The Trail to Tascosa

by The Traveling Dime Store Novelist

Rating: PG-13 for language and violence (hey, it's a western!!)

Disclaimer: As much as I would like to say I did, I can't--I don't own the characters or the original M7 concept. I only become obsess--er, attached to them and write fanfic for others to enjoy.

Note: Sorry it's taken so long to get the next installment out of the Tascosa series. I wrote 2 (Just Another Day and Should the Angels Call) in between -- that's my excuse! <g> This is the longest Tascosa story yet. It takes place a couple weeks after the fourth installment. I've also incorporated some of the things we've learned in the abbreviated second season. Hope you enjoy it and all comments are welcome!

Story Five

Breach of Faith

By The Traveling Dimestore Novelist

The only thing that would have made this day any better was the companionship of a soft, friendly woman, but Buck Wilmington wasn't about to complain too much. He and his six companions had just spent a week in a lively little town while Nathan recuperated from the whipping he'd received a couple weeks ago. Buck scowled, remembering Randolph, the southerner who'd been determined to bring back slavery and the so-called genteel South to a ranch in Texas. He turned slightly to glance at Ezra who rode silently beside him. Randolph had been an old friend of Ezra's, but when it had come down to choosing between him and Nathan, Ezra had come through on the right side. Buck doubted that Ezra would've made the same decision a year ago.

Buck sighed and looked ahead to the vista of open grazing land. He turned his thoughts to more pleasant musings -Rose, Pansy, Violet, Lily, and Daisy. Flowers of the desert, all of them. Buck smiled with the memory of the evenings he'd spent exploring their silky soft petals. Of course, he hadn't been the only one who'd sowed a few wild oats among the fair flowers. His companions had taken advantage of the bouquet of ladies, too. And when they left the town, the seven men were more relaxed than they had been for some time. Even Chris had enjoyed himself, just like old times.

Yep, that overdue rest did us all a world of good, Buck thought. Now they were back on the trail to Tascosa, still over two hundred miles away, even though they'd left Four Corners nearly four months ago. Buck looked at Vin who slouched in the saddle with deceptively relaxed ease. He knew the tracker's gaze was constantly searching their seemingly empty surroundings for a sign of danger or an overly ambitious bounty hunter looking to collect the five hundred dollar reward on Vin's head. Eli Joe, the man who'd framed Vin, had been killed by Chris to save Vin's life. Vin was hoping that once they made it to Tascosa he could find someone who could clear him of the murder charge hanging over him.

Buck's horse tugged at its bridle and shook its head, as if wanting to run in the warm sunshine.

JD Dunne, riding on his left, took a tighter hold on his own horse's reins. "They're feelin' frisky, too."

Buck grinned devilishly and leaned closer to the younger man. "Not as frisky as you were feelin' a few nights ago."

JD's face turned scarlet beneath the narrow brim of his derby hat. "Ah, c'mon, Buck. At least I slept in my own bed every night."

"Yeah, and I'm right sorry 'bout that, JD, but then not everybody has my stamina."

JD's dark, expressive eyes widened. "Your what?"

"Energy, JD," Buck said with a wink.

Ezra chuckled from the other side of Buck and the mustached man was glad to hear the gambler's laughter. Ever since Ezra had been forced to kill his friend Randolph, he'd been quiet and withdrawn. Until Buck had introduced him to Violet, that is.

JD snorted. "You want to see energy? Race ya!" Excitement sparked his voice and face as he urged his mare into a swift gallop that sent horse and rider dashing away from the six men.

The boy's enthusiasm was contagious and Buck found himself laughing aloud as he kicked his gray's flanks. His horse leapt into motion and Buck whooped joyfully just for the thrill of the race on such a perfect day.

"You ain't gonna beat me, JD!" Buck hollered.

"You wanna bet?" JD shot back as he leaned low over his horse's neck.

The younger man remained a length ahead of him, but Buck didn't care. He was enjoying the feel of the wind in his face, the horse's muscles bunching beneath him, and the scent of sage that tickled his nose with its redolence. JD seemed to be one with his mare as they raced across the land in a blur of brown and black. He rode with an innate grace that Buck couldn't help but admire in his young friend. He'd known JD could ride, but he didn't realize how well until this very moment.

