Old Debts and New Friends, part 6

Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

JD leaned close and laid a hand on Chris’s shoulder. "Take it easy."

"What happened?" he asked hoarsely.

"You passed out and fell off your horse. I tried to catch you…" JD’s voice trailed off. "I think your hand’s infected bad."

Chris tried to sit up, and JD helped him, then Chris studied the back of his injured hand. "I kinda thought so."

"So why didn’t you have Nathan take care of it?" JD demanded.

Chris managed a weak grin. "Anyone ever tell you you’re sounding more like Buck every day."

"A man could do a lot worse."

"That’s right, he could," Chris said softly. He looked around blearily. "He and the others here yet?"

JD shook his head. "And I’m thinkin’ something happened."

Chris rubbed his forehead, and grimaced. "I thought it was a gunshot that started the stampede, and if it was, that means that Connor made his move." Chris began to push himself up. "Give me a hand, JD."

The younger man helped him to his feet and stayed close, a hand on Chris’s arm to steady him.

"We gotta get back and find out what happened," Chris said.

"You ain’t in any shape for hard riding," JD argued. "I’ll leave you here, and go back myself."

Chris shook his head. "You can’t take all of them on by yourself, JD."

"Maybe not, but I been learnin’ from you and the others. I can take them down one by one."

"You might be able to, but if I’m there, I can help." He awkwardly reached for the saddlehorn and wrapped his fingers around it. "Help me up."

"You’re too sick."

"Damnit, JD! If they’re not dead yet, they’re gonna be soon."

JD’s stomach roiled with the thought of the others dead, and he reluctantly helped Chris up into the saddle. He quickly mounted his own tired animal, and the two men left the now-quiet cattle herd behind.

An hour later, they approached a garden of boulders the size of small houses. The shade beckoned, and JD glanced at Chris. The older man was slumped over his horse’s neck, but he was still conscious. Barely. JD had to get Chris to stop and rest, or he’d lose him, too. He didn’t want to believe the others were gunned down by Connor, but hope dwindled as time pressed on.

"The horses need to rest," JD spoke up, hoping Chris would accept that excuse.

"No, we got to keep goin’," Chris slurred.

"If we keep goin’, we’re gonna lose the horses then we’ll be afoot."

"Don’t matter. Gotta get back in time to save them. They’re alone at the ranch."

JD blinked, and halted his mount, then grabbed Chris’s horse’s bridle to stop him. He studied the older man close, noting his flushed cheeks and fever-hazed eyes. "We’re going to rest for a few minutes," JD stated.

"Can’t. Gotta get back to Sarah and Adam."

JD swallowed hard, and laid a hand on Chris’s shoulder. "Your wife and boy are dead, Chris. And you’re gonna be the same if we don’t stop."

"Don’t care."

JD’s lungs constricted. "What’s Buck gonna say if I let you die? And what about Vin and Ezra and Josiah and Nathan? They’re gonna be madder’n a stepped on rooster at both of us if you up and die."

Lucidity invaded Chris’s green eyes for a moment, and he nodded tiredly. "All right. We’ll rest."

JD dismounted and led the horses to a sheltered area among the rocks, then helped Chris to the ground. He rolled up his jacket and used it as a pillow for Chris’s head.

"There’s whiskey in my saddlebags," Chris said hoarsely. "Pour it over my hand."

JD dug through the bag until he found a flask and returned to Chris’s side. After removing the bandanna around the wound, JD unscrewed the flask’s cover. He glanced down at Chris and caught his glassy gaze on him.

"This is gonna hurt like hell," JD said, his voice trembling.

"I know, kid, but you gotta do it."

JD stared into Chris’s pain-hollowed eyes, his gut twisting. "I—"

"Do it!"

Chris’s sharp command startled JD into action. Keeping his hand as steady as he could, JD poured the liquor across the open, angry gash. Chris hissed and squeezed his eyes shut. His face turned the color of a desert-bleached skeleton, then he slumped limply.

"Chris!" JD cried in alarm.

The shallow rise and fall of Chris’s chest reassured JD, and he heaved a sigh of relief, then put the cap back on the flask. He carefully examined Chris’s injured hand, and frowned. The whiskey cleaned the outside, but the poison still needed to be drawn out of the wound. Thinking back, he recalled the cook’s son at the house where his ma had worked – the boy had gotten blood poisoning and his mother had put tobacco on the cut. It had drawn out the poison and the boy had healed good as new even though he’d been even sicker than Chris was.

