Vin and Chris walked out of the bathhouse. The men they were looking for were not in the saloon, the bathhouse or their hotel rooms. This time Tanner had the inscrutable look on his face. The leader was troubled. He didn't know where these men were and he was beginning to regret letting their youngest out of his sight. He strode toward the livery deciding to make sure the boy's horse was gone and he'd made it out of town.
+ + + + + + +
Bannister looked up quickly when Kestrel offered the little runt the chance to gun him down. But didn't go for his gun on the bed. What was the Boss up to?
JD's thoughts were jumbled. Should he gun the man down? Isn't that what Chris would do? Was Kestrel really offering him the gun? What was behind that? What if he turned the gun on Kestrel?
"C'mon, Clay, we did everything you asked."
"If you did as I asked, this whelp would be dead in the desert and Wilmington would have died knowing that failure."
"We left Wilmington and the gambler."
"I know how those two behave together!" Kestrel went from calm to manic. "I needed Standish here to keep Larabee too angry to think straight! I needed ... but it was too simple wasn't it? So obvious you couldn't get it." "Please, Clay, we didn't realize it mattered which ..."
"Don't lie to me!" Bannister shrank back. JD was fascinated by the insanity he saw in the man who held the upper hand. And it scared him how very much it reminded him of the look he had seen before in Chris Larabee's eyes.
Suddenly the man turned pleasantly to JD, "So, pup, you want to do him?" JD didn't know how to answer. "Of course, he has it planned that the first gunshot that comes from this room is the signal for his pack to ambush your friends." JD's eyes went wide at this information. He looked quickly at Bannister and saw from his expression the statement was true. The outlaw tried to mask his features, but not before JD saw it.
JD turned back to Kestrel. What could he do to save his friends? The man smiled at him. "I've decided I want you alive, pup. My plans have changed. You can kill him or I'll give you one minute to get into the street and warn your friends." JD looked out the window. He couldn't see Chris or Vin, but oh God, Nathan and Josiah were pulling the wagon into the edge of town. He looked back and saw that Kestrel saw it too. "You've got 50 seconds."
+ + + + + + +
JD ran. He ran out the door; ran from the questions of what he should or shouldn't do that screamed through his mind. He ran from Kestrel's laugh that mocked him down the stairs and ran despite the rustle of petticoats he subconsciously heard down the hall behind him or the discomfortingly familiar feminine laughter that blended all to well with the man's.
Thinking back on it, JD would always regret that he didn't remember the man guarding Inez, or think about being more cautious. In his inexperience, all he could focus on was that he had mere seconds to warn his friends against men willing to shoot them down while they tried to get the injured to the clinic.
He ran into the street. The wind was up again. The sky was coated with a layer of dust and it was being stirred into tiny dust devils caught between the buildings. It even blew his bowler off as he ran down the street. "Josiah! Naatthan!" He ran toward the wagon. A strong fist wrapped around his upper arm. He spun, ready to fight back. He realized it was Chris. Vin, behind him, looked sympathetic, thinking the youngster was about to feel Larabee's wrath for disobeying him. Later, he would wish that was all that happened. "Son, I told you to ride ..." Larabee started, with a fury in his voice.
"Kestrel. Clay Kestrel." JD was panting trying to get the information out and claw out of the gunfighter's grasp so he could warn the others. "He's in Ezra's room. They're gonna kill ..."
The single gunshot rang out from behind him; from inside and upstairs in the bar. In the time it took to register on him, it also registered with others and bullets began to fly. JD broke from Chris's grasp and ran toward the wagon. Josiah had pulled up on the horses' reins in response to the sudden gunfire. They were in front of the dry goods store.
Bullets and shrapnel bit into the sand at JD's feet as the gunmen failed to lead him enough. More bullets bit into the heavy wood of the wagon as Josiah pulled it to a stop. Nathan, riding Buck's horse, pulled the animal up violently and short, dove off and joined Josiah on the side opposite of the incoming rounds.
Chris dove into the saloon. He too, missed the danger that faced Inez in his single-minded haste. He went after Kestrel oblivious to what the gunfire in the street meant regarding the safety of his friends. Vin followed him.
+ + + + + + +
The gunfire revived the dozing and weak Ezra and Buck. Reflexively they tried to rise and identify the threat and who was in danger. Josiah dived over the seat of the buckboard onto the men to keep them down. The bullets were biting into the dirt in front of the wagon and the wooden sideboards. It seemed the wagon was just barely in range of the would-be assassins.