Buck slowed his horse slightly and JD increased his lead dramatically. Buck wondered when JD would notice that he'd been given the victory. He glanced back to see their five companions nearly a quarter of a mile behind them, then turned ahead to yell at JD to rein in.

Suddenly JD's horse squealed and planted its rear hooves in the ground. JD, though an expert rider, was thrown over the horse's neck. JD's scream of pain, combined with his horse's frenzied whinny, froze Buck's blood in his veins. He spurred his own horse forward, but drew to a stop just short of the horrific sight.

His heart pounding in his chest, Buck fairly flew out of the saddle and fell to his knees beside JD's bloodied body. Barbed wire wrapped around the younger man's chest, his arms and legs. A barb had ripped his left cheek open and blood welled from the gash. His shirt was turning red even as Buck knelt helplessly beside him.

"Nathan!" Buck yelled. "Nathan, get over here!"

The metallic taste of fear filled Buck's mouth and he took hold of one of the wires circling JD's arm. He tried to remove it, to make it stop hurting the kid. JD screamed in agony and Buck let go of the wire like it was a snake. Instead of helping, Buck had hurt JD more.

"Sonuvabitch, JD, I'm sorry," Buck said, his voice thick with contrition.

Buck wanted to hold JD, remove the agony in his face. He found a small spot on JD's shoulder that wasn't stained red and touched it gently with a shaking hand. "Hang on, JD. Nathan's comin'."

"B-Buck," JD said hoarsely. "It hurts."

Buck swallowed the block of emotion in his tight throat. "I know it does, kid."

"What h-happened?"

"You got thrown into some barbed wire." His voice trembled.

The arrival of the other five men amidst pluming dust, jingling bridles, and squeaking leather sidetracked Buck's attention for only a moment. "Hurry, Nathan."

The healer dismounted before his horse came to a complete stop, and he jerked his medical bag from his saddle. Buck shifted over slightly and Nathan knelt beside JD. Nathan's expression grew even more somber as he eyed the blood staining JD's chest, and his hands hovered above the boy's body, as if uncertain where to begin.

"We gotta get this wire off of him," Nathan said in a low, tentative voice. "We need a cutters."

The men exchanged helpless looks. Nathan blinked and shook his head as if trying to clear it. He fumbled in his medical bag and pulled out his razor sharp scissors.

"That gonna work?" Buck demanded.

"You got somethin' better?" Nathan shot back.

Buck licked his dry lips and passed a shaky hand across his brow. He shook his head.

"Okay, I'm gonna need your help, Buck," Nathan said. "You need to keep him from movin' too much or he's gonna make them wounds worse."

"Ain't I gonna hurt him more by holdin' him down?" Buck asked anxiously.

"It won't be as bad as them pointed barbs." Nathan leaned close to gaze into JD's pale face. "Listen to me, son. This is gonna hurt, but if I don't get these wires off you, I can't take care of them wounds. You understand?"

JD nodded, then closed his eyes and his face spasmed with pain. "Go ahead," he said faintly.

"Try not to move anymore'n you have to," Nathan said softly.

"I'll be right here with ya, kid," Buck reassured, then grit his teeth and laid his hands on JD's shoulders. "Go 'head, Nathan."

Nathan slowly and carefully began to snip the wire wrapped around the boy's body. JD whimpered and Buck clenched his teeth together so hard, his jaw ached. First the wires came off from around JD's legs, then his chest, and finally his arms where the barbs had penetrated the deepest. JD's muscles flexed beneath Buck's palms and when JD let out an animal-like moan, Buck's insides twisted into a tight, torturous knot.

"Hang in there, kid," Buck murmured.

Nathan removed the last strip of devil wire from the boy's body and wiped the sweat droplets from his brow with a shaky hand "Okay, I'm done. Josiah, water."

Josiah quickly retrieved a canteen and handed it to Nathan, then hunkered down beside him. "How is he?"

