Alternate Universe "Two Blood"
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Authors Note: Thanks and all kudos to Joe Lawson for the wonderful Two Blood AU. Thanks to Phyllis for proof reading it for me.
Webmaster Note: This story was previously hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in December 2007.
Four Corners pack were not happy. They should have been happy, it was nearly Christmas after all, their first one since becoming a pack. A time for family, and they surely were that now, a time to be together, the pack were happiest when they were close to one another, and Buck wasn't just happy, he physically needed the contact, he needed to feel them around him to feel safe and to feel he belonged. But one of the pack was missing. Not just anyone either, Buck, their only true Two Blood. It was the Judge's fault, that and the weather.
Judge Travis didn't know, he didn't know his seven regulators were now not just 'The Magnificent Seven', they were 'Four Corners Pack', too. He didn't know one of his regulators could turn himself into the biggest wolf anyone had ever seen whenever he wanted to. He didn't know that Two Bloods, like wolves, do not like to be alone; like, indeed need, to travel in groups, at the very least, pairs. So he couldn't know the effect his orders had on Buck, he had no idea of the inner turmoil he created when he said.
"Buck, I need these committal papers delivered to Red Fork by tomorrow." He handed over a leather document wallet. "Looks like you'll have to go alone, I can't wait for one of the others to get back and we can't leave the town undefended, so Ezra and Josiah will have stay here, shouldn't take you more than three days to get there and back should it?"
Chris was at the shack, he was making it secure before the storms Vin confidently predicted were coming, hit, JD was out on patrol with Vin checking on the outlying homesteads, for the very same reason, Nathan was at the Dawson farm where Mrs Dawson was about to have her sixth child, she swore blind it was girl, but after five boys no one - not even Ezra - was taking any bets.
"When did Tanner say these storms were due?" the judge asked.
For a moment Buck didn't answer, then he seemed to realise he had been asked a question.
"Oh...err four or five days he says, give or take."
"So you should be back here safe and warm by then. Reckon that big stud of yours will enjoy a run out?"
Steel was the last thing on his mind right now. Buck was contemplating three days totally alone, well alone if you didn't count a quick stop in Red Fork, he would spend an hour or two in the company of a saloon girl, if he could charm one into his bed, just so he would have some contact with someone. All the years he had gone it alone, he had pushed the need for closeness to the back of his mind. Then, as now, he went from one bed to another, he took joy in a handshake or a pat on the shoulder from Chris. He had accepted Chris as his alpha as soon as they met, even if Chris was unaware of it. It was because of the unshakable bond of the Pack, that he never abandoned Larabee after Sarah and Adam died, until to stay was doing more harm than good, then he watched from a distance, even aiding Larabee on occasion, without his knowledge. When he had tumbled out of that boarding house window, and met Chris face to face again he couldn't help but grab him into a Wilmington bear hug. It was just a reflex on seeing his only pack mate again.
Buck rarely rode solo patrols these days; Chris tried to arrange it so he always had a partner. No one minded pulling extra single jobs, they understood that Buck was more effective when he was relaxed and he couldn't relax alone. In return patrolling with Buck was so much easier, now he didn't have to hide his superior hearing, eyesight and especially his sense of smell, Buck was better than any bloodhound.
+ + + + + + +
He had been going for nearly three hours, pushing Steel hard. If he went fast, he would be back quicker, and the more tired he was the easier it was to push the crawling emptiness inside him, away. It was a feeling he always got when he was alone, it had become so constant that after his mother was murdered and before he met Chris, he had learned how deal with it. Then, for twelve blissful years, he had had Chris and for half of those Sarah and Adam. Adam was wonderful for Buck, he loved to be hugged and touched and played with, and like any wolf, Buck had an inner need to protect the young and play with them when the time was right. Only to the two-year-old Adam did he reveal his true self.
Buck was at the Larabee ranch with two-year-old Adam while his parents were in town at the hotel celebrating their wedding anniversary. Adam was clean and in his nightshirt, awaiting his story.
"Now Adam, I want you to watch your Uncle Buck son. I'm gonna show you a secret."
"'Sec'et," the toddler dutifully repeated.
"Yup, a secret. I want you to know I will always protect you, and if you ever see a very, very big wolf around here, you ain't t' be afraid, 'cause it's just me keeping my pack safe. Alright?"
