Old Debts and New Friends, part 3

Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

That evening, the men returned to the ranch sore and exhausted from the backbreaking labor. They dismounted by the corral, and Buck’s injured leg nearly collapsed beneath him.

Nathan reached out to steady him. "I’ll take a look at that when we get to the bunkhouse."

Buck didn’t argue, but gritted his teeth and finished caring for his horse. Buck, the canine, joined them, garnering pats from all seven men, including a reluctant Ezra, then the dog raced off to chase a rabbit.

Limping markedly, Buck followed the others back to the bunkhouse. Nathan and JD flanked him in case his leg gave out on him again, and though Buck didn’t acknowledge it, he appreciated their concern. Chris’s anxious sidelong glances told Buck he was worried about him, too. But then, much as Chris hated to admit it, it was his nature to worry about his friends.

They entered the long building, and JD immediately climbed into his bunk. Ezra pressed his palms against his lower back, and stretched his spine, which popped audibly. Josiah rested an arm on an upper bunk, and closed his eyes. Buck hobbled over to a chair and lowered himself into it, stretching out his injured leg with a groan. Vin and Chris sank on to chairs beside the long wooden table. Nathan dug his medical supplies out of his saddlebag and knelt down beside Buck’s leg to check the healing wound.

Vin glanced over at Chris and motioned to the bandanna wrapped around his hand. "What happened to you?"

Chris shrugged. "Just a cut."

Vin accepted his reply with a weary nod. He drew back his shoulders, grimaced, then smiled wryly. "All that town livin’s made me soft."

Chris chuckled. "You and me both, pard."

"I hurt in places I didn’t even know I had," JD said plaintively from his prone position.

"Welcome to the wild west, kid," Buck remarked as he leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

Nathan finished his exam. "It ain’t re-opened, so I figure it’s just gonna be sore for a time."

"I coulda told you that," Buck said.

A knock on the door interrupted them, and it opened to reveal old man Barkley bearing a huge kettle that immediately filled the bunkhouse with mouthwatering smells. Mrs. Barkley carried a plate stacked high with bread, and a jar of apple butter.

JD jumped down from the upper bunk, and Chris noticed he swayed for a moment. It would take the boy some time to get used to the grueling work. Hell, Chris had worked cattle before, and it was going to take him a little time to grow accustomed to it again. Though herding cattle wasn’t Chris’s idea of making a living, his conscience approved of it more than hiring out his gun. Of course, he’d probably end up doing both for this job.

Josiah straightened, opening his eyes. Vin stood and moved to help with the heavy kettle. They set the food in the center of the table, and Mrs. Barkley lifted down a stack of dishes from a shelf on the wall.

"I cleaned up some in here while you were all working," Mrs. Barkley said as she arranged the plates. "If I’d have known you were signing on, I would’ve made sure your mattresses were aired and the cobwebs brushed out of here." She sighed heavily. "Seems I just don’t have the gumption I used to."

"Don’t you worry about it, ma’am," Vin reassured. "Why, this is downright elegant compared to a lot of places I stayed at."

Ezra cleared his throat. "I wouldn’t doubt that, Mr. Tanner."

Chris leaned a shoulder against the wall and studied Sam Barkley as his wife placed seven plates on the table and set out the silverware.

"When did your last man quit?" Chris asked the rancher.

"‘Bout a month ago," Barkley replied. "Jasper had been with me for nigh onto fifteen years, but didn’t want to leave his wife a widow. I don’t blame him."

"A man’s got a right to watch out for his family."

"Yeah," Barkley muttered, his bitter gaze fixed on Josiah.

"If Josiah said he shot your son in self-defense, you can believe him," Chris stated in a low voice.

Barkley returned his attention to Chris. "You know him long?"

"Long enough."

The older man’s brows beetled. "I got a feeling you done your share of killin’, too."

"Only when I didn’t have a choice." Chris kept his voice devoid of emotion.

"Fact is, I been watchin’ all of you, and I’d say everyone except maybe JD ain’t strangers to hiring out your guns."