JD stood and moved back to Chris’s saddlebags to replace the flask. He dug around and found three of the smelly cheroots Chris smoked. Wrinkling his nose, JD removed the scarf he’d worn since riding herd, and unrolled the little cigars, crumbling the tobacco on to the cloth. He added a little water to create a poultice then wrapped the scarf around Chris’s injured hand, the tobacco against the open cut.

Satisfied he’d done all he could for him, JD set to work unsaddling the horses and rubbing them down. When he was finished, his own body ached and exhaustion clouded his mind. He sat down across from Chris and rested his back against a rock. Crossing his arms, he closed his eyes.

Although his body craved rest, JD couldn’t sleep. Instead, he thought of their five companions and wondered what fate had befallen them. Each one of the men had touched JD’s life profoundly in the last eight months: quiet, steadfast Vin; gentle, thoughtful Nathan; generous, selfless Josiah; cunning, educated Ezra; and Buck.

JD’s eyelids fluttered open and he squinted in the bright sunlight. What was Buck to him? Brother? Mentor? Tormentor? He pictured the concern in Buck’s eyes when JD had been shot a few months ago, and how Buck had been the first one he’d seen when he’d regained consciousness. The circles beneath Buck’s eyes had been testament to the concern he hadn’t spoken aloud.

So why was Buck harassing him so much lately? Because he worried about JD? Or was there something else involved? The more JD thought about it, the more confused he became. Since they’re less-than-auspicious meeting at the Seminole village, Buck had taken a special interest in JD’s welfare, moreso than any of the other men. The majority of that could probably be explained by their common childhoods – boys growing up without their fathers. And Buck had taken it upon himself to become JD’s surrogate father. Not that JD minded. Fact was, he admired Buck more than he’d ever admit. JD had been so foolish and inexperienced when he’d gone to the Seminole village – the memory of his enthusiasm in shooting his first man, and his subsequent guilt in Buck taking a saber’s blade for him, made his cheeks burn with embarrassment.

If Buck and the others were dead, the guilt would lay squarely on JD’s shoulders. He’d gotten them involved with Barkley despite Chris and Buck’s warnings to stay out of a situation that didn’t concern them.

He turned slightly to study Chris’s sleep-slackened features. He appeared vulnerable, so different from the first time he’d seen him in that cemetery in Four Corners. JD could picture the scene as if it happened yesterday. Chris could have stepped out of a dime novel, dressed completely in black, from his long duster to the hat pulled low over his clear eyes. And the fact that no bullets touched him or Vin during that gunfight seemed to re-enforce JD’s belief that they were the ‘real west’. And JD wanted to be just like them.

Only JD had learned that Chris and the others were as human as anyone else. They could be hurt, both physically and emotionally. When Buck had told him about Chris’s wife and son with a voice filled with sadness and regrets, JD hadn’t wanted to believe him. He couldn’t imagine Chris as a family man, yet that’s what he’d been until circumstances had stolen that life.

Hooking up with the six men had been the best thing that ever happened to JD. He’d learned that life and death weren’t as clean as the dime novels proclaimed them, and that friends were the only thing a man could count on in this life.

Could he exchange those friendships for a piece of land and a house? If the others were still alive, could he walk away from them knowing they could be killed the next day? Could he say good-bye to Buck not knowing if he’d ever see him again?

JD clenched his teeth as his heart thudded against his ribs. Buck better not have up and died before he could explain to JD why the hell he’d been acting like such an ass since they signed on with Barkley.

JD’s eyes closed once more and exhaustion claimed him in seconds.  

A few hours later, JD awakened and he listened intently to what had brought him out of his slumber. The ring of horses’ hooves on the rocks alerted JD to the approach of some riders. He raised himself slightly to look down to the path about fifty feet away and his palms grew moist when he saw six men riding past their hiding place. He glanced at his and Chris’s horses and hoped they would remain silent. Fortunately, they appeared as tired as their owners.

As the riders passed, JD recognized the leader as Slade, the gunhand who’d argued with Barkley in Medino. They were obviously searching for him and Chris. Did that mean they’d already taken care of Buck and the others? JD swallowed hard as his hand inched toward the butt of his revolver. He’d die before he allowed Slade and his fellow outlaws to take him and Chris.

Once the hired guns disappeared out of sight, JD let out his pent-up breath. He doubted they had someone like Vin who might be able to pick out his and Chris’s horse tracks amid the cattle hoofprints.

JD remained vigilant although the hot sun tempted him into oblivious slumber. He glanced at Chris from time to time to make sure he remained sleeping. Hopefully Chris would sleep until the early evening when they could continue on in the cooler air.