Adam didn't understand of course, but he knew he had been asked a question so he obediently nodded his head. With that Buck quickly stripped and turned into the wolf. Young Adam didn't even bat an eye. He just accepted, like only little children can. The big wolf padded up the small boy and lowered his head to be patted.
"Buck, Buck 'oolf." Adam stroked the thick neck fur and giggled with delight at his Uncle's new trick. His Uncle Buck told the best stories, played the best games and now he could play with the big wolf as well, his uncle was definitely the best uncle in the world! Buck had sprung lightly up onto the bed and settled beside the sleepy boy, who stroked and cuddled the wolf in his bed, until he fell asleep. Come the morning he wouldn't be able to say if it was a dream or real, more to the point even if he did mange to explain what he had seen, his parents would take it for imagination, or even some game he and Buck had played together.
+ + + + + + +
His failure to do what he had promised to do, had drilled a hole clear through Buck's big heart. Leaving only empty nothing in its wake. In the past two years the other six and especially JD had begun to fill in some of the hole, but no Two Blood pack that loses a cub ever really stops mourning and that was what Adam and Sarah were to Buck - Pack.
While he rode on, Chris returned to Four Corners and found no Buck but did find the judge. He fumed at the elderly justice sending one of his men on a mission with out his knowledge and alone.
"I'm the leader around here!" he ranted. "I say who goes where and when and with who - and I would never send Bu..." he was about to say 'Buck' but stopped. The judge would think it mighty strange Buck of all people was singled out as not to be trusted alone. JD - sure, he was young and inexperienced still. Vin, - possibly he was still a wanted man. Ezra - defiantly, he couldn't be trusted not to get himself into trouble. Even Nathan - because Black men could still run into trouble of the cross burning kind. But not Buck or Josiah. "I don't send anyone out alone with storms coming."
The two strong willed men stood toe to toe.
"I still pay your wages last time I looked, it is a simple run to Red Fork and back, he will even have time to do, what ever it is he does, and bed some girl I have no doubt."
"That ain't the point, and you know it - next time you talk to me first!"
Chris stormed away in the direction of the saloon, in need of a drink to calm his temper. He couldn't believe how much becoming the leader of the pack had affected him. How much having his authority threatened had affected him. The truth was if any of them were to risk being caught in a storm, Buck was much better equipped to survive than any of them. Yet still he worried. They all worried. No one said anything but still they worried. Only JD would ever verbalise his fear when some one was late returning, but never - strangely - about Buck. This had been true even before the stunning revelation of his true nature. It was as if he actually admitted he was worried about Wilmington, he was admitting what he and they all knew, that he was dependent on the big Two Blood, that he needed him more than he needed anyone of them. Buck wasn't late of course, he had only been gone a few hours and wasn't due back for three days.
+ + + + + + +
The storms Vin predicted and Buck could smell on the wind duly arrived, as predicted they wouldn't hit Four Corners for four days, but then Buck wasn't in Four Corners, he was heading straight toward the approaching bad weather. It had hit the mountains before he even set out, Vanishing Creek - so called because in summer it disappeared - was already full and rising. Buck knew he would not be able to ride back that way, even if he could re-cross the creek in two days, which he doubted, the trail hugged the creek side for some way through a narrow stretch of valley and two days from now it would be washed out and flooded, just like it always was when the rains came. That meant a detour around by Little Stone Pass. There was a trail through the narrow pass, wide enough for a wagon, if you were careful, but the trail, which was old and rarely used, was treacherous even in summer. Worse it would add a day at least to his return journey, if not more.
Once in Red Fork he passed on the pleasures of the saloon, despite the distinctly 'come hither' look on the face of a pretty little red head, and headed out as soon as he had eaten and Steel was rested and fed. Thunder rolled in the distance, and the increasingly chilly wind held the promise of imminent rain. Keeping the pace down to a walk to conserve his horse's energy, Buck pressed on, never more grateful for his superior night vision. Sometimes he wondered what it was like not to be able to see at night, on occasion he would close his eyes and try to imagine waking up to blackness, and marvel at the every day courage of humans.
