Old Debts and New Friends, part 2

Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

The sun hadn’t even begun to peek over the eastern horizon when the six men entered the livery. A couple lanterns lit the interior giving the men scant light to saddle their horses and tie their gear on.

Buck yawned widely. "I should be curled up to some sweet-smellin’ thing right now instead of lookin’ at all your ugly faces."

"No one’s forcin’ you to go," JD said.

"Yeah, you’d like that, wouldn’t ya? You go off on some wild west adventure by yourself and you’re bound to get in all kinds of trouble. Then what’re you gonna do?"

JD shrugged innocently. "I don’t know, Buck. Why, it’s a downright miracle how I made it all the way to Four Corners by myself." He winked at Josiah.

Josiah smiled slightly, glad for the diversion. He’d spent a restless night tossing and turning as his mind relived the death of Jeff Barkley. Josiah had killed men – more than he cared to recall – but Jeff had been the youngest. Looking at JD, he could almost imagine him as Jeff Barkley. Jeff had been full of piss and vinegar, too, and ready to fight a righteous cause, just like JD had recklessly gotten involved in the elder Barkley’s problems.

Before he joined up with Chris and the others, Josiah had given up on righteous causes. Nobody did anything without an ulterior motive – hadn’t that realization been the destroyer of his faith? A faith he was slowly starting to regain. Helping Sam Barkley wouldn’t bring back Jeff, but it might remove a festering growth in Josiah’s soul.

The livery door opened and a man’s faint outline could be seen entering.

"Good morning," Ezra greeted in a gravelly voice as he neared them. He wore his buckskin jacket along with a pair of brown trousers not nearly as fancy as his normal haberdashery.

"Heading out to Tascosa already?" Vin asked wryly.

"Unfortunately not," Ezra replied. "I decided an opportunity to broaden my horizons should not be spurned. Perhaps doing some menial labor, I shall divine more respect for, shall we say, cow-hands and their chosen profession."

JD poked Buck in the ribs, and whispered, "What’d he say?"

"He’s goin’ with us," Buck replied.

JD grinned widely. "I’m glad you’re comin’ with us, Ezra."

The gambler inclined his head slightly, but Josiah could tell JD’s words had touched him. Ezra was a man full of contradictions – an accomplished cardsharp and con man, yet with a streak of vulnerability a mile wide that reminded Josiah of a small boy. Though Josiah had admired Ezra’s mother like a man admires a beautiful woman, he suspected she hadn’t been a very good mother to her son.

Ezra looked over at Chris, a question in his eyes.

A corner of Chris’s lips turned upward.. "Welcome aboard."

Ezra’s entire body seemed to untense, and Josiah realized Ezra hadn’t been sure how his change of heart would be accepted by the others, especially Chris. It was just another example of the insecurity Ezra normally kept hidden behind his self-assured mask.

A few minutes later, the men rode out of Medino with Chris and Vin in the lead. A coral glow spread across the land as the seven men traveled toward Barkley’s ranch. With the sun came a warming of the air, and the broadening light illuminated the bare landscape that was dotted with chaparral and scrub oak. Tufts of buffalo grass stuck up from the sandy soil, and an occasional ground cactus littered the terrain.

The appearance of a group of cottonwoods and an oasis of green heralded the appearance of a decent-sized ranch. The house, as well as the bunkhouse and a handful of outbuildings, however, had seen better days. As had the sagging corral fences that were bleached white by the southwestern desert sun.

Josiah’s shoulders tightened, remembering how neat the place had looked five years ago. It seemed time had a way of touching things as well as people, and usually not for the better.

As they entered the yard, a brown mutt raced out to greet them, and the men’s horses jerked nervously at their bits.

Barkley emerged from the house, a rifle held in his veined hands. He watched them silently, his eyes narrowed, but he kept the weapon lowered. "Buck, get over here."

Buck’s head snapped up, and it took him a moment to realize he and the dog shared the same name. JD snorted with laughter.

The canine Buck joined its master, and sat down on his haunches, its tongue lolling.

