Characters: Buck, all Seven, Ocs
Notes: This started out as a story for Martie, who wanted to read one where Buck had to make a decision between Chris and JD, and he chose JD. I'm not certain it turned out the way she wanted, but this is what came of it.
Three riders appeared at the edge of town, their silhouettes lit by the evening sun behind them; making them seemingly surrounded by flame. Abe Burdette watched them enter the little town of Skunk Crossing with growing interest. As the three men passed, he slipped back into the shadows. He hissed out a single name. “Wilmington.”
Continuing on down the dusty street, Buck Wilmington, Chris Larabee and JD Dunne made their way to the livery. Dismounting, Chris spoke softly to the other two men. “Buck, go see if you can round us up a room. Room, not women.” Ignoring the bigger man’s protest he continued, “JD, see if the general store’s still open and get us enough supplies to finish out the trip.”
“Two days?” Dunne asked.
“Make it three, just to be sure.”
“Got it.” The youngest member of their group started off down the street, while Buck moved off toward the saloon. Behind them, Chris gathered the reins of all three horses and moved into the livery.
The big building smelled of horses and filth, telling Larabee that if he wanted their horses cared for, he’d better do it himself. The horseman in him was appalled at how badly the facility was in need of a good cleaning. Picking out three semi-clean stalls, he grabbed a rake and began mucking one of them out. Finishing, he spread fresh straw over it and walked Pony inside, caring for the big black gelding. When he was done with his own mount, he repeated the process twice more, first with Buck’s mount, General, and then with JD’s Milagro. Just as he finished stabling the horses, he heard someone entering the livery.
“Hey, Kid, the store was open, I take it.” Just as he turned to face the smaller man, he felt a sharp pain across the back of his neck and shoulders. Dropping to his knees, stunned, he fought to clear his vision and catch his breath. Before he could do that, however, he felt himself pulled to his feet, and new pain erupted across his jaw and then his gut. He struggled to bring his arms up, to defend or deflect; anything to respond to the attack. He found himself unable to do more than get in a few blows that were blocked by the group of men who seemed to be attacking him from all sides. He thought he heard the sounds of fighting in the distance, as well, and wondered if JD was being treated to the same abuse. Finally, the world seemed to fall away beneath his feet, and darkness drew him into its embrace.
Buck looked up as yet another person entered the saloon. He had secured two rooms, knowing that Chris would appreciate not having to listen to his snoring and JD’s incessant talking. The young man talked in his sleep! They had discovered that on the trail back from the Indian Village. Since then, if they were on the road, Dunne was ‘encouraged’ to sleep away from the rest of them. He didn't really mind the nocturnal conversations, so he'd share a room with the younger man, and give Chris a true break.
Again the batwing doors opened and drew his attention back from his thoughts. He cursed as he recognized the man who entered, but it wasn’t either of the men who he was riding with. Buck pulled the brim of his hat a little lower, hoping not to be noticed. He wasn’t in the mood for a fight, and the man crossing to the bar was someone that he could almost guarantee that a fight would happen if he was recognized.
The man came to his table, anyway.
Without waiting for an invitation, Abe Burdette pulled out the chair on the other side of the table and dropped onto the seat. Settling his beer glass on the scarred table top, he leaned back and crossed his arms across his chest. “Howdy, Buck.”
“Abe. What do you want?”
“What!? Old friend ya ain’t seen in… what… twelve, thirteen years? Comes in and says hi, and all you can do’s ask ‘im what he wants? No ‘how are ya, Abe?’ No, ‘what’ve ya been up to?’ Just ‘what do ya want?’ “
“Cut the bullshit, Abe. You and me both know that we don’t have anything to talk about, and we sure as hell ain’t friends any more. So, tell me what you want and get the hell out of my face.”
Grinning now, Burdette reached slowly into the pocket of his worn jacket and pulled something out. Unceremoniously he tossed it onto the table. His grin turned malicious as he saw Buck’s face when he recognized what it was.
Snatching the object from the table, Buck held it tightly as he drew it to himself. Holding it up to the dim light, he quickly recognized the broken locket that Chris had reclaimed from Ella Gaines’ home. His voice deep, soft and dangerous, he asked, “Where the hell did you get this?”
“He wouldn’t have given it up. Not… what the hell happened to him?”
“Oh, let’s just say me and some friends ‘a mine met up with ‘im.” With that, Burdette dropped a bloodied handkerchief on the table as well. He nodded when Buck recognized it as Chris’, as well. “Not that he was too happy ta meet up with us. Now, you play nice, and you an’ him can get back t’gether and ride on back t’ wherever y’all were goin’. Ya don’t and… well, hold on ta that little trinket for a remembrance.”
“Where. Is. He?”
“Meet us out t’ the pass, south ‘a town at sunup if y’ wanna see ‘im again.”
“No. Take me to him. Now.”
“No. See, you don’t make the rules here. I do. Sunup. South ‘a town.” With that, Burdett downed the rest of his drink and pushed back from the table. Still wearing that same malicious grin, he tipped his hat and walked away from the table, slapping the doors open as he disappeared into the dark outside.
Behind him, Buck seethed. He turned the locket over and over in his hands, as if the broken piece of jewelry could tell him where his friend was. Then he glanced toward the door. Where was JD?
“Look, mister, I don’t know who you’re talking about. I haven’t had a customer that fits that description in here all evening. Hell, haven’t had a customer in here that I didn’t recognize for over a week.”
Buck continued to glare at the shopkeeper; his anger taking several minutes to deescalate. Then he nodded to the man, who stood there with his jacket over his nightshirt. “Thank you, sir. I’m sorry I got you out of bed.”
“That’s all right. For what it’s worth, I hope you find your friend.”
Another nod and Buck was back out the door. He heard the man lock it behind him while he stood on the boardwalk, scanning the little town. There weren’t that many places that the Kid could have disappeared to. He was fearful of what that meant. Had Burdette also kidnapped JD?
Sunup was near. He was exhausted, having spent the night searching, in vain, for his friend. When he went back to the livery to get his horse tacked and ready to travel he found, now that there was some light in the building, he could see signs that a struggle had taken place in at least a couple places, giving him more of an indication that Burdette had grabbed not only Chris, but JD as well. Both their horses stood there as well, standing in two of the stalls. None of it made any sense.
The last stars were winking out as he saddled his horse. Climbing into the saddle, he guided General from the stable and out onto the street. He rode at a fast walk until he reached the south of town. Beyond the buildings, he dug his heels into the big animal’s sides and sped up until they were moving at a full out run. He arrived at the pass just as the sun was throwing its first light over the horizon. He reined his big grey in at the sight of five horsemen, sitting in a group, just at the mouth of the cut through the hills.
“Where are they?” He asked bluntly.
“Well, howdy do ta you, too, Buck.” Abe taunted. “Reckon ya figured out we got that li’l greenhorn, too, huh? What the hell are ya doin’ with that li’l dandy?”
“He’s not a greenhorn, he’s not a dandy. He’s a damn fine man and I want to see him and Chris, now.”
“Okay, okay… follow me.” Burdette turned his horse and led the way up along the ridge that ran parallel to the pass, Buck following close behind and the others trailing after. They were half a mile along the ridge before they stopped.
Buck frowned, looking around them. “Why are we stoppin’ here? There’s no sign of anyone.”
Grinning, Abe canted his head toward the pass. “Right down yonder… I think you’ll see what yer lookin’ for.”
Leaning forward to get a better look, Buck quickly recognized two figures below them, on the valley floor. Chris and JD were bound to two scrub trees, hardscrabble foliage that managed to live in the arid land. Both seemed unconscious, their heads bowed and resting on their chests. Turning to the man who was now laughing, he growled, “What the hell did you do to them?!”
“Well, hell, boy, what do ya think I did to ‘em? Me and my boys here got the drop on the greenhorn, used him ta git yer other buddy, and hung up both their hides.”
“Oh, hell, Wilmington, you know why. You ain’t forgot, have ya?”
“For God’s sake, Abe, that was fourteen years ago, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could have done different. Why the hell should they pay ‘cause you can’t let somethin’ go?”
Burdette swung hard, knocking a surprised Buck out of the saddle. A heartbeat later he had dismounted and was standing astride the downed man. “You think I’m supposed ta let somethin’ like that go, you son of a bitch?! It’s ‘cause of you that he died.”
“I made a choice, Abe, one I had to make. If you weren’t so bull headed, you’d understand that. It wasn’t my fault that Ben died.”
“The hell it wasn’t! You made the choice, you left him to die!”
“HE made the choice. HE told me to get you out. He knew as well as I did that he was too busted up! Hell, he was about ready to bleed out; he wouldn’t have made it half a mile on foot.”
“The hell he wouldn’t have! You chose to leave him there, and that killed him! Now you’re gonna know what it feels like!”
Turning to the men he had brought with him into this, he ordered, “Take ‘im over there where he can have a good look at them two down below.” Abe stood back as three men dragged Buck to his feet and pulled him over to the edge of the ridge. There they held him where he had no choice but to see his friends.
Looking down at the two, unconscious men, Wilmington struggled against his captors, wanting to get to his friends. The only thing that mattered was the two men down below, who were upright only by the ropes holding them to the trees. “Damn it, Abe! Let them go!”
Ignoring the other man’s words, Buck’s tormenter said matter of factly, “Y' know, there’s something I reckon I ought’a tell ya about that valley. There’s a herd ‘a cattle comin’ up this way. They ought’a be here ‘bout any time.”
As if summoned by the man, the faint sounds of many, many animals on the move could be heard. Knowing only too well what would happen to his friends’ if they were left on the floor below, Buck screamed now. “DAMN YOU! DAMN YOU TO HELL! GET THEM OUT OF THERE!”
“Nah… reckon we’ll leave that ta you.” Turning to the other men, Abe said, “C’mon boys, let’s go find us a place ta watch the goin’s on… maybe stir us up some action.”
Dumbfounded, Buck watched as Burdette and the men traveling with him simply rode away, laughing. With a feral cry he bounded across the space that separated him from his horse, leaping into the saddle, he jerked the animal’s head around and started off toward the nearest path leading to the valley.
It seemed to take hours to get to the land below the ridge. The sounds of the cattle approaching grew louder by the second. With a curse he spurred his horse forward, even though the animal was edgy as the sounds of the herd reached its ears. Wilmington was struggling to keep the big gray under control, cursing and prodding at it with his heels.
Chris was closest, JD a few yards farther away. He grimaced at the sight of Larabee's face, a mass of bloodied cuts and darkening bruises. He dismounted and, almost at once, his horse took the bit and jerked the reins out of his hands. Cursing, he tried to gather the flailing, leather straps but failed. To his dismay, his horse, usually calm and level headed, bounded away with a frightened whinney.
Turning back to his two friends, he smiled in relief to see JD coming around. The younger man's head came up, and he stared right at him. “Hey, Kid, good to see you comin' 'round. Don't think I can carry you both.” As he spoke, he hurried over and cut Dunne's bonds, freeing the man.
As he turned to the still unconscious Larabee, he continued to talk, “I'm gonna have my hands full with Chris, I need you to follow close, okay?” Not waiting to get a response, he cut Chris loose and hefted the blond over his shoulder.
“C'mon Kid, keep up!”
The world seemed to have shrunk until it contained nothing but the valley, the weight of his oldest friend, and the distant sounds of hooves. He led the way along the valley until he found a faint trail up the side. Shifting Chris' weight slightly, he began the climb; to get away from the approaching herd. “Careful, Kid, it's loose here.”
Suddenly the sounds of gunfire echoed off the hills. They mixed with the sounds of the approaching cattle, causing the latter to become frenzied and frightened. He heard but continued on his path, nearly panting now as he forced himself to push on. “JD, hurry!”
It suddenly struck him that the younger man had yet to respond. Heedless of the danger, he turned in place and stared behind him. Nothing. There was no sign that JD Dunne was following him. “JD!” He stared back toward the trees where the two men had been bound. There were no signs of his friend. Then, from just beyond the trees, the frontrunners barreled forward, pushed by the animals behind and their mounting panic.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Buck screamed, as he watched the animals reach the trees, battering against them and tearing them from the sandy earth.
