Buck shifted his numb backside in the chair and stifled a groan. The sun was just peeking over the eastern horizon and Buck had spent the entire night alternating between sleeping restlessly in the chair and gazing at JD who would occasionally shift and groan. Buck leaned over to examine JD more closely, to see if he looked better than he had earlier. Two hours ago Buck had been so frightened by his paleness, that he'd awakened Nathan who sat in a similar chair on the other side of JD's bed. After changing the bandages, Nathan had assured him everything was looking fine.
A little color seemed to have returned to JD's cheeks and Buck murmured a silent prayer of thanks that JD was recovering, albeit slowly. Buck pushed himself to his feet and rubbed gritty eyes. He was going to have to give that boy a kick in the butt as soon as the kid was feeling a little better. Buck was getting too damn old for these long, tense vigils.
Buck moved to the window and saw Chris striding across the ranch yard toward the house, his black clothes contrasting sharply with the coral glow of the sunrise. Even from this distance, Buck could see the weariness in his old friend's steps and he frowned, wondering what caused it. Could it be worry over JD or something else?
Buck glanced at Nathan who was sleeping in the other chair, his arms crossed and his chin touching his chest. The healer looked as exhausted as Buck felt.
Footsteps in the hallway alerted Buck to someone's approach, and he opened the door a crack. He wasn't surprised to see Chris, and he swung the door open the rest of the way.
"Come on in," Buck said in a low voice.
Chris nodded and slipped inside. His gaze immediately fell on JD, who looked like a young child in the middle of the large bed. "How's he doin'?"
"Better, I think," Buck replied. "Gave me a scare overnight, but wasn't nothin'." Buck's stomach dropped with the memory of his fear.
"I'll sit with JD while you get some breakfast," Chris said, his tone brooking no arguments.
"I think I should--"
Chris shook his head. "Go on, Buck. You need a break."
Buck took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair, tousling it further. "All right, but you call me if anything happens."
Chris nodded. Buck nabbed his hat from where it hung on the back of his chair and started for the door, but Chris's grasp on his arm stopped him.
"There's something you need to know," Chris began, and Buck was puzzled by his nervousness. "We decided to work for the Jordans while we're here."
Buck's eyebrows furrowed as he wondered if he should be angry. "I guess it beats sittin' around all day countin' the ants."
Chris's somber expression didn't ease. "We're going to be ridin' the fence line over night to make sure the wire ain't cut."
Though Buck's mind was a bit cloudy, he didn't have any trouble getting angry about that. "Why?" he demanded.
"Because it's a job and I don't think it's right for them folks to be runnin' over property that ain't theirs."
"You can say that after seein' what that devil wire did to JD?" Buck's voice rose along with his fury.
"If it hadn't been cut in the first place, JD would've seen it and he wouldn't have been hurt," Chris argued, keeping his voice down.
"He's right, Buck."
Buck turned to see that Nathan had silently come up behind him. Betrayal bit deep into Buck. "You're a healer and you can still say that?"
Nathan nodded. "Miz Jordan only strung the wire - the grangers cut it. Besides, a person's got a right to protect their property."
Buck closed his eyes a moment, trying to reconcile his bitter hatred toward the wire and the people responsible for putting it up. And how would JD feel when he learned his friends were protecting the very wire which had hurt him so badly? "I don't know. It still don't seem right somehow."
"Vin feels the same way," Nathan said quietly.
"He's gone," Chris interjected softly.
Buck and Nathan looked at him with twin looks of surprise.
"He rode out last night," Chris answered their unspoken question. "He'll be campin' close by. He said he'd stop by today sometime to check on JD."
Though Buck sensed there was something Chris wasn't telling him, he didn't have the energy to pursue it. "I won't be leavin'," Buck said, then added firmly, "but I don't know if I can help guard that wire neither."
"I understand," Chris said. "Now why don't both of you head down to eat. I'll stay with JD for a while."
Buck looked over at the boy and he curled his hands into fists. He still couldn't look at JD without hearing his agonized cries as the boy lay on the ground, the wire wrapped around him. Buck swallowed the block of anguish. As soon as he had some breakfast, he'd return. He wanted to be the first one the kid saw when he finally regained consciousness.