Chris shrugged. "Don’t let JD’s looks fool you – he’s been in his share of scrapes, and he’s still among the living."

Barkley remained silent for a moment as he continued to study JD who was being ribbed by Buck – whatever Buck said had caused the kid’s face to flush.

"He got any kin?" Barkley asked.

Chris didn’t have to ask who he meant. "He don’t talk much about his past," he replied vaguely.

"How’d he hook up with the likes of you and the others?"

"Askin’ a question like that could be dangerous to your health."

Barkley’s lips thinned to a grim line. "He seems like a decent kid. I’d hate to have him turn out like Sanchez."

"He could do a lot worse."

"He could do a lot better."

Chris glanced at him questioningly.

"Me and Millie had three boys – one of’em was born dead, another died of typhoid when he was five, then Jeff. I got no one left to leave this place to."

Chris hid his astonishment behind a bland mask. "You sayin’ what I think you are?"

"I can read a man pretty well, and what I see in that boy I like."

"Have you talked to JD about this?"

Barkley shook his head. "Thought there’d be time enough later on the drive after we got to know each other a little better."

Barkley wouldn’t wait long – the boy had grit and courage, more than Chris had first given him credit for. His gaze slipped over to Buck, and his eyes narrowed. What if JD accepted Barkley’s offer – how would Buck take it? Not very well, Chris thought, knowing that was an understatement.

Still, the life Barkley could give JD beat the hell out of the life he had with him and the other five men. And hadn’t Chris himself tried to keep JD from getting involved with them at that Seminole village? He glanced at Mrs. Barkley who was speaking to JD, a maternal hand on his shoulder.

Though Chris had been ravenous a few minutes ago, his appetite was now gone. He should be happy for JD, but his stomach tightened with the thought of leaving JD here when the rest of them continued on to Tascosa. Provided they all lived through the next month.

Millie Barkley joined her husband. "Let’s go and let these boys eat before they fall asleep on their feet," she said.

Barkley leaned close to Chris. "I’m hopin’ you won’t be mentionin’ our conversation to anyone, ‘specially JD."

"It’s not my place," Chris replied solemnly.

The two men exchanged a look, then the Barkleys left the men alone.

"You comin’ to eat, Chris?" JD called out.

Chris smiled at the boy who was seated by the table, surrounded by the odd assortment of men. "I’d better if I plan on getting anything."

He sat down across from Buck, who studied him closely. "What were you and the old man talkin’ about so serious-like over there?"

Chris removed his hat and hung it on his chair. "Didn’t involve women, horses, or guns, so I doubt you’d be interested."

Ezra passed him a plate filled with a stew that was more meat and vegetables than gravy, and Chris’s stomach growled in response.

"My sentiments exactly," Ezra commented.

Shaking his head in tolerant humor, Chris dug into his meal. He could feel Buck’s uncanny gaze on him, and knew Buck recognized his lie of omission. But he wasn’t about to tell him that the boy he’d damn near adopted might not be with them for much longer.

After an early breakfast of biscuits, gravy, and a few gallons of coffee, JD and his companions were in the saddle and continuing where they’d left off the day before. Today, however, every man took a turn as rastler instead of Josiah and Nathan working the muscle-straining job the whole time.

It was mid-afternoon when JD’s turn came up to wrestle the calves and yearlings to the ground. The sun beat down mercilessly on his shoulders, and sweat stained his back and armpits. Thankfully, he was partnered with Vin who, with his usual patience, taught him a few tricks in bringing down cattle that weighed a helluva lot more than the two of them combined.

Ezra brought in a calf that looked almost full-grown and JD swallowed hard. Vin took the flank, reaching over the calf’s back and grabbing a couple handfuls of skin, then leaned back and flipped the young cow on its side. He caught the top foreleg and held it, while JD took hold of the top hind leg and pulled it backward, stretching it out while he braced the other back leg with his foot. Ezra kept the rope pulled taut to help the two men hold down the bawling calf.

Barkley brought a red-hot branding iron over and JD felt his foot slipping from the calf’s hind leg. He shifted just as Barkley laid the iron on the young animal’s side, and the calf kicked out of JD’s hold. His cloven hoof caught JD in the gut, punching the air from his lungs and dazing him with an explosion of pain.