There was nothing he could do. Changing direction he struggled up the side of the hill, slipping and sliding as he struggled to climb high enough to be out of the way of the animals that were now nearly below him. Finally reaching a spot where he felt safe, he dug his heels into the rocky soil and stared down the valley, to where the trees… were. He could see nothing below, now, but a sea of frightened cattle. Carefully he lowered his friend to the ground, settling him as level as he was able. Kneeling beside Chris, he surveyed the battered body. Cuts and bruises covered most of the visible flesh, blood was drying on both flesh and cloth. “Abe, I swear to you, I'll track you down and rip you apart.”Tears burned his eyes, but he filled himself with hatred for a man he had once considered a friend.
As soon as the animals had passed, the drovers hot on their hooves, trying to regain control of them, he ran back down the hill, and toward the place he had left his companion. His friend. His surrogate little brother. He fought to maintain control, but couldn’t stop the tears from flowing down his face.
The trees had been practically destroyed by the stampede; leaving nothing behind but stumps and splintered wood. He tossed aside the larger pieces, searching desperately for the younger man. With little hope, he called out, “JD!”
The sun was near its zenith by the time Buck returned to the place where he’d left Chris. He had searched and searched until, finally, he had to admit to himself that there was nothing else to be found. He refused to pursue that thought any further, pushing it aside to focus on the only thing he could take care of at the moment. He had to take care of his oldest friend.
Larabee lay where he'd left him. Dropping to his knees beside the blond, he reached out and clasped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Chris?”
Slowly the other man began to rouse, blinking as he tried to clear his vision. “Buck?”
“Hey, ol’ son, how ya feelin’?”
“Like I got caught in a stampede.”
The unintentional words nearly sent Buck over the edge; his stomach lurched and he struggled to keep from vomiting. All he said was, “Well, we’ll get you back to town and get you patched up.”
“Town? Wh- where are we?”
Staring around them, trying to decide how best to get himself and the injured man back to the little mudhole they’d been waylaid in, Buck muttered, “in the middle of nowhere, pard.”
The town and the countryside around it were shrouded in darkness by the time they reached the little gathering of ramshackle buildings that hopefully boasted of itself as a town. Chris had managed to walk back with Buck, although he had been unsteady and in need of guidance and even prodding. They stopped to rest several times but, otherwise, they kept moving. Buck’s mind was in turmoil; he wavered back and forth between wanting only to get as far away from Skunk Crossing as possible, and going back and continue searching for JD. There had to be something… some sign… his mind refused to continue contemplating the fate of the younger man. He had lived in the West for many years and, logically, knew exactly what could happen to someone caught in a stampede. However, he couldn’t attribute that knowledge to someone he considered as close to a brother as he did JD.
“Hey, Pard, you back with me?”
“Where… this ain’t town.”
“Nope. Remember? We weren’t in town. We’re a couple days out.”
“I… damn. I feel done in.”
“Yeah. You… you got busted up some. Look, let’s get us a room and I’ll see if I can get you cleaned up. Once you’ve rested some we’ll head home.”
Too tired to explore the other man’s comments, Larabee simply nodded and allowed himself to be led toward the only place in town that showed any signs of life; the saloon.
Two hours later, Buck had gotten Chris to eat a little and had rounded up some supplies to clean and patch his friend up. Larabee’s injuries didn't seem life threatening, but he had suffered enough of a head injury that he was still confused and apt to fall asleep in the middle of a sentence. That worried the big brunet, but until they got back to town, he’d be unable to do more than watch out for the blond.
Despite his anguish, Wilmington fell asleep soon after he got Chris settled for the night. The long hours caught up with him and everything disappeared from his mind as he slipped into a dreamless sleep.
He woke suddenly, deep blue eyes snapping open as he sat bolt upright. On the other side of the big bed, Chris lay just as he’d placed him last night, his usually ruddy features colorless and pinched, the flesh around his closed eyes bruised and swollen.
Stretching his weary body off the mattress, Buck scuffed around the bed, leaning down to gently shake his friend. “Hey, Chris? Wake up, pard.”
“Wha’… Buck?” Larabee slurred, blinking one eye open to a slit.
“Yeah, it’s me. Wake up for me, okay?”
Grinning, despite his broken spirit, Wilmington said, “I’m gonna go see if there’s a healer in this hole in the wall, okay?”
“Y' 'kay?” Larabee’s eye opened a little wider, although he was still barely awake.
“I’m fine, pard. You’re the one that got stove up. I’m gonna see if there’s someone that can patch you up better than I can. You need anything before I go?”
Shaking his head, Chris settled back into the pillow and drifted back off.
Heaving a sigh, the big man left the room, making certain it was closed up tight and locked as he did. He went downstairs and asked the groggy barkeeper if there was anyone who could be considered a healer.
“Granny Clem’s about the best we got around here. Hear tell they got a colored man who heals folks over in Four Corners, but don’t know if he’s any good or if you’d kin to someone like that workin’ on your friend.”
Just frustrated enough by the man’s comments, Buck replied sharply, “He’s a fine healer and he’s ‘worked’ on me, my friend upstairs, and anyone else in town just fine.”
Paling, the barkeep stammered, “Well… uh, that’s… uh… that’s good to know, Mister. Hey… you one ‘a them peacekeepers Judge Travis recruited, then?”
Ignoring the question, Buck straightened to his full height and asked, “Where’s this Granny Clem, then?”
“Uh… yeah, she’s down at the north end ‘a town. Little shack on the right.”
With a nod, Buck turned and strode from the saloon. Outside, he checked the layout of the little town before heading toward the north end of town. It only took a few minutes for him to find the woman’s home. Stepping up to the door, he knocked sharply. A minute later, the door slipped open a few inches, held there by the barrel of a shotgun. “Excuse me, I’m lookin’ for Mrs. Clem?”
“Why?” The voice was soft and raspy.
“I’ve got a friend who ran into some trouble. I’m told Mrs. Clem’s a healer.” He frowned when the only reply was a sharp cackle. “Uh, look, I’m not sure what you find so blamed funny, but we need some help.”
The door opened the rest of the way. Before him stood a diminutive and ancient woman who he could easily imagine being friends with Nettie Wells grandmother. She squinted up at him and said, “Boy, I's only laughin’ ‘cause nobody’s called me anything but Granny since... well, since 'fore you were born. Now, tell me what’s goin’ on with your friend and where he is.”
As quickly as possible, Buck explained the situation. He then helped her gather up the things she decided that she would need and carried them in a satchel as he led her back to the saloon. He was surprised that, despite her age and size, she easily kept up with him during their walk. Buck stepped into the ramshackle establishment and held the door open for the woman. As she entered the barkeeper greeted her warmly.
“Mornin’, Granny. See he found ya okay,” the barkeeper greeted her.
“Mornin’ Cyrus. Yep. You let Nancy know I might be needin’ her help if his friend’s too bad.”
Nodding, Cyrus simply said, “Yep.”
They reached the room the two men were sharing, and Buck unlocked and opened the creaking door, calling out as he stepped inside. There was nothing more dangerous than an injured, startled Chris Larabee. “Chris it’s me.” Once inside he waved the healer in as well. He was only marginally surprised to see the blond sitting on the edge of the bed, staring blearily at them both.
“Now, son, they call me Granny. Yer friend here tells me you’re ailin’ and I’m a good ‘n to fix what ails ya.”
Staring at the aged woman and then to his friend, Chris asked in a confused tone, “Where’s Nathan?”
With a sigh, the bigger man said, “Chris, remember? We ain’t in town. This here is Granny and she’s a healer, same as Nathan.”
“Okay.” Larabee sighed and, when Granny Clem told him to, he lay back down on the bed.
Buck couldn’t help but chuckle as his stubborn friend responded in such a docile manner. He saw that the old woman was looking at him with a question in her face. Smiling, he explained, “He’s usually stubborn as a mule with a sore hoof and a burr under his saddle. Never saw him just lay down when he was told to.”
With a grin, Granny replied, “Well, glad he’s bein’ meek, I don’t kin havin’ ta sit on ‘im. Okay, young man, let’s get to this.”
Under the old lady’s guidance, they stripped Chris down so that she could look him over. Buck was embarrassed for both he and his semi-conscious friend when Granny Clem began poking and prodding the nude body. Larabee, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to either his condition or her ministrations. After she had made a complete inspection of the battered man, she said, “Okay, I need you ta go down ‘n tell Cyrus to send Nancy up with as much warm water as she can tote. We’re gonna have ta clean them cuts out good.”
“Yes ma’am. Um, look, can you take care of him, then, Mis – Granny? I’ve got another friend missin’, and I need to go look for him.”
Turning to the big man, the woman set her fists on her hips and gave him a glare that would send Larabee running. “You mean ta tell me you’re standin’ around here, flirtin’ with me, when you got another friend in need?”
Nearly choking on her words, Buck managed to keep a straight face as he looked properly chastised. “I… uh, reckon that I was just distracted.”
“Well then, boy, you need to go. Give Cyrus my message on your way out the door.”
Nodding, Buck promised to do just that as he bolted from the room.
Ten minutes later Buck was entering the livery, calling for the livery man. Just as he opened his mouth, he closed it again and gawked in shock. Pony and Milagro were standing in the livery’s corral. Stepping up to the fence, he muttered under his breath, “What the hell?” General was there, as well.
“You interested in buyin’ a horse?”
Buck turned to see a burly man standing there, wiping his hands on his leather apron. He may have bathed at some point in the last five years, but it was questionable. Pulling himself up to his full height, Wilmington asked in a hard voice, “Where’d you get that horse; the gray?”
“Feller brought it in early this mornin', bought ‘im fer a fair price. Said he's from the herd out beyond town and that the owner got caught in a stampede and wouldn't need 'im no more. You got a problem?”
Ignoring the man's surly mood, Buck asked, “What did this man look like?”
“Didn’t pay him much mind, was checkin’ over the horse. Why all the questions?”
“The gray is mine.” Buck folded his arms across his chest.
“He have his tack when the man sold ‘em?”
“Yep. He threw it in on the deal.”
“You check it out?”
“Were the initials BW burned on the saddle?” Then seeing the confusion in the man’s face, he squatted down and drew the initials in the dirt. The confusion cleared.
“Shit. That bastard steal ‘im from ya?”
“Something like that. Look, I’ll settle with you later. My friends brought in those two,” He indicated Pony and Milagro. “Right now, though, I need my gear, I've got to go look for a friend.”
Chris moaned softly, pain drawing his attention from a dream. He had been sitting at the dinner table with Sarah and Adam, eating chicken and dumplings with peas and carrots fresh from the garden. Just as his beautiful wife reached for his empty plate, kissing him gently on the cheek, pain stabbed at him all along the side of his face.
“Sa... Sarah?” He opened his eyes finding, not his wife, but a weathered old woman leaning over him. “Who...?”
“Land sakes, do I need to introduce myself to ya every time ya open yer eyes, boy?”
Her voice sparked a memory and he muttered, “No, ma'am... Granny... right?”
With a soft laugh that was more hen cackle than anything else, she said, “Well, yer brains ain't too scrambled. Nancy, help me shift him so's I can check his back.”
Blinking as he tried to clear his vision, Chris saw a second woman in the room, this one much younger; not much older than Casey Wells. And, suddenly, he realized that he was naked. “I... no, I'm... I'm fine.” As he spoke, his fingers pulled at the bedding beneath him, trying to pull it over him.
“Good lord, boy, we've been workin' on ya for near an hour. Believe me, ya ain't got anything we ain't seen.”
Chris' pale features darkened as a blush spread over him. He started to respond to her, but with a put upon expression, opted to simply close his eyes once again. He did his best to ignore the feel of small hands on his bare skin, shifting him over. Pain flaired here and there as the injuries on his back were wakened by a touch. After several, long, moments, he simply drifted away, his body relaxing beneath the two women's hands.