Vin shoved back his empty plate at the restaurant. After the fancy supper last night, it was nice to have some normal food - fried steak and potatoes, biscuits, eggs, and gravy. He sipped his coffee, trying to come up with a plan for the day. He'd go back to the Double J to see JD like he'd told Chris he would. Shaking his head, Vin still couldn't believe how gullible Chris, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan had been. A wolf was still a wolf even if she dressed in fancy clothes.
He tossed some coins on the table, then left the restaurant. Pausing on the boardwalk, he leaned against a post and wrapped his fingers around his gunbelt. He studied the folks moving up and down main street, intent on their errands, but stopping to visit and gossip now and again. It was a scene he'd observed in a hundred other little towns -Anders, Texas was no different.
After watching for a few minutes, Vin sighed and stepped down onto the street to the hitching post where Sire stood three-legged. Vin stuck his boot toe into the stirrup and swung his other leg over the saddle with practiced ease.
As much as Vin hated going back to Jordan's spread, he was more worried about JD. Maybe he had been too hasty. Restlessness plagued him as he wondered about Chris and the others working for the Jordans. His friends might very well be stepping into some trouble they couldn't handle while guarding the wire. Maybe Vin should've stayed with them. He remembered Dicky O'Shea and the trouble his gang had brought to the small wagon train. And with a flush of self-reproach, Vin remembered how he'd left his friends for a woman who could never be his....
He'd made a mistake then - he didn't want to make the same one again. Vin had an unsettled feeling in his gut that there was something else going on here, something running beneath the surface of this dispute. He had to return - he didn't want his friends thinking he'd abandoned them again. Hell, he'd swallowed his pride for lesser reasons. He needed to talk to Chris about his suspicions - Chris often had insights that Vin missed, and vice versa. Between the two of them and the rest of the Seven, maybe they could stop the war of the wire.
With his mind made up, his stomach stopped clenching so tightly. Satisfied that he'd made the right decision, Vin urged Sire down the street and in the direction of the Double J spread.
An hour later with the late morning sun shining on him, Vin paused near the place JD had been hurt so badly. From atop his horse, he could see numerous rust stains on the grass - JD's dried blood. Vin's mouth grew dry, realizing how close they'd come to losing the kid. Geezus, JD deserved to live and marry and raise a family, not ride with a footloose group of hired guns that courted death as readily as Buck courted a pretty woman. Once the boy was healed, Vin would leave - alone, just as he'd told Chris he would. The charge hanging over Vin was something he had to take care of, knowing he could still die by the rope if he couldn't find a witness to the murder. He had no right dragging his friends down with him.
He unscrewed the cap of his canteen and took a long drink of the lukewarm water. It soothed his parched throat, and he swirled some around in his mouth to ease the dryness, then swallowed.
"Hold it right there, mister!"
Vin froze, the canteen in one hand, the cap in the other. Sonuvabitch -he'd let down his guard.
Two men on horseback moved into his field of vision. At first, Vin thought they were Double J cowhands, but the well-oiled weapons and cold look in their eyes dispelled that notion. These men were hired guns.
"Put your hands up," one of them ordered.
Vin raised his arms slowly, still holding his open canteen. "You boys're makin' a big mistake."
The man holding the ivory-handled Colt snorted. "It's you who's made the mistake, mister. Who the hell are you?"
Vin shrugged, willing his heart to slow its frantic beating. "Just a stranger passin' through."
The other man, who held a Winchester and wore a scraggly beard, studied Vin too closely. "I seen him before, Mangus."
"Where?" Mangus demanded, brushing his thumb across his black mustache.
"Down El Paso way. He took in a friend of mine - this here fellah's a bounty hunter. Name of Tanner," the outlaw said, his features stony. His finger curled around the trigger and Vin's breath stuttered in his throat.
Mangus smiled, revealing even white teeth. "Take it easy, Lomax. Seems to me I recall hearing about him from an old friend of mine. He's not a bounty hunter anymore - in fact, he's on the same side of the law as us now. Isn't that right, Tanner?"