A couple hours later, Slade and his men returned, again bypassing their shelter. The men rode tiredly, and only Slade seemed to be alert, but he only gave the boulders JD and Chris hid behind a passing glance.

JD returned to his place across from Chris. He, too, needed some sleep and the danger from Connor’s men seemed to be over for now. For a moment, JD wondered if he should’ve tried to pick off some of the six men himself to cut the odds for later. Mentally shaking his head, he realized he’d have only drawn unwanted attention and be forced into a prolonged gun battle. One that he and Chris had little chance of winning even if Chris weren’t sick.

"You still got that pea gun up your sleeve?" Buck asked close to Ezra’s ear.

Ezra nodded tightly. "However, trussed as we are, I have no chance of engaging it."

"Maybe you’ll get your chance iffen I can get these ropes off," Vin whispered hoarsely. He grimaced, the orange glow of the campfire reflecting off his weathered features.

"And when Chris and JD show up," Buck added.

"They’re dead," Barkley stated in a low-pitched voice. "And if these ropes were any tighter, they’d be cuttin’ into bone."

Buck shook his head in disgust. "You don’t know Chris and JD."

"Connor’s men said they couldn’t find them and they figured they were trampled by the cattle during the stampede," Barkley argued.

Buck’s temper notched upward and he clenched his teeth a moment to regain control. "Like I said, you don’t know Chris and JD like we do. Ain’t no cattle gonna get them. They’re just bidin’ their time until Connor and his men let down their guard."

Barkley grunted. "They bide their time any longer and they ain’t gonna find anything but our bodies."

"And here I thought JD would be better off with you than us! Hell, you’re willin’ to write them off before you got any proof."

"After a thousand cattle trample a body, there ain’t any proof left."

Buck jerked toward Barkley, anger surging through his veins. "Just shut up, Barkley, or ropes or not, I’m gonna kill you myself."

"Take it easy, Buck," Nathan said soothingly. "Ain’t gonna do anyone any good if we start fightin’ among ourselves."

Buck eased back on the ground, but fury still vibrated through him. He wasn’t going to let Barkley convince him that Chris and JD were dead. He’d feel it if they were, and Buck’s gut told him their two friends were out there someplace. His only doubt was why they hadn’t made their move yet.

"How’re the ropes comin’, Vin?" Nathan asked.

Vin shook his head, frustration evident in his furrowed brow. "They’re tighter’n a lady’s corset."

"Now there’s a fine image to ponder," Ezra said with a slight smile. "Wouldn’t you say, Buck?"

In spite of his worries and their impending fate, Buck couldn’t help but grin. "I ain’t never met a corset so tight I couldn’t handle it."

"That doesn’t surprise me," Josiah commented wryly.

Buck’s humor faded once more as he surveyed the camp. Even if Vin got loose, and Ezra got his sleeve gun free, the odds weren’t altogether encouraging. Although Connor had sent half of his men to get Barkley’s herd, that still left more than enough when all the firepower he and his friends had was Ezra’s two-shot derringer.

Of course, that wasn’t counting Chris and JD. Provided they were still alive. And they damn well better be!

JD followed Chris across the dark desert as he’d been doing for the past four hours. When Chris had awakened at dusk, he had felt better. He’d been surprised by the tobacco poultice, but realized it was working. He hadn’t even complained when JD had crumbled three more of his cheroots for a new poultice.

"Hold up!" Chris whispered hoarsely, halting his horse.

JD stopped immediately, wondering what Chris had detected. A moment later, JD heard something, then Buck the dog was dancing about them, startling their horses. The dog, however, didn’t bark but whined as if wanting them to follow him.

"You think he’s tryin’ to take us to them?" JD asked.

Chris nodded. "I’d bet on it. We’ll have to tie him up out here so he doesn’t get in the way."

"Can’t we use him?"

Chris turned in his saddle to look at JD. "How?"

JD was silent for a moment, then he smiled widely. "Buck made an awful good wrangler, didn’t he?"

Chris frowned, wondering what JD had up his sleeve.

"The sun’ll be comin’ up in another hour," Vin said softly. He’d given up on escaping his bonds after deciding the only thing he was doing was soaking the rope with his blood. And now he had very little feeling left in his hands.

"Which means we shall probably become unfortunate victims of some perceived accident," Ezra said.

Barkley turned to Buck. "You still think your friends are gonna show up?"

Buck clenched his teeth and remained silent.

