Theyd been on the trail four days when the first fisticuffs erupted between the men, and Chris wasnt surprised it was Buck and JD who traded blows. The tension between the two men had been rising steadily the last couple days.
Mrs. Barkley had served supper, and five of the seven men sat around the fire, silently eating. Josiah and Nathan were out watching the herd. Chris was hunkered down between Vin and Ezra who sat cross-legged on the ground. Although the air was cool and the men wore jackets, Chris still felt warm and hadnt donned his own coat.
Sam Barkley entered their midst, and accepted a plate from his wife, then leaned against the wagon to eat. "Whos on drag tomorrow?" Barkley asked.
"Me and Nathan," Buck replied in a monotone.
"Then you two decide whos gonna be wrangler tomorrow Im goin to have JD move over to drag."
Chris smiled to himself, knowing Buck would jump at the chance to get out of eating dust. And it was time JD got to do a little herding.
"He aint takin my place," Buck stated flatly.
Chriss eyes widened, and he noticed Ezra and Vins startled reactions, too.
"Then Jackson can be wrangler," Barkley said.
"Not unless youre gonna get someone else to ride drag with the kid," Buck said.
JDs mouth gaped. "I aim to pull my weight."
"All you been doin is herdin a few ponies. You got no idea what its like to do real work."
Pain flickered across JDs face, then he scrambled to his feet. His body vibrated with fury. "Ive had it, Buck! You been treatin me like a two-year-old ever since this drive started."
"Maybe thats cause you act like one," Buck taunted, rising to tower over the smaller man. "Someday you might become a man, but I aint gonna hold my breath waitin."
Chriss brow furrowed. Something was wrong here. Bucks usual rantings were a cover for his concern, but he didnt hear anything other than meanness in Bucks tone this time. He stood, determined to put an end to their short-fused tempers.
"Look whos talkin about bein a man you act more like a randy boy than a man," JD charged angrily.
"Its bettern you who dont even know a beautiful woman when you see one. Hell, maybe Ill head back to Four Corners and see how Caseys bloomed out myself."
JD swung his fist with blind rage, and caught Buck on the chin. The bigger man staggered back, and wouldnt have fallen except his weak leg gave out on him. JD closed in, and struck him again.
Chris noticed Buck didnt even try to defend himself, and grabbed JD from behind. "Thats enough."
JDs muscles untensed and Chris released him.
"Dont you even think about sniffin around Casey, or so help me, Buck, Ill kill you." JD spun around and disappeared into the darkness. It didnt surprise Chris when Barkley followed him.
Vin and Ezra joined Chris who stood over Buck.
"That, Mr. Wilmington, was the most asinine and callous remark I have ever heard you utter," Ezra stated in disgust. "After such despicable display, I will be astounded if JD ever speaks to you again." He turned and retired to his bedroll about twenty feet away.
Chris and Vin squatted down on either side of Buck.
"JD gone?" Buck asked in a hoarse whisper.
Chris nodded. "So you gonna tell us what that little show was all about."
"Howd you know?" Buck demanded.
"Even though you have a reputation with the ladies, I know you well enough to know youd never do anything with Casey," Chris replied. "Not knowin how JD feels about her."
"Help me up, will ya," Buck growled.
Vin and Chris each took hold of an arm, and helped Buck stand. They didnt let go until he quit swaying.
"Press this against your face, Mr. Wilmington," Mrs. Barkley said, extending a damp cloth to Buck.
"Thank you, maam." He did as she said, and hissed slightly. "JDs gettin a wicked right hook."
"Serves you right," Mrs. Barkley stated, crossing her arms beneath her bosom. "JDs a fine boy you had no call riling him like that."
"Yes, maam," Buck said with a weak smile.
She narrowed her eyes, then spun around and marched away.
"Let him make up his own mind, Buck," Chris said softly.
"I aim to, but I thought giving him a push in the right direction might help," Buck said.
Vin shook his head. "It aint his decision if youre shoving him one way. Besides, whos to say whats right for him."
Buck took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. When he reopened them, anguish filled their dark depths. "Sometimes in my mind, I see JD gunned down in some godforsaken one-horse town, and all I know is that I could never live with myself if I didnt do everything I could to stop something like that from happening."