With a 'tsk' Granny Clem pointed out several, distinctive marks on the man's back. Shaking her head, she said to Nancy, “Someone used a belt on 'im. One with a real int'restin' buckle on it. See here?”
Nancy shook her head as she saw the marks Granny was pointing to. The marks were oval, and deeper than most of the others. There was a rope design running through it as well. It was something you didn't often see on a trail bum's belt.
Buck knew that there was little reason for him to return to the canyon. The best he hoped to find was whatever was left of JD's body. He had looked everywhere the day before and found nothing. But he had to try. One more time.
Pulling back on the reins as he came upon the place where the nightmare had begun, he surveyed the ground around him. Nothing had changed since the day before, the ground chewed up by hundreds of hooves, the trees where Chris and JD had been held were nothing but splinters and twigs. Dismounting, he sighed as he began, once more, to inspect the ground more closely. But, as much as he went over the ground and as slowly as he moved, it made no difference. There was no sign that JD Dunne had been there. But, still he searched. It was late in the afternoon before he acknowledged defeat and started back toward town.
Returning to town, he left his horse with the livery man who explained that he'd looked all over the town for signs of the man who'd sold him the horse, but found nobody. Buck wasn't in the least surprised. Heading for the saloon, he took the stairs two at a time and hurried down the hallway to the room he'd left Chris in. Finding it locked, he knocked and, a minute later, Granny Clem opened the door. With a distracted nod at the older woman, he moved into the room. “How is he, ma'am?”
“Better. Imagine he'll be ready to sit his horse in a couple days.” She paused, giving him a stern look. “Did you find the other one?”
Shoulders slumping, he shook his head. “No ma'am.”
Granny's face filled with sympathy for the young man standing before her. Softly, she said, “I'm sorry, son.”
Nodding and clearing his throat, Buck asked, “How's Chris?”
“He's been in and out all day. Sometimes he knows where he's at and others he's askin' for someone.”
“Sarah,” Buck supplied, explaining when she nodded, “His wife was murdered a few years back.”
With a compassionate 'tsk', Granny said, “I'm real sorry to hear that, son. Nothin' hurts like the lose of your loved ones.”
“Ain't that the truth.” Rubbing a hand over his face, he said, “Ma'am, I'll be happy to walk you back home, and I'll surely pay you and Miss Nancy -- “
“You'll do no such thing, young man. Now, first of all, I want you to go downstairs and get a drink and something to eat. Have you eaten at all today?” When he wouldn't meet her eyes, she said, “Didn't think so. Now, be off with ya, me and Chris are just fine here until you get back.”
Buck managed to get out, “Yes, ma'am,” Before he left the room.
Downstairs he went to the bar and ordered a bottle and supper, then found an empty table in the corner. With his back to the wall, he drank straight from the bottle and watched the room with vague indifference. All he wanted to do now, was to return home and put it all behind him, although he doubted that he ever could. It was his fault that JD was gone. He hadn't taken care of him as he should have, too focused on getting Chris out of harm's way. He should have been more aware; should have known there was something wrong when he didn't hear anything from JD.
He barely noticed when someone sat a plate of food in front of him. It was only when he was spoken to that he drew himself from his dark thoughts. “Granny says you didn't find anything of your friend.”
Looking up he saw the young woman that he'd seen that morning as he was leaving to go looking. Barely managing a faint smile, he said only, “Thank you, it smells good.”
Returning the smile, Nancy said, “Well, eat it while it's hot. You look about done in.”
Ducking his head and cutting into the thick steak on his plate, Buck began to eat. He tasted nothing, chewing automatically. He knew that Chris was going to need him to get back to town and for that he'd keep his strength up. After that, however, he didn't care. There seemed to be nothing in his future other than guilt and remorse for the loss of a friend.
Buck finished a second bottle before returning to the room where Chris was. To his surprise, Larabee was propped up on pillows and Granny Clem was spooning broth into his mouth. That Chris continued to respond to them in such a compliant, almost meek fashion, concerned Buck. He had heard of men who never recovered from a blow to the head; who spent the rest of their days simply responding to whatever somebody told them to do. He hoped, though, that Larabee's stubbornness would stand him in good sted this time, and he'd recover completely.
Granny turned toward him, wrinkling her nose. “Boy, you smell like you fell into a whiskey barrel.”
“Reckon so, ma'am. Had a few drinks with dinner.”
Nodding, she spooned the last of the broth into Chris' mouth and dropped the spoon into the empty bowl. Standing, she stared up at Buck. “Well, I'll head home then, and leave him with you. I'll be back first thing in the morning to check on him. If you need me before then, you know where I am.”
“Yes ma'am, I'll escort you home.”
With a wave and a chuff of breath, she said, “I helped build this town, boy, ain't nothin' in it that scares me. You watch over your friend and get some sleep.” She was out the door then, heading for the stairway.
Shaking his head, Buck closed the door behind her and locked it. Then, he slipped out of his boots and gunbelt, shirt and vest, and settled on the far side of the bed. Chris murmured something when he laid down, but he didn't wake. Buck closed his eyes, doubting that sleep would come to him. Instead, it claimed him almost instantly.
He managed to open his eyes, although it took a great deal of effort. When he did, it didn't seem to make much difference. There was nothing but darkness and shadows around him. He tried to move, but found it nearly impossible to do more than twitch a few muscles. With a breathless moan, he fell back into the oblivion that had held him for so long.
By morning, things were looking up a little. Chris woke on his own and even managed to use the chamber pot which, to Buck's dismay, held blood when he finished. They'd have to stay put until the blond wasn't pissing blood. When Chris settled back on the bed, he spread the covers over his friend and asked, “You hungry?”
“Some, I guess,” was the tentative reply. “Buck, we're not in town, are we?”
“We were heading back... weren't we? About two days out, I think.”
“Well, sounds like you're gettin' better,” Buck said, managing a smile.
“Buck... JD was with us, wasn't he?”
Swallowing hard, Wilmington struggled with his emotions as he answered softly, “Yeah.”
“Where is he?”
“Well, he's...” he took a deep breath. “Chris, he's gone.”
“What?” Larabee paled even more as the news sank in. “Are you sure?”
Nodding, Buck explained most of what had happened. He found himself leaving out the fact that he had abandoned the young man, finishing with, “I've been back out there a second time, but nothing.”
“Aw... JD...” Chris lamented softly, shaking his head. Then he saw the expresion on his oldest friend's face. “Buck, I'm sure you did everything you could.”
All Buck could do was shake his head. He couldn't put his guilt into words. Not yet. Maybe never.
Sounds came to him, muffled and meaningless. He struggled to make sense of what was being said, but it was useless. He tried to open his eyes again, but couldn't manage it this time. He tried to move, but found that impossible as well. Pain, wakened by his efforts, seared through him, leaving him with no other option but to return to the nothingness that reached out to claim him once more.
It was late afternoon the next day when Chris managed to make his way down the stairs alone, the residual dizziness from his head injury proving little more than a mild annoyance. He found Buck at the back table, which held three empty bottles along side the one he was drinking from at the moment. As he drew close, Buck pushed an empty chair out with his foot, silent invitation for his friend to sit down.
“If you're feelin' this good, reckon we can leave here tomorrow.”
“Reckon we can. Looks to me like you're trying to drink the town dry before we do.”
Sliding an angry look toward the other man, Buck offered no other reply.
“It wasn't your fault, Stud.”
“Yeah? Then who's was it?” Buck tipped the bottle back, draining off a healthy swallow.
“The bastard that got the drop on me and him. Eventually you're going to have to let it go, I'd rather see you do that before you drink yourself into the grave.”
Wilmington gave a snort and shook his head. “You've got a good memory, Pard.” Those were the exact words he'd favored the blond with the day before they parted company those years ago. He had gotten to the point where he couldn't stand the thought of burying his mourning friend and preferred to ride away rather than watch his self-destructive slide.
“You were right. Buck, I know that right now the pain's too raw. Hell, I don't want to believe it, either. But, eventually, you're going to have to face --”
Wilmington shoved his chair back and stood, glaring at the other man. His voice deadly soft, he said, “Don't even try it, Larabee. I don't want to hear anything you've got to say.” With that, he stormed across the room, slapped the doors opened, and disappeared into the morning sun.
Leaning back in his seat, Chris sighed and cursed softly, “Shit.”
The words were clear; the first understandable sounds in he didn't know how long. He tried to respond to them, but found it to formidable a task. Groaning as pain lanced through his head, he tried to open his eyes. He wanted to do something... find some way to make his body respond to his wishes.
“Told ya to get up.”
“Leave him alone.”
“It's been days... tired of nurse maidin' the bastard...”
“Shut yer mouth...”
It became too hard to hold onto the conversation. He allowed himself to drift off once more.
He rode out there, telling himself it would be the last time. A quiet voice in the back of his mind though, disagreed. He would keep looking, no matter how long it took. Arriving in the canyon, he dismounted and ground reined his horse. He began to sweep every inch of the torn up ground, searching for some sign of the young man. He told himself that, when he found that sign, he would be able to come to terms with the loss. He knew that was a lie, too. He would never be able to come to terms with the loss of his young friend. In far too many ways, JD had been like a little brother since the first. In other ways he was like a son.
He had brought three bottles of whiskey with him and was just draining the second when something caught the sunlight just as it caught his eye. Squatting down, he brushed long fingers through the loose dirt until he completely uncovered the tiny object. It was JD's badge.
A single, gut-wrenching sob ripped from his soul and echoed off the dirt walls around him. Buck clenched the battered piece of tin so hard that the edges pressed into the flesh of his palm. Standing, he threw back his head and loosed an agonized cry that reverberated for what seemed like an age before they stilled. Then he drew himself up, tossed the nearly empty bottle as far as he could throw it, and stormed back toward his horse. There he mounted the big gray and turned him toward the town where his nightmares had begun, digging his heels into the animal's sides, he set off at a dead run.
Granny Clem stopped by that evening, checking in on her patient. She found him sitting outside the saloon, staring into the distance. Waving him back to his seat when he started to rise, she said, “Yer thinkin' awful hard, son.”
Smiling up at the healer, Chris said, “Just ready to leave, I reckon.”
“Ya sure yer feelin' up to the ride?”
Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he said, “It's only a couple days. I'm just ready to be home.”
With a grin, Granny said, “Home. That ain't a word I'd expect ta hear from you, son.”
Shaking his head, Larabee said, “Not a word I'd expect to say, either. I need to get him away from here, though.”
“He does seem ta be carryin' a load a guilt.”
“Yes, ma'am, he is.”
“Well, you make sure you take things easy and have a safe trip home.” She reached out and slapped him on the shoulder. “And you'd better drop in an' pay yer r'spects if yer by this way again.”
Smiling up at the ancient, weathered face, Chris nodded, “I most certainly will, Granny. And thank you for all your help.”
“Pish,” She muttered, waving away his thanks. With nothing more to say, she turned and walked back down the boardwalk.
Behind her, Chris shook his head, smiling at the odd little woman's retreating back. Then his attention was drawn away at the sounds of someone approaching. Turning, he found Buck nearby, his face an unreadable mask. He felt a little jolt when he saw the battered and bloodied piece of tin the other man had pinned on his vest. “Buck?”
“Reckon if you're up to it, we'll leave at first light.”
Chris nodded, giving away no evidence of the emotional pain he felt, seeing his friend so closed off. All he said, was “I'll be ready.”
He finally managed to open his eyes part way, the painfully swollen flesh of his face keeping him from doing any more than that. There was some light filtering into... wherever he was... though he couldn't track its source. He managed to move one arm; the other one feeling stiff and too painful to move. He reached up, pressing searching fingers agains the flesh of his face. There was so much swelling that he could barely tell one part of his face from another. He was breathing through his mouth, guessing that his nose was broken. Moving downward he catalogued his pain; finding more of the same; swollen and broken flesh.
“'Bout damn time ya woke up. I'm real tired a nurse-maidin' you.”
He tried to find the speaker, finally locating a shadowy figure across the room. He tried to speak, but found that he couldn't manage more than a few, unintelligible sounds.