Vin rolled away from the scrambling calf, and Ezra quickly dragged the wild calf away from him and JD.

Vin scurried over to JD, whose arms were wrapped around his middle and his knees drawn up to his chest. He laid a hand on his shoulder. "JD, you okay?"

JD tried to suck in some air, but his lungs didn’t seem to work. Just as he figured he’d never breathe again, the air tumbled into his lungs, making him gasp, which made his ribs protest. He groaned.

"Ezra, get Nathan," Vin called out.

Barkley knelt down on the other side of JD. "He hurt bad?"

Vin’s brow creased in worry as he shrugged impatiently. "Feel like you got a broken rib, JD?"

"Don’t know," he managed to say. "Never had one."

Nathan, followed by Ezra, Buck, Chris, and Josiah galloped into the branding area. The healer dismounted before his horse came to a stop, and he hurried over to JD as Vin moved over to make room for him.

"Let me look at ya, JD," Nathan said.

"Get outta my way," Buck demanded, nearly shoving Barkley away from JD. Oblivious to the pain in his healing leg, he knelt down beside JD and laid a hand on his shoulder. "You’re gonna be okay, kid. Nathan’ll take right good care of you." He glared at Nathan, as if it was his fault JD’d been hurt. "He is gonna be all right, ain’t he?"

Nathan eased JD’s shirt down over his chest and nodded in relief. "Looks like he was real lucky – just bruised."

"Looks like you don’t have to strain yourself comin’ up with somethin’ nice to say at my funeral yet," JD managed to say with a weak grin.

Something flickered across Buck’s face – something between soul-clenching fear and gut-wrenching anger. "What did I say about your fool stunts, kid." He shook his forefinger at him. "Don’t you go scarin’ me like that again or I’m liable to get good and mad. And you ain’t gonna like it if I do."

Buck pushed himself to his feet, and limped off. He grabbed his gray’s reins from Chris’s outstretched hand and wheeled his horse around to trot back toward the herd.

"What the hell’s his problem?" Barkley demanded, his glare following Buck’s hasty retreat.

"Don’t mind him," JD said, frustration edging his voice. "He blows up like that all the time."

From atop his big black, Chris’s jaw muscle tightened. Buck was gonna smother the boy if he wasn’t careful, and that didn’t bode well for JD sticking with them. JD was like any other kid his age, trying to prove himself and he couldn’t do that if he was ambushed every step of the way. Even if Buck did mean well.

"Why don’t you go take a break, JD," Barkley suggested. "One of the others can help Tanner." He glanced at Ezra. "How ‘bout you, Standish? You ain’t had your turn at rastlin’ yet."

Ezra straightened his shoulders. "A gentleman does not stoop to such common labor."

"But a cow-hand does," Chris retorted with a faint smile and a twinkle in his eyes.

Ezra’s indignant expression brought laughter from his surrounding friends. JD wrapped an arm around his torso and his chuckle turned into a grimace.

"Come on, JD, let’s get you out of the sun," Barkley said, gently taking hold of his arm.

Nathan, on JD’s other side, helped him over to a miserly piece of shade.

Chris watched as Nathan rejoined them, but Barkley stayed a few more moments with JD. He said something to the boy, which brought a proud smile to JD’s face. Chris had a feeling Barkley was congratulating him on a good job in spite of the mishap.

Although Chris didn’t like how things were shaping up, he wouldn’t stop Barkley from currying JD’s favor. JD deserved this chance, and Chris would be damned if he got in the way. He wheeled his horse around and continued working.

By the fourth day, all the calves and yearlings were branded, and the men had begun to gather the thousand head they’d be herding to Fort Davis. The evening before they began the drive, five of the seven men sat in the bunkhouse. Nathan and Vin were out riding night herd, and would be replaced by Ezra and Josiah in a few hours.

Chris, Ezra, Buck, and JD were sitting around the table playing poker. For a change, Ezra wasn’t winning the majority of the pots.

