.
"His friends can take him, theyre most likely carrying it too," a man demanded.
"And how do you intend to make them?" the sheriff asked, he didn't mention he had already tried this and failed.
A man called Clem Baxter, a known loudmouth troublemaker, stepped forward. "Oh I'll make 'um move, don't you worry."
Hal Jones sympathised, their reaction was his own when he first heard the news, now he had had time to think about it, he realised if they were to have any compassion at all, the situation was being managed as well as it could be.
"No one is going back there and no one is leaving, so just break it up and go home," he instructed firmly.
Enough of the respectable people, deferring to authority, dispersed to take the heat out of the situation, if only temporarily. The discontent simmered all day, as the heat and humidity rose, along with the alcohol in take, fear and belligerence mounted. Thunder once more rolled over head, the humidity was oppressive, and tempers rose with it.
+ + + + + + +
Behind the saloon they were oblivious to this, there things were improving, a cable from Four Corners insisted on news and, via Sadie, Chris was able to send that Buck was showing signs of improvement. Nathan seemed to think that he was more asleep then unconscious. This fever wasn't like pneumonia, there was no sudden drop in temperature once the crisis was passed, but hopeful the slow steady drop they had seen would continue. The rash hadn't spread any further, the blisters that had burst were dry now, and no more had turned into the dark spots.
By the time Chris and Nathan were awaiting their supper, the malcontents had worked up a head of whisky fuelled steam. Mob mentality was taking over. By ten in the evening, and led by Baxter, the growing mob moved through the saloon and advanced on the deputy guarding the room.
"Stand aside Tom!" Baxter demanded.
"No you don't, I got my orders boys." Deputy Tom Leon jumped to his feet to face the men. "Stay back."
"Or what?" Clem was a big man, at least six inches taller and a lot bigger then young Tom. "You gonna shoot me Tom?" Even before Leon could bring his gun up someone grabbed it, and the mob barged past him.
The raised voices had alerted Chris and Nathan that something was wrong. Guns hastily buckled on they stepped outside to face the mob. There were at least a dozen men outside with guns, at the back, two men had the deputy held fast, behind them was a growing crowd of onlookers from the saloon.
"We got a problem here boys?" Chris asked lazily, his hand resting on his gun.
"We want you and your sick friend outta here, now, tonight, whatever he's got - we don't want it here," Clem demanded.
"No one's gonna catch anything, it isn't catchin' and anyway he's getting better," Nathan explained.
"What would you know about it, boy?" someone shouted.
"A hell of a lot more than you!" Chris countered. "We ain't moving."
"Oh yeah? Well we say you are."
"Clem!" The deputy called from the rear. "You got any idea who you're talking to?"
"Sure I do Tom, talkin' to a man who's gonna high tail it outta our town and take what ever pox he brung in out with him."
"You idiot, that there is Chris Larabee - the Chris Larabee, why the hell do ya reckon Hal backed down? 'Cause he recognised him, thats why!"
Clam Baxter flinched as Chris gave him his most evil smile.
"Well, well that don't change nothing," Baxter finally spluttered. "You still got no right t' being pestilence into town, around decent folk."
"Don't see too many decent folk out back of a saloon," Nathan pointed out. "I told you, no one's gonna catch it."
Everyone froze except the two regulators from Four Corners, who spun around to face the open door, where Buck lent heavily on the doorframe, a blanket wound around him.
"You're not gonna get sick too?" he asked in a hoarse voice that was no more than a whisper.
"No one, I promise," Nathan assured.
Before Nathan could tell Buck to get back to bed, Sadie elbowed her way to the front of the crowd and stepped up to stand between Chris and Nathan.
"This is my place Baxter and if you wanna keep drinking here, then end this. I'm happy to have him, all of them, here."
"At fifteen dollars a day, sure she is," Chris whispered to Nathan.
By now the sheriff and another deputy had arrived. He took a moment to register that the gaunt, blanket-clad figure leaning on the doorframe must be the patient, before he addressed the crowd.
"Break it up, as you can see there's no danger." He nodded his head toward Buck. "I ain't gonna say this again, break it up now or I'm gonna start arresting people."
There were mutterings but men at the back started to disperse, tempted inside by the saloon girls and encouraged by the big rain drops that had started to fall as the storm finally arrived. Clem Baxter and his closest cronies were the last to reluctantly turn away. Once they were sure the danger was over Nathan and Chris turned to their friend.
"Come on Buck, you need to lie down before you fall down." Nathan started to manoeuvre Buck so he could support him.
"This your place?" Buck asked Sadie who had also turned to look up at him. This was her first chance to see him close up, even sick as he clearly was he was good looking, she wondered just how handsome a fit Wilmington was, and found herself smiling.
"It is," she confirmed.
Chris was now supporting him on the other side.
"Thanks darlin'." He gave her the best smile he could manage.
"Well handsome, you're most welcome." She smiled back.
Shaking their heads in exasperation, his friends, who were the only thing keeping him from crashing to the ground, helped Buck back to bed.