“Mebbe now yer awake, I c'n quit babysittin' ya.”
He stared at the speaker, a sense of dread flowing through him. Why did he fear this man?
The ride back to town was a quiet one. Buck sat slumped in the saddle, from time to time taking a long draw from one of the several bottles he brought with him. As he emptied one, he would throw the empty bottle as hard as he could, shooting it out of the sky with his sidearm.
Chris, never one for unnecessary talking at the best of times, sat silent in the saddle, from time to time sliding a glance at his friend, but otherwise keeping to himself. They rode at a nice, easy pace, allowing Larabee to stay in the saddle much longer than he might have otherwise. They stopped at noon, near a small spring, allowing the horses a chance to rest. Chris offered the other man some hardtack, but Buck simply stared at him and turned away.
The afternoon was much of the same, although Buck did seem to slow down his drinking a bit. They set up camp just before sundown, Chris cooking beans with two nice, large slabs of ham to go with them. He handed a plate to the other man, but Buck simply sat it aside and continued staring into the small fire.
“You know as well as I do that, if you don't eat something, that rotgut's gonna have you heaving up your insides by morning.” Chris remarked softly. He didn't really expect a response, and didn't get one. The camp was silent the rest of the night, Chris rolling up in his bedroll soon after finishing his meal. The last thing he saw was the shadowy figure of his oldest friend, tipping back a bottle.
Just as the sun was chasing away the shadows where he lay, he was awakened when sombody kicked the end of his cot, making the entire thing shudder. Blinking open his eyes, he simply lay there, staring up at the other man.
“C'mon, git up.”
“Why?” His voice sounded like a rusty spring, thanks to a dry throat, and he had no idea of the length of disuse. He frowned as the thought crossed his mind; it sounded just like somebody, but he couldn't figure out just who.
“'Cos, I said, git up.” If the speaker was surprised to hear him say something, he didn't show it.
He pushed himself up slowly, every inch screaming in pain. It seemed to take forever for him to get upright, his head spinning so fast that he had to grab the side of the cot to keep from pitching forward. The other man showed no patience, he simply grabbed him by a shoulder and pulled him up. He tried to stand perfectly still, but found himself falling against the other man, where he was treated to a stench that would be detectable in an outhouse. Between the movement and the smell, he gagged, just managing to turn his head before he vomited.
“Ah, for cris'sakes, now look what you did! Yer gonna have t' clean it up, 'cos I ain't.” The man called Riley growled.
“Knock it off, Riley, it's yer fault he painted the floor. Go get a bucket 'a water and wash it up.” A second man had entered, his voice holding a note of authority.
“The hell I will!”
He didn't have to look to realize that it was a gun that made the distinct “click”, before the newcomer said, “Ya will, 'less ya wanna head on out fer hell.”
He heard the first man stomping off, cursing as he went. Deciding that he might get better information from this other man, he asked, “Whe... where am I?”
“Yer with us.”
“I re... realize that, but where?”
“In a cabin,” the other man said reluctantly.
“Who... are you?”
“My name's Barton 'n 't'other's is Riley.”
Next came the question he dreaded to have to ask. “Who am... I?”
They arrived back in town to find it peaceful; something none of them would have seen just a year ago. Chris reined in at the livery, putting out a hand to stop the big grey plodding along beside him. Buck was all but passed out in the saddle, rocking and swaying dangerously.
Yosemite came out, gathering up the reins, a concerned lookin on his face. “Buck hurt?”
Chris shook his head, saying only, “just tired,” as way of explanation. He cringed as he heard footsteps running down the staircase nearby, knowing what was coming.
“Chris! How bad's he hurt?” Nathan asked, concern evident in his voice.
Not wanting to say more than he had to, Chris simply repeated that Buck was tired and asked the healer to help him get the bigger man back to his room. Together they pulled Wilmington out of the saddle and into their waiting holds. The barely concious man grumbled and groaned, but allowed them to lead him away from the livery and toward his room.
Behind them, because of his concern for the usually gregarious ladies man, Yosemite belatedly realized that there was a third horse with them, but no rider. He called out, “Where's JD?” But recieved no answer.
A few minutes later, they were pouring the semi-conscious man into bed. Chris yanked off his boots, while Nathan took care of his coat and then they removed his gunbelt. Rolling him onto his side, in case he got sick in his sleep, Chris turned to find Nathan staring at him. He sighed and said softly, “He's drunk.”
“Yeah, I figured that. What's happened, and where's JD?”
Running his fingers through his hair, Larabee said, “Let's go find the others, okay? I'd just as soon only say this once.”
“Who are ya? What kind'a game you playin' at?”
“I'm not playing a game. Look, I don't know you or that... that other man, and I don't even remember my own name. What happened to me?”
Barton's mind worked feverishly, trying to form an answer that would work for them. “Why, yer my little brother... Jamie... don't ya 'member me a'tall?”
He frowned, trying to focus his vision enough that he could see the other man. When he did, there was nothing. The man he was looking at was a complete stranger. “Uh... no... no I don't.”
“Well, ya took a good whack on the head... prob'ly scrambled yer brains. We're headin' out t'day... see if we c'n find us somebody t' look y'over and fix y'up.”
“How did I... how'd I get hurt?” He asked, the smaller pains of various injuries making themselves known through the more serious pain in his head.
“Uh... well, yer horse throwed ya.”
“I... I need a doctor,” He suggested.
Before Barton could respond, Riley was back with a bucket, which he uncerimoniously dumped over the gore covered floor. Hard packed dirt, the water simply spread out rather than soaking in. Quickly, Barton called Riley and motioned for him to follow, shooting a “We'll be right back... Jamie,” As they left the little cabin. Behind them, the young man dropped heavily back onto the bed.
Outside, Riley glared at the other man. “Jamie? What th' hell, Barton? Ya know that ain't 'is name.”
“Yeah, I know. I also know that Burdette told us ta keep the bastard outta sight 'til he comes back. What Burdette don't know is... kid ain't got no mem'ry.”
“Good Gawd yer thick! He don't 'member nothin'... not even 'is own name. Now, seems t' me that, we c'n have us some fun... and he ain't gonna be no bother long's he figgers he's where he b'longs.”
They were gathered at the jail, Chris wanting to talk to the others as far from gossiping townspeople as he could. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, wishing fervently that he was anywhere else at the moment. When that didn't happen, he told them what had happened, in enough detail that there wouldn't be many questions when he was done. With a twinge, he thought of the fact that the one who'd have the most questions was the one who wasn't there. Finishing, he looked around at the others. Ezra looked as if he'd been punched in the gut. Vin simply sat there, staring off into the distance, tears gathering in fathomless, blue eyes. Josiah had been quietly praying for the last several minutes, and Nathan simply stared down at his hands.
“Buck's been hidin' in a bottle since it happened. You all know how... how close those two we... were.” He stammered to a halt, the loss hitting him hard now that he had shared it with the other four men. “I'm not sure we're not gonna lose him too but, for now, we just need to keep an eye on him... see if he pulls out of it himself.”
They all knew about Larabee's own dance with the bottle; knew that he still had those times when it called him again. They knew that they could very well be facing that same issue with another friend. Josiah answered for them all. “We'll keep a close eye on him but, Chris? I for one can't stand by and watch him kill himself.”
Chris nodded. “He was there for me when I needed him, I'm not gonna walk away from him. If we have to intervene, we will. But... well, he needs the chance to grieve for now.”
Vin, still looking stunned, said softly, “Reckon I'll ride over there. I know the place yer talkin' about. Maybe I can find somethin' he missed.”
“Why?” Chris asked, his tone sharp. “I told you, he was over the place with a fine tooth comb.”
Holding up a hand in surrender, Tanner said, “I ain't sayin' he didn't, but y'all are always sayin' I can see a fly a hundred yards away. Mebbe I can find something... somethin' Buck missed. Reckon it might help.”
Shaking his head, Chris held up the battered badge he's slipped off the other man's vest when they were putting him to bed. “If this doesn't do it, not sure there's anything else out there that would.”
Nodding, Vin slumped back in his seat, arms crossing his chest.
“Look, we'll just take things one day at a time. You know there's gonna be a lot of questions when the townsfolk realize JD's gone...”
“I'll go talk to Mary,” Josiah offered, “Have her print something in the paper. Might keep the questions to a minimum.”
“Good,” Chris agreed. Turning to them all, he said, “If there are any questions, make sure nobody asks Buck. Send them to me.”
They knew just how worried Larabee was now; the taciturn gunfighter, as Vin had once pointed out, barely said three words a day. Now he was inviting conversation.
He managed to climb to his feet and stagger across the floor, his head pounding the entire time. Reaching the rickety table, he leaned heavily on it while he managed to pull out one of the chairs and dropping heavily onto it with a groan. He focused on steadying his breathing, hoping that he didn't get sick again. Running a trembling hand over his face, he struggled by, finally, managed to calm himself.
“Well, see ya got up on yer own, Jamie, that's a good sign,” Barton said with a forced cheerfulness.
“Tired of just... laying around,” the younger man admitted. “Thought we were going to go find a doctor?”
“Reckon if yer feelin' good 'nuff to get yerself around we don't need one.”
He'd shake his head if he didn't think it would fall off his shoulders. “I really think... I need someone to look... to look at the cuts, though. I think some of them might be in... might be infected.”
Barton sighed. He had hoped that things were going well enough that they wouldn't have to drag the boy anywhere. Burdette wanted him alive, but he didn't say anything about how alive he needed to be. And, he hoped that, in convincing the boy that he was one of them, that they could use that against that Larabee. “Reckon we c'n take care 'a that ourselves.”
He sighed, wanting very much to do something that would stop at least some of the pain. For some reason he didn't trust his brother, and nothing about him seemed the least bit familiar. “If you don't want... to take me, point me in the... the right direction and I'll g-go myself.”
Barton, not by any means the smartest man who had ever stood in a pair of boots, was torn. Keeping the scrawny little greenhorn hidden away from the man Abe wanted to torment was a lot easier to do when the bastard didn't know he was being held captive. That gave him two choices, risk the man being recognized by someone, or actually spending his time holding him captive. Riley would be pretty damned pissed if he had to pull guard duty, too. The man was difficult at the best of times, and this certainly wasn't them.
“Okay, tell ya what. We'll head over to the nearest town t'morrow and see if they got a healer.”
Smiling in relief the amnesiac said, “Yeah. Thanks.”
Barton left the little room and scuffed outside, where Riley was sitting on an upturned barrel, whittling on a piece of wood. “I'm gonna take 'im in ta Skunk Crossin' tomorrow.”
“What!? You stupid sum'bitch, ya know Burdette said t' keep 'im outta sight.”
“I know, but he's gettin' itchy... wantin' somebody t' look at 'is hurts. If I'm gonna keep 'im quiet so's we don't have t' work so hard 't keepin' 'im quiet, reckon it'll take goin' to a healer.”
“What if somebody rec'nizes 'im?” Riley questioned.
“Hell, he weren't there long enuff t' make a impression. If he goes in there, gits 'is hurts seen t', ever'thing'll be quiet 'til Burdette comes back.”
“I don't like 't, Barton. I ain't havin' nothin' t' do with 't.”
“Well, fine then, you stay here, 'n I'll take 'im t' town.”
The next morning, Barton made good on his word, and they rode toward Skunk Crossing. His “brother” was still weak from all the injuries, including the ones he'd given him, himself. Because of that Barton found it easy to get him to stop and rest. He hoped that, if he could keep finding reasons, that they could take the whole day and half the night. He'd heard that there was a healer in the little shithole of a town, but he hoped that he could convince the boy that there wasn't one, then they could just go back to the shack. Abe should be returning soon; he'd been anxious to put into play whatever dirtbag scheme he had in mind. He wasn't all that interested in whatever the man was planning. All he cared about was the bonus Abe had promised him for staying behind and keeping the boy prisoner. As soon as he had that in his hands, he'd happily ride away and leave it all behind.
The third time they stopped, though, “Jamie” became rather frustrated, though. “Look, I'm strong enough to keep going. We've... we've stopped three times in... what an hour? Let's get goin', B-Barton.”