Nathan was off of Buck's horse in a bound. He, like Josiah, was laying down mostly cover fire. Any focus they might place on identifying their targets and getting a clear shot was being used to get their injured friends to safety. Nathan, God help him if Buck found out, used Pal as partial cover. The lanky gunfighter might allow the sacrifice for the others, but would never use the horse to protect himself.
Josiah raised a prayer to several deities that had seemed to be receptive in the past, not the least of which, recently, was his own Christian God. And he gave thanks for what he saw as possible divine intervention. The upended saddles, originally meant to supply shade, were taking several hits and adding a measure of protection while they tried to get the others out of the wagon. Even in the heat of the battle and the danger to himself and the others, or perhaps because of it, he realized he was thankful to be sensing this little bit of God's presence in his life again.
It had only been a heartbeat since JD's frantic warning and the gunfire that followed immediately. No one had time to look for the boy.
Nathan grabbed Ezra's legs and pulled until he could feel an arm. His vision was toward potential sources of the gunfire. Josiah and even Buck were helping get the gambler out of the back of the wagon. Nathan threw the man's arm over his shoulder and was rewarded when his friend took a death grip on the back of his shirt to try and help hold himself up. Between the gambler and his gun, the tenuous hold he had on Pal's reins was lost easily when a bullet clipped too closely to the big gelding's back hoof. Frightened, the usually calm and weapon-tested gray bolted for the remembered safety of the livery.
The yoked animals responded to the fear of the other and it caused a chain reaction. The wagon was dragged wildly down the main street as well as the horses tied behind it. The sudden movement threw Josiah and Buck from the back and they landed in a vulnerable heap of arms and legs in the middle of the street. Ezra and Nathan, not having made two steps in their retreat, were spun around by the tied horses and landed on the dusty ground beside the others.
+ + + + + + +
Foster had seen the boy rush out of the bar. Something was wrong. As he raised the gun in JD's direction, Inez brought an amber whiskey bottle down painfully on his hand. He never even got a chance to pull the trigger.
Now, there had been too much gunfire. It had lasted too long. Oh, yeah, something had gone wrong. Bannister, in the gambler's room? Let him watch out for himself. Foster grabbed Inez's hair and pulled until her face was close enough that his offensive breath made her flinch. He kept the grip wrapped in her hair and dragged her to the end of the bar where he could pull her close and head to the doors.
The locals had become spoiled to letting the regulators defend the town and take the risks. The trail drivers weren't sure what was going on or whose side to be on. Their response was to use the gun that wavered between aiming at them and the popular bartender as an excuse to do nothing. Foster dragged her out the back door.
+ + + + + + +
The eruption of gunfire had JD running down the middle of the street, as fast as he could, guns drawn, oblivious to any danger to himself as he saw, from one heartbeat to another and another, Josiah and Nathan try to get their friends to safety, the horses bolt and the men land on the open ground. He couldn't tell if anyone was caught by the hooves.
The would-be assassins were "walking" the bullets toward their target. Accuracy was questionable at this distance with revolvers, but with no one close enough to stop them, the men methodically shot, watched where the bullet hit, and shot again getting the range on their victims.
Suddenly young JD Dunne, both revolvers barking placed himself between the bullets and his friends. With no obligation except to supply cover fire, and defend his friends, the boy aimed first one Colt and then the other at the attackers. His enthusiasm and ability quickly had the enemy scurrying for shelter.
Josiah grabbed Buck and Nathan reclaimed his grip on Ezra. They backed up until their heels touched the boardwalk, stepped up and dragged their charges into the dry goods store. Mrs. Potter had the door open and encouraged them in. JD was on their heels and they all collapsed against the wall to catch their breath and check for injuries.
+ + + + + + +
Barely missing Foster when he left with his hostage, Larabee slammed into their resident gambler's room. The door bounced off the wall in response. The room was still. Not even a draft blew the curtains. All of the man's instincts told him the space was empty. A gristled, trail-hardened cowboy lay spread eagle on the carpet. Blood drained, thanks to gravity, from a small caliber wound at the base of his neck. The heart was no longer pumping the life-giving fluid through that one's body. Vin lowered his gun and glanced about the surroundings.