"The same thing could happen to any of us," Chris said.
"Yeah, but were expectin it. JD aint."
Chris glanced at Vin, who didnt appear convinced, then back at Buck. "Maybe you should lay off of him, Buck. Right now hes going to make his choice in anger, and like Vin said, that aint fair to him."
"Life aint fair," Buck said softly. "Im goin to hit the sack."
"You gonna talk to JD?" Vin asked Chris in a low voice after Buck had limped away.
Chris shook his head. "Im not sure I agree with Buck pushing JD like that, but JD deserves a better life than what we got to give him."
Vin hooked his fingers around his gunbelt. "I still dont think thats for us to decide, but I wont be sayin anything to him either."
Chris glanced at Vin, and for a moment, the hunter blurred and Chris blinked. A wave of dizziness made him stagger back, and Vin reached out to steady him with a hand on his arm.
"Hey, you okay, Chris?" Vin asked.
"Just tired is all," he said sheepishly.
"Youd best get some rest then. We got to be out riding in a couple hours."
The two men went to their bedrolls and settled in for a quick nap.
JD coughed and his eyes teared, but he didnt complain. In the bright sunlight, he squinted over at Nathan who rode drag on the other side of the herd. Buck had grudgingly taken the wrangler position after Barkley had ordered him to do it. But JD had to wonder why Buck wouldnt have preferred that job instead. Staring at a bunch of cows backsides and narrowly missing being pissed on was enough to make JD wish hed never heard of a cattle drive. The dust clogged every pore in his body, and even with his bandanna around his mouth and nose, he could barely breathe.
Nathan began to move toward him, and JD eased his own horse toward the middle of the back end of the mass of beeves.
"Howre you doin?" Nathan asked.
JD didnt even try to lie. "I cant believe anyone would want to do this for a livin."
Nathan chuckled. "You and me both." He sobered. "I saw Bucks shiner this mornin, and was surprised you didnt have one just like it."
JD shifted in the saddle, the leather creaking below him. "He was askin for it."
"Seems kinda strange that he didnt even land one punch."
"I mustve caught him off-guard."
"That musta been it."
JD picked out Ezra and Josiah at the flank positions, and Chris and Vins tiny figures at the front of the bawling herd. "Whyd you decide to go to Tascosa?"
Nathan shrugged broad shoulders beneath his dust-dulled shirt. "I owed him my life."
"But you paid that back with all your doctorin."
"When a man saves your life even when he dont know ya, hes deservin to be called a friend," Nathan explained. "And friends help each other out."
"Have you ever thought of settlin down, like with Rain?"
"Sure, but she knows I got things to take care of first."
"Like helpin Vin clear his name?"
Nathan turned to look at JD. "That and other things."
JD took a deep breath, and sweat rolled down his chest. "If someone offered you a place to call home a place that would be yours forever would you take it?"
Nathan was quiet for a long moment. "I dont know, JD. It would depend on what I got left to do, and who I could share that place with." His deep brown eyes settled on JD. "Has Barkley offered you a home?"
"Howd you know?"
"A man would have to be blind not to see him and Miz Barkley favor you, and knowing their son was killed when he was your age " Nathan shrugged.
"What should I do?" JD asked plaintively.
"What does your heart tell you?"
JD frowned. "I dont know. I used to think ridin with you and the others was all I wanted to do, but Bucks always treatin me like I dont know nothin."
"Hes just tryin to teach you how to stay alive out here."
"Well, I dont like the way hes been doin it."
They rode in silence for a few minutes. JD watched a couple of vultures soar high above them, and quickly looked away. No matter what Josiah said, vultures were a helluva lot worse than crows.
"Dont go makin any hasty decisions based on the way Bucks been actin lately," Nathan said quietly. "Think about the time he saved your life by taking that saber for you, and the other times he risked his life for yours. Then make your choice."
Ezra made a circling motion with his arm.
"Ezras goin in to change horses you want to try your hand at flanking?" Nathan asked.
JD nodded, and with a wave at Nathan, rode ahead even as he considered the healers words.