Nathan shook his head, his expression grim. "He's losin' a lot of blood. I need to sew him up and get those cuts wrapped up."

Buck, his hands still resting on JD's shoulders, raised wide eyes to the healer. "He's gonna be okay, right Nathan?" he asked with a raspy voice.

"I'll do everything I can to make sure them cuts don't get septic," Nathan said gently.

Buck glanced up to see Chris standing beside him and felt his friend's hand on his shoulder. "Nathan'll do his best," Chris said quietly.

Nodding, Buck leaned back on his heels and rested his bloody hands on his thighs. "I know. It's just that this shouldn't have happened. Geezus, Chris, we were just havin' some fun."

Chris squeezed his shoulder. "It wasn't your fault, Buck. You couldn't have known about the wire."

"If I hadn't pulled up, maybe I would've seen it and stopped him." Guilt tore at Buck's gut.

Chris's jaw knotted with frustrated helplessness. He understood Buck's self-reproach, but it didn't help him find the words to ease his guilt. With a sigh, he watched Nathan, Josiah, and Buck begin the painfully slow process of caring for JD's injuries. There was nothing he could do here and turned back to join Vin and Ezra.

Ezra held JD's horse's bridle as he stroked the animal's damp neck soothingly while Vin examined the mare's legs.

"How is she?" Chris asked curtly.

"In better shape than JD, but she could use some doctorin'," Vin replied. He rose and retrieved a few items from his saddlebag. Squatting down by the horse again, Vin went to work on a nasty gash on the animal's fetlock. The mare whinnied and tossed her head, and Ezra surprised Chris by talking to the horse in a gentle, drawling voice as the gambler rubbed her nose.

"You doin' okay down there?" Chris asked as he watched Vin's hands move familiarly across the wounded leg.

"It bled a lot, but don't look too deep. Not like JD's." Vin ran his palms lightly down the animal's leg. "Damn! Who woulda thought there'd be wire around here!"

The disgust in Vin's voice didn't surprise Chris. The ex-buffalo hunter was a wanderer, a man who had no plans to settle down and didn't understand the enticement of owning a piece of land.

"Don't see why folks think they got to fence this in," Vin continued, his voice low and angry. "Seems to me the land was put here for everyone to use."

Chris shrugged, hiding his own frustration behind a calm facade. "Maybe so, but there's gettin' to be more and more folks tryin' to use the same piece of ground."

"And there are those who become greedy in the pursuit of the land," Ezra interjected.

"Well, you'd know about greed," Vin murmured.

Ezra blinked and for a moment, anguish shimmered in his expression, then his usual imperturbable look returned.

"Aw, hell, Ezra, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that," Vin said, apology and regret in his tone. "Seein' JD hurt like that just makes me plumb mad."

Ezra smiled slightly and his eyes flickered with surprise and muted relief. "Apology accepted, Mister Tanner." His gaze slipped over to JD, then back to Vin. "I share your sentiment."

"Push comes to shove and people start doin' crazy things," Chris said quietly.

"And JD's payin' for their craziness," Vin added.

"Yep," Chris bit off. JD had been guilty of nothing other than indulging in youthful high spirits under a clear blue sky, and now he lay bleeding and badly injured. Chris's fingers curled into tight fists. "The kid was only having some fun," he reiterated Buck's words hoarsely.

Vin paused in his task and angled a glance at Chris, who met his understanding gaze silently. Then Vin nodded slightly and returned his attention to the horse's injuries.

Ezra continued stroking the injured mare's neck with slow easy motions, but his jaw muscles clenched. "I for one would like to locate the owner of such abominable wire, and give him a taste of his own medicine."

"You're gonna have to get in line," Vin stated, then added in a husky voice, "'Specially if JD don't make it."

Chris swallowed hard and nodded.

Half an hour later, Chris leaned against a wood fence post smoking a cheroot, consciously keeping his body relaxed but his gaze darted back and forth between JD and their surroundings. Vin hunkered on his heels a few feet away, a stem of grass between his lips, but Chris knew he kept a vigilant gaze for hostile guests as Vin, too, worried about the kid. Ezra stood off to the side, helplessly watching Nathan, Josiah, and Buck wrap bandages around JD.