He entered Little Stone Pass in driving rain and dismounted, if it hadn't been so cold he would have changed and gone ahead on four feet not two, but he just couldn't face stripping off in the icy down pour. Water cascaded off the steep valley walls beside him, ran like a torrent down and over the trail to fall over the edge like a hundred waterfalls and down into the raging waters of the Little Stone River, some hundred feet below. The wind and rain assaulted his senses, it was almost blinding, few scents penetrated the sheet of water blanketing the ground, and a world without scent was as blinding to him as the darkness of night was to humans. He felt vulnerable, unable to tell who or what was around him, who had come before and might be waiting around the bend. His hearing, too, was assaulted but the rushing waters and howling wind. And yet he smelled something, something that did not belong, something that very definitely shouldn't have been there, and he stopped.
+ + + + + + +
On the third day, the day Buck was due back, each member of the Four Corners Pack looked for the approach of their missing member, each in his own way. Josiah spent a lot of time on the roof of the church, even thought he had secured all the lose shingles days ago. Nathan spent a lot of time on the veranda outside the clinic, despite the chill wind. Ezra found it hard to concentrate on his cards and would wander out onto the sidewalk every now and again and gaze up the street. JD spent a lot of time in the livery, mostly in the hayloft from where he could clearly see the trail leading into town from the west. Chris sat outside the jail smoking one cheroot after another while Vin took Peso out on long rides, always up the west bound trail. The rain came as predicted on the fourth day, and day with no Buck in sight. It came hard, driven on a fierce biting wind, stinging the face and numbing the hands, forcing even Vin to retreat under cover, if not actually inside. They were all there when the big grey came into town.
A young, bareheaded man with a small beard was riding the big horse bareback with the remains of a draft harness. Cradled on his lap, and tucked against the harness collar was a large bundle that on closer inspection was a young woman. All three, man, woman, and horse were soaked to the skin, the humans were visibly shivering. Nathan, Josiah and JD ran forward.
"Please, my wife..." the man managed to say through chattering teeth. "...needs a doctor, please."
Even as Josiah was taking the woman from him, Nathan was explaining that there was no doctor but he would take a look.
"You too sir. JD you take the horse." Nathan was already guiding the man up the steps, following Josiah to the clinic.
Chris had intended to give Nathan half an hour to see to the couple before he looked in to find out what was going on. But Nathan and Josiah had only been there a few minutes before Sanchez appeared on the veranda and waved frantically at the others to join him.
"What's up?" Chris inquired as soon as he was inside the cramped room.
"This is Sylas Flinch and his wife, Hester," Josiah began.
+ + + + + + +
Buck pulled up short, not because of the odd hint of the stench of death he was picking up but because there was no more trail. The always narrow track was now no more than a two foot wide shelf hugging the valley side for upwards of thirty yards. Beyond this chasm he could see the carcass of a horse, from the look of it, a draft horse, for it still had the remains of a wagon harness around its lifeless body. Instantly Buck cast his keen eyes down the steep slope in front of him, guessing at what the equine body signified. And there, just as he had thought there would be he spied a wagon. Clearly a landslide had carried away the trail and some poor sole was on that very section as it gave way. With the kind of precision only a Two Blood could execute in the dark, Buck lead the ever trusting and faithful Steel along the precarious remains of the trail, small stones and mud falling away down the precipice all the time. He made it but only just in time, as Steel's final hind hoof came safely on to the track proper, even the little ledge gave way. Buck cast his eyes down suddenly, afraid the new falling debris would dislodge the wagon. But it didn't.
The wagon had come to rest pointing up the steep slope toward the trail. It was at a steep angle, but otherwise appeared to be in one piece. There was no second horse down in the gorge bottom that he could see, and body beside him had a bullet wound in the centre of the forehead. Someone had survived this catastrophe. He was about to head on along the trail, still leading Steel, when he heard something, a sound coming from the valley below him, coming form the wagon, a sound no one, but especially a Two Blood, could ignore.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and the others, along with an exhausted but determined Sylas Finch set out within hours of his arrival, despite the worsening conditions. Finch was riding, not his carthorse but a fast mount from the livery, and they rode as fast as possible. Even so, it would be the next day before they reached their destination. Mrs Finch had a broken leg, some cracked ribs and a concussion, but Nathan was happy she would make a full recovery and had left her in the care of Mary and Inez, in order to accompany the others on their desperate ride. Rain turned to sleet and, as they climbed higher, that changed to snow. At first it was wet snow, huge soggy clumps that sat on the shoulders and thighs of the riders and socked it's bone-chilling cold into them, and as they went higher still, it got ever colder. In his heart, Nathan knew this mission could only have one outcome and that was not a good one. They camped in the shade of an overhanging rock, but few got any sleep. Worry about their missing pack mate, worry about their current mission and the cold kept sleep at bay for most of the night.