"You must be tired, Ezra," Buck commented as he raked in the latest pile of matchsticks. "I don’t think I ever seen you play this bad before."  

Ezra tried to stifle a yawn and failed. "I must admit to an excessive lassitude after such arduous labor."

"Maybe you’d best get some sleep before you gotta go out to ride herd," Chris suggested, not unkindly.

Ezra smiled, a pale shadow of his normal ebullient grin. "I believe I shall implement such a fine suggestion." He stood, and moving like a man twice his age, shambled to his bunk and lay down without removing his boots. His quiet snores told them he was asleep in less than a minute.

"He done a lot better’n I thought he would," Buck commented, keeping his voice low as not to awaken their sleeping companions.

"Ezra’s full of surprises," Chris simply said. He studied Buck, then JD, who seemed to have regained his usual enthusiasm. "How’re you feelin’, JD?"

The boy grinned. "Right as rain. Mrs. Barkley gave me some special liniment to put on the bruise. Took the soreness right out."

"Yeah, those Barkleys should be nominated for sainthood," Buck muttered.

JD’s smile faded. "They’re good people, Buck. You got no call insultin’ them."

"Maybe they’re just a little too good."

Anger darkened JD’s features. "And what do you mean by that?"

Buck held up his hands, palms out. "Now don’t go gettin’ all huffy, JD. It’s just that they seem to have takin’ a shine to you."

Chris rested his elbows on the chair arms and steepled his fingers, observing the exchange from beneath hooded eyelids. He had known it would only be a matter of time before Buck noticed the Barkleys’ interest in JD.

"You’re imaginin’ things, Buck," JD growled, though he didn’t meet Buck’s gaze.

Whatever Buck was about to say was lost as Sam Barkley entered the bunkhouse. He noticed Ezra and Josiah asleep, and the animosity he nursed for Josiah colored his expression for a moment. Turning his attention to the men at the table, the older man smiled at JD.

"Thought I’d come by and let you know what I decided as far as who’s got what positions when we head out tomorrow," Barkley began. "Larabee, you and Tanner’ll take point – I can tell you two aren’t no strangers to driving cattle. Wilmington, you and Jackson will ride flank, and the fancy gentleman and Sanchez will ride drag." He settled his gaze on JD. "You, son, will be the wrangler."

JD frowned. "What’s that?"

"You’ll be in charge of the remuda. The horses got to be moved every day, but you gotta make sure you aren’t far so’s the others can switch off throughout the day. And at night, you’ll be settin’ up their corral and makin’ sure they got enough food and water," Barkley explained.

Chris noticed Barkley didn’t tell JD that was where the least experienced man worked, but he wasn’t about to spoil the party by explaining that little fact. He glanced at Buck and knew he was thinking along the same line, but Buck, too, was keeping quiet. Chris suspected it was because a wrangler’s job was about the least dangerous, and they’d all feel better knowing JD was out of harm’s way. Especially big brother Buck.

But there was something else bothering Chris. "There’s no reason for Ezra and Josiah to ride drag the entire way. We’ll rotate the positions so no one gets stuck eatin’ dust the whole time."

Barkley’s mouth tightened. "I’m the boss and I’ll say who works what position."

Chris shook his head, keeping his rock-steady gaze on the rancher. "We may work for you, but nothin’ says we have to stay. We could just ride out tomorrow and not look back. You need us, Barkley, whether you want to admit it or not."

The older man’s face reddened, and his fingers curled into fists at his sides. "Damn you, Larabee."

"A lot of folks have tried," Chris said mildly.

"Chris is right, Mr. Barkley." JD’s dark eyes darted anxiously between Chris and Barkley. "Now I know I don’t know much about herdin’ cattle, but I do know it ain’t fair for any of them to have to stay in one place the whole time."

"You think I ain’t bein’ fair?" Barkley demanded.

JD lifted his chin and nodded resolutely. "That’s right, sir."

For a long moment, Barkley stared at JD who didn’t relinquish his own gaze. Finally, the tension in Barkley’s features eased. "Maybe you’re right, son. It’s just that I got a hard time dealin’ with the man who killed my own flesh and blood."