The following evening as he rode around the herd, Chris felt an edginess in the air. With a new moon, only the stars that capped the desert lit the night. He squinted and found JD, his partner, on the other side of the milling cattle. Usually by midnight, the cows were bedded down, but tonight they were moving about restlessly. Chris wished he had a more experienced rider with him, but couldnt fault JD for his work. After riding drag yesterday, JD had tackled his first night herding job and Vin had said hed done well. Today, JD had ridden flank, leaving Ezra to play wrangler.
Chris tried to dismiss his worries, and continued around the cattle, humming some half-remembered tune his ma had sung to him as a child. Though Chris could see his breath wisp in the cool air, he wiped a trickle of sweat from his cheek. If he didnt know better, hed say he had a fever. He glanced down at his hand, still wrapped in a bandanna. The two inch long gash the nail had made continued to throb, and it had swollen up a bit. Chris shouldve had Nathan look at it, but it seemed the men were always busy, either with the herd or keeping watch for unwelcome visitors or sleeping.
JD approached, and the two men stopped their horses side by side facing each other.
"The cattle werent moving around so much last night," JD commented in a low voice.
Lightening cut a jagged path above the western horizon, and a few of the cows snorted.
"I sure hope that heat lightening dont come any closer or were gonna have a stampede on our hands," Chris said.
JD moved his reins from one hand to the other. "What do we do then?"
"We have to chaseem down, tryn cut their path and bring them around in a circle, keeping them going round and round until they get so tired they cant run anymore."
Chris nodded somberly. "It is. Lets just hope it doesnt come down to that."
Riding in opposite directions, Chris and JD continued circling the herd slowly, and met again half an hour later.
"Looks like we might be okay," Chris said. "The lightening stopped."
"Then why aint the cattle settled down?"
"Could be anything. With so little food and water in the past few days, theyre more apt to be restless, too."
Suddenly a gunshot shattered the nights silence, and the cattle surged to their feet. Before Chris could yell a warning, what he hoped wouldnt happen did.
Buck was out of his bedroll and racing for his horse before he was even conscious of why he was doing so. The thunder of four thousand hooves on the hard-packed earth brought the realization home in a split second. The cattle had stampeded. His second realization came quickly on the heels of the first JD and Chris had been on night herd.
Cursing, he twisted around to see Vin, Nathan, Ezra, and Josiah riding beside him, and he knew their anxious expressions mirrored his own.
"We got to turn the herd," Vin shouted. "We gotta get the leaders to turn back into the drag. Whoever gets up there first, yell atem, slapem with your lasso, shoot close to their heads - just get them turned. Everyone else work on the same side so we arent working against each other."
"What about Chris and JD?" Buck demanded.
"They should be the first ones up there so watch forem," Vin replied.
"Excuse me, gentlemen, but we seem to have another more pressing matter to deal with," Ezra spoke up.
The men turned in their saddles to see fifteen riders headed their way, each one toting a revolver or rifle. Bullets kicked up the ground around their horses hooves, and the stampeding cattle were forgotten with the more immediate danger. They pulled out their own weapons and fired back at their attackers.
In the exchange, one of the outlaws went down. Buck spotted an outcropping of boulders on a rocky hill, and he pointed toward it. They veered in that direction, dodging bullets and hoping their luck would hold.
A hundred yards from cover, Vins horse squealed and went down to its knees. Vin instinctively kicked free of the stirrups and flew over his mounts head to land in a stunned heap ten feet in front of the dying animal. As he recovered his scrambled senses, he became aware of fourteen guns aimed at him.
Remaining on the ground, Vin glanced at his horse, glad it wasnt Sire, but angered by the loss of the experienced cattle pony. "Would one of you boys put him down so he dont have to suffer?" Though he phrased it as a question, the steely anger in his voice was unmistakable.
After a moment, the apparent leader of the group nodded to one of his men, who took care of the horse with a single shot.
"Mind if I get up?" Vin asked.
"Go ahead," the leader, a man about Vins age, but with JDs smaller stature, answered with a sneer.
Vin got to his feet slowly, his body aching from the tumble to the hard ground. His hat had come off in the fall, and hung in front of his chest. He shifted it around so it rested against his back, then he brushed back his tangled shoulder-length hair that had fallen across his face.
"Lose the holster and sawed-off carbine," the same man Vin remembered his name was Slade ordered.