The seven men drew to a stop in a line stretched across the front of the porch.

"You men are goin’ the wrong direction – Tascosa is north, not south," Barkley stated.

"We all agreed to help you take your cattle to El Paso," JD spoke up.

Barkley’s jaundiced gaze slid across them, and settled on Josiah. "Why the hell’d you come, Sanchez? Killin’ one Barkley wasn’t good enough for you?"

Josiah’s fingers tightened on the saddlehorn, but he kept his voice steady. "It was self-defense, pure and simple." He shifted, the saddle creaking below his weight. "But maybe I could’ve just wounded him. I don’t know."

"Don’t tell me you got an attack of conscience ‘cause men like you ain’t got a conscience."

"Now you hold on, Mr. Barkley," Nathan broke in. "Josiah’s a good man. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be here right now."

"Nathan’s right, Mr. Barkley," JD said. "There ain’t none of us that want to see you run off your land."

A woman came through the doorway, wiping her hands on a stained apron tied around her waist. "Are these the ones you told me about, Sam?"

Barkley nodded without looking at her. "Yep." He motioned to Josiah. "He’s the one who killed Jeff."

Mrs. Barkley looked at Josiah, but her expression appeared more sad than condemning. "Why’d you come here?"

"We’d like to sign on for the cattle drive," Josiah replied.

She studied each man cautiously, but when her gaze settled on JD, her eyes widened and her hand flew to her mouth. As if sleepwalking, she went down the steps and stood beside JD’s horse as she stared up at the young man. "How old are you, son?"

"Twenty, ma’am," he replied respectfully, though with an undercurrent of wariness.

"A year older than our Jeff when he died," she said softly. "You look just like him." After a few more moments of quiet contemplation, she returned to her husband’s side on the porch.

Barkley clearly wasn’t sure if he could trust them, and Josiah couldn’t blame him. If their roles were reversed, Josiah wasn’t so sure he could stomach a man who killed his son, either.

"How do I know you aren’t working for your old employer?" Barkley demanded.

Surprise surged through Josiah. "Connor’s still here?"

"Why should he leave? Thanks to you, he owns most of the land around Medino now. Only me and one other rancher have been able to hold out this long," Barkley said flatly.

"I’m sorry, Mr. Barkley," Josiah said sincerely, but knowing his words meant little.

Chris’s big black horse stamped and swished its tail, and Nathan’s mount snorted, shaking its mane. Leather squeaked and bridles jangled in the silence that stretched taut in the midmorning sun-drenched yard.

Mrs. Barkley broke the impasse, and her chin lifted in determination. "They’re our only hope, Sam."

After a moment, the older man’s shoulders sagged and he nodded. "Millie’s right. You’re our only chance to save this place. You can throw your things in the bunkhouse, then meet me at the corral."

"Excuse me," Ezra spoke up.

Barkley turned to him.

"I have no wish to appear avaricious, but what will we be paid for our services?" Ezra asked.

"The seven of you can split twenty five percent of the profit."

"Thirty five," Ezra countered without missing a beat.

Barkley’s brows furrowed. "Thirty and that’s final."

Ezra smiled. "It’s a deal, Mr. Barkley."

Chris rubbed his chin, hiding a smile. Leave it to Ezra to take care of the monetary side of the job. What the hell, he’d gotten them five percent more. He reined his horse around to head toward the bunkhouse and the others fell into line behind him. Dismounting in front of the long sagging porch, Chris felt a damp nose against his palm. He patted the dog’s head.

"Hey, there, Buck," Chris said with a grin.

The animal wagged its tail and followed him into the bunkhouse.

"Looks like you got a new friend," Vin said, tossing his saddlebags on an upper bunk.

Chris put his gear on the lower one. "I wonder if this Buck likes the ladies, too."

"At least he comes by that animal magnetism naturally," JD interjected.

"Hey, mine’s natural," Buck said indignantly.

"A little too natural," Vin said in a low voice that only Chris could hear.