They rode hard again the next day, but it was close to dusk before they came upon the scene of the disaster. By now the snow was no longer wet, it was real snow, driven on a biting wind, only a faint mound in the thick carpet of snow showed the position of Sylas Finch's other horse. He and his wife had been forced to travel the treacherous mountain trail in their wagon after flash floods wiped out the normal route. When the ground began to give way under the wagon, Sylas had whipped his two trusty horses on. As the horses bravely pulled and the ground dropped, the strain on the old wagon was too much. The locking pin that secured the driving shaft to the wagon failed, with a sudden jerk husband and wife, who had been clutching him in fear, were pulled out of the wagon as the horses suddenly ran on. Old Bill, the horse closest to the edge, panicked as the ground gave way beneath him and became entangled in the broken harness. Hester Finch was trapped below him as he thrashed and panicked. Sylas had no option and no time to think about what he was about to do; he shot his best horse to save his wife further injury.
But, it was being forced to leave the stranded wagon with its precious cargo, that was the hardest thing he had ever done. But he had no way to get to the wagon and an injured an unconscious wife to look to. So, he gently lifted his wife onto the back of the remaining horse and rode for help. Red Fork was only half a day away, but at night in the rain, with the gaping chasm where the trail should have been, it might as well have been half a year away. The next town was Four Corners, a day and a half away. Now, nearly three days later, he was back. The wagon was now half buried in snow, barely visible in the deep shadows at the bottom of the gorge.
"Come on, let's get the ropes out," Chris commanded as he dismounted.
Each of them had a huge coil of rope strapped to the back of their saddles. Finding somewhere to secure them was a bit of a problem but eventually they had two tied off. However, erring on the side of caution, it was decided Vin and JD would go down, since they were the lightest.
"I'm going too," Sylas insisted, "I'm kinda wiry myself, I gotta go...please."
Chris glanced at Josiah, who nodded.
"Very well, you do as Vin says. JD?"
"You mind Vin too." JD rolled his eyes but nodded as he prepared to lower himself over the edge.
+ + + + + + +
When Buck had heard that cry, he knew what he had to do. There was no way he could climb down to the wagon safely on two legs, especially with boots on. So he pulled his bedroll off the back of his saddle and lay it on the wet ground. Than, despite the rain and the cold he striped off and, as he stood naked and shivering in the freezing night, he secured the now thick bundle to the back of the saddle again, having already secured his hat to the saddle horn. He wouldn't tie Steel up in case more of the trail fell away and loyal as the big grey was he wouldn't stick around long next to a dead horse. Buck knew the intelligent horse would find his own way home, maybe when he did, someone would come and look for him. For though he thought he could make it down to the wagon, he seriously doubted he could get back up - in any form - especially if he didn't have both hands free.
Even as he secured the last knot, he was turning and dropping, landing deftly on all fours as the truly huge wolf stood looking over the edge. Buck paced back and forth once or twice before he chose a place to descend the steep slope. Sometimes he went straight down, sometimes he picked his way diagonally, making full use of his pads and claws to grip the slippery surface. More than once he slipped, the dewclaw on his left fore leg snagged a rock and tore, but he hardly noticed. When he made it down, he lifted his huge shaggy head and eyed just how far he had come and how steep it was and shaking his head in disbelief, turned to the wagon, springing lightly up into the dark interior.
+ + + + + + +
Vin went first, wearing heavy leather work gloves he inched his way down, the rope wrapped diagonally around his shoulders and held securely as he 'walked' down the slope, playing out rope as he went. As he reached the bottom, he looked up to see JD following him. As soon as he was sure he had mastered the rope safely, Vin started to make his way toward the wagon. It wasn't easy, they still had to clamber over boulders and logs, all covered in deep snow. JD was followed by Finch.
"Do you see her?" he called. "Is she? ...Is she there?"
In all honestly, no one was expecting anything but tragedy.
Vin circled the wagon, while JD carefully climbed up the broken timbers to peer inside.
"Oh my God!" he exclaimed.