The soft, subtle, exotic, expensive whiff of a woman's perfume, as he entered, had Larabee's hackles up. It was familiar ... Abruptly, the gunfire outside stopped. It hadn't been the noise, but now the lack of it, that left a sudden nauseous feeling in the pit of his stomach. There could be very few reasons for the shooting to stop, most of them unacceptable.
Suddenly the gunfighter realized, once again he had sacrificed the safety of others for bloodlust. He had forced his best friend to choose between covering his back and going to the aid of their other five friends. He had known Kestrel wouldn't hang around the room, and yet ...in the still, heavy silence, he looked into those clear blue eyes and knew that Tanner realized the choice he had been forced to make as well. The hint of emotions that were about to result from their actions was cut short when the gunshots began again. They both ran to do their part this time. Chris suspected he would rather face a shootout than his best friend's thoughts on the ramifications of what he had just done.
+ + + + + + +
"Ezra?" Nathan began.
"No new injuries."
"I'm good. I'm good. Damn, that's a hell of a way to get woke up."
"Buck ..." The youngest of the regulators studied the other closely, realizing in the last few days that much of his life and his heart reflected in this man, his big brother in all but blood.
"Hey, kid ..." He had to catch his breath.
JD looked over to evaluate Ezra with the same eye as Nathan. The gambler winked encouragement to him.
The gunfire had diminished with the loss of any easy target. But they were still out there.
"Stay here." Josiah ordered as he and Nathan regained their feet and burst out the door to confront the enemy. JD was right behind them, but not fast enough to keep Buck from grabbing his left gun. When their eyes met, nothing needed to be said. Buck needed a gun in his hand. JD handed over the weapon, unbuckled his gunbelt and handed it over as well. Mrs. Potter was already placing an extra box of ammunition on the glass countertop. The boy took the box.
"Boy, you use your head out there." Buck ordered. But he again saw the Chris Larabee determination take over his young friend as it did more and more in these situations.
"You two stay safe. We'll take care of this." He said with resolve beyond his years and dodged out the door for the nearest cover.
The door was still open. Mrs. Potter was a bit in shock. Ezra and Buck met each other's eyes. Buck raised an eyebrow at the gun he now held. They both slowly got to their feet. The communication may have been silent, but it was apparent enough. The owner of the dry goods store had another handgun and box of ammunition on the counter for the gambler to pick up as he went by. He used the gun barrel to tip an imaginary hat at the woman. She smiled at them both with motherly affection and concern.
There was no doubt between them that they would take the back door to maneuver into the battle. Going up against the men shooting at them was one thing. But with matching smirks of acknowledgement, going up against Chris and the others once those friends realized they had joined in the fray, was something they would put off as long as possible.
+ + + + + + +
Foster pulled Inez to the mouth of the alley. Puffs of gunfire showed that at least two of his colleagues were still on the rooftops. But the men were falling back toward the livery, away from the almost certain targets nearer the wagon by the dry goods store. Retreat. They were running. Foster headed toward the livery to be the first one there and let the others cover his retreat. He wrapped his left arm tightly around Inez's waist. He kept his back to the walls of the buildings as he passed. He kept the woman in front of him as a shield. He sidled toward the horses and escape.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Vin split up. Vin headed for the rooftops. Chris moved cautiously down the streets. His plan was to get to his friends, make sure they were safe, and then work his way back through town making sure he stayed between them and any danger. Then he would kill these men hired to hurt people he cared about.
A sound in the alley spun him in that direction in anticipation. Both he and JD Dunne pulled up on their guns at the same time. Their eyes met. Larabee didn't like what he saw. "Why aren't you with the others?" He asked angrily. Part of it was because the boy always, recently, seemed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Larabee was always drawing down only to pull up a split second before he fired, a split second before he would have shot the boy and all the ramifications of that. The boy was always at the wrong place at the wrong time in recent gun battles. He was always where Larabee was, like they were thinking alike.
"Buck and the others are all right. I'm going after those men."
"I'll take care of them."
"I made a promise." They were both alert to their surroundings; the atmosphere of battle and potential danger.
"Buck wouldn't want you going out to gun a man down."
JD brought his dark brown eyes back from the surroundings to meet those of his idol. "I didn't make the promise to him. I made it to myself."
What bothered Larabee the most was that the statement held none of the naïve, false bravado that would have so recently marked this youth. There was nothing in it that was trying to impress the legend that Larabee had unwittingly become. Before Larabee could argue or order him to stop or analyze his emotions, the boy was headed toward the livery.
