Disclaimer: NO money is being made by me, NO copywrite infringment is intended, either to the owners/creators of the Magnificent Seven in any of its incarnations, or to the wonderful rock singer Bob Seger, whose song "Beautiful Loser" is quoted in part at the end of this story.
I would like to thank S Macdonald for her research (how did you find the seminole chief's name? LOL). I would also like to thank Phyllis, Midnight Princess, LMKParker, Sue M, S Mac and especially TexasAries (who looked this over for me shortly after a particularly difficult event Real Life) for their suggestions, beta work and feedback; much obliged, pards! Let me know when I can return the favor! This short story is meant as a subsuequent event to the ep One Day Out West, in which a brief but brutal confrontation between Buck and Chris was glossed over in the ep itself. This story is what might have happened later on.
Feedback welcome. Any flamers will be served as a side dish.
Dedicated with love and appreciation to lmkparker, lmbgambler, and my dad.
It had been more than a week since Lucas James had been convicted of Mr. Potter's murder, and hung in the gallows. More than a week since the seven guns who'd brought him to trial had found themselves gainfully employed as six peacekeepers and the new sheriff, at least until Judge Travis returned.
Chris Larabee, Buck Wilmington, Vin Tanner and Josiah Sanchez had attended the execution; not that they wanted to see another hanging, but to support the young new sheriff. J.D. Dunne had never seen a man swing before, and he was mortified lest someone realize how violent his stomach became at the sight. Only the presence of his new friends, men he looked up to, helped him hide his discomfort.
All of them went to the funeral as well, in case the newly departed's relatives decided to make a forceful appearance. Josiah Sanchez performed the brief service. He had forgone the Old Testament approach; instead merely offered a prayer that the Almighty might just find it in His heart to forgive James in the hereafter, since he wasn't raised right by his greedy family, and so therefore hadn't known any better than what he'd done.
At that, Larabee flicked a glance at Wilmington and Tanner. Buck was looking off into the horizon, his mind somewhere else, but Vin felt the look, raised an eyebrow; what?
Larabee shook his head slightly; nothin'.
Josiah brought the brief ceremony to a close, and the small group of non-mourners drifted back into the town. The new sheriff and the four older peacekeepers headed to the saloon, and sat down at the poker table where Ezra Standish and Nathan Jackson sat waiting for them. There was a bottle of rye at the table with glasses for all seven, and Nathan had already poured for them. The other five nodded or smiled their thanks as they sat and reached for the whiskeys.
"You gentlemen did not squander perfectly good pennies by placing them on the eyes of the late-but-unlamented Lucas James, I trust?," asked the Southerner, his voice languid.
"The Lord deplores waste, Ezra," said Josiah, then knocked back the shot poured for him.
"I will take that as a 'no'," said Standish, smiling at the former priest. "A game, gentlemen?"
Josiah turned his glass over, and stood, stretching his large frame.
"No, thanks, I b'lieve I will close my eyes for a short spell. I ride with Chris on patrol this evening."
Vin glanced over at Chris in time to see momentary puzzlement cross his face as he glanced from Josiah to Buck, who was also rising, mentioning a rendezvous with some 'purty little gal.' Then Larabee's face went to a blank expression, and he made no comment, but Vin saw the irritated flash just before Larabee's mask came down.
Standish's gold tooth flashed at Wilmington.
"Do not forget, Mr. Wilmington; we are scheduled as relief for Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Larabee at eleven."
"I'll be there, Ezra." Buck tipped his hat to the group and swaggered through the batwing doors Josiah left swinging.
"Dressed, one hopes," Ezra muttered. Aloud, he asked, "Gentlemen?," his deck now moving in his nimble fingers, "a short one?"
"That the deck with the extra ace innit?," asked Vin. The erstwhile bounty hunter slouched in his chair, his eyes narrowed, but his voice teased.
"I can add any additional card you so desire, Mr. Tanner," said Ezra, unperturbed, "but it is an accepted practice to make a lesser card 'wild'. Mr. Jackson? Mr. Dunne? Mr. Larabee?"
"I know better than to play with you, Ezra." Nathan smiled to take the sting out of his words. "I have too few shirts as it is, jes' to lose one of them to you."
"Mr. Jackson, should I be insulted or flattered?"
Nathan chuckled, and waved good-bye to the group. " 'Got some things needs doin'; I'll see y'all later."
"Just a few hands, Ezra," J.D. said. "That's all I can afford."
Chris Larabee merely nodded, and the cards were dealt.
The afternoon and evening were uneventful, and at the end of their patrol, Chris Larabee and Josiah Sanchez headed for the livery, unsaddled and tended to their horses. When they finished, they stepped outside together to see Ezra's horse saddled and Ezra standing in front of the sheriff's office with J.D., talking quietly. Buck rode up to the railing, dismounted and greeted both men; a clap on the arm for Ezra and a playful flick at the young sheriff's hat for J.D.