“In a minute. Look, yer my little brother, 'n I made a promise t' Ma and Pa that ya wouldn't come t' no harm. So's I don't wanna push ya none.”
“I'm... I'm sure I can ride... a bit more.” He mumbled, climbing to his feet and starting back toward his horse.
Barton sighed and followed after, and they were back on the road toward Skunk Crossing.
They rode in silence for the most part. He kept sliding furtive glances toward the man who identified himself as his brother, trying to find something familiar. There was nothing. This was a man who seemed to have little thought of hard work to better himself. Since he had wakened in that filthy little cabin, the man had spoken of nothing but schemes that would net him a great deal of money. He was older, weathered, and skinny as a rail.
When he contempleted the word brother, another came to mind. Tall, dark hair sprinkled with only a few grey hairs, a mustache that seemed to dance when he talked, and deep blue eyes that sparkled with laughter. This was who he saw when “brother” crossed his mind.
There were others, too, tall men and strong, standing shoulder to shoulder against...
He rubbed his head as another headache made its appearance.
“See, Jamie, I tol' ya, yer pushin' yerself too hard. We need ta sit a spell.”
“I'm fine,” he growled as he nudged the old horse forward, leaving the other man to catch up.
He blinked his eyes open blearily, staring at a familiar ceiling. When had they left Skunk Crossing for home? His head was thick, cotten filled, making it hard to think. Likewise his mouth felt as if he'd eaten his pillow and blanket at some point. His stomach rolled and gurgled, sounding full and feeling empty at the same time.
“About time you woke up.”
Turning his head slowly, he found the speaker. “How long we been home?”
Moving slowly, Buck sat up on the side of the bed, testing out his ability to be upright by degrees. The entire time, Chris simply sat there, watching. Needing a target for his anger, as unfocused as his vision, the big brunet lashed out, “You just gonna sit there, starin' at me?”
Picking up a boot, he lobbed it at his old friend, who deflected it and continud to sit there, watching. “Get the Hell outta here!”
Without a word, Larabee simply stood, put his hat one and, not looking back, he left the room. Behind him, Buck slumped back on the bed, feeling as miserable emotionally as he did physically. Elbows on knees and face in hands, he groaned.
Outside, as Chris stepped out onto the boardwalk, he retrieved a cheroot and struck a match against the nearest upright. He nodded to Vin, who was slouched in a straightback chair, long legs crossed at the ankle.
“How's he doin'?”
“How do you think?”
“Grizzly with a toothache?”
Nodding, Larabee said, “I've been thinkin'...”
“Ya hurt anything?”
With a snort and a quick grin, Larabee growled, “Smart ass. You still willing to ride over to Skunk Crossing to see if you can find anything Buck might have missed?”
Nodding himself, now, the tracker said, “I'll head out in an hour.”
They entered the little gathering of decrepit buildings just as the sun settled on the horizon. Barton led them to the saloon; tying off their horses, they went inside. Reaching the bar, Barton dropped a coin and ordered two shots. When they came, he threw his back. Beside him the other man followed suit, only to spit the amber liquid back on the bar and go into a coughing fit. Barton slapped him on the back, grinning at the bartender who glared at the mess on his bar.
“Boy never could hold 'is liquer,” he said as way of explanation, half dragging the still coughing man to the nearest table and setting him down.
“Boy looks like he tangled with somethin' purty nasty,” Cyrus observed.
“Horse throwed 'im,” Barton replied shortly. “Gimme a beer, would ya?”
Nodding, Cyrus drew a mug and carried it over to the table. Setting it down, he waited for payment before returning to clean up the mess the boy had made. Something told him not to trust the older one, while that same, niggling thought had him worried for the younger one. “Y'all need a healer, we got one.”
Barton opened his mouth to refuse, but the man sitting nearby beat him to the punch. “Where is he?”
“She, son, Granny Clem. 'Magine she c'n set ya right.” As he had just a few days earlier, he gave directions to the old lady's house. “Tell 'er Cyrus sent ya down, otherwise she might take 't in 'er head ta shoot ya.”
“Thanks.” Tiredly he stood and, weaving slightly, moved across the room and out the door. Behind him, Barton swallowed the beer as quickly as possible before following him. It wasn't in his nature to waste a good drink... or a poor one.
Granny Clem once again opened her front door with the muzzle of her shotgun, staring out at her visitor. This one was young, hardly more than a boy. He'd been in some sort of trouble, judging from the bruises, cuts and swollen places, it had been several days back. At once her sharp mind began to put things together but, before she could say anything to the young man, another man stepped up behind him.
“What c'n I do fer you fellers?” She asked.
“The bartender said there's a healer here, ma'am?” The young one asked politely. He pulled off a battered hat as he spoke.
“That'd be me, son. You tangle with a wild injun 'r somethin'?”
Managing a smile, he said, “Just a stubborn... horse, ma'am.” He grabbed the doorframe as his knees buckled. She reached out to steady him before the man behind him even seemed to realize he was having trouble.
“Well, come on in, then, lemme see what I c'n do fer ya.” She offered her arm and, much stronger than her age or stature would indicate, she helped him into the house and sat him on a chair. As the other man followed, she turned and said, “And who might you be?”
“I'm 'is brother, ma'am.” Barton smiled, but it wasn't a convincing smile, and didn't reach his icy eyes.
“Brother, huh? Well, brother, what caught the boy?” She asked as she began looking the young man over.
“Horse throwed 'im, ma'am.”
“Horse, huh?” She didn't say anything more, but she could tell by the injuries that the man was lying through what teeth he had left. As she continued to examine the pale flesh, she knew that she'd seen very similar marks, the oval buckle with the rope design, just a few days earlier and was all but certain, despite the fact that he was presumed dead, that this was the man Wilmington had been looking for.
“What's yer name, son?” She asked quietly as she gently prodded the swelling around his left eye.
“Name's Jamie, ma'am,” Barton answered for the other.
Not even glancing up, she said, “I'm askin' him, not you. Need ta see how much he c'n tell me... helps in healin' 'im up,” she added, before the other man could argue.
“I don't remember much... ma'am,” the young man admitted softly.
She could tell by his manner as well as the way he spoke that this was not someone born to life in the West. Not to mention the tattered clothing he wore which, she could see, hadn't been nearly as tattered before... whatever happened, happened.
Barton chuckled, the sound as forced as his smile. “Shoot, ma'am, reckon we all get a little confused when we take a good hit t' the head. Don't mean nothin'.”
“You a healer?” She asked impatiently.
“Well... no, ma'am.”
“Then yer opinion don't count fer much. Now, I need you ta go on down t' the merchantile and tell the shopkeep that I need some bleached muslin. Reckon a couple yards 'll do it. Tell 'im it's fer Granny, he'll put 't on my bill.”
“Well, I er... I hate t' leave Jamie here alone, ma'am...” Barton stammered, his mind spinning as he tried to come up with some way to stay right where he was, so he could keep his prisoner in sight.
“Me 'n him'll be jist fine. Now, git,” Granny waved, shooing him away. “Ya want me ta heal yer brother, you'll do's I say.”
Heaving a sigh, Barton said, “Yes, ma'am. Jamie, I'll be right back.” When neither of them responded, he sighed once more and slipped out the door.
Tilting the man's head back, looking deep into his eyes, Granny said, “You don't b'long with 'im, do ya?”
Blinking, the young man said, “I... I don't know, ma'am. I can't re... remember...”
Nodding, Granny said, “If I's ta tell ya 'bout a big feller, black hair, mustache... another 'n, slender, blond, partial t' black clothes...”
“Wh... What?” He blinked again, then grasped his head as pain shot through it once more.
Granny poured some water into a glass, adding a few drops of something from an amber bottle, and handed it to him. “Drink this, son, it'll help.”
He gulped the liquid, which spread through him like a warm fire, seeming to touch every part of him at once. Finishing, he started to hand the glass back, only to have it fall from a hand suddenly numb.
Deftly catching the glass, Granny sat it aside and lifted him to his feet. “C'mon, boy, let's settle y' in bed whilst I figger out what we do now.”
“Wh-who... what... I don't un... understand.” He stammered as he staggered along beside her toward the back room where she kept a cot for folks she was healing.
“Sh, shush now. Listen. I'm takin' a chance here. That brother 'a yers don't look like a man who'd think twice 'bout hittin' no lady. I don't know just what game 'e's playin', but I'm all but certain he ain't no kin 'a yers. I need ya to foller m' lead. Understand?”
Nodding as the woman helped him settle on the cot, he asked, “What... what are you planning on doing?”
“Well, boy, I'll let'cha know soon's I figger 't out.”
Chris found his old friend in the Saloon, sitting at a back table, all alone. Except for the bottle of whiskey sitting in front of him. Stepping over to the table, he asked, “You eaten anything yet today?”
Staring straight ahead, Buck said, “Don't need a babysitter.”
Sitting down across from the other man, Chris said, softly, “Yeah, just like I didn't... before.”
Buck glared at his friend. “Chris --”
Holding up a hand to forestall an argument, Larabee said, “I'm not gonna lecture you, Pa. Just want to... repay a favor, I guess.” Leaning forward, the gunman said, “You were there for me when I needed you. The least I can do is be there for you.”
Shaking his head, the brunet said, “I don't need nobody sittin' there, tryin' to understand how I'm feeling. Hell, I ain't for certain how I feel.”
“Well, how about I see what Inez has in the kitchen, and at least we can keep you from feeling hungry.” He offered a smile, but Buck read beneath it, finding worry, compassion, and a kinship of sorts.
“Reckon I could do with somethin' to eat.” Wilmington admitted after a minute.
With a nod, Larabee called out to the Bar manager and ordered lunch for the two of them. They sat in companionable silence, Buck drinking from his bottle and Chris sipping a glass of beer until the pretty latina sat plates in front of them. They ate, even wiping the last of the meal up with tortillas.
Sitting back with a contented sound, Chris said, “Damned if that woman ain't one of the best cooks around.”
With a wan smile, Buck said, “Yeah, not to mention that she's awful easy on the eyes.”
“Yeah, well, she's gonna black your eyes if you don't stop staring at her,” Larabee said with a snort, and that earned him a soft chuckle.
Sobering, Buck said, “I just... Chris, I just feel like... like he's still out there, somewhere. Like there's somethin' I missed... I don't know. It's crazy, I know.”
“No, it's not,” Larabee said reassuringly. He debated on whether or not to tell the other man that Vin had ridden out to take a look, himself. In the end, he remained quiet, not wanting to get his friend's hope up.
“What kind 'a game you playin', ol' lady?” Barton growled as he slammed into the woman's house.
Looking up from the pot of beans she'd been making, Granny asked, “What're you talkin' about, boy? And you don't enter a lady's home like it's a bawdy house.”
“What I'm talkin' about it you sendin' me after muslin. Feller at the merchantile said he jist sold ya two yards yesterday.”
Scratching her chin, the elderly woman said, “Land sakes, yer right. It's a sorry part 'a growin' old, boy, ya start losin' yer membry.”
Barton glared at her, but concluded that she was being honest. With a nod, he looked around and asked, “Where is he?”
“Back yonder, sleepin',” she jutted her chin toward the back room. “You best quiet yerself, too. He took a bad spell after ya left, and I just got 'im settled down.”
“Spell? What sort 'a spell?”
“Talkin' outta 'is head and couldn't stand up on 'is own. Had t' near drag 'im back t' the bed. Now, I give 'im somethin' t' help 'im sleep, so you quiet yerself so he does. I'm jist fixin' some beans, ya want some?”
Barton sniffed the air, smelling the beans. Licking his lips, he asked, “Ya got any cornbread 'r biscuits?”
With a cackle, Granny said, “Reckon. Go wash up 'n then have a seat 'n I'll spoon 't up.” As the man did as she said, she hurridly dished up a plate of beans, adding a few drops of Laudenum and stirring them well, before setting the plate on the table. She quickly dished up some for herself and sat down, placing a plate of cornbread in the middle of the table. She began to eat just as he entered.