"What? What?" Finch was climbing now too. He shoved JD aside to peer into the darkness. What confronted him would scare him for the rest of his days. A wolf, a truly huge wolf, bigger than he had ever seen or even imagined, looked back at him, eyes glowing orange in the dying light, its face, muzzle and chest fur stained red with blood! Instantly he pulled his gun out and aimed at the wolf, who didn't move.
"No!" JD shouted, when he realised Finch was about to shoot the wolf. Just in time, JD shoved Finch aside sending the bullet up through what was left of the canvas roof of the wagon; thought in truth, since it was practically on its end the front was now the roof.
"What are you doing? It ate my little girl, probably killed her! Let me be!" He and JD fought for control of the gun until Vin appeared and pulled it out of his hands from behind.
"Ya might wanna come around here Mister," Vin tersely invited.
When Finch didn't move, Vin took him by the collar and dragged him to the rear of the wagon. There, among the broken furniture and barrels that had fallen out of the back of the wagon, was a dead mountain lion, its throat torn out. Big as the wolf was, this cat was bigger.
"There Mister, that's what the wolf killed, not yer kid."
"Come here!" JD called them. "Come quick!"
Both men scrambled back to the front of the wagon and looked down into the interior, there, in a kind of nest of clothes and blankets, atop a jumble of boxes, cases, trunks and barrels, nestled the wolf and next to him, snuggled safe and warm against his soft belly fur was a little baby. Somewhat grimy but very much alive.
"He's...he's got her," Finch stammered out. Horrified.
"He don't 'got her', he's 'taking care of her' - right boy?"
In response to Vin, the wolf wagged his tail enthusiastically, thumping it up and down on the blanket beside him.
"I'm gonna come in now and get her - alright?" This time the wolf growled and Vin froze where he was. Why would Buck not want them to come get the child, and it was Buck, there was just no mistaking that huge, silver-grey, shaggy coated mutt for anyone else! Just then the wagon creaked and shifted. All the humans froze. That was why Buck didn't want Vin inside the wagon. Very slowly and carefully Vin backed up, motioning the others to do likewise. Once they were on the ground, Finch turned to Vin.
"Mr Tanner, what are we to do? How am I gonna get my baby girl back from that thing if we can't get near it?"
"Stop calling him an 'it'!" JD fumed. "He saved your child's life, you know?"
"JD," Vin warned before turning back to Finch. "We'll have to secure the wagon some how, braces it behind, before we try..."
"Or not." JD was looking past Vin, toward the wagon.
As the other two turned to look, the wolf emerged from the top of the wrecked wagon with the baby in his jaws.
"Mother of God! No!" Finch breathed.
The child cooed and gargled happily as the wolf leapt gracefully to the snow covered ground, and then walked calmly over to his precious burden's terrified father. He stood there, the child held safely in his jaws so tenderly, that when Sylas finally gathered himself together and bent to take the baby, there wasn't a mark on her where the needle sharp teeth and incredibly powerful jaws had held her.
Man and wolf stood in silence as Sylas examined his daughter. Finally, closing his eyes he held the child close and tucked her under his heavy coat, safe and warm, out of the chill wind. The snow was no longer falling, and as the clouds parted, the temperature began to drop alarmingly.
"Don't you have something to say?" JD asked pointedly.
Finch frowned at the young sheriff. JD in return just stared at the wolf, who was still standing in front of the man, his head cocked on one side.
"To him?" Finch finally asked.
"He saved her life, risked his own to kill that Cougar, stayed here - God knows how long - to keep her warm and safe. Doesn't he deserve your thanks?"
"It's a wolf."
"He is a wolf, I told you not to call him 'it'."
"JD, hush," Vin commanded, then he looked at Finch. "He's right, you owe him your thanks."
Finch regarded the two lawmen and then the wolf. It was huge, the blood stained fur disconcerting, but he did not look threatening, his eyes though terrifying just a few moments ago, now looked gentle and kind. As he stood there, his head to one side, you could almost imagine he was smiling.
"Thank you, wolf. Thank you for saving my daughter."
With that the wolf jumped up and landed on all fours, he did several more little jumps and hops, before jumping up to rest his paws on JD's shoulders, and lick his face.
"Good to see you too pal."
Buck dropped down and turned to Vin, repeating his greeting.
"Yeah - I missed you. Now get down, you're meant to be a wild wolf!" Vin hissed.
Buck dutifully resumed his role as friendly wild creature.