Vin had no choice but to play the game. "That's right. There's a paper on me for murder." He kept his features nonchalant. "Mind if I put away my canteen?"
Mangus studied him for a long moment. "Sure, go ahead."
Conscious of the two men's attention fastened on him, Vin replaced the canteen cover and wrapped the strap around the saddlehorn. He rested his hands on the pommel. "So what's goin' on?"
"Ain't none of your concern," Lomax retorted, then spit a brown wad of tobacco at the ground near Sire's front hooves.
Vin shrugged, forcing an indifference his tense muscles didn't possess. These men may hold the key to the puzzle he was trying to sort out. "Suit yourself. It's just that I've been lookin' for a job lately." He grinned. "You know, one that pays more'n a dollar a day and room and board."
"You any good with that mare's leg?" Mangus demanded.
"You any good with that purty Colt?" Vin said with a lazy drawl.
Mangus smiled. "I like you, Tanner. If you're serious about a job, I might have something that could interest you."
"You can't trust him," Lomax argued. "He could still be bounty hunting."
"Then I'd have to turn myself in," Vin said flatly, his gaze drilling into Lomax.
Mangus chuckled. "Come on, let's get back to the camp. We can discuss the particulars there."
"You boys figurin' on keepin' your guns on me the whole time?" Vin asked.
"Just because I like you doesn't mean I trust you." The mustached gunhand motioned with his revolver the direction he wanted Vin to ride. "You got to prove yourself first."
Vin nodded. "Sounds fair enough." He reined Sire around apprehensively. At least they hadn't disarmed him - that was a start. Besides, Vin was curious to hear about this offer.
As they rode, Vin pondered the mystery he'd run into. Did these men work for the Jordans or the grangers? If it was the Jordans, then why did Mrs. Jordan offer Chris and them a job? If it was the grangers, Chris had been right to place his trust in Mrs. Jordan, and Vin had been wrong.
Fifteen minutes later, they arrived at the entrance to a box canyon, and after a few more minutes of riding, Vin spotted a campfire and half a dozen men gathered around it. All of them appeared to be hired guns, too, which didn't surprise Vin. Now his only problem was going to be how to get away from them.
The desperadoes got to their feet to watch them approach with suspicious eyes. A couple of them laid a hand on their weapons.
"Who's he?" a man with an eyepatch demanded.
Vin recognized him from a wanted poster - Curly Hobbs. He looked around, finding two others he'd seen on papers in the sheriff's office in Four Corners - Sam Tate and Black Jack Roberts.
"His name's Tanner. I figure we can use him," Mangus said.
"Why? There's enough of us to take care of things," Roberts grumbled.
Mangus shook his head. "Situation's changed. There's some hired guns working for the Jordans now."
Vin's heart slammed against his ribs. That answered one question -these men worked for the grangers - but it also brought up another one. How had Mangus heard about Chris and the others so quickly? They must have someone feeding them information from the ranch. Who? The foreman Fuller? Or Maria the cook who probably overheard everything they'd talked about last night? Or one of the two dozen men who worked for Jordan?
The only two things Vin knew for certain were his friends would be walking into an ambush, and he had to bluff his way through this game or he wouldn't have a chance to warn them.
And suddenly he wished Ezra were here to give him some tips on bluffing.
Buck returned to spell Ezra who'd watched JD while Buck shaved and changed his clothes. The midafternoon sun slanted in through a slit in the curtains, warming the room, and a hot breeze stirred through the open window, raising the temperature even further. It was hard to tell if JD had a fever or was sweating from the unusual heat like the rest of them.
"Any change?" Buck asked Ezra quietly.
The gambler looked up from his game of solitaire, his expression somber. "He murmured something like 'look out', but other than that, he's been quiescent."
"Kwi- what?" Buck asked.
"Quiet," Ezra translated with a slight smile.
"Why didn't ya just say so?"
"I did." Ezra gathered his cards in his smooth, slender hands. "I shall send Josiah up next."
Buck shrugged. "Go ahead, but I ain't leavin' any more today. He's got to be comin' out of this real soon."