Suddenly Vin rose to his full height in one graceful motion. "We got company comin'."

Chris and Ezra moved up on either side of him as they watched six horsemen approach. The new arrivals, all dressed in range gear, drew to a halt a few yards in front of them. The leader, a stocky man wearing a dusty vest, plaid shirt, and bandanna, studied them a moment, then glanced over in the direction of JD. "What happened?" he asked.

"Barbed wire," Chris said flatly. "You have any idea how it got here?"

The man's dark eyes narrowed. "Yep. We put it there."

Buck, who'd stepped up beside Chris, charged toward the newcomer, his expression blazing. Chris and Ezra each grabbed an arm to stop him.

"Hold on, Buck," Chris hissed in his ear. "There ain't no law against stringin' wire up."

"There is when it damn near kills someone," Buck exclaimed. His anger rolled off him in sheets of hot rage.

"That what happened to your friend?" the stranger asked.

"He was just takin' a ride and enjoyin' the day," Vin said, his tone full of loathing. "Horse stopped fast when he saw the wire."

The man looked over at JD again, and he shifted uneasily in the saddle. "Damn shame. He ain't the first one that's happened to and he ain't gonna be the last, but it's the only way to keep the grangers off the land. You got any place to take him?"

Buck's muscles slackened, and Chris and Ezra released him.

"Why? You figurin' on finishin' the job you started?" Vin demanded, his blue eyes glittering dangerously.

Chris narrowed his eyes and wished the usually reserved Vin would rein in his rare temper. They needed a place for JD to recuperate, and if this man volunteered someplace, Chris figured they'd best take him up on that offer. Even if he and his companions were responsible for JD's injuries.

"Look, I'm damned sorry this happened, but the fact is, you were on private property, so don't go blaming us." The stranger's expression relented and he fingered his leather reins. "You're welcome to stay at the boss's until your friend's back on his feet."

Chris sized up the rough-hewn man and believed his regret that JD had gotten tangled in the wire. He exchanged looks with Buck, Ezra, and Vin, then nodded. "We'll take you up on that offer."

The man appeared relieved. "The ranchhouse is a few miles east. I'll send one of my men to town to get the doctor."

Chris glanced questioningly at Nathan, who worried his lower lip then nodded in acquiescence, and Chris turned to the stranger. "We'd appreciate it."

"Slim, ride into Porter and get Doc Jensen. Irish, you head back to the ranch and let 'em know we got company comin'."

The two cowboys galloped away in opposite directions. The leader turned back to Chris. "Name's Roy Fuller and I'm the foreman of the Double J spread."

"Chris Larabee," Chris said, then introduced his six friends.

"How we gonna get JD there without hurtin' him more?" Buck asked from beside JD's still body.

"I can make us a travois," Vin volunteered.

Fuller sent the rest of his men back to work and moved off to examine the barbed wire fence. While Vin went in search of materials for the travois, Chris joined the ranch foreman.

Fuller glanced up at Chris, a scowl on his face as he held up a piece of wire. "Damn grangers cut it. If they hadn't, your friend would've spotted it early enough to stop."

"You been havin' trouble with the farmers for a while?" Chris asked.

The man nodded. "Ever since we put the wire up, and we strung it because they were startin' to plow up our rangeland and steal the water. We've had to put teams of men riding the fence twenty-four hours a day, and still they get past us."

"Ain't there enough land to go around for all of you?"

"You know anything about raising cattle, Larabee?"

Chris shrugged. "I had a small horse ranch four, five years ago."

"With this land, each head of cattle needs nearly ten acres for grazin', which means the boss can't afford to lose even a few acres."

Mixed feelings inundated Chris - he should blame the Double J for what happened to JD, but found that he understood more than he wanted to. They were only trying to protect what was theirs, which was something Chris himself had done when he'd had Sarah, Adam and a home.

Chris's fingers curled into fists and he left the foreman to join his friends.