"You know him?" Finch asked in wonder.
"We're friends." Vin admitted, and then turned his attention to getting them out of the gorge before the man could ask any more questions.
Getting Finch and his baby, whose name was Emily, out was relatively easy. She was safe inside her father's coat, with Josiah, Nathan and Chris on the other end, he was lifted swiftly and safely to the top. Buck on the other hand was a problem.
"Can you climb back up?" Vin asked.
Buck shook his great shaggy head.
"Well, what if you change, you can go up with us," JD stated.
Buck nipped at the young man's pant's leg and gave it a quick tug.
"Oh!" JD suddenly remembered that if Buck changed he would be naked, even if Finch were not around to wonder where a tall naked man suddenly came from, it was so cold he would freeze before he was half way up.
"Trust me?" Vin asked.
Buck gave a little yip, a clear affirmative.
It was now almost dark. Buck said he trusted them, and he did, yet it still took all his trust to stay still and passive, as he was pulled up the rock face in the canvas sling fashioned by Vin from the top of the wagon. Once on top, Buck enthusiastically greeted the other members of the pack. Nathan knelt beside him, running a practised hand over the heavy fur.
"You alright?" he whispered.
Buck just licked his face, and turned to find Chris. Unconvinced, Nathan determined to check Buck out once they were back and he was in human form again. Steel, with all his clothing, was nowhere to be seen, no doubt he had passed the rescue party in the night and was headed home.
+ + + + + + +
Buck led them off the mountain and back to the rock overhang where they had camped. He would have liked to stay longer, but it would have made Finch even more suspicious, so with just a few biscuits and some cold bacon inside him, he disappeared into the night. He wasn't about to go hunting in the snow, at night, so the meagre rations would have to do as he headed home, where he could get a proper meal, a bath and sleep in a real bed. Vin and JD pushed on in the moonlight as soon as the camp was set up and they had eaten. Their horses, fast as they were, would get them back to town long after Buck, who had no need to stick to the recognised trails and could see perfectly even in the weak light of the half moon.
When the Two Blood reached the town it was almost dawn, how to get back in was a problem. Most of the citizenry would shoot a wolf on sight. Keeping to the shadows where no human could see him, Buck made it as far as Vin's wagon. He leapt up to land softly inside and rooted about for a blanket. Once he had that, he changed back into human form.
"Mrs Callaghan!" Buck called from the back porch of the boarding house, hopping from one foot to another. "Mrs Callaghan, ma'am!" he hollered again.
Finally the redoubtable and sturdy Mrs Callaghan, emerged at the back entrance in her robe.
"Mr Wilmington!" she exclaimed as she took in the sight before her, the tall roguish regulator stood naked as a jaybird but for a rather moth eaten blanket, strategically draped around his loins.
"I err locked myself out," Buck explained. He had tried to get his clothes and key from his saddle, for indeed Steel had run home, arriving just an hour after the rescuer party left. Unfortunately, the livery was locked up tight, so he had to leave, still naked but for Vin's old blanket, and keyless.
"Tut. Mr Wilmington, you off Tomcatin' while your friends are out in this weather, looking for that poor lost child? Shame on you Mr Wilmington, shame!" She stood there with her hands on her hips, doing a mighty fine impression of a Larabee glare.
While inside, Buck wanted to tell her the truth, on the outside he just smiled apologetically and shifted from foot to foot to alleviate the cold.
"Well I suppose I should be lettin' ya in now, but mark my words Mr Wilmington, be sure your sins will find your out."
"Yes ma'am, I'm sure they will." **At least I hope they will!** he added silently, thinking of his many nocturnal companions.
+ + + + + + +
As soon as they were back in town, JD headed for the clinic, he bounded up the steps two at a time and was so keen to tell Mrs Finch the good news, that he almost forgot to knock.
"Mrs Finch?" he called as he peeked around the door.
"Yes?" Came a groggy reply from the still dark room.
"It's the sheriff ma'am, JD Dunne, we found your little girl, she's fine."
"What? She's alive? Really?"
"Yes ma'am, I swear, she's safe."
"Where? Bring her to me, please, bring her here now!" Hester Finch tried to get out of bed.
"Ma'am, please don't get excited yet, Vin and I rode ahead, your husband has her, he'll come see you as soon as he gets here, I promise, please rest ma'am."