+ + + + + + +
The hired guns were retreating, running, every man for himself. Vin knew that there had been four men in the desert and one in town. Five. How many more there might be, or how many were down, he didn't know.
There was more at stake here than the immediate threat. No one should be able to target the seven and get away with it. Vin Tanner wanted these men stopped. Clay Kestrel. He wished he didn't have to believe what JD had said. It made everything that Josiah had feared seem true. He had wanted it to be a matter of simple, revenge, a matter of coincidence that the attack coincided with the letter regarding his writing. How had Kestrel figured out he wrote it? Mary hadn't published a name. Anonymous. Was he ashamed of it? No, he was beyond that. And his attack on Nathan. No one in this town would attack Nathan's ability. He moved cautiously from one roof to another. Kestrel's men weren't here. He looked around for them. He needed to get these men and get answers - where would Kestrel go to ground? Where could they track him down?
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Ezra scooted down the back alley. They were following the sound of the gun battle. Buck was determined to stay on his feet and see this to the end. Ezra was forcing himself along through sheer will power as well. At the moment, Buck's single-minded determination was to stop these men and make the town safe for his friends. Ezra had a more specific agenda in mind. He was going to protect Buck and JD from each other and themselves. And, if need be, he would protect them from Chris Larabee. He glanced at the face of the rascal in front of him and saw a similar resolve in his eyes that the gambler suspected even the man himself didn't recognize.
As they cautiously moved toward the gunplay, all senses at alert, Buck realized that he trusted Ezra completely to watch his back. It was a stimulation to go headlong into battle he hadn't felt in a long time. Not that he needed a reason to dive recklessly into the middle of things. He knew JD would try to cover him, but would make the mistakes of youth. He had felt that only sporadically with Chris since he lost Sarah and Adam. And though it was an all-powerful feeling when the two of them were in sync, more often now his old friend was distracted by ghosts and vengeance. At least Vin and Chris could look out for each other. The others had too much sense to grow that devoted to one friendship - or that desperate, or that thankful. Josiah and Nathan were well-rounded son-of-a-guns.
He looked back to check on Ezra and see if he was doing okay, and was surprised to see the gambler watching him for the same reason.
+ + + + + + +
Foster cautiously edged past the alleyway. This was where he was vulnerable. He pulled the feisty bartender tighter and, in quick movements, turned from one direction to the other. He never stayed in one position long enough for anyone to get a shot off without endangering the woman. She was struggling but it was doing no good. Behind him, no one. In the alley, empty. Before him, nothing. Then in the street, not ten feet from him, stood the tracker. He was carrying a mare's leg. A scattergun was even more of a threat to the woman than a revolver. It gave the brigand confidence to continue. He mistakenly ignored Vin's body language which was relaxed and confident.
Foster again began to crab his way toward the livery, with his back to the buildings, the woman shielding him from the former bounty hunter. Luckily he had been the one to stay and study the town and its regulators. He knew this one would not do anything to endanger the woman. The barrel of the scattergun moved with him, waiting for an opportunity, but Foster wouldn't let that opportunity come. No one spoke, no false bravado, no threats or ultimatums.
The sound, the force hitting him and the pinpricks of glass showering him registered at the same time. Foster had his back against the plate glass window of the mercantile when everything tilted and the next thing he knew, he found himself on the ground. He was struggling to keep his grip on the woman who was fighting him like a wildcat. He still held his gun and used it to backhand the giant preacher who had caught him off guard by coming through the window after him.
The good padre was immediately holding his face, blood gushing into his eyes from the twin gashes made by the barrel sight and hammer of Foster's gun. The woman screamed more in anger than fear. Immediately Foster reeled around with the gun to look for the threat of the bounty hunter. As he registered the man's location and aimed, he felt a sudden impact to his right shoulder. Only after the punch, and the realization that his hand would no longer grip and the gun was dropping from his numb fingers, did he look down and see the knife hilt protruding from the shoulder of his gun arm. The black man he knew as the healer walked over, another knife at the ready, and picked up the gun. He then turned immediately to tend to his older friend. He never even looked back, knowing that Tanner would have the man covered.
A sound, an instinct, something, caused Vin to spin just before Perkins, wounded, and coming out of the alleyway, pulled the trigger. The mare's leg barked and the target flew backwards with the impact and was dead before he slid down the wall, leaving a crimson slick where his back touched the wood.