Twenty minutes later, Chris and Vin tied the travois's two poles to either side of Vin's saddle.

"I don't like 'em, Chris," Vin said in a low voice.

Chris rested his forearms on the saddle seat and studied the tracker over the horse's back. "You don't have to like 'em, but JD needs someplace to heal."

Vin's lips thinned. "So we go into the wolf's den."

"But we got us something sheep don't - our guns," Chris said with a crooked smile.

Vin tilted his head slightly in amused acknowledgment.

Working slowly and carefully, Nathan, Josiah, Buck, and Ezra lifted JD on to the blanket stretched between the cottonwood poles. They used another bedroll to wrap around his trembling body.

"Ready?" Roy Fuller asked.

Chris nodded.

The men mounted up and followed Fuller. Ezra led JD's injured horse, while Nathan and Buck rode on either side of the travois, keeping an eye on JD. Chris and Josiah rode flanking the foreman.

"Where do you boys hail from?" Fuller asked curiously.

"You name it, we've been there," Chris replied curtly.

Fuller's lips thinned in irritation, but Chris didn't apologize for his brevity.

Josiah rested his wrists on his saddle's flat pommel. "What my friend means is we're wandering nomads, like Moses and the Children of Israel wandering the desert in search of the promised land."

"You a preacher man?" Fuller asked.

"I've been known to call upon fire and brimstone a time or two."

"The boss'll be right glad to hear that. There's a chapel not far from the house that hasn't heard the Lord's word for nigh onto three years now."

Startled, Chris glanced at Fuller. "You sound like you miss it."

Fuller shrugged. "S'pose maybe I do. It's a lonely land out here, Larabee. Anything to break up the days'd be welcome."

Josiah smiled and spoke dryly, "I've heard worse reasons for visiting the Lord's house."

"How long you been working here?" Chris asked.

"Close to twenty years now. Seen a lot of changes in that time." He removed his hat and scratched his balding pate. "Some good, some not so good."

"The wire one of them good or not so good changes?"

Fuller looked like a kid who just got caught stealing a piece of peppermint. "I don't like the barbed wire any more'n you, but we plumb wore out everything else. This was the boss's last hope to hang onto the ranch."

"We almost there?" Buck's impatient call interrupted their conversation.

"Another mile," Fuller replied. "How's he doin'?"

"How do ya think he's doin'?" Buck said angrily.

Fuller sighed, then asked Josiah, "He the kid's brother?"

"Sometimes I think so." Josiah shook his head. "He feels a certain paternal protectiveness for JD since the boy is alone in the world."

"Felt that way a couple times myself since I ain't had a family of my own either," Fuller said with a shrug.

Chris turned his gaze forward as thoughts of his own family caught him off-guard. His memory did that to him now and again, like it knew when he lowered his mental defenses. After four years, he should've been able to think about them without the damning moisture burning his eyes or his gut twisting like a fish at the end of a line. But the wound was still there, healed on the outside but tender below the surface. He wondered if that gaping hole would every completely close.

Ten minutes later the ranch outbuildings came into view and Chris studied the imposing holdings. Large cottonwood trees stood on either side of the two-story house, and a long porch stretched across the front. A mixture of comfortable chairs and a glider sat on the porch, inviting guests to relax in the shade during the heat of the day or enjoy the cool evenings. A half dozen barns and corrals were situated in a neat pattern away from the house and the two sprawling bunkhouses.

Vin whistled low.

"A veritable oasis in the middle of a forsaken desert," Ezra commented dryly, though his expression told them he was suitably impressed.

They rode up to the front of the whitewashed house and a slender figure wearing trousers came out onto the porch. As they drew nearer, Chris could make out silver gray hair and suddenly realized the person was a woman.

"Bring him inside -I've got a room ready for him upstairs," she said with a tone that told Chris she was accustomed to having her orders followed without question.

Buck, Nathan, and Josiah carefully carried JD inside and followed the woman up a wide curving staircase, while Vin, Ezra, and Chris remained on the porch. A few minutes later, the woman, along with Josiah, joined them outside.