Larabee and Josiah watched this exchange, Josiah smiling, Chris thoughtful. Josiah glanced over at Larabee and saw faint consternation in Larabee's expression.
"Something bothering you, brother Chris?"
Larabee flicked a glance at him, then shook his head, his face now a mask. Josiah was not fooled.
"Have it out with him."
"With who?," Larabee asked, feigning ignorance.
"Whichever one of our fellow lawfully hired guns you're at odds with," answered Josiah. "Good night."
The gray-haired man walked away towards the old church.
Larabee watched him go, his expression once again thoughtful. Then he glanced back to the other three peacekeepers. Buck and Ezra had mounted their horses and taken their leave of J.D. Ezra tapped his hat brim in Larabee's direction, Buck gave casual wave, and they rode off.
Chris watched them ride out of sight, feeling vaguely at a loss. Josiah's insightfulness, while disconcerting, was dead on. There was one of the regulators with whom Larabee needed to talk---clear the air. He'd held off for this long because he felt---he hoped---it would all blow over. It had not, and now it was time to decide: either do something about it, before the rift became a chasm---or let it go. There was a time not long ago, right after Sarah and Adam were killed, that such a concern would not have crossed his mind; Larabee simply wouldn't have cared one way or the other. Even now, he wondered why he did care, why not just leave it be? But he did, and spent the rest of the night wrestling with his conscience.
Sometime in the early morning hours, he made the decision to make one pass at mending this fence he found himself beside. He hadn't made an effort like this in years, but he felt differently about this than he might have just a few weeks ago. Besides, he had already lost too many people he cherished or cared for; friends in the War, Sarah, Adam...he would not lose anyone else, not if he could help it.
When Ezra and Buck rode back in early the next morning, Vin Tanner stood outside his wagon, sipping hot, black coffee, and smiled at Ezra, who was practically snoozing in his saddle. Buck grinned with Tanner and poked Ezra .
"How you gentlemen can eat at this uncivilized hour eludes me," said the gambler with a yawn.
"Mrs. Potter's hot cakes and coffee don't tempt ya?," asked Vin.
"Hmmm; rough fare, but perhaps I can force down a morsel or two."
Buck and Ezra went to the livery; Ezra to unsaddle his horse and Buck to strap his fishing rods to his saddle.
They walked out together, and headed for the rooming house, Buck leading his horse.
"Any sensible fish is sleeping at this hour," Ezra said, stifling another yawn.
"Well, they'll be caught sleeping then," said Buck, and laughed.
Ezra flicked a glance at the tall ladies' man, his quick expression alone showed what he thought of the quip.
They met Nathan and Vin on the rooming house porch and went in together to eat. Half an hour passed, and Buck re-emerged with Nathan, the latter still sipping coffee.
"You and Vin come back into town for lunch; I'll see if Mrs. Potter will fry up my catch for us."
"Will do. Thanks, Buck."
Buck swung into his saddle, and headed away.
Above the rooming house porch, peering out of the window of his darkened rented room, Larabee listened the exchanges between the men below. He watched Buck quicken his horse's pace to a trot as he rode away. When he was sure of Buck's direction, Larabee left his room, picking up his duster on the way out. He saddled his horse, and rode out of town, trailing Wilmington.
Larabee reached the river, and turned west. He allowed his horse to set its own pace; he was in no hurry. After a time he was rewarded by the faint sound of splashing and good-natured cussing mixed in with singing. Riding a little further, he came upon a small campfire near a tree with a couple of strings of fish hanging from a low branch. He turned to see Wilmington wading back in toward the bank, a wiggling fish in his net. Wilmington was stripped to the waist and bootless; his gun belt set out of sight on the bank, and he picked it up as he came out of the water. He grinned at Larabee as he walked to the tree to add the fish to the rest of his catch. Larabee gave his horse a long rein and set him to graze beside Buck's bay and then turned to face his oldest friend. Larabee eyed the net.
"Poles not catching anything today?"
"Oh, I've caught plenty today; still got a couple poles set over yonder at the water's edge," Buck said, and grinned again. "Decided to try it St. Peter's way fer fun. Worked, too."
"I can see that."
"You gonna try your luck?"
"Maybe," Larabee said, "seems like you've caught more than enough."
"Promised the boys lunch. Guess I'll catch a few more, then git to cleaning 'em."
Buck walked several yards downstream to check his fishing lines, and a few moments later held up two good-sized fish for Larabee to see. He carried his catch back to his camp, and began cleaning them while Larabee leaned against a tree and lit a cigar.
"A mite interestin' that we haven't heard from the James family," Wilmington said.