Taking his time, Vin unstrapped the gunbelt as he surreptitiously searched the rocks for his friends. He spied Buck and Josiah peering at him from behind one of the boulders. Sighing mentally, Vin was relieved to see they had gotten to safety.
"Give yourselves up," the leader hollered. "You got no place to go."
"Go to hell, mister," Buck shouted back.
"I dont think so. If you want your friend to live another day, youd best throw your guns down."
"Dont do it," Vin called out. "Theyll kill us all."
The leader cocked the trigger of his revolver, and aimed the barrel at Vins temple. "You have to the count of five. One .Two .Three ."
"Dont shoot. Were coming out," Buck yelled.
"I want to see those guns first."
Four revolvers and a couple rifles were tossed out, and Vin nearly groaned aloud. Now they didnt have a snowballs chance in hell. Ten of the outlaws rode up to surround Buck, Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan as they walked down out of the rocky outcropping, hands held high above their heads. They were ushered over to join Vin.
"You shouldnt have given up," Vin said in a low voice.
"We couldnt let them shoot you down," Nathan replied.
"Now theyll shoot us all."
Their horses were led over to them and the five men were ordered to mount up. Ezra climbed into his saddle, then offered Vin a hand up. They rode double as the outlaws led them back the way theyd come. Vins shoulders tightened as they neared the camp.
Ezra turned slightly and asked softly, "You think they killed the Barkleys?"
"Either that or they got them like they got us," Vin replied in a low voice.
They rode in, and Vin saw Sam Barkley standing with a protective arm wrapped around his wifes shoulders. Five men had taken over the camp. One of them was dressed in fancy tan trousers tucked into shiny black boots that hugged his calves. In a brown-gloved hand, he held a riding crop. It didnt take Vin long to figure out he was Connor.
Vin slipped off the horses rump, and waited until the others joined him.
"The two who were guarding the herd got away," the leader of the outlaws reported.
Connors mouth drew taut. "Take some men and find them."
Slade nodded, picked out five men and the six of them rode out of camp.
"Chris and JD arent going to have a chance," Ezra said hoarsely, close to Vins ear.
"Dont write them off yet," Vin said quietly.
One of their captors grabbed Vins arms and pulled them behind his back, then another man lashed his wrists together, tying the rope so tight the hemp cut into his skin and drew blood.
Connor looked over the prisoners as they were being tied up. Spotting Josiah, he frowned and walked over to him. "Sanchez, isnt it?"
"Nice to see some things never change," Josiah said, and Connors expression told him he wasnt sure if hed been insulted or not.
"Seems to me youre working for the wrong side."
"Not this time," Josiah stated.
Connor narrowed his eyes and tapped the quirt against his thigh. "Does Barkley know you murdered his son?"
Josiahs gaze didnt waver. "I didnt murder anyone."
"Do you believe him, Barkley?" Connor asked over his shoulder.
The elder rancher gritted his teeth and remained silent.
Connor suddenly smiled and the expression was pure evil. "Bring Barkley over here."
Although his hired killers were puzzled, they didnt question him, and did as he said. Barkley stared at Connor, hatred written into every line of his stiff body.
"Im going to give you a chance to avenge your sons death." Connor handed Barkley his revolver. "Sanchez is all yours."
Josiahs muscles tensed, but he kept the alarm from his expression. He stared into Barkleys eyes, which were filled with indecision.
"A life for a life, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," Josiah quoted softly. "Thats what the Good Book says, but we both know killing me wont bring Jeff back."
"He had his entire life ahead of him," Barkley said, his voice low and ragged.
"Thats all any man has, but what he does with it is how he shall be judged." Josiahs voice grew even softer. "Kill me if you truly believe I murdered your son."
Barkley aimed the Colt at Josiahs heart, and Josiah felt sweat beads form on his forehead, but he refused to look away. He listened for a crows call the portent of his death as it had been ordained that morning twelve years ago.
In his minds eye, he could clearly see that crow, hear its harsh cawing, when hed awakened after a night of too many spirits. Josiahs faith, already eroded by the hypocrisy and atrocities hed endured, had toppled completely that morning. The only thing left for Josiah Sanchez to live for was death.