"Josiah ain’t no cold-blooded killer," JD stated firmly.

"I admire your loyalty, son, but you don’t know Sanchez like I do."

"Or maybe we know him better," Buck spoke up, his voice deceptively quiet.

Barkley tensed, then forced himself to relent. "He has been doin’ a good job out there," he admitted reluctantly. "Fact is, I could probably like him iffen he hadn’t killed Jeff."

"Your son was a grown man," Chris said quietly. "He made his own choices, and you got to realize he chose his own destiny."

Barkley shoved his hands in his pockets and glanced down, then looked back up at Chris. "Maybe so, but Sanchez worked for Connor, who may kill all of us before this drive is over."

"And Josiah’s gonna be right beside us fightin’ Connor," Buck added. "You’d do well to remember that."

Barkley took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "All right. We’ll switch positions every day. We’ll start out the way I said, then rotate each day after. May as well do the same with the wrangler job – after JD gets used to it, he can exchange and learn the other positions."

JD smiled widely and his hazel eyes glowed. "I can’t believe I’m actually goin’ on a cattle drive! I’ve read about them ever since I was a kid and now I’m goin’ to be part of one."

"This ain’t a normal drive, though, JD. You make sure you keep your eyes open for Connor’s men," Chris warned, trying to tamp down his enthusiasm a bit. If the boy were a ball, he’d be bouncing off the four walls.

"Don’t worry, Chris, I will," he promised solemnly.

"You’d all better get some sleep. We’re headin’ out at dawn," Barkley suggested.

He shuffled out of the bunkhouse, his shoulders bowed under the heavy weight of responsibility. Chris empathized with him, then cursed his lapse. Every man chose his own path and nobody could walk that trail with him. Maybe he had some companions for a time, but they wouldn’t be with him forever. That was the nature of living – a person came into the world alone and he went out the same way.

Melancholy settled in Chris’s chest. The only thing that would prevent his six friends from leaving to follow their own paths someday would be for them to die while they were together. Or maybe it would be himself who would meet his Maker. A year ago he would’ve welcomed death, but his soul, which he thought had withered with Sarah and Adam’s mortal remains, had been re-awakened by the friendship he shared with Vin, Ezra, Buck, JD, Nathan, and Josiah. But it wasn’t only them; there was also Mary Travis and her son Billy back in Four Corners.

Chris lifted his hand to rub his eyes, and grimaced slightly at the shaft of pain from the five-day-old cut. Damn thing was taking longer to heal than a bullet wound.

Buck and JD rose, and moved to their bunks without the usual bantering, which told Chris they, too, were tired. Chris stood and stretched, feeling aches in muscles he hadn’t felt since his involuntary time with the chain gang at Jericho. A shiver chased down his spine and he shoved the thoughts aside – he still had nightmares about his time there, especially the days and nights he’d spent in the hole.

He sat on his lower bunk and removed his boots, then his shirt and trousers. After tonight he wouldn’t have the luxury of sleeping in only his drawers. Ensuring that his holster and gun hung within easy reaching distance, he lay down and fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Josiah tightened the bandanna about the lower half of his face, then tugged his hat brim down to shade his eyes. The sun beat down on the men and beasts as they moved across a land only the devil could take delight in. Aptly, dust devils and Devil’s Canyon and devil wood and devil’s darning needles could all be found in this godforsaken desert.

For Josiah, this drive represented a crucible that he hoped would burn away a portion of the guilt he’d carried for so many years, for so many Jeff Barkleys.

He glanced over at Ezra who rode a couple hundred feet to his right. He had traded his frilly snow-white shirt for a sturdy blue one that looked like something Vin would wear rather than Ezra. Josiah had seen Ezra carefully place his things in the corner of the mess wagon reserved for the men’s belongings and bed packs. He could imagine what his fancy clothes would look like after nearly two weeks of being stowed, and almost felt sorry for him.