"Been quiet," Larabee said in agreement. "Good for J.D."
"Yep, I think that boy done bit off more'n he can chew."
"He wouldn't be the first."
"That he wouldn't."
They were quiet for a bit; Buck working his catch as Chris watched and smoked.
"Speaking of James," said Buck, his voice smooth, casual, "that was a real close shave the other day! Good thing I decided to check on you boys; might have found y'all later with more holes in your backsides then you started with."
Larabee took another drag on his cheroot, then looked over at Wilmington.
"What made you decide to join the party?"
"Well, I noticed," Buck said, while he prepared to clean the rest of the morning's catch, "you'd left your razor behind."
There it was. Larabee raised his gaze from the river to Wilmington, who had put his boots and his gun belt on before setting himself to gutting his catch. He was focused on each fish on the flat rock in front of him, the small knife flashing in the sunlight. Larabee drew in a sharp breath, then released it slowly as he glanced down, then back at his friend. Larabee really couldn't think of an answer, so he simply said;
At the simple words, Wilmington slowed what he was doing, then stopped. He lunged to his feet, and turned to face Larabee. Gone was the easygoing ladies' man, and in his place was a fierce gunfighter whom Larabee knew to be every bit as dangerous and deadly as Larabee knew himself to be. Wilmington stared at the man opposite of him, his survival instinct making note of Larabee pulling back his duster, exposing his own gun belt. Though he knew it was automatic move on Larabee's part, it angered Buck even more, yet he held his ground. Bullets might fly today, but not before he had his answers.
"Chris," Buck said, his voice low, hoarse, "I've been a real bastard in my time, but I have never---never---done anything that deserved you holdin' a blade to my throat!"
Larabee's response was quiet.
"I don't need anyone using me or my past for their own ends."
"You're talkin' about the story she wrote in her blasted paper---Chris, you know I had nothin' to do with that!"
"It's my past, Buck. She might use it the next time she wants to 'scare the bad element' away with her paper."
But Wilmington was relentless.
"Well, now really, old pard'---did I let out some deep, dark secret o'yours? Did I? 'Else there must be some other widower named Chris Larabee roaming the territories in mourning black!" He glared at Larabee. "Travis had articles on you, including ones about the fire---if she'd read the older stories, she'd never've asked about you 'tall!"
"The story she put in her paper was lies," Larabee said, heat beginning to seep in his voice.
"Did you confront her about it?"
"You know I did, Buck."
"And did you put a knife to her throat during that conversation?"
"Huh. Did she print 'lies' about you in the paper?'
Again the simple answer caused Buck to erupt.
"Then why in the hell did I nearly get my head cut off my neck fer telling' the truth---and damn little of that?!"
Larabee was silent.
"Buck, you'd crossed a line---"
"A line I didn't realize was there!"
Wilmington stared at him, then flung his hand out in exasperation.
"Well, that's jes' great, ol' pard'; 'a line you didn't know was there'---why that explains it all!"
"No, no--let me git this! This particular line o'yours lets perfect strangers lie about you--even lets 'em print those lies for anyone who ken read but doesn't let your oldest friend tell the truth about you? Do I have that line about right, Chris?"
Larabee said nothing, but stood still, his right hand still held back the duster away from his holster.
When Wilmington realized Larabee would not answer, he made a swift decision out of anger and anguish, one he knew could cost him his life.
"Damn you , Chris--did I? Did I betray you? Well, here then---," His face flushed with effort to maintain control, Buck drew his Colt, and kept the barrel down, even though he also saw Larabee draw his weapon and train it on Wilmington. Wilmington stayed still for a split second, one part of his mind wondering why he wasn't dead yet, and stared back at Larabee. Then Wilmington gave a little toss with his hand, turning the Colt in the air, so that when he grasped it again, the butt of the gun now faced Larabee. "---take this! Take my gun and shoot me! Shoot me right in the back, Chris--shoot me right in the back because that's what bushwhackers and yeller-bellied snakes deserve!," Buck said, his voice smeared with anger and pain, "and Ah must be jes' like one o'them!"
Wilmington saw the slight confusion in Larabee's eyes as he stepped toward the man in black. Buck came right up to Larabee, reached down and took Larabee's other hand, pressed the Colt into it, and closed the resistant fingers around it.
"Kill me now, Chris," Buck said in a voice so low it was nearly a whisper, as he stared into Larabee's eyes, "otherwise if'n you ever decide to take a knife to my neck again, one of us will wind up dead."
They stood toe to toe for a moment longer, then Buck backed away, and deliberately turned his back on Chris.
"I'm not shooting you in the back, Buck. You know that."
"You didn't have a problem coming up behind me with that razor, Larabee, so what's the difference? Anything to do with 'line' yer so set on?"