Hester finally took in his words and lay down again, Mary would be up soon to help her to wash and than Inez would bring breakfast.
While JD broke the good news, Vin went in search of Buck. It didn't take long to locate him in his room at the boarding house, fast asleep. Vin stepped in quietly, and risked lifting the bed cover a fraction. Buck had fought and beaten a Mountain Lion, much larger than him, it was a good bet he had some injuries they hadn't seen in the dark through all that fur. He felt only slightly guilty about invading Buck's privacy; it never seemed to bother the big man that every time he changed in front of them, he was naked. In fact, even before they had found out he was a Two Blood; Buck had never seemed to worry about being naked, whether in the bathhouse or swimming in the creek on hot summer afternoons.
Buck did indeed seem to have a fine collection of small cuts, grazes and bruises, lots of bruises, deep and livid, clearly bite marks, but none seemed to have penetrated the thick fur to actually break the skin. His left thumbnail was torn and hanging of in a bloody mess, but it didn't look infected, no doubt Buck had been licking it to keep it clean.
"Damn! But you are gonna be one stiff and sore guy tomorrow," Vin whispered to himself as he replaced the covers.
The others were back earlier than expected, and Emily, swaddled safely in Ezra's spare shirt, was finally reunited with her mother, assured by Nathan that all she needed was a good meal.
"Is he alright?" Nathan asked soon as he saw Vin.
Tanner shrugged. "He's a might roughed up but nothin' serious, he's asleep."
"Nothing that I need t' be seeing to right now?"
"Nah, don't reckon any of it's worth waking him up fer."
+ + + + + + +
Ensuring the big Two Blood knew he was indeed still a member of the pack. JD settled down to spend the night beside Buck. He dozed in the chair beside the bed, having kicked off his boots; he rested his feet up on the edge of the bed. Once or twice Buck had become restless, then JD would reach out and place a hand on his friend's arm or shoulder, giving him the physical contact he needed and he would settle again. But when Buck finally woke, at around ten the next day, it was Ezra he found beside him. He was sitting back in the chair, legs crossed, sipping coffee.
"Ya got any more of that, or are ya keepin' it all fer yer self." Buck asked sleepily.
"I can get more."
"Morning," Buck finally greeted.
"Happy Christmas," Ezra replied with a genuinely warm smile.
Buck frowned, he had lost track of the date. "Fer real?"
"Indeed, everyone is in church, Mr Sanchez is preaching up a storm I have no doubt. Last night, he was re-writing his sermon, something about Christmas miracles, good Samaritans and God's creatures I believe."
"I forgot I guess, Happy Christmas Ez." Then a frown crossed his face.
"What is troubling you my friend?" Ezra asked.
There was a long silence, before he spoke again. "Do you think I am?"
Ezra was confused. "Do I think you are what?"
"One of God's creatures? Or am I the Devil's work." It was clear from his body language, he was deadly serious.
"How can you ever doubt you are a child of God, just like everyone else."
"Ezra, you don't believe in God," Buck pointed out.
"My private beliefs are my own business, but that is not the point. If you believe in a deity of creation, you can not doubt that it is the creator of good that made you. What ever crimes your kind have committed." Ezra paused, as he approached a very difficult topic. "Including the heinous murder of your mother. One Bloods have done worse, you know that, you have experienced it yourself - haven't you?"
Buck looked away. He had often wondered where his kind came from? Why they were so different? Why there were so few? Why did they have to live in hiding? Except they didn't, not all of them. Vin said among the Comanche, Two Bloods live openly alongside One Bloods. Maybe it was just White folk who had a problem, and to Two Bloods - in America at least - any One Blood who was not an Indian was White, that included Nathan. Or maybe it was just Christians.
Ezra could see Buck was not convinced.
"My dear friend, look at me." Buck looked up. "You saved a life, you risked your life to do it - as you have done numerous times before, for all of us, just as you did for JD at the Seminole village, just as you did for Inez. These are not the actions of the Devils spawn - believe me. Now stop all this foolishness, you are my good friend and pack mate, and I am not so careless as to give my loyalty to some creature of the night!"
"Yeah, you're my friend. Thank you Ezra Standish, for being my friend." Buck finally smiled.
"Thank you, Mr Wilmington. Now Mr Jackson insists that you eat as soon as you rise, then he promises to tend your various injuries."
"I don't need Nate pokin' an' proddin' me."