Chris swallowed a chuckle, and looked around their temporary quarters. He figured they’d only be there a few days while the cattle were rounded up, then they’d be camping under the stars. Cobwebs stretched across the ceiling corners and a layer of dirt coated everything.

Ezra slapped his thin mattress and a cloud of dust billowed around him. He sneezed and waved a hand in front of his nose. "I must say the housekeeping leaves a bit to be desired."

"Mrs. Barkley probably got more important things to do than keep this place clean," Vin defended.

"That’s right, wizened crones tend to be more adept at handling a rifle than a broom," Ezra said with a devilish twinkle in his green eyes.

Vin grinned sheepishly. "All right, so she reminds me some of Nettie Wells."

"Too bad she don’t have a niece," Buck said, giving JD a slap on the back.

JD’s face flushed. "How was I to know Casey would clean up as good as she did?"

Buck shook his head pityingly. "You got to start bein’ more noticeable, JD."

"I believe the word is percipient," Ezra corrected.

"Per-what?" Buck demanded.

"It means discerning," Ezra explained. "Noticeable would describe your impression on the fairer sex."

"Hey, now," Buck began in a low voice. "No need to be gettin’ so personal there, Ezra."

"It means that women notice you," he clarified.

"Oh, well, that ain’t nothin’ new," Buck stated with a magnanimous wave of his hand.

"C’mon, let’s go find out where we start," Chris spoke up.

Buck tossed his stuff on the bunk below JD’s, then followed the others out of their quarters. A few minutes later, Sam Barkley joined the seven men near the corral. He deliberately kept his gaze off of Josiah, and focused on JD. Buck frowned, uneasy that the older man seemed to take such an interest in the youngest member of the group. It didn’t help knowing that JD was a ringer for his dead son. It seemed Chris noticed Barkley’s attention, too, if his scowl was any indication.

"Most of the cattle are in a canyon about a mile north of here," Barkley said. "Since I ain’t been able to hire enough help lately, the first thing we gotta do is get the calves and yearlings branded."

"Why?" Chris asked.

Barkley shifted his attention to him. "Why what?" he asked irritably.

"Why haven’t you been able to hire any help?"

Barkley swallowed, his adam’s apple bobbing up and down. "Connor’s men have been settin’ up accidents."

"Like what?" Buck demanded.

"That’s in the past. It ain’t any of your concern," Barkley snapped.

"The hell it isn’t," Chris stated, his voice cold enough to give a body pneumonia. "We already know there’s men out gunnin’ for you. In order for us to be prepared, we got to know what we’re up against."

Buck nodded in agreement, and he could see the others straightening, listening closely to the less-than-friendly exchange. They could always count on Chris to get everything out in the open. If Buck were Barkley surrounded by seven men, one of whom could scald a cat with his deadly tone, he wouldn’t hesitate to spill his guts.

Barkley and Chris parried hostile stares, but the ranchman finally relented. "Connor’s determined to get my land one way or another. He’s had my water poisoned – lost nearly a hundred head of cattle and one of my men; strung barbed wire through a narrow pass; started a rockslide in a box canyon." Barkley’s face reddened with rage, and his fingers curled into fists. "He even burned some grassland, then shot anyone who tried to put it out. That was the last straw."

"So what you’re sayin’ is that Connor’ll do anything, including commit murder, to get this place," Chris said.

Barkley nodded stiffly. "And you can bet he’s gonna try to stop us from getting the herd to Fort Davis."

Chris’s jaw muscle clenched and he glanced at Vin, who merely met his gaze with a steady look. Buck recognized Chris’s I-told-you-so look, and he wasn’t surprised at Vin’s casual response. Nothing much riled the ex-bounty hunter, not even Chris’s infamous glares.

"That just means we got to keep a sharp lookout for them," Josiah said.

Barkley spun around to face Josiah. "You used to work for the son-of-a-bitch. What’s he gonna try next?"

Josiah shrugged. "A devil can take on many faces."

"And I’m looking into one of’em right now!"

Nathan grabbed hold of Barkley’s arm. "There ain’t no call for you to be takin’ your mad out on Josiah. He bein’ here should be enough to convince you he’s not the same man he was five years ago."