The hotheaded senorita crawled quickly from within Foster's grasp and turned to rail at him in Spanish. That one, Tanner, was laughing. "Ma'am," he began. He couldn't interrupt her diatribe. "Miss Inez ..." now he was laughing , "INEZ!"
"Could I borrow your sash, Ma'am? We need this guy settled so we can go help the others." Still angry, she whipped the red bolt of cloth from around her waist and tied the man to the hitching post herself, heedless of his wound. "You find the others, Mr. Tanner. And all of you will stay in the tavern until I say differently. Mr. Jackson, what nursing you have to do? I suggest we go get all of your supplies now. None of you are leaving my sight after this until you can convince me you can take care of yourselves."
Tanner, Jackson and Sanchez, wide-eyed, somewhat awestruck by the display, couldn't find words. "I'm getting too old for this." Josiah finally assured them. Vin offered his bandana to help squelch the bleeding. Nathan gave Vin a look of reassurance as he and Inez began to wrestle the older man toward the clinic. No, Vin amended that thought, he was sure they were headed toward the saloon just as Inez had ordered. He himself headed out to account for the rest of their friends and the rest of the men who where threatening them.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra and Buck chose to enter the partially rebuilt stables from opposite ends. It was interesting, besides the fact that either one of them were still on their feet at all, that this is where it had all begun, and only three days ago. Ezra was sure that if he made it the next three minutes things would be fine. Then he would sleep the next three weeks. He stopped short, there was already a confrontation going on inside. The man he had come to refer to as the 'Possum was in the middle of the stable. Chris, JD and Buck all had their guns leveled at the man. Chris knew Buck well enough to know he would keep the man covered. The legendary gunfighter slid his pistol back into its holster. "Chris ..." His old friend's voice held all kinds of warnings in it. They were ignored.
One of the things he was trying to warn off took a painfully short time to come about. JD Dunne slid his gun back in the holster as well. "Damn it, Chris," Wilmington began, but he was interrupted.
Ezra watched as the 'Possum lowered his gun slightly in confusion. "I ain't gonna try to fast draw you, Larabee." The weasely little man bemoaned. JD stepped forward immediately to fill that vacuum.
"JD." There was an order in Larabee's voice for the young man to stand down. He was ignored. The dark clad gunfighter took a second to grab a look at his older friend. He looked like his worse nightmare had just come true.
"You and me." The youngest said steadily. "You win, they'll let you ride out."
"Not a chance in hell," Buck roared, his gun still aimed at the man who had caused and was still causing so much hurt.
"Buck, I gotta do this."
"Like hell, boy. Back off. He's goin' to jail."
"You've already got your gun out." JD goaded as he ignored the desperation and pain in his friend's tone.
Chris was unnaturally quiet, ready to react, to protect these men, but the expression on his face as he watched JD fight back the urge to brush the long black bangs from his eyes, was troubled.
Ezra took in the situation. If Larabee shot the man that damn star struck kid would try even harder to be like him. If the kid took him out he would be one step closer to who Buck was afraid he would become. And Wilmington, he didn't have it in him to kill a man in cold blood, no matter how much the man deserved it. But he would pull that trigger he had pressure on even now. He would gun the man down if it would keep the other two alternatives from becoming realities. And a part of the lanky gunfighter would die as well, to kill when it might not be necessary and to have to do it to keep his friends from selling their souls.
Ezra made his decision. He stepped out of the shadows, "Excuse me, sir, I believe we have some unfinished business." The man turned, gun aimed at the gambler. Ezra pulled the trigger. He would lose more sleep if the death of this man hurt his family than if he killed him to be sure one of the others didn't.
Larabee and Dunne both stood frozen, not willing to comprehend that it was over. The boy's bangs hung forward in his face exactly like Larabee's. The fire in his eyes was the same. Buck held his breath at the similarities. Then, while Larabee's eyes met his old time friend, he gave barely a smile and moved to make sure the man was dead, when JD sought out Buck, he tucked the strands of hair behind his ear and his eyes lit up with joy. The potential gunfighter was gone, at least for now. The idealistic, innocent boy Buck loved was back, just that fast.
A shuffle of hay and the nicker of a horse were the only warning any of them had. The "bear" ran out of a stall where he had been hiding. He was making a break for it. He had Ezra in his sights. The gambler stood between him and a chance at freedom.