"I beg to differ on that score and while I am not a fan of Mr Jackson's ministrations, I believe that may need attention." He pointed to Buck mangled left thumbnail.
Buck for his part glanced down. "Oh, yeah, I snagged it getting down that damn rock face. Is she... the baby, is she...?"
"She is fine, reunited with her mother, and doing well I believe, all the better for a good meal, which is what you need my friend. Come, the wonderful Miss Rocillos promised to leave something out for you."
As if on cue Buck's stomach rumbled, as he pushed back the covers and went to stand, only to sway and stagger, as Ezra leapt forward to steady him.
"Sit down," the gambler commanded, the concern on his face all to clear.
"I'm alright, I just got up too fast, bit light headed, I..."
Buck seemed distinctly woolly headed, as Ezra gently pushed him back down.
"Just when did you last eat a proper meal?" he inquired of the big Two Blood, who normally needed a lot of food to keep active and fit, as he pulled the covers back over his naked form.
"Ummm." Buck was feeling better now that he was lying down. "Well, before I found the little girl, a few days I guess?"
Ezra snorted. "You will stay here, I will fetch the food."
Buck didn't protest, he just wanted the room to stop spinning.
+ + + + + + +
Inez had left pancakes in the oven keeping warm, biscuits, honey, cold chicken legs and ham. Piling these on a tray along with a fresh pot of coffee, Ezra returned to find Buck had managed to sit up in bed.
Buck devoured the food, literally 'wolfed it down', and once he had eaten, Buck did indeed feel much better, though he still had a headache. Ezra informed him not to worry, by the time he had eaten the Christmas Day lunch Inez was working on, he would be so full he wouldn't be able to eat another thing. Still, he was careful to stay sitting on the bed while he dressed so as not to sway too much, since he was still a bit dizzy when he stood. Not that he was fooling Ezra.
"You see Mr Wilmington, there are some distinct advantages to being of a more compact stature, one is less prone to dizziness and it isn't so far to the ground if one is overcome by it."
"You sayin' short is good?" Buck inquired as he pulled his boots on.
"I am not short, JD is short, and you are unnecessarily tall, and what I'm saying is, normal height has advantages."
"Tell me that next time you want an apple off Nettie's tree." Neither Ezra nor JD could reach even the lower branches of Nettie Wells old apple tree. "Come on, there is snow out there and sunshine and it's Christmas, ain't not time to be inside." With that Buck stood up and let go of the bedpost. He swayed once then steadied himself.
Once outside, the two men made their way over to the saloon and sat down in the seats outside, to enjoy the sunshine, which was warm despite the freezing temperatures, and watch the town come out of church. The others made their way over to them, Josiah last, as he had to say goodbye to all the churchgoers first. Nathan sat down on Buck's left and gently lifted his hand to examine the mangled thumb.
"Nate leave it, I'm fine," Buck protested.
"Buck, let Nathan do his job," Chris instructed sternly, leaving no one in any doubt who was the Alpha of this pack. Buck gave resigned sigh and let Nathan have his hand.
After a quick examination, Nathan said the remains of the nail had to come off, it would re-grow in time. Since the Finch's were in the clinic, he would fetch his bag and do it at the jail. Buck muttered a half-hearted protest, but one glare from Chris and he shut up.
Nathan had just stood when Sylas Finch came over to them. He was smiling from ear to ear.
"Gentlemen, what can I say? Thank you. I did not believe I would ever see my darling child again, except as a frozen corpse, thank you." With that, he shook each by the hand, each except Buck, who he ignored, not even realising he was part this group of remarkable men.
"Weren't us that saved her," Chris stated simply.
"Well I know... the wolf, but you found them, got her out. Thank you. I don't have much, most of what I own is at the bottom of that gorge, but luckily my bank roll was in my pocket, so here..." He pulled a pair of bottles out - one from each pocket of his long over coat - "The finest Kentucky Bourbon, the best the hotel had. Happy Christmas!"
"Thank you sir, unnecessary, but most kind and very welcome on such a day." Ezra stepped forward to take the bottles.
"Well thanks again, I gotta get back to my family." With that, the relieved father was gone.
The other six turned as one to the real saviour of little Emily, forming a protective half circle around him, keeping the outside world at bay, keeping the secret. Ezra handed over the bottles.
"Happy Christmas," they chimed in chorus.
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