"Talk like that ain’t doin’ any good, Mr. Barkley," Vin stated. He didn’t add that he had begun to doubt if Chris and JD were still alive. It’d been over twenty-four hours since they’d ridden after the stampeding herd. And a suspicion that something was wrong with Chris kept nagging at him. He had thought Chris was only tired when he’d swayed on his feet a few nights ago, but the more Vin chewed on it, the deeper his doubts grew.

Vin looked around at the mostly silent camp. Only a couple hired guns remained awake as they guarded the six men. Mrs. Barkley had lay down beside the wagon and seemed to be dozing restlessly. If Chris and JD were still alive, they should’ve made their move by now.

He glanced at Buck and caught his worried gaze in shadowed eyes. Buck would feel the two men’s deaths keener than any of the others since he’d known Chris the longest, and had formed a deeper attachment to JD. Still, Vin knew Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan would also grieve for them. Just as Vin himself would in the privacy of a secluded mountainside.

Suddenly a dog’s barking broke the silence, and Buck’s namesake came dashing into the camp toward the outlaws’ horses, which were enclosed in a pen erected from a couple strung ropes. The ponies began to whinny and their eyes rolled, revealing the whites. A few reared up, further frightening the others. They surged against the flimsy corral and the rope was pulled free.

The outlaws staggered to their feet blearily, shouting curses at the horses that stampeded through their camp.

"Don’t anybody move!" Chris’’s voice rang across the chaos.

Buck’s heart leapt into his throat. Where was JD? Had the fool kid went and got himself killed?

Connor and his hired guns froze at the steely command.

Chris motioned to the two men guarding the prisoners. "Drop your weapons nice and easy like."

Slowly, the men did as they were ordered. As they did, Slade’s hand inched toward his gun and a bullet into the dirt at his feet startled him into motionless.  

Buck looked in the direction the shot came from and JD stepped out of the shadows at the opposite end of the camp. Buck grinned, relief making him giddy. The boy was still among the living.

"’Bout time you two showed up," Buck commented. "You mind untyin’ us?"

Chris’s lips quirked upward at one corner. "Go ahead, JD."

JD nodded, but kept his gun in one hand as he cut through the ropes binding Buck, then handed Buck the knife so he could give his full attention to helping Chris ride herd on the outlaws. As soon as Ezra was free, his sleeve gun slid into his palm to aid Chris and JD cover the captives.

"You may have won this round, but you can’t hold me," Connor stated, his lips twisted into an ugly sneer.

"Don’t bet on it," Barkley replied. "You’re out of your territory here. I’m gonna take you and your men to the nearest town and make sure you stand trial for cattle rustling."

Connor’s face paled, but hatred gleamed in his eyes. "Don’t count on it."

"Oh, I think he can," Josiah said, coming up behind Barkley. "Last I heard, this is Sheriff Pat Garrett’s jurisdiction and he’s not going to let someone like you tell him what to do."

An hour later, Connor and his men had traded places with Buck and the others. They sat trussed on the ground as the Barkleys and the seven men caught up on what had happened since the stampede.

"So you didn’t think for one minute that me and Chris might’ve been killed?" JD asked with a quirked eyebrow.

"Hell, no. I knew a bunch of cattle wouldn’t have gotten you two," Buck said with a large dose of bravado. He angled a glare at Barkley. "Course, Barkley here, wrote you two off right away."

JD studied Barkley who shifted uncomfortably, then moved his attention back to Buck. His black eye hadn’t begun to fade yet, and JD felt more than a little guilt.

"So who came up with the idea of using Buck the dog as a diversion?" Vin asked curiously.

Chris smiled. "JD. If it hadn’t been for him, none of us would be alive," he said, gazing at the younger man proudly. He showed them his bandaged hand and described how sick he’d been.

Nathan shook his head, either in disgust or tolerance – JD wasn’t sure which.

"I knew it!" Buck exclaimed. "I taught him everything I know." He grinned mischievously. "Well, maybe there’s a few things I still got to teach him about the ladies."

JD didn’t rise to the bait like he normally did. It felt too good to sit here among his friends who’d all miraculously survived. Ezra, unable to sit still, had a deck of cards in his hand, automatically shuffling and fanning them. Nathan was wrapping Vin’s bloody wrists, and Josiah had that thoughtful look on his face, like he was ruminating on something JD couldn’t even begin to understand.

He looked over at Barkley who was studying him, and JD was reminded of the decision he had yet to make. A ranch or the companionship of his six friends?

Later that day, as Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and Barkley were escorting the prisoners to the town ten miles away, JD got his nerve up to pull Buck off to the side.