The shot rang out. It took a moment for the gambler to realize he hadn't been hit. Buck's gun was smoking. The bear lay dead in the hay, again very near where his partner had fallen only a few days ago. This man, who was trying to gun down a friend, Buck had no qualms about shooting. No more than he would a mad dog.
Buck looked quickly at Ezra for any hint of what the two shootings might be costing him. That damn poker face was in place. And it made Buck mad. He couldn't call the southerner on the way he reacted, it was long engrained in him. He turned his anger on someone who was still molding himself into the man he was going to be. "Boy," He called to JD who seemed stunned by this turn of events. "You almost got Ezra killed holsterin' your gun like that. A damn fool stunt. Would it have been worth it? Was it worth it!" Ezra couldn't tell if the big man was talking to JD or Chris.
JD opened his mouth and closed it. At first his face reflected anger, then indignation, then fear of what might have happened, then regret. "God, Buck, I ..."
Vin burst into the livery, gun at ready. He relaxed slightly when he took in who was standing and who was in the dirt. He went straight to check on his friends, never even considering the dead men. "Are you alright, Buck?" He asked the man who was closer, "Ezra, what the hell are you doing up and here? Does Nathan know?"
"No. He damn well doesn't." He used small words to emphasis the fact that he wasn't looking forward to dealing with the usually gentle-natured healer. He could be most irritating when his patients didn't cooperate.
Chris watched JD walk over to Buck and humbly, without a word being spoken, ask forgiveness for disappointing the older man.
Buck had to fight with himself to grant the forgiveness, so much could have been lost, but in the end he reached out and pulled the boy close so their foreheads met and said something no one else could hear. JD had seen every emotion go across the other man's face as he fought to find it in himself to understand. He never wanted to see that struggle again.
Nathan arrived in a rush, but like Vin relaxed when he saw things were under control. There was something wrong, but the feeling came from the newest arrival. Vin could tell by the gentle man's expression. "Nathan?"
There was no easy way to say it. "Foster? The guy we left tied up? He's dead." Vin frowned. He hadn't been injured that badly.
"Someone slit his throat." Nathan said with a deep sigh. "He didn't have a chance."
"Kestrel." Larabee growled.
"Clay's here?" Buck asked, worried all over again. The acknowledgement of this threat reflected in the other's eyes. Wilmington made a move as if to go look for him.
Chris put a hand on his shoulder and stopped him. "He'll be long gone. To lay up and lick his wounds." He assured his old friend. "Let's get you and Ezra and JD taken care of." The deadly gunfighter knew that watching out for the others would come before going after Kestrel as far as Buck was concerned. Larabee realized it was what he should have done instead of chasing Kestrel the first time. Vin met his friend's eyes, saw this realization and smiled.
"Josiah?" Chris asked when he noticed who was missing.
"Josiah's being mothered by Inez like she threatened. Hopefully she'll get it out of her system before we get ..." Nathan said, heading toward Buck who was closest.
"Are you crazy? Nathan, this is Inez ..." Buck was letting the boy completely off the hook by starting to joke. He took a step pleasantly toward the doors but his legs turned to water and simply gave out under him. JD and Chris both caught him before he hit the ground and lowered him slowly to the hay.
"God, Buck," JD began.
"Hey, Kid, if I'm feeling this bad, Ezra's not doing so hot either. Go check on him?"
"Sure." JD knew that Buck was in good hands with Chris and Nathan was moving in fast. He thought Buck would rather have his old, trusted friend take care of him. JD understood. He wished it was different, but he understood he would have to earn that kind of connection with the older man. He hoped he hadn't frayed those chances today. He moved over to make sure Ezra was doing okay. How could a man look that pale and be so sunburned?
"Not now, Nathan," Buck was a bit strident.
"Please, Nathan, Ezra first." With a sigh of frustration, the healer moved over from one obstinate patient to the other.
When they were finally alone, Buck looked up at Chris. He couldn't find the words. He didn't know if it was because he didn't want to hear the answer or was too tired for the fight. "You look like hell, Buck. Why couldn't you let us handle this?" Buck wouldn't meet his eyes. That wasn't what he wanted to talk about. Chris studied him. "You know it makes me nervous when you're so quiet," he continued.
Buck nodded without meeting his eyes. Okay, what was wrong? Chris wondered. He watched Buck cut his eyes over to JD and Ezra. Then Chris got it. "I took the boy because Josiah and Nathan had their hands full with you two."