The rancher leaned close to Nathan. "My son is dead because of him, and I got every right to hate him."

Nathan released Barkley, and shook his head sadly. "The only person you’re gonna hurt is yourself by keepin’ so much hate inside. It’s gonna end up destroyin’ you if you don’t let it go."

Barkley kept his gaze on Nathan for a long moment, then spun away and strode about five yards away, keeping his back to the men.

Uneasy silence surrounded the seven men, and JD couldn’t help but feel responsible for all the bad feelings that filled the air. Adjusting his hat nervously, he walked over to join the rancher.

"We’re real sorry about your boy, Mr. Barkley," JD said in a low voice. "And ain’t nobody sorrier than Josiah, but no matter what anyone does or how anyone feels, your son is dead. And nobody can change that."

Barkley took a deep breath and turned to JD. "A father knows his son, and I knowed Jeff wasn’t a saint. Fact is, I wish he’d been more like you, JD."

JD started, unsure how to respond.

Barkley laid a hand on JD’s shoulder. "Whenever I look at you, I see Jeff. Like Millie said, he looked a lot like you – dark hair and eyes – a handsome boy. But he had a wild streak I never knew how to tame. I don’t see that same thing in you, though."

JD shrugged in embarrassment. "Wish you’d tell Buck – he still treats me like a snot-nosed kid."

"It’s only ‘cause he cares, son." He took a deep breath. "We’d better get to work."

They rejoined the others.

"We got a lot of work to do before we head out," Barkley said to the men. "We’d best get at it."

Buck watched as JD’s youthful face glowed with enthusiasm. Had he ever been that green? Reluctantly, he recalled the excitement of his first cattle drive, before he learned of the many dangers involved in the job. Buck would have to make sure JD didn’t learn those hazards the hard way.

And he’d keep an eye on Barkley – he didn’t like the way he was doting on JD. Something just didn’t seem right.

An hour later, the men rode into a grassy canyon where a whole herd of bawling cattle met their eyes. Barkley had driven a buckboard that contained the branding equipment, as well as a barrel of water and a few bags of food that his wife had thrown together for the eight men.

The older man climbed down from the wagon. "The remuda is mixed in with the cattle. You’d each best pick out about a couple horses first and get them separated out so’s you got an extra when your own mount gets tired."

JD glanced questioningly at Buck. "What’s a remuda?"

"A remuda’s the extra horses that each man’s going to use on the drive. You can’t expect your own horse to work eighteen hours a day," Buck replied.

JD’s eyes saucered. "Eighteen hours?"

Buck’s lips twitched with a barely restrained smile. "You didn’t think this was goin’ to be a cakewalk like that sheriff job in Four Corners, did you?"

JD scowled. "Bein’ a lawman wasn’t easy. I got a few scars to prove it."

Buck’s humor disappeared – they had almost lost JD on more than one occasion because of his overzealousness in playing sheriff. Good friends were hard to come by, and Buck would be damned if he lost another one because of a foolish act of bravado. "Yeah, and if you try any fool stunts out here, I’ll hogtie you and you’ll finish the drive in the back of the chuck wagon."

"You ain’t gonna -- " JD began.

"Try me, kid." Buck leveled a stare at him.

JD narrowed his eyes, and his jaw muscle clenched, but he didn’t argue any further.

Buck looked up at the others already picking out their extra horses. "C’mon, JD, or they’re gonna get all the good ponies."

They galloped off, and Buck headed toward a strawberry roan he picked out. Unlooping his lasso, he twirled it above his head. Standing in his stirrups, he tossed the loop and it settled neatly around the animal’s neck. Buck grimaced at the reawakened ache in his injured leg, but shrugged it aside. Hell, he’d hurt worse after that night in Tombstone. Or was it Dodge City? It didn’t matter – only the memory of those amazing feats he and those two fine ladies had accomplished did.