She crossed her arms, then uncrossed them and lifted them in surrender. "I don't know how I can apologize, except to say how sorry I am this happened."

"You can start by gettin' rid of all that barbed wire, ma'am," Vin said curtly.

She met his stormy gaze and though she was a good ten inches shorter than Vin, she didn't appear intimidated. "I wish it were that easy, but I'm fighting a battle for the survival of this ranch."

"And JD is fighting a battle for his life," Vin shot back.

Regret shadowed her eyes as she sighed heavily. "The doctor is on the way, though from what I saw of your Negro friend, he seems to know a little about doctoring."

"Yes, ma'am, that he does," Josiah spoke up, his low voice soothing.

"May I be as so bold as to inquire your name?" Ezra asked the woman.

She smiled in embarrassment. "I'm sorry. My manners are not as sharp as they used to be - that must come from living out here. I'm Julia Jordan."

"Double J," Chris said, realizing what the brand meant.

"It was my husband's idea," she explained with a hint of embarrassment. "I'll have Roy take you to the spare bunkhouse to use while you're here. We only use it in the spring and fall when we have to hire extra hands to round up the cattle."

"We appreciate that, Mrs. Jordan," Chris said.

"It's the least I can do." She glanced past them and shouted, "Roy!"

The foreman ambled over to them. "Yes, ma'am?"

"Could you show these gentleman to the spare bunkhouse?"

Fuller nodded. "Sure thing, Mrs. Jordan."

The woman turned back to Chris. "Again, I'm sorry about your young friend, but I'll ensure he gets the best care possible." She paused a moment and swept her gaze across Josiah, Ezra, and Vin. "I'd like to have you all join me for dinner this evening -it'll be served at six."

"Thank you, ma'am. We'd be honored," Josiah said, touching the brim of his hat courteously.

Vin abruptly stepped off the porch and strode to his horse, his shoulders stiff.

Chris narrowed his eyes and when Mrs. Jordan looked at him questioningly, he said, "Vin doesn't approve of the barbed wire."

"There was a time not too long ago when I would've agreed with him," the woman said thoughtfully. "But times change. I hope you can convince him to join us."

"I'll try to talk some sense into him," Chris said.

Mrs. Jordan nodded and returned to the house. Fuller looked over at Chris.

"We'll be along," Chris said.

The foreman nodded and led Ezra and Josiah to their temporary quarters. Chris took a deep breath and joined Vin who stood hipshot by Sire, anger evident in his tightly pursed lips.

"What's goin' on, Vin?" Chris asked quietly.

"It ain't right," Vin stated. "She's only tryin' to buy us off."

Chris shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I got the impression she was really sorry about what happened."

"If she was, she'd get rid of all the damned wire afore someone else gets hurt, or maybe killed."

"Look, I know you don't have any use for barbed wire, but it's gettin' more and more common. You can't stop it, Vin, no matter how much you hate it."

Vin's gaze pierced Chris. "So you're sayin' I should just roll over and accept it? Accept that kids like JD are gonna keep gettin' hurt 'cause people like Miz Jordan have to protect their precious land!"

Impatience skittered through Chris. "I don't like what happened to JD anymore'n you do, but what I'm sayin' is Mrs. Jordan owns the land and she can do what she wants with it, whether we like it or not. Besides, we're just passin' through. Once JD is healed, we'll be movin' on," he explained.

Vin licked his dry lips and studied the shimmering heat waves rising above the land. "It ain't right," he repeated, but this time there was less force behind his words.

"Maybe not, but it ain't our concern."

Vin took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. "I reckon you're right, but it don't make me feel any better."

"I know what you mean." He laid a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Now, are you gonna pass up an opportunity for a fancy meal?"

Vin smiled reluctantly. "I s'pose she'll expect me to use all them damn forks and spoons the right way."

Chris chuckled and winked. "Just watch which ones Ezra uses."

Vin shook his head, but the twinkle had returned to his eyes. "All right, I'll go."

Chris slapped Vin on the back and they led their horses to the corral.

Part 2