Buck looked up at that. "There were men trying to kill us." Larabee continued. "I could watch the kid while you couldn't." There was a silence between them. Buck wanted to believe, but didn't know if this Chris Larabee would have that level of compassion; of understanding. The old one would, but ... "I wouldn't let the boy call these guys out. It would never have gotten any further. I know how you feel about that." Buck stared. He did get it.
Relaxing seemed to prove that he had been surviving on adrenaline. Buck rested his head against the stall. "Chris, I gotta ... talk to you about ... a river ..." But his head slumped forward and the darkness claimed him before he could continue.
TWO WEEKS LATER
Chris Larabee, stripped to the waist, strained to reach into the depths beneath the riverbanks. He could feel up and into the crannies that had been hollowed there by eddies and currents that were in turn churned up by the rapids at his back. Barefoot, his toes sank into the silty mud that clouded the water. "Not this time, Wilmington." His mind growled. He was oblivious to the water bugs and red eared minnows that danced away from his intrusion. The daddy long legs and other spiders on the bank didn't even register. With single-minded determination Chris Larabee took a breath and dove underwater for a better reach into where the river concealed its secrets and that which it would claim as its own.
He didn't notice that the pecan trees lowered the temperature by ten degrees in their shade. His fingers sought unsuccessfully for their target - their goal. Nothing. "Not this time. If I could ..." As he was finally forced to break the surface for air, he heard frantic splashing and loud shouts downstream. "Damn. Damn. Damn."
He looked to his right. Buck Wilmington was stretched along the bank, chest deep in the water. Stripped from the waist up, burned skin peeling from his back, chest and forehead, he rested his left wrist precariously on the bank. That was the only concession he gave to protecting his broken hand; the bandages on which were again wet and dirty. Nathan would be pissed. Good, Larabee thought vengefully. Because Buck's right hand, still underwater, was thrashing so wildly that it appeared it would be pulled out of its socket.
Suddenly Wilmington lost his balance and disappeared below the dirty water. The surface continued to roil and churn. After two unsuccessful tries, the dark-haired gunfighter was finally able to regain his footing and turn a triumphant smile toward his friend. When his right hand finally appeared it had a death grip on the lower jaw of a 15" long catfish.
"Damn." Larabee muttered. Based on the broad head, the thing must be 16 pounds. Buck's smile was contagious and the other man caught himself returning it as he finally began to wade that direction. The man had a talent for finding a fish. Grappling fish or women, it was rare for him to be outdone. And Chris had tried, he admitted begrudgingly, with the fish and, in the distant history they shared, even the women. The memories made the gunman's smile widen. Chris noticed the blood that ran down Buck's wrist as he tried to hold the flailing yellow cat. He took some satisfaction that he would get to watch Nathan lay into the lady's man over the most recent injury.
Unexpectedly the fish jackknifed out of the water and back in. There was no leverage in the quicksand-like river bottom and, refusing to let go of his catch, Buck fell backwards away from the relatively calm and sun-warmed waters by the bank and into the icy white water rapids fed by the spring thaw.
The current had Wilmington several yards past Larabee before he could react and dive in after him.
Chris had caught up to his old friend by the time they were swept past the part of the river where their other friends were practicing a more conventional and subdued form of fishing. Both focused on keeping the fish and somehow working their way to shore, they were completely oblivious to the looks they were getting or the fact that they were about to drown each other.
Arms, legs and fins, in a tangled mess washed past. A butt was as likely to be turned toward the sun as a face. Neither man would let go of the fish. "Damn it, Buck!" "I got it! I got it!" "Grab that ... okay, now, grab that ... get the damn limb!" The shouts were often cut short by a mouthful of water. JD watched the show float by not knowing what to think. Nathan started a slow boil over the fact that a barely healing Buck was tumbling along in the ice cold water. And what was Chris thinking? Not letting go of that ... was that a fish? What a beauty!
Josiah laughed out loud. The two were acting like kids and having a hell of a time. Ezra, smiling, whispered something to Vin who smirked, an amused glint in his eye.
Chris slammed into another outcropping of rocks near the middle of the river. He braced against the boulders and Buck bounced off of him there. He kept Buck from being swept past solely by the fact that both now had a death grip on the catfish's lower jaw.
Buck couldn't support any other hold because of his broken left hand. The others clustered at the shore trying to decide how to help.