And hed been prepared for the pale rider the morning he rode away from Four Corners with the men who, strangers then, became the foundation of his returning faith. Men who lived by the gun, yet they didnt seek violence violence sought them. Just as it did now.
The Colts barrel wavered, and Barkley dropped his gaze, then abruptly turned the revolver on Connor. He shook his head. "I aint gonna do your dirty work for you, Connor. It aint my place to be judging Sanchez." He cocked the hammer. "Besides, it seems to me if anyone is to blame for Jeffs death, its you."
Relief and surprise filled Josiah. Again, death had spared him, allowing him more time to atone for the crimes hed committed on earth.
"Your son would be disappointed in you," Connor taunted.
Barkley shook his head. "I dont think so." He squeezed the trigger and the revolver clicked on an empty cartridge.
"You didnt think Id give you a loaded weapon, did you?" Connor asked scornfully. "Take the gun and tie him up," he ordered his men.
After the older rancher has been trussed up, he was shoved over with the Josiah and his fellow captives. His wife was allowed to remain free, though one of the gunmen became her shadow.
"Whatre you gonna do with us?" Barkley demanded.
"As soon as my men return with the two that got away, youll all become victims of an unfortunate accident," Connor stated, his eyes glittering with malice.
Josiah looked at his companions, and realized his life and the lives of his friends had only been given a temporary reprieve. It seems the crows may yet claim their next sacrifices.
JD didnt know how long he and Chris had been chasing the cattle or how many miles they covered. Hed followed Chriss lead and the two of them had managed to steer the lead cows back in toward the drag. JDs horse was lathered, as was Chriss, but the stalwart creatures continued on. The night sky began to lighten as the exhausted herd finally began to slow and the spiral began to tighten. As the sun peeked above the eastern horizon, the cattle came to a stop. Some of the cows lay down on the ground and fell asleep, while others munched at the sparse buffalo grass.
JDs clothing was drenched in sweat, and rivulets of mud had created streaks down his face. His throat felt like it had been slit, and his tongue was swollen. JD reined in about twenty feet from the edge of the cattle and dismounted. His knees nearly buckled beneath him and he leaned against his trembling horse for a long moment as he closed his gritty eyes.
The approach of hooves forced him to draw away from the horse, and lift his gaze to Chris. The older mans face appeared ashen, his eyes deep and sunken. Startled concern brought JD upright.
"You okay, Chris?" he asked with a husky voice.
Chris only stared at JD with heavy-lidded eyes.
"Chris?" JD reiterated, taking a step closer.
Chris slumped in the saddle and his eyes closed, then he slipped to the side. JD caught him as he fell from his horses back, and he staggered under Chriss weight. He lowered him to the ground as carefully as he could manage, then knelt beside him. What would Nathan do? Or Josiah or even Buck?
He stared down at Chriss frightening pallor, and listened to his raspy breathing. Helplessness overwhelmed JD. The last time hed seen Chris this sick was when theyd found him in Jericho. It had taken him over a week to regain his color, and even longer to replace the weight hed lost on his already spare frame.
Was he sick or just exhausted? No, Chris could go for long periods of time without sleep, and had done so on more than one occasion. This was something else.
JD spied the bandanna wrapped about Chriss hand and his brows drew together as he unrolled it. A swollen, angry red gash caught his eye and JDs breath caught in his throat. The infected hand didnt appear to be gangrenous yet, but JD knew it was only a matter of time. He knew a man back East who had lost his leg to gangrene; the man became a beggar on the city streets and died an agonizing death less than six months later. He wasnt going to let that happen to Chris.
JD drew his forearm across his brow, then searched the barren terrain for a sign of the other men. With their horses saddled and ready to go, the others shouldve been right behind them. Unless something had happened.
Something like Connor and his hired guns.
Although he was sweating, JD felt a chill creep across him. If he and Chris were the only ones left alive . He thought of Buck and the last words theyd exchanged heated words that had led to a fight. A one-sided fight because Buck hadnt fought back for some unknown reason. What if Buck was dead?
JD swallowed hard. He couldnt afford to think that way.
Chris groaned, and his eyelids fluttered open, revealing confused green eyes.
Continued in part 6