“Smells awful larapin', ma'am, thank y' kindly.” Barton took his hat off, setting it on the table next to his plate. He began eating, shoveling in the beans and then a chunk of cornbread. They said nothing as they ate, simply sharing the space and ignoring one another. At least Barton was. Granny, on the other hand, was keeping an eye on the man. Soon he was yawning between nearly every bite. Then he was slumping forward, face nearly in his plate. Across from him, Granny Clem watched, a smile on her face.
As soon as Barton was unconscious, she put her improvised plan into action. Hurrying as fast as she could, she headed toward the saloon. They had no law, but Cyrus tended to look after folks. He also had a storeroom in the back that doubled as a cell when necessary. Until she knew for certain whether the young man in her back room was safe, she wanted her unwanted guest somewhere, where he could be watched over.
Entering the saloon, she looked around and, satisfied that there was no one in the room that she didn't know, hurried to the bar. “Cyrus, I think we might have some trouble.”
“Men I sent down to ya, Granny?” Cyrus asked.
“Yep. Them two fellers in here t'other day was missin' a friend. I'm thinkin' the young'n might be that friend. Feller don't have no membry, an' it don't make sense that he's t'other feller's brother.”
“What do ya want me t' do about 't, Granny?”
“Reckon y' c'n lock 'im up 'til we suss out the where's 'n whatfores 'a what's goin' on?”
“Reckon. Where's 'e now?”
A few minutes later, Granny Clem was leading Cyrus, the livery man, and the merchantile owner toward her home. Inside, they found Barton slumped over the table, the side of his face soaking up bean juice. The men hoisted him up between them, and started toward the door. They paused as the young man came into the room, staggering slightly as he made his way toward them.
“Granny? Wh... what's going on?”
“I'm workin' my plan, boy. Now, you sit down 'fore ya fall down.” Turning toward the other's she spoke to the liveryman. “Yancy, ya got a buckboard an' a couple mules I c'n borrow?”
“Reckon so, Granny.”
“C'n y' have 'em ready first light?”
“Yes 'm. Want me t' bring 'em over?”
“That'd be right kind 'a ya. See y' in the mornin'.”
“Yes 'm.” The men left the house, their captive limp between them.
Turning toward the young man sitting at her table, she said, “Now, let's git y' fed, then I'm gonna tend t' them hurts.”
Vin yawned, leaning forward to pat his horse's neck. He hoped that he could find something. Some sign of what had happened to JD. He had seen the damage a frightened herd could do, but usually there was more evidence of what they'd left behind. Even if it was a shred of the Kid's coat, he wanted to be able to bring that to Buck, to help him deal with what had happened.
At the same time, there was that little niggling feeling, though, that had been with him since the two men had returned from Skunk Crossing. There was a little voice, so quiet he could barely hear it most of the time, that said the same thing over and over again. JD was not dead.
“How ya doin', boy?” Granny asked, as Yancy helped the injured man into the back of the wagon he'd brought over for her, settling him into the straw he'd padded the bed with.
“O... kay,” there was a groan that told her that he wasn't doing as well as he wanted her to believe. She had considered keeping him tucked away in town until he was stronger, but the worry that, whoever was working with the fool who'd brought him into town, would show up made it urgent that she get him out of town as quickly as she could. During the time she had set with the injured blond, she'd come to learn that he and the big brunet were two of the men who'd been set up by the territorial judge as peacekeepers over at Four Corners. She'd also heard tell that one of them was nothing more than a boy. She was more and more convinced that the young man without a memory was that boy.
Climbing up onto the wagon seat, Granny took up the reins, released the brakes, and set the mules into action. The best thing she could do for her patient was to get him back to where he belonged.
Chris was sitting at his usual table in the saloon, Nathan and Josiah with him. Buck was there, but sat by himself in the back of the room. Ezra was there as wll, but was holding court at his usual table, where he was busily fleecing two cowboys and a peddler. Heaving a sigh, the gunman glanced over toward his oldest friend, but said nothing.
“It's going to take time, Chris,” Josiah said.
“I know. It's just...”
“Hard to see a friend going through something like this?”
“Yeah. I wish there was something more I could do.”
“Hopefully Vin'll turn up something back... well, back where it happened,” Nathan joined the conversation.
“I hope --” Chris stopped as the young man who ran messages for the telegraph agent hurried into the saloon and headed straight for Buck. He watched as the boy handed over something wrapped in brown paper. Wilmington acknowledged him with nothing more than a nod, flipping a coin to the messenger. He tore at the paper, then stared at whatever he had revealed, as if it was a rattlesnake. Chris stood and hurried across the room, leaving the other two men to stare after him in confusion. “Buck?”
Wilmington started, drawn from whereever he'd gone, staring up at his old friend with tear soaked, pain-filled eyes. Mutely he lifted the object he had just been given. It was one of JD's guns.
“Where'd that come from?” When he didn't get an answer, he pulled the brown paper toward him, seeing a note scribbled on the inside. Slowly he deciphered the crude message. “If you want to see him, meet me at the Derby cross-road at noon, three days from now. Come alone.”
Buck stood and strode away, the gun still in his hand. Chris trailed behind him, Josiah and Nathan joining the blond. Ezra glanced up but, since there were no gunshots, he opted to play out his hand. Outside, the men hurried down the boardwalk, heading for the telegraph office.
Abe watched from his perch atop one of the buildings, smiling as he saw the urgency in Wilmington's stride. He wasn't satisfied yet, but he was certain of one thing. He had made Buck hurt, just as he had hurt all those years ago. Tossing aside the cheroot he had been smoking, he started back across the roof, heading for the access ladder that led back to the ground and into the alley. Time to go set into motion the final scene in his revenge.
Slamming into the telegraph office, Buck was already yelling. “Where'd you get that package? Who brought it to you? Who did it!?”
Shocked, the telegrapher stumbled back against the wall. “I-I don't kn-know... it was just... here. Please, I don't... I don't know anything!”
With a feral growl, Buck slapped his hands against the countertop, “You tell me now, damn it!” Suddenly he was grabbed from behind, and found himself pulled hard against Josiah's barrel chest.
“Buck, calm down!” Chris barked. Turning toward the telegrapher, he said, “What can you tell us about the package Ed brought Buck while ago, Mike?”
“Chris, honest... Buck, it was laying in front of the door when I came to work,” Calmed by the presence of the other peacekeepers, he moved away from the wall and came to stand across the counter from them. “There was a note on it that say to deliver it to you at the Saloon, and there was a ten dollar bill folded up in the note.”
Frowning as he looked at the other men and then back at the telegrapher, Chris said, “Awful lot of money for a simple job.”
“Wanted to make sure it was delivered,” Nathan suggested.
Nodding, Larabee said, “Think you're right.”
“Burdette,” Buck growled. “That son of a bitch... he's playin' with me. I'll kill that bastard!”
“No,” Chris said softly, staring into his old friend's eyes. “We'll go after him and we'll take him down... together.”
The rocking sway of the wagon had lulled him asleep, and it coaxed him awake. With it came pain, shooting through him like lightening through dry brush. Moaning, he shifted around until he could see, albeit upside down, the wagon seat. “Ma'am... Miz Cl-Clem?”
“Granny, son, it's easier. Ya need a break?”
She pulled the wagon over under a few, dry looking trees. Setting the break, she turned in the seat and leaned over the back, handing the young man a bottle. “Take a swig 'a that, boy, it'll help settle what's ailin' ya.”
“Thanks.” He tipped back the bottle, then jerked it away, coughing. “Wh-what is that?”
Climbing over the seat back, she dropped down into the bed beside him. Squatting down, she placed a hand on his forehead. “Tol' ya, it'll help ya. It's mostly peppermint, with a little 'a this and that.”
Clucking her tongue, the old woman said, “Yer a sens'tive one, ain't ya? Well, ya got a bit of a fever, but it ain't bad. How's the pain?”
“Hm,” she muttered, cocking her head and squinting her eyes as she studied him for a long moment. “Reckon y' can stand us goin' a bit longer? I'd like t' git ya where we're goin' soon's we can git there.”
“Where are we goin'?”
“T' find yer friends, boy. T' find yer friends.”
Vin rode at an easy, mile-eating pace, chewing on a blade of dry grass. Keen eyes watched the countryside around him; keen ears heard every sound. He breathed deep, enjoying the heady scents that filled the air. Reaching out, he patted Peso's strong neck, the horse shaking his head side to side and blowing in response. “Yeah, ya dang mule, I know what'cha want. Probably smell the molasses in my pocket. Tell ya what, you carry me to the horizon, and I'll give you a treat. Deal?” He smiled as the horse shook his head, up and down this time, and blew again.
Squinting, he saw movement in the distance. Pulling his spyglass out of his coat pocket, he slid it open and put it to his eye. Watching for nearly a full minute, he watched the wagon bouncing along, pulled by a pair of plodding mules. “Looks like we're gonna have some comp'ny in a bit. Put on yer best manners, mule, ya got some cousins comin'.”
Granny Clem had been watching the approaching rider since she'd detected his presence on the road. Without turning, she said, “Boy, you awake?”
“Dig down in the straw fer me, will ya? Someone's comin', and I cain't tell if their friend 'r foe.”
“Yes... yes ma'am.” Dutifully, he began to pull the straw over himself.
They rode on in silence, the woman keeping her eyes on the single rider coming their way. When they were only a few feet away from one another, she offered a simple, “Afternoon.”
“Ma'am,” the long-haired man tipped his battered slouch hat and offered her a smile. The horse he rode blew and jingled his tack, almost as if he were greeting her as well. With a chuckle, he said, “Reckon my mule recognizes yours, ma'am... he's sayin' howdy.”
Granny cackled. “Son, if I had me a “mule” like that, I'd be a proud woman indeed. He's a fine lookin' piece 'a horse flesh.”
Again the big, black gelding blew and shook his head. In the saddle, the man said, “Now you're turnin' his head, ma'am.”
Behind her, the hidden man frowned as something about the man's voice called to him. He knew that voice. Mule? It meant something. It meant something to him, and it was important. Known. Comforting. Taking a chance, he began to dig himself out of the straw. Just as he pulled himself to a sitting position, the man was moving past them with a tip of his hat and a “ma'am.”
Vin drew back on the reins, turning at that soft call. The sight that met him brought a joyous cry from him and sent him all but falling out of the saddle with a cry. “JD!”
“You... you know me?”
“What? JD, what are ya playin' at? 'Course I know ya.”
Frowning, the young brunet said, “I'm not... playing... at anything. I don't... I...” overwhelmed, he slumped back, collapsing onto the straw.
“What's wrong with 'im?” Vin asked, his voice an angry growl, the smile gone from his eyes as he turned to the elderly driver.
“Now don't you start gittin' pissy with me, boy. I don't know you from Adam, and I sure as hell ain't just gonna start givin' away m' secrets.” It was only then that Vin saw the double barrelled shotgun that she'd had across her lap. It was pointed at him now. “You wanna tell me what'cha know about this boy?”
Keeping his arms away from his weapons, he said gently, “Ma'am, this is a friend 'a mine. Him and me, and some other fellers, we work...” He broke off as realization hit him. “Ma'am, are you the one helped Bucklin and Chris when Chris got busted up?”
“Mebbe. Tell me more 'bout them fellers.”
Nodding, Vin said, “Chris' got yeller hair, tends t' wear a lot 'a black. He got busted up by some snake who's got a grudge ag'in Buck. He's the bigger feller, black hair and a mustache that tends t' draw the ladies.”
“Yeah?” She said non-comittedly, “Jist where are these fellers now?”
“Back in town... Four Corners. Buck's all broke up 'cause he thought JD here was dead. Man's 'bout outta his mind with grief. Ma'am, if we can git him back town, it'll be the miracle Buck needs.”
Granny nodded. She'd seen the pain written in every line of the big man's body, and had a good idea as to just how much bringing the young man back to him would mean. “Well, reckon we need t' be gittin' 'im home.”