+ + + + + + +
The fever still lingered, a little lower each day it was true, and progress was frustratingly slow, but progress there was. Now he was no longer in quarantine, the saloon girls were more than eager to visit. While Buck was sleeping up to eighteen or even twenty hours a day, while he was awake he was happy to have Sadie, Lillie and the other girls visit, cool his fevered brow, shave him, brush his hair, and spoon feed him broth - even when he was more than capable of doing it himself.
Three days after the showdown, Nathan and Sadie were sure, given no complications, he'd make a full recovery. With this assurance, Chris sent a cable to Four Corners. BUCK IMPROVING - STOP SEND WAGON - STOP - CHRIS -
Five days later JD drove one of Tiny's wagons into town with Ezra riding beside him. The cable was actually sent to Josiah, and while JD coming was a given, they had expected it to be Josiah who came with him.
"Hi JD! Nathan greeted, Ezra." He tipped his head to the gambler as he dismounted. "Wasn't expecting to see you here."
"Indeed," came the terse response.
"Where's Buck?" JD asked, even as he was tying up the horses.
"Down there, last door." Jackson pointed over his shoulder.
JD grinned broadly, and tossing a 'thank you' over his shoulder, was already jogging down toward the far room.
"Is Mr Wilmington still in the land of the living?" Ezra asked.
Nathan just rolled his eyes. "You could say that." Just then seconds after JD entered a giggling saloon girl exited the room.
"Ah, definitely living I see."
"The man just can't help it, I swear he doesnt do anything, they just " He waved his hands vaguely " come, they appear, out of nowhere."
"Well he does keep telling us it's a curse."
"Yeah I know, actually it's kinda nice, having him back to normal," Nathan admitted.
"Was the a real chance he might have ?"
Nathan nodded in response the unfinished question.
"Ezra, what are you doing here?" Chris came up behind them.
"Messrs Tanner and Sanchez insisted I accompany young Mr Dunne. Clearly Mr Tanner could come and Mr Sanchez said - and I quote - 'only a damn fool would leave you two' that would be myself and Mr Tanner, 'in charge of anything, let alone the safety of a whole town'. I fail to see his argument, but he was most persuasive."
Chris and Nathan were both smirking.
"Just what is so amusing?"
"Nate remind me to buy Josiah a drink when we get back." Chris patted Ezra on the shoulder as he started to walk toward Buck's room.
Chris turned back to face Ezra. "Mr Standish?"
"Might I have my money now, since we will be here for at least one night and I would like to take advantage of this borough's gambling establishments, once I have paid my respects to Mr Wilmington, naturally."
"You mean there's a whole town out there who don't know you, and you want to fleece as many of them as possible in one night"
"Mr Jackson, I resent that!"
"Ezra," Chris growled.
"Oh alright yes, but I do not fleece, I'm just better than them. So if I could have my money?"
Chris considered the gambler for a while then pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and peeled off two tens and a five and handed them over. Ezra accepted them and then held out his hand for more.
"That's it Ezra."
"What? Excuse me, but seven into three fifty is fifty each."
"I can count Ezra, but we have had some expenses here."
"A hundred and seventy five dollars! What have you been doing, living on champagne and caviar?"
"We been keeping Buck alive best way we could - you saying he ain't worth it?" Nathan shot back angrily.
"No! No of course not, but clearly you needed me here to negotiate your room rate."
Chris smiled. "You might be right about that."
+ + + + + + +
The next day they loaded up the wagon and prepared to set out for home. Buck protested he could ride but wiser heads prevailed. So that Buck could sleep comfortably in the back of the wagon whenever he needed to, Sadie donated the mattress from the bed he'd used, it was old any way and they had paid so much she could easily afford a new one. Once it was clear whatever Buck was suffering from wasn't contagious she had offered them rooms in the saloon but Nathan vetoed the idea, Buck needed rest and for that he needed quiet and no 'distractions'. There were too many 'distractions' for Nathan's liking already, heaven alone know what it would be like if they actually moved into the saloon-come-bordello.
Jackson told them they would have to take their time going home, taking regular breaks. When it finally came to saying goodbye, it took quite some time. While she was mostly motivated by money - a trait Ezra couldnt fault her for - Sadie also genuinely wanted to help people, and she liked the men, especially the charming patient. So it turned out did all her female staff, and it took Buck nearly an hour to say farewell, not that the others minded as the ladies pressed cookies, biscuits, cakes, pies, even pails of lemonade and a big chunk of bacon on him. Buck explained later that in lean times girls might take goods in place of cash, which no doubt explained the bacon.
Two days out they found a rocky pond fed by a spring, and decided to set up camp, even though it was only three and there were several hours of daylight left. Nathan and JD were hunting game, Ezra was asleep on Buck's 'bed', and Chris was sitting by the waterside next to Buck, both of then dangling their feet in the cool water.
"You talked some, when you were sick," Chris started guardedly.
"Lot a hooey I'll bet."
"No, not at all, you talked about the war and about Beth."
Buck visibly stiffened. "I don't wanna talk about her," he finally stated.
"Fair enough, but if you ever did, I'd listen."
Buck looked out across the still cool waters of the pond, he felt again the weight of her loss and yet the weight seemed a little lighter, just from Chris knowledge of its presence.
"Thanks, might take you up on that offer one day," he finally admitted.
"But not today?"
"No, not today."