"What is it, JD?" Buck asked, leaning against a boulder and crossing his arms.

JD rubbed his nose, and took a deep breath. "Why didn’t you fight me?"

Buck tilted is head slightly. "The other night?"

JD nodded. "You didn’t even try to hit me."

"I couldn’t."

"Then why’d you pick a fight?" JD demanded.

"I followed you the other night when Barkley talked to you off by the remuda," Buck admitted in a low voice. "I heard what he offered you."

JD rubbed his palms together nervously. "Then you know I didn’t give him an answer."

"That’s why I was pushing you so hard. I figured you’d get mad enough at me that you’d accept Barkley’s offer."

"You want to get rid of me?" JD asked, unable to keep the hurt from his voice.

Buck pushed away from the rock to stand directly in front of the younger man and laid his hands on his shoulders. "No, that wasn’t it. I want you to be safe, JD. I want to know that you won’t be gunned down by some trigger happy cowboy."

JD’s throat clogged and for a moment he couldn’t speak. "You’d rather have me be trampled by a stampede?"

Buck snorted. "You know what I mean, kid. You’ll live a longer life if you’re someplace safe like a ranch and not hanging around with the likes of Chris and me and the others."

Anger sifted through JD. "Don’t you think that’s for me to decide, Buck?" He stepped away from his friend. "Ever since I joined up with you, you been treating me like a kid. Maybe I deserved it in the beginning, but not anymore. I think I’ve proven myself more than a couple times and you never once made any mention of it."

"You have proven yourself," Buck said quietly. "It’s just that them kind of words don’t come easy to a man like me."

JD paced. "I got to make this decision on my own, Buck, without you tryin’ to push me one way or the other."

Sorrow rose in Buck, but he nodded slowly. "I understand. And I respect you for that, JD." He turned and walked away, his footsteps heavy.

A couple hours after the men returned from taking the prisoner to town, the rest of Connor’s men returned driving Barkley’s cattle. Not a single shot was fired, and when the gunhands were faced with being shot, thrown in jail like their former boss and associates, or leaving the territory, there was little choice. The hired guns rode away without looking back.

The drive continued without any further trouble, and a few days later, they arrived at Fort Davis. The men split their thirty percent seven ways, then went to wash down the trail dust in the nearest saloon.

Barkley joined them at their table and bought a round of drinks for all of them. "Any of you interested in hiring on for the long term? I know of a place that could use some good men."

"Sorry, Mr. Barkley, but we got other business to take care of," Chris replied, glancing meaningfully at Vin.

Vin grinned sardonically, and held up his whiskey glass in a salute to Chris then downed the gutwarmer.

Barkley took a deep breath and sighed. "I figured so, but I had to ask. Fact is, I wasn’t sure about you, but you all proved yourselves and I’m grateful to everything you did." He raised his gaze to Josiah. "That includes you, Sanchez. I can never forget that you shot the bullet that killed my son, but it was a fair fight, not cold-blooded murder like I kept trying to tell myself. Jeff is gone because of the choices he made. If it hadn’t been you, it would’ve been someone else sooner or later."

Josiah nodded reverently. "Thank you, Mr. Barkley. Your words mean a lot to me."

He held out his hand and, after a moment, Barkley grasped it firmly.

Chris noted the exchange silently, knowing Josiah had been given a gift Chris might never receive. He swallowed hard, banishing the images of the men he’d killed in self-defense. Although he hoped never to have to do so again, Chris knew the impossibility of his wish. Men like him attracted trouble like a dog attracted fleas.

Barkley turned to JD, and Chris’s gut tightened. JD had been particularly quiet ever since they’d gotten rid of Connor. Even Buck hadn’t been able to draw him out of his uncharacteristic reveries, and Chris was afraid JD was beginning the process of pulling away from all of them. He’d gotten used to JD and his exuberance, and would miss him. Chris could only imagine what Buck’s reaction would be.

"Well, son, have you thought about my proposal?" Barkley asked, his voice husky.

JD nodded slowly. "That’s all I been doin’. To have a ranch and raise cattle and horses has been a dream of mine."

Buck dropped his gaze to the tabletop and Vin tugged at the brim of his hat as if to hide his expression. Chris’s fingers curled into his palms. This was it.

"But I can’t accept," JD finished.

Buck whooped loudly, startling the other saloon patrons, and causing Ezra to glance up from his poker game a table over. Ezra smiled widely and nodded at Chris, then returned to his cards.

"I’m offering you a home," Barkley argued. "A place to call your own."

JD’s cheeks flushed slightly. "I know and I