Buck was pacing back and forth across the small office section of the jailhouse, growling and cursing with every step. Chris was slumped down in the chair behind the desk, hat pulled down over his eyes, a cheroot dangling from his lip. While he seemed to be more asleep than awake, he was, in fact, watching his old friend. He knew better than try and calm the big man down, he simply meant to keep him from storming from the jail, going in search of the man he blamed for JD's death. Better to let him expend some energy here, so that he'd have a clear head when they went after Burdette and his men.
The door burst open, and Ezra entered the jailhouse. “Your presence is needed at Nathan's, gentlemen. Now.” Without another word, he ducked back out the door.
Buck had stopped and was now staring from the open doorway to his old friend. “What now?”
“Let's go find out.” Chris shook his head and levered himself somewhat stiffly from the chair with a soft grunt. He was still feeling the effects of what Burdette and the bastards he rode with had done to him, but it was nothing compaired to the pain his friend was feeling.
The two men strode down the boardwalk toward the livery and the healer's clinic above it. As they drew near, they saw a familiar figure standing beside a wagon, seemingly arguing with Yosemite. They also saw Tanner's black gelding tied to the back of the wagon.
“Granny Clem?” Chris called in surprise.
Turning at the sound of her name, Granny said, “Well, yer lookin' a mite better, son.”
“What are you don' here, ma'am?” Buck asked.
“Thought I'd come for a visit. Figgered ya'd be pinin' for me by now.” She cackled and gave the big man a wink. Then, sobering, she said, “Brought a friend 'a yers home.”
With another look at the big black, Chris groaned. “Ah, hell.” With Buck only a step behind him, they hurried up the long staircase and across the landing. He stopped quickly, Buck bumping him from behind and nearly sending him to the floor. Righting themselves, both men were shocked to see Vin Tanner leaning against the railing, blowing gently on his harmonica.
“Vin. I thought... Granny said... are you okay?” Chris stammered.
“I'm fine. Feller she was bringin' here's inside with Nathan.”
“What the hell is goin' on here?” Buck muttered as he grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door open, stepping inside. On his heels, it was Chris' turn to bump into him this time.
“JD!” The big man strode across the room in three, bounding, steps, intent on grabbing up the young man lying in the bed. Nathan barely managed to stop him before he did.
“Take it easy, Buck. He's in a bad way, and he's got amnesia.”
“Am... what?” Wilmington felt as if the world had become a dream.
“Amnesia. He doesn't remember who he, or any of us, are. He's real confused right now, so take it easy.”
The entire exchange had been watched from the bed, large, unfocused hazel eyes staring from one man to the other. “Who... are you... are you Buck?”
Taking a deep breath to keep from frightening the injured man, Wilmington said gently, “Yeah, I'm Buck. You're name's JD... you remember who you are?”
Shaking his head, the diminutive brunet said, “No, I just... there are... pictures... words... voices... but nothing... nothing solid. I'm sorry.”
Tears filled the big man's blue eyes and rolled down his flushed cheeks. “It's okay, Kid. Everything's gonna be okay. Now.”
Abe frowned as he rode up to the little cabin where he'd left Riley and Barton to watch after the little bastard he'd hidden from Wilmington. It had been a risky proposition getting him out of the valley before the herd got him, but they'd managed it, using a sharp curve in the ridge's formation to hide their escape from the man he blamed for his brother's death. It was worth it, though, considering how upset Buck had gotten when he saw the two men.
He'd banked on Wilmington coming after one of them, but was surprised when he'd carried off the blond, leaving the boy behind. It had all worked out in the end, though. He'd have his revenge, and it was already tasting sweet.
“Riley! Barton!” He called out, looking around for any sign of the two men. Calling out a second time, he watched as Riley scuffed out of the cabin, dressed only in his union suit. “What the hell, it's damn near noon, ya lazy sum bitch! Where's Barton and the boy?”
“I's... I's up most 'a the night, makin' certain the boy didn't try 'n escape. Barton jist took 'im out in the woods... t' do 'is business,” Riley lied. He knew that, if Abe found out that Barton and the boy had disappeared, then he'd be looking at the business end of the man's Colt. He'd been working on his story for hours, now he just hoped it would work.
“Yer lyin' to me, you sum bitch. Now, where's the boy?”
Riley quickly buckled and told Burdette what he knew. When they hadn't returned, he had ridden into Skunk Crossing and overheard that they had someone locked up, waiting for the law to come get him. He heard enough to know that it was Barton, and he lit out, coming back to the cabin. He left out the fact that he was only at the cabin long enough to pick up a few things before lighting out for Mexico. Instead, he told Burdette that he had come back to wait for him.
After a long moment, simply staring at the other man, Burdette finally said, “I b'lieve ya.” Then he drew his gun.
Six of the peacekeepers sat around the large table in the saloon, pouring over a map of the Derby area. It was a rough road that intersected in some of the nastiest terrain for miles. Chris was pointing to various places around the cross road. “Nathan, Ezra, you two dig in over here on the left. Josiah, you and I will find cover over here on the right. Vin, I want you to set up somewhere along this ridge. Buck, we'll wait until you're in place and Burdette shows up.”
“But, surely he knows JD's not still being held captive,” Nathan said. “What if he doesn't show up?”
“Granny said there was only one man with JD, and it doesn't sound like Burdette. Chances are, he left JD with some of his men and he may not be in touch with them or even know that JD's gone missing. Unless he goes into Skunk Crossing and finds the man they've got under lock and key, even if he does know JD's gone, he doesn't know where. He may be banking on us not knowing he doesn't have JD and try something anyway.”
“Abe's not the smartest son of a bitch that ever wore boots,” Buck added, “But he's got a mean streak wide as the Missouri. He's not gonna just let this go. He'll be at the Crossroad and, if he doesn't find me there, he'll come to town. I'd rather we took the fight to him and keep the town... and the Kid... safe.”
“May I ask as to who's going to stay with JD, to make certain he remains safe?” Ezra asked.
With a smile, Chris said, “Granny Clem's staying in the clinic with him, and Yosemite's keeping watch on him as well. Mary went out to get Casey and bring her into town, too. I figure that, if he doesn't remember us, maybe he'll remember her.”
Buck sighed, but said nothing. He'd haunted the clinic since JD had been brought in, staying far enough away to keep from spooking him, but close enough that he had reassurance that the boy was home and, relatively, safe.
Chris asked, “Anything else?” When the others shook their heads, he said, “Okay, we'll ride out tonight so we can get set up before Burdette shows up... if he does,” he amended, acknowleding Nathan's concern. They shared another drink, ate a quick dinner, and headed toward the livery to put their plans into action.
He'd been sleeping, but woke when someone knocked at the door. Blinking, he watched as Granny went to the door, opened it, and had a brief conversation. She turned toward him and asked “Y' think yer feelin' up t' some comp'ny?”
“Yes, ma'am... I guess.”
“JD?” He watched as a young woman, dressed in brown overalls and wearing a flat brimmed hat, hurried into the room. It was clear to see that she was very nervous and, as she came closer, he saw that she was crying.
“Um... hi... I'm sorry, I--”
“Mary told me that you lost your memory, oh, JD!” She dropped into the chair that sat beside the bed, buried her face into her hands, and sobbed.
“Casey, now, we talked about this.” An older woman, though he didn't think she was as old as Granny, entered the room now, slightly out of breath and scolding the young woman. She turned toward him and smiled compassionately. “Hello, son, I'm sorry she's a bit overwrought at the moment. If you'd rather, we can come back later, when you're feelin' better.”
“No, no, that's alright ma'am,” he suddenly realized that he was in nothing but a nightshirt that one of the men had brought him earlier. His own clothes were so tattered and bloodied that they weren't even certain they were salvageable. Pulling the covers up to his chin, he said, “I'm sorry... I wish I could say that I... recognize you, but...”
Leaning down and patting his hand, the older woman said, “JD, there's no need for you to apologize. I'm Nettie Wells, and this is my niece, Casey. You and she... well, the two of you have sort of been courting for the last few months.”
Blinking, confused, he looked once more at the young woman, still sobbing beside him. Suddenly it was as if he was seeing another scene, very similar; she was sitting beside the bed, her head on the mattress, sleeping. He could almost feel her hair beneath his hand as he stroked it. “Case... Casey... I... I think...” Then it was gone. He shook his head as the memory evaporated.
She looked up at him, dark eyes red rimmed and glistening with tears. “JD... do you think, maybe... do you remember something?”
Shaking his head again, he said, “I... I don't know. I thought... I saw... we were like this before... weren't we?”
Smiling and running her sleeve under her nose with a sniff, the young woman said, “Yeah, last year. Those blamed bounty hunters... Maddy and Kate Stokes. That bitch -- “
“Casey Wells!” Nettie scolded.
“Well, she was!” Casey argued with her great aunt. Then, turning back to the young man, she said, “Maddy shot you... you nearly died. Oh, JD, I was so afraid you were gonna die!”
“I was afraid I was gonna die...” He rubbed at his head as he heard the words as clearly as if he were speaking them at the moment. “I... oh, my head!”
Granny came up to the other side of the bed, holding out a steaming mug. “Figgered y'd git t' achin', son. Drink this.”
“Yes... yes ma'am.” He reached out and took the mug, but his hand was trembling, and he nearly dropped it. The girl beside him steadied it and helped him to drink the contents. Finishing, he let his head fall back to the pillow, sighing as he felt the drink begin to take effect. “Thank you... Casey?”
Smiling even wider she said, “You're welcome, JD, you are very welcome.” She sat beside him, watching as the medication took hold and he slipped back to sleep.
The two older women went to sit at the table beneath the window, Granny Clem bringing over the coffee pot and two mugs. Settling in, they introduced themselves and began to discuss the situation.
“I do appreciate what you did to help bring that boy home, Alma,” Nettie said, using the woman's first name after declaring herself far too old to refer to her as Granny.
“I's glad t' do it, Nettie. Soon's I saw them marks on 'im, I knew there was somethin' goin' on. Chris had the same marks on 'im, and there wasn't notin' common about 'em.”
Smiling, Nettie said, “You've got a good eye... and a good heart. I'm glad the boys ran into you.”
Shaking her head, Granny said, “I's jist glad t' help. I cain't abide folks goin' ag'in the Golden Rule.”
“Well believe me, when Chris and the others get 'hold of them, they'll certainly reap what they've sown.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Granny Clem said, “That's good 'nuff fer 'em.”
Chris was stretched out on his bedroll, using his saddlebags as a pillow, staring up into the night sky. He was still less than 100% and he hated that. He needed to be sharp when Burdette came after Buck. His old friend was sitting nearby, staring out into the darkness, waiting until time to ride to meet the other man.
“Buck, you look like a man with something on his mind,” Josiah said softly. “Care to share your burden with a friend?”
With a quick smile, Wilmington said, “It's an old friend that's the burden, Josiah.”
“Burdette.” It wasn't a question, they had all wondered what had caused the rift that nearly cost two of their friends deaths, but they weren't men who asked questions about things like that. Josiah, though, as their spiritual center, was often willing to put himself on the line when he sensed that one of the others needed someone to listen.
“We were barely older than JD. Me and Abe were thick as thieves and, sometimes, that's what we were. Petty stuff. Neither of us had much of a life, and we wanted more. We ended up falling in with the wrong crowd; bunch of young punks in a rush to make a name for themselves and to make as much money as possible as quick as possible and as easy as possible.
“Ben... he was Abe's big brother, he was the one who pulled us in on it all. He had a good head on his shoulders but... well, he was also a greedy bastard. So, they... we... decided to rustle some cows from this huge herd we'd heard about that was nearby. I could lie and say I was against it...”
“But you weren't,” Josiah finished the thought.
Shaking his head, Buck continued. “I'm not proud of who I was back then, but there's not a damn thing I can do to change it. Anyway, we all rode out, watched the herd for a few hours and then, when they bedded them down, we made our play.
“It all went to hell pretty quickly. One of the drovers saw us, fired a shot, and hit Abe in the shoulder. The shot spooked the herd and they stampeded. I was busy tryin' to keep Abe in the saddle and, when I looked up, it was just in time to see Ben go down, caught at the edge of the herd.