"Damn it, Buck--I didn't use it on you!"
"I remember it a tad dif'rent ."
They stood in their positions, Larabee with a loaded gun in each hand, Wilmington with his back to him, shoulders back, his posture daring Larabee to fire.
Tense moments passed. Then Wilmington's shoulders relaxed, his stance going from defiant to resigned. When he spoke, his voice had lost its edge. He sounded calm, matter of fact.
"Do whatever you have to, Chris. Just shoot straight," he said over his shoulder. He strode back to his catch, and stopped, still with his back to Larabee. The he shrugged, stoked up the campfire, and cleaned the last of the catch. He chose a few long, slender sticks, poked them through a few of the fish, and set them over the fire to cook.
Larabee had drawn his weapon without thinking, faster than Wilmington, his finger pressing on the trigger, ice racing through his veins, freezing out the man and bringing forth the cold, efficient killer. Everything inside of him was screaming to fire--fire now or die. Yet, his thumb somehow held the hammer away from it's destination, and the fatal bullets never left their chambers. He was frozen as Wilmington came up to him, put his gun in Larabee's hand, and told Larabee to kill him. Under the ice was anger, anger at his vulnerability exposed, and exposed by Wilmington. Larabee had been angry enough that day in the barbershop to kill Wilmington, and just as angry a moment ago when he thought Wilmington was drawing down on him.
But the moment had passed, and coldness at his core that was the killer inside him receded. Larabee didn't move from where he stood, but watched Wilmington move around the campsite. He watched the tall, dark-haired man put on his shirt, saw the still healing chest wound from Colonel Anderson's saber, and caught a glimpse of an old bullet scar. Larabee remembered how Wilmington got that scar saving Larabee's life, and that memory brought others; Adam tearing out of the house and racing up to grab his 'uncle' Buck when he would visit the ranch, Buck and Chris teasing Sarah, and Sarah laughing, threatening them both with a wooden spoon if they didn't get out of her hair and her kitchen. Larabee wondered once again just why now did he suddenly give a damn, but the memories shamed him; what would Sarah have thought to see them like this? Or Adam?
At some point, he realized he still held his gun, and Buck's Colt. He holstered his weapon, grimacing at the thought of what could have happened, what nearly had happened.
Over time, the angry flush on Wilmington's face and neck began to fade, then disappeared. Still, Larabee made no move until Buck finally spoke.
"Well? You gonna eat?," asked Buck, and proceeded to load two small tin plates with the roasted fish and some cold johnnycake.
Larabee stepped over to where Wilmington sat, and held out his Colt.
"Tastanagi told us that when friends offer you something, you should accept with both hands." Chris gestured with Buck's Colt. "I need this hand free to do that."
Buck looked at the Colt, then took it out of Larabee's hand , and handed him a plate. Larabee sat by the fire with his meal, and both men ate in silence, watching the river. When he'd finished, Larabee got up to rinse his hands and plate, then returned to his place by the fire. He stretched his legs, half sitting, half reclining on the grass, propped up by his elbow, facing Buck. The silence between them now calm, but still watchful. It was Larabee who broke it.
"Buck, you're right. I over-reacted."
Buck said nothing, merely nodded.
"I was still pissed about that story she wrote before we left for the village, and then when she told me she knew what I had gone through---"
"Her husband was murdered, Chris."
Larabee hesitated a moment, considering that information. He shook his head.
"Still: after that story, after her telling me boldly she lied in her paper about me for her own purposes well, it just felt like I was being set up, again."
"I can see that."
Larabee looked at Wilmington, and frowned.
"If you do a damn-fool thing with your gun like that again, you might git yourself killed."
Wilmington raised his brows at that, but knew that was as close to an apology as he was likely to get from Larabee, so he said nothing. Instead, he finished his lunch and put out the campfire.
"'Reckon we're past this?," Larabee asked as they both prepared to mount up.
Buck waited a moment, then gave a slow nod.
"I reckon we are," he answered, his voice as even as Larabee's.
"Ready to head back?"
"Yep. Need to see if our newly appointed sheriff has managed to stir up any trouble," Buck said, and grinned.
Larabee chuckled, and the two friends mounted their horses. But before heading back to town, Larabee stepped up his horse over to Wilmington's. Chris Larabee looked at his oldest friend, then stuck out his hand. Buck grinned wide, and clasped Larabee's forearm, feeling Larabee's hand close around his own. Their grips tight, the two men resealed their friendship.
"Good thing I came along," said Larabee.
"Good thing you did," said Buck.
The two men tapped their heels to their mounts, and headed for home.
He's your oldest and your best friend,
If you need him, he'll be there again.
He's always willing to be second best,
A perfect lodger, a perfect guest. . .
- Bob Seger 1975
Complete lyrics to "Beautiful Loser"