"I got it!" Larabee called.
"You got it?" Buck questioned.
"I got it!"
They sounded like they might rather drown each other than make it to shore. Ezra shook his head. He had finally come to realize that, no, those two men couldn't be civil to each other in words. But there was an affection and trust there that went beyond words and fascinated the loner gambler. Buck demonstrated that trust now when he let go of his prize catch, entrusted it to the other man, and grasped the rocks. His hold wouldn't last long. The force of the current would tear his grip free.
Chris used much of his remaining strength to hurl the large fish to shore. Josiah grabbed it before it could work its way back into the water.
Free of their prize, Chris and Buck released the rocks and gradually helped each other maneuver toward shore; cussing and discussing in no uncertain terms their opinions of each others skills ranging from fishing to swimming to surviving once they got their hands on each other on shore. The others helped them once they reached the shallows and dragged them to dry land. There they lie panting for breath and slowly recovering their strength.
"What the hell was that, Larabee?" Nathan vented.
"Supper." He deadpanned between gasping breaths.
"Do you know how close you two were to drowning?"
He was interrupted by Buck's indignant acknowledgement of the fact that he had just watched Vin hand a silver dollar to Ezra. "If you boys're bettin' on whether we'd drown each other, I want a part of that."
"Not at all, Mr. Wilmington. We have long since given up being amazed at the resourcefulness when our fearless leader and yourself are involved. We simply placed a small wager on whether Mr. Jackson would yell at you or Mr. Larabee first."
"Oh. Okay, then." He closed his eyes as if he planned on taking a nap right there, wet, cold and shivering.
"Very funny. Get your sorry asses back toward camp and a fire before you catch your death."
Larabee found Vin in front of him offering a hand up and took it. They exchanged amused smiles. That had been fun. Despite the freezing waters. Tanner was glad to see this side of his friend slowly re-emerging. "Nice fish." Josiah boomed as he held it up for inspection. Larabee transferred the smile to Josiah.
Buck threw a cold, dripping arm around both JD and Ezra to their mock protests. They led the way up stream toward camp. Nathan, knowing better than to try any doctoring yet, nevertheless was eyeballing the way Chris stretched his back. Must be bruised from hitting those rocks. He had intentionally taken the brunt of that impact knowing Buck's hand and ribs were still healing from the POW camp, not to mention the tender skin trying to survive the sunburn.
Buck was moving gingerly. He was protecting his bandaged hand. What was left of the bandage was filthy and ragged. Both men had bloody right hands where the hundreds of needle sharp, rasp-like teeth of that bottom jaw had bit into their skin. Oh, well, it was nothing that wouldn't mend. And watching the hi-jinks of these two was worth the extra time he'd have to put into their healing. But damn, were they a handful.
Vin and Chris brought up the rear. Larabee was already reverting to his stoic self. Vin, however, was still smiling. Larabee had said, with Buck and Ezra in that POW camp, that he had been forced to examine the consequences of many of his actions - pushing friends away, riding off to avoid attachments. All of the demons had by no means been exorcised, but these glimpses of the old Larabee, the one Buck fought for, showed the healing process had taken a giant step. And seeing Buck extend their level of friendship to include others had the somber gunfighter evaluating what he could lose or what he could gain. And when JD had been willing to call out that one outlaw in a quick draw contest? That may have been a wake-up call.
Vin walked beside his friend in the companionable silence he was used to. He just wished that Chris coming to terms with some of his ghosts hadn't been at the expense of Ezra and Buck now being forced to come to terms with their own that they thought had been laid to rest or hadn't realize existed. They all three had their good days and bad. If they would remember they had the others to see them through, they would all be better off in the end.
He scooped up the green cattails he intended to roast like ears of corn. Nathan had a bag of wild onions, early spring dill and wild cilantro. They would use the peppers from pincushion cactus to season the beans and munched on jicama root. He knew Josiah planned on showing JD how, if you rubbed the silvery membrane from the inside of the yellow cat you could get rid of the fishy taste. They rarely had this much time to put into a trail meal. Even Ezra was going to have to admit the meal was exceptionally tasty and filling. It was good to relax. And be here together.
Vin cast a quick glance at his best friend and then at Buck and the others.The spirit of a hero protects everyone in sight
The protective aura beckons all
Like moths to a candle's light.
But don't get too close or try to tame.
The only one who can truly touch the fire,
Would be another flame.
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