“If he'd been ten feet either way, he'd have either been safe, or he'd have died in a few seconds. As it was, he was busted up good, but still alive. Abe and I got to him, but he knew that we were in danger. He also knew that he was done for. Hell you could see some of his insides... it was... well, it was the worst thing I'd seen at that point in time, and it's still one of my worst nightmares. He told us to go; to leave him. Abe kept sayin' no, that he wouldn't leave his brother, but I knew there wasn't any hope. So...”
“You rode away.”
Tears rolled down the man's face as he relived that moment in time. “I knew there wasn't a damn thing I could do for Ben, but I could save his little brother. I finally had to belt Abe and knock him out, then I threw him over his horse and we lit out. By the time we stopped, he was half out of his head from the blood loss and the grief. I patched him up and got him well... the entire time we were holed up, he refused to speak to me. Then, when he was well enough that we could take off, he started cussin' me out, and we got into a helluva fight. Ever since then, he's blamed me for his brother's death.”
“That's a heavy load,” Josiah said, reaching out to clasp a hand companionably on the other man's shoulder. “I'm sorry that he's never been able to see past his grief.”
Shaking his head, Buck said, “I sure as hell never expected him to bring the fight back to me this way.” Turning toward Larabee, who he knew was listening, he said, “Chris, I'm so sorry that you and JD got caught up in this.”
Softly, Chris promised, “Buck, we'll get him. This is going to end. Now.”
He blinked open his eyes, staring around him at the strange place that, according to the strangers who said they knew him, was the clinic. One of them was a healer, something like Granny Clem. Despite the fact that he had supposedly been riding with these six men for two years, he knew more about Granny than he did all of them. Or the young woman who was sitting beside him once again. He didn't think she had even moved. At the moment she was reading a newspaper, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Excuse me... uh... Casey?”
She dropped the paper and looked at him, wiping away the tears. “Hi, JD!”
“Hi. Are you... are you alright?”
“Oh, yeah... sorry. I was... well, I was reading your obituary.”
“Yeah. Since that Burdette man kidnapped you and made Buck believe that you were dead, Chris had Mary print an obituary. She said that she's already got the retraction written for the next paper.”
“Oh.” He frowned. “Could you... would you... read it to me?”
Returning the frown with one of her own, the young woman asked, “Are you sure? I mean, it could be pretty creepy... reading about your own death.”
“Maybe, but... maybe hearing it will trigger something.” He was hungry for anything that might cause his memory to return. He hated living like this; in a land of strangers.
“Well... okay. But if it gets to be too much, promise you'll tell me, and I'll stop right away.”
Taking a deep breath, Casey began to read:
“John Dunne, known as JD to most of us, was murdered less than a fortnight ago by vicious cutthroats, who also attacked Chris Larabee. Mr. Larabee and Sheriff Dunne --”
“Sh-sheriff? I'm the sheriff?”
“Yeah, Judge Travis made you sheriff right after you got here. He worried about you being too young, but you've always had the other six to help you. You've all really helped make this town a lot safer.”
“Huh,” was his only response as he stared at the ceiling, trying to picture himself with a tin star and a gun.
Deciding that he was handling things so far Casey continued.
“Mr. Larabee and Sheriff Dunne were ambushed by men with a grudge to settle with another of our peacekeeprs, Mr. Buck Wilmington. Although he valiently tried to rescue both of his brothers of the gun, Mr. Wilmington was only able to rescue Mr. Larabee, while Sheriff Dunne met his demise in the attack. Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Larabee have been friends for over a decade, with a long history between them that includes the murder of Mr. Larabee's wife and son at the hands of a completely deranged woman and her paid henchmen. At the same time, although they've only known one another for a little over a year, Mr. Wilmington and Sheriff Dunne have also become good friends. His loss will be felt by anyone who knew him, however it will be Mr. Wilmington and the other peacekeepers who will feel that loss strongest of all.
“Sheriff Dunne has been one of the seven peacekeepers who were appointed to maintain the peace in town by Territorial Judge Orin Travis just over two years ago. During his appointment he has helped to increase the safety and security of the town, allowing God-fearing, decent people to live here, operate businesses, and otherwise enjoy residency without fear of violence and mayhem. Those miscreants who have come to our town with an agenda of violence have been dealt with swiftly, with a perfect record of arrest, incarceration, or execution.
“Sheriff Dunne arrived in town on the stage from the Eastern states, with a dream of becoming a Texas Ranger. Instead, he opted to remain here, perhaps seeing an opportunity to make a greater impact by cleaning up our fair town. Although thought to be far too young for the post at the time of his initial appointment, Sheriff Dunne has time and again proven himself to be more than up to the challenge of making this town safe
“Sheriff Dunne leaves behind no family, but does leave behind the broken hearts of his friends and this community. A memorial will be held in his honor, time and place to be announced.”
Laying the paper aside, Casey looked over at JD expectantly. “Does any of it strike a chord? Anything coming back to you? Anything sound familiar?”
Shaking his head and heaving a sigh, the young man said only, “No.”
As the sun cleared the horizon, Buck was sitting astride his horse, watching for Abe Burdette. He had nearly decided that the man had disappeared when he saw a rider coming from the East, the sun making it impossible to see for certain who it was. Nonetheless he loosened the thong on his gun, preparing for the bastard who had nearly killed two of his friends.
The horse was walking slowly, almost wandering, it seemed. He frowned and called out, “Hello the rider.” There was no response. As the animal drew near, he realized why. It was one of Burdette's men, bound to the saddle, with a tree branch holding him upright. There was a single, neat little hole right in the middle of his forehead, and his eyes stared blankly from either side of a trail of blood that ended at his chin. There was a foded piece of paper pinned – literally – to his chest by a nail. BUCK was written crudely on it. He held the other horse's bridle and pulled the paper loose. Opening it, he read:
You win this time, but it is not over.
“Son of a bitch,” he growled. Raising an arm into the air, he waved in a circular motion, signaling to the others to come out of hiding. He stared at the madman's latest work, reaching out and forcing the man's eyes closed.
“What happened?” Chris asked as he rode up behind the other man.
Waiting until the other four men rode in as well, he shared the note. “Reckon we'd better get back to town.”
“Think he'll come back?” Nathan asked.
Nodding, Buck said, “As soon as he gets another gang together. He won't face me alone.”
“Ezra, Vin, why don't the two of you ride on over to Skunk Crossing and bring his man back.”
“It will be my pleasure,” Ezra said, not even lamenting the inconvenience of the ride. It was testimony as to how much the recent events had effected him. Beside him, Vin simply nodded and headed his horse down the road.
“Let's get this bastard back to town and see if he's got paper out on him. If not, we'll hand him over to the undertaker,” Chris said. The other three men nodded in agreement, and they started toward town.
He was standing in the middle of the street, guns drawn. Several feet away, a pretty blonde woman stood, staring back at him. She was unarmed and smiling. As he fired his guns, he said, “Mornin' Miss Annie,” and watched her fall to the ground, her blood covering the ground around her.
Crying out as he sat bolt upright in the bed, he stared around him in the faint, morning light. With a strangled sob, he cried, “No... Annie... I'm so... I'm so sorry.”
“JD?” Nettie Wells was just coming into the clinic, a cloth covered tray in her hands. “Son, what is it?”
“Miss Nettie... I was dreaming... I sh-shot Annie...”
She sat the tray on the table and hurried across the room, perching on the side of the bed. Reaching out, she stroked back his sweat-soaked hair as she said softly, “Honey, that was almost a year ago, and it was an accident. Do you remember?”
Nodding, he stammered, “I... it was an accident, but... I shouldn't have... I fanned my gun. It was... it was...”
“Sh, JD. Yes, it was bad judgment on your part, but you'd never have hurt Annie on purpose. We all know that. Even Hiram understood, eventually.” Nettie frowned. “JD... do you remember who you are? Who I am?”
Blinking large, tear-soaked hazel eyes, the young man gave a soft gasp before saying, “I remember! Miss Nettie, I remember!”
“JD?” Casey was padding, barefoot, from where she had been sleeping in Nathan's room. Staring sleepily from one of them to the other, she asked, “What's going on?”
“Casey!” JD called out, a smile plastered across his face, “I remember!”
Nathan and Buck entered the clinic a short time later, finding the three people still laughing and chattering joyfully. Buck asked in a shocked voice, “What's goin' on?”
“He remembers, Buck,” Casey squealed, “He remembers!”
“He... what? He remembers? JD? You remember?”
“Yeah, I remember, Buck! I remember!”
“HOO YEAH!” Wilmington tossed his hat into the air, banking it off the ceiling to land on the foot of the bed. With two bounding steps, he leapt onto the bed as well, shouting, “HE REMEMBERS!”
“Buck get your fool self off that bed right now! He's not in any shape to deal with your crazy antics, and neither's my bed!” Nathan ordered.
Laughing, the big man jumped off the bed, landing on the floor with a thunk and a jimgle of spurs. “Sorry, Kid! Sorry Nathan!” He grabbed up Casey and spun her around, both of them laughing and shouting.
“Casey Wells, Buck Wilmington, you two settle down right now. This boy doesn't need all this caterwalling!” Nettie scolded. The two of them, looking sheepish, finally calmed down, seeing the pinched and pained expression on the bed-ridden man's face.
“I'm sorry, JD,” Casey lamented.
“I'm sorry, Kid,” Buck exclaimed at the same time.
“Okay, you two, out of my clinic so I can take a look at my patient,” Nathan ordered, taking control of the situation. He stood with his arms folded across his chest as Casey hurriedly slipped the straps of her overalls up over her shoulders and tucked in her shirt, grabbed her boots, and hurried out the door with Buck, both of them still smiling from ear to ear.
“Can I do anything to help, Nathan?” Nettie asked. She was smiling as well.
“Yes, ma'am, could you bring him something from the restaurant... scrambled eggs and ham if they've got it, that should help him start buildin' up his strength.”
“I'll be back as soon as I can.” Nettie reached out and patted JD's shoulder before she left the clinic.
Turning to face the young man, Nathan smiled broadly now. With relief and happiness in his voice, he said, “Well, let's see how you're doin', see if we can get you out of my clinic before Buck tears it down.”
Laughing despite the headache caused by the merriment, JD said, “I'd appreciate that, Doc.”
For the first time in what seemed like forever, the seven peacekeepers sat together at a large table in the saloon. Six of the men were drinking beer, the seventh, milk. While he was recovering well, JD was still having headaches, and there were some holes in his memory that caused him trouble.
“So, Nettie and Casey went to Skunk Crossing?” Chris was saying.
“Yeah. Miss Nettie and Granny Clem really hit it off, so they decided to go back to town with her, and stay for a few days to visit.” Vin explained. “I told her I'd go take care of the livestock out at her place while they're gone.”
“You know that's going to put us down two men,” Chris replied, staring pointedly at Ezra. “So the rest of us are going to have to put in some extra time to take care of things.”
“Chris, I'm feeling fine,” JD argued, oblivious. “I can do my share.”
“Not 'til I say you can,” Nathan disagreed, also flashing a look Standish's way.
Huffing a breath, the Southerner said, “I have no problem pulling extra duty while Mr. Dunne recuperates, although I do find it quite convenient that Mr. Tanner has found a reason to abdicate his duty to the town.”
“Well, hell, Ezra, I'd be happy t' switch with ya. You can go take care 'a Miss Nettie's place, and I'll stay here and fleece folks soon as they step off the stage,” Vin offered, blue eyes wide and innocent, but glittering with mischief as well.
All seven men at the table erupted in good natured laughter, celebrating the fact that once again, they were whole.
Outside, hidden in the shadows, Abe Burdette watched the seven men through the window. As Buck wrapped an arm around the little greenhorn's shoulders, laughing, he growled. “Just wait, you sum bitch. It ain't over yet.” Spitting on the ground, he slid back into the heavier shadows and then down the alley to where his horse waited.
No, it wasn't over yet.
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May 6, 2012