As he led the roan back toward the wagon, he spotted JD roping a paint pony. He had a lot of growing to do, and Buck was damn sure going to make sure he had a chance to do it. Besides, there were some women he wanted to introduce the boy to….

After the remuda was settled in a corral fashioned with ropes strung between four stakes about five feet tall, the men began their work in earnest. As each man dragged a bawling calf or protesting yearling in, Josiah and Nathan held down the animal while Barkley branded it. The smell of burning hair and flesh filled the air around the fire used to keep the irons hot.

Later, after hauling in a couple dozen unbranded calves, Chris took a break on a slight rise overlooking the milling herd. He shoved his hat off his head and let it hang down his back, held by the thin leather cord. Hooking his right leg around the saddlehorn, he stuck a cheroot between his lips and lit it. Chris took a long drag, and the tobacco’s sharp tang bit his lungs with welcome familiarity. Uneasiness dogged him, and the hairs at the back of his neck hadn’t settled down since he’d set foot on Barkley’s land.

It shouldn’t surprise him – they already knew Connor and his men were out to break Barkley. But there seemed to be something else, something he couldn’t put his finger on. Maybe it had something to do with Barkley’s interest in JD. Whatever it was, apprehension was going to be riding his shoulders this whole drive.

Chris shook aside his restlessness, and concentrated on the riders who worked the cattle. Vin and Buck moved with the practiced ease of skilled cow-hands, and JD was catching on fast although Chris had noticed he missed a loop now and again. Nathan and Josiah worked good as a team, and though Barkley largely ignored Josiah, he fell into a efficient routine with them.

Ezra, however, had managed to confound Chris again. He wouldn’t have thought the fancy gambler would know which end of the rope to toss, but he could throw a loop with nearly as much expertise as Vin and Buck.

A rider approached, and Chris watched silently as the subject of his puzzled thoughts joined him.

The southerner took a deep breath. "Ah, to inhale air unpolluted with the stench of those repugnant beasts."

"You sure caught on to this menial labor pretty fast," Chris remarked dryly.

"Yes, amazing, isn’t it?" He brushed at his buckskin jacket, and a brownish cloud arose around him like a dust devil. Sneezing, he gave up and rested his crossed wrists on the saddlehorn. His shoulders slumped.

They sat in companionable silence for a long moment.

"Why’d you come with us?" Chris asked.

"I had nothing better to do," Ezra replied.

"Yeah, and you gamble for charity, too."

Ezra chuckled. "Sometimes it appears so." He sobered, and narrowed his gaze as he studied the tableau laid out before them. "I had the misfortune to drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Kansas. It was either that or remain in a town that had grown increasingly hostile to my attempts to bring the word of the Lord to them."

"One of your swindles?"

The southerner arched one dusty brow. "One of the better ones I have partaken in. I merely had to stand at the front of a group and call down the wrath of the Lord with fire and brimstone, then pass the hat. However, after I attempted to save the soul of the mayor’s daughter, I was faced with the wrath of the townsfolk in the form of hot tar and feathers. To escape such indignity, I joined a herd moving north."

"And you stayed with them the whole way?"

Ezra hesitated, then nodded. "Once we arrived in Dodge City, I found myself surrounded by a plethora of bad gamblers who practically begged me to take their money."

"You could’ve left the herd at any time," Chris pressed.

"Yes, I suppose I could have." Ezra’s gaze met his evenly, and again, Ezra and his unique sense of honor baffled him.

He returned his attention to the scene spread out below them. "Keep your eyes open, Ezra. We’re courtin’ trouble."

"Aren’t we always?"

One corner of Chris’s lips quirked upward. "Guess it’s our destiny, just like that little fellah Steele said."

"We never did get our portion of the royalties for that piece of literature."

Chris snorted. "If that was literature, I’m Wyatt Earp." He finished his cheroot, then tossed it away, wincing slightly at the pain at the back of his hand where the nail had sliced the skin. He slipped his right foot back into the stirrup. "I suppose we’d best get back down there."

"Lead on, Mr. Earp."

Chris flashed him a sardonic grin and the two men rejoined the others.

Part 3