Ezra stood and his backbone popped audibly. He smiled apologetically. "Rigors of the trade."
Buck waved a hand and went to stand by the bed to look down at JD's pallid features. "C'mon, kid, wake up. You been asleep long enough."
As if JD heard him, he began to stir. At first, it was merely a twitch of an eyelid, then he moved his arm.
"Ezra," Buck whispered, afraid to break the spell of JD's awakening.
"I see," Ezra said from right beside Buck. "Come on, Mister Dunne. It is time to rejoin the world."
JD blinked, focusing on the two men above him and wishing whoever was in his head with the hammer would stop pounding so loudly. At first, it was too hard to concentrate to figure out who they were. In his mind's eye, he saw the taller man push him out of the way and take a saber across the chest for him. "Buck?"
Buck hunkered down beside the bed and laid his hand lightly on JD's arm. His bright smile was damn near painful to look at. "'Bout time you woke up, kid. We were gettin' a mite worried about you."
JD's mind felt hazy, cloaked in a heavy fog. "I...b-been sleepin'?"
"That you have, Mister Dunne."
JD switched his gaze to the man in the green coat. Ezra. "How l-long?"
"Over twenty-four hours," Buck replied. "I'll bet you're thirsty, aren't you?"
JD thought about that for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah...I am."
Ezra moved away and returned a few moments later with a glass of water. Buck helped JD sit up and Ezra lifted the glass to his lips. It wasn't cold, but it tasted good. He drank most of it before Ezra pulled it away.
"Go easy there, JD," Buck warned. "We don't want you gettin' sick by puttin' too much down there right away."
"I'll go get the others," Ezra said.
JD watched him leave the room. With his thirst somewhat satisfied, JD became aware of the aching in his body. His body felt like he'd been run over by a train and heat streaked through him like he'd spent too much time in the sun. "What h-happened?"
Buck appeared worried which made JD worry.
"It's all right," Buck said, as if sensing his fretting. "You got into some barbed wire."
JD blinked and the images replayed through his mind. He remembered racing with Buck across open range, then suddenly Buck wasn't there and JD's horse whinnied and stopped so fast JD couldn't stay in the saddle. Then there was pain - flames of agony all over him - flaying his skin.
"Take it easy," Buck soothed, laying a hand against JD's hair. "You remember, don't you?"
JD nodded. "I got thrown."
Buck's jaw muscle clenched.
"We were racin'...and you s-stopped." The accusation in JD's voice was like a hot poker in Buck's gut. "Why'd you...stop?"
Buck's chest felt like someone had tied a rope around it. "I knew I couldn't beat you - you were too damned fast for me."
"Why...d-didn't you t-tell me there was...b-barbed wire?" JD struggled to ask.
"I didn't know, kid. Honest to God, I didn't see it neither." Buck could barely speak around his heart which had settled in his throat.
"It hurts, B-Buck...hurts s-so damned much."
Buck stroked the boy's thick hair like a father would soothe his son. "I know it does, JD, I know it does. But you're gonna be just fine." He didn't know if he spoke the words for JD's or his own benefit.
The door opened and Nathan, then Josiah, Chris, and Ezra entered.
Nathan went around to the other side of the bed and laid a hand on JD's forehead. He smiled. "Looks like your fever broke. How're you feelin'?"
"He says it hurts," Buck replied sharply. "We got to give him some laudanum or somethin'."
"All right, JD, I'm going to have you drink some more water, then I'll give you somethin' for the pain, okay?" Nathan said.
"'Kay," JD replied, sounding too much like a little boy.
Josiah handed Nathan a glass of water, and this time Nathan held it to JD's lips while Buck held the boy up. JD finished the whole thing and whimpered slightly when Buck lowered him back to the pillow.
Nathan filled a spoon with laudanum. "Here ya go, JD. This'll help you sleep so's you can heal."
JD accepted the medicine without a word, but grimaced as he swallowed. JD looked around and noticed the others in the room. A slight but genuine smile lifted his nearly colorless lips. "Chris, Josiah, g-glad you're here." His eyes closed, then a moment later they flashed open. "Vin. Where's...V-Vin?"