Ezra caught his eye, and motioned that he was to move up to the flank position to take the place of Buck, who spelled Chris at point. Every four hours or so, the men took turns going to the remuda to swap out their horse, which set into motion a temporary rotation to cover the absent man.

Josiah sent him a nod that he understood and moved to a more central place at the back of the bawling cattle. A rider approached from the east and Josiah tensed, his hand moving to his pistol’s grip. A few moments later, he recognized the bay mare as Barkley’s mount, and Josiah eased his fingers away from his weapon.

"How’re you doing, Sanchez?" Barkley asked gruffly.

"I’m trying to understand why the Lord saw fit to create such a desolate, soulless place," Josiah replied.

Though Josiah couldn’t see the man’s expression because of his scarf, he could make out a hint of surprise in Barkley’s eyes.

"When did you get religion?" Barkley demanded.

"This may shock you, Mr. Barkley, but I used to be a preacher."

"You’re right, it does. What turned you into a hired gun?"

Josiah shrugged, and fixed his gaze on the shaggy beasts’ backs, undulating like a large dragon across the sandy terrain. "Let’s just say that saving souls involves more than preaching the gospel, especially when the devil is working against you."

Barkley rode silently beside Josiah, his face thoughtful. "You believe in the devil, Sanchez?"

Josiah nodded. "Sometimes I believe in him more than I believe in God."

"Maybe the devil is what made Jeff change so much the last couple years of his life. Up until he turned seventeen, he was a good boy. Never had no problems with him. After that, it seems he was gettin’ in one scrape after another."

"Sounds like another boy I knew. His father was a missionary, but he preached one thing and lived another. He thought the devil had taken hold of his son, too, and maybe he did for a time." Josiah threaded the leather reins through between his gloved fingers. "I’m sorry about your son, Barkley. If it's any consolation, there are days when I look in the mirror and see Jeff’s face."

Barkley’s eyes misted, and his voice was husky. "The same thing happens to me. Maybe I’ve been wrong blaming you all this time, Sanchez. Maybe nobody’s to blame. Maybe Larabee was right – Jeff was a man who made his own decisions, and towards the end, I didn’t approve of most of ’em."

Josiah remained silent, knowing there was nothing he could say to change what had happened five years ago. And no words he could offer a man who realizes that he’d lost his son long before a bullet had taken him.

Chris spotted JD and the remuda about half a mile back from the rear of the herd. JD saw him coming and held up the small herd.

"Which one you want, Chris?" JD called as he neared him.

"Give me the star faced chestnut," Chris replied, dismounting about thirty feet from the milling horses.

He watched as Buck the dog kept the horses in line while JD roped Chris’s new mount and led it to him. The dog had proved an invaluable helper to JD in keeping the animals herded together, as well as getting them moving in the morning.

"How’s it goin’, JD?" Chris asked as he removed his saddle from his tired horse.

JD rubbed his cheek, smearing dust across his features. "It’s kinda boring."

Chris grinned. "Driving cattle isn’t exactly the most exciting job in the world."

JD shifted his backside, and smiled sheepishly. "I s’pose I should’ve known it wouldn’t be like them dime novels. Jock Steele’s dime novel about us wasn’t anywhere near the truth."

"You’re learnin’, JD." Chris tightened the saddle cinch on the chestnut, then rested his forearms on the seat. "Life is what you make it, JD, and if it sees fit to offer you some good, you’d best grab onto it and hold on. It don’t happen more’n a few times in a person’s life."

"I figure the day I jumped off that stagecoach in Four Corners was one of them good things. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t met you and Buck and the others."

Although touched by JD’s declaration, Chris said, "Maybe, but you ever wonder what would’ve happened if you’d stayed on that stagecoach?"

JD nodded somberly. "I’d probably be dead. It’s been the six of you that’s kept me alive; taught me how to survive out here."

Chris swallowed hard. JD was more than likely right. He’d been as green as they come when Chris had first seen him, but he’d proved he had grit. And JD wasn’t scared to admit his mistakes and learn from them.

He glanced at the boy and out of the corner of his eye, he caught the glint of sunlight off metal.

"Get down, JD!" Chris hollered.

Continued in part 4