Buck tensed and sent a helpless look to Chris.
"He's busy right now, JD, but he'll come visit after you get some sleep," Chris said gently.
Buck narrowed his eyes, but was glad Chris hadn't told him the truth. Later, when JD was stronger, he'd tell the kid what was going on. That is, if JD ever forgave him. The metallic taste of remorse filled his mouth. Or if he could forgive himself.
JD's eyes closed as he drifted off to sleep.
Nathan nodded. "He'll be just fine now. The sleep'll be good for him, help him get his strength back." He glanced at Buck. "Why don't you go get some sleep? Me and Josiah can sit with him for a time."
Buck drew away from JD as if he'd been burned. "All right." He stood and grabbed his hat, wanting to escape the memory of accusation in JD's tortured eyes. Though aware of his friends' surprise, Buck quickly escaped the room and hurried down the stairs as vomit rose in his throat. Outside on the porch, he hurried to a corner and took deep breaths to press the bitterness back down.
JD blamed him for what happened and Buck couldn't dispute his guilt. He shouldn't have let the kid race hellbent for leather across unfamiliar land. JD may not have understood, but Buck was experienced enough to know that unknown land meant unknown dangers.
"You okay, Buck?"
Buck whirled around to face Chris, nearly losing the control he'd just regained. He sucked in a deep breath to steady his nerves. "I was until you sneaked up on me!"
Chris grinned wryly and shook his head. "You're the second person to accuse me of sneakin' lately." His humor faded. "What's goin' on with you and JD?"
Buck looked away. "What d'ya mean?"
"You know damn good and well what I mean. You were about as white as JD when we came in the room."
Buck dragged a hand through his thick hair. "I was just worried is all."
"Don't give me that bull. Somethin's wrong between you two."
Buck turned and met Chris's too damned perceptive eyes. "It ain't any of your concern."
"Seems to me I've said that to you more'n a few times." Chris had the humility to look abashed. "Maybe there's somethin' I can do to help."
"Ain't nothin' anybody can do unless you can turn time back to yesterday mornin'."
Chris narrowed his eyes. "It ain't your fault, Buck."
Damn, sometimes they were too much alike. Buck took a deep shaky breath. "Yeah, it is. I knew better than to race like that. If I'd been actin' like a growed man, instead of a kid, JD wouldn't have gotten into the wire."
"Well, I gotta admit, sometimes you do act younger'n JD, but most of the time that ain't a bad thing." Chris shrugged self-consciously. "Sometimes I wish I could be more that way. Hell, Buck, it was a nice day and you and JD were havin' some fun. That ain't a reason to be whippin' yourself."
"Tell JD that," Buck said, his voice so low Chris had to lean forward to hear him.
Chris frowned. "JD don't blame you."
The pain in Buck's expression told Chris otherwise. "He's hurtin' right now, Buck. He don't know what he's sayin'."
Buck laughed, but there was only self-loathing in the sound. "Oh, he knew exactly what he was sayin', 'cause he's right."
Chris took a step toward his old friend, and laid a hand on Buck's shoulder. He felt the muscle tense beneath his palm. "Wait until JD's feelin' better. I think you're gonna find out that he don't blame you at all. Fact is, I got a feelin' he's gonna be feelin' mighty guilty himself for doin' somethin' so stupid."
"It wasn't stupid," Buck shot back, anger sparking his midnight blue eyes.
"That's right, it wasn't," Chris said softly.
Buck blinked, caught in Chris's trap. A smile twitched his lips. "Damnit, Chris, you're gettin' too good at that."
Chris smiled. "I learned from the best."
Buck laughed and slapped Chris's shoulder. "I guess you did."
"Go get some sleep. Things always look better when you're not dead on your feet."
Buck's face suddenly appeared exhausted. "I think I'll go do that." He paused and studied Chris a moment. "Thanks, pard."
"Come get me when JD wakes up."
Chris nodded, then watched Buck stagger off toward the bunkhouse. That was one problem solved - the other one still remained.
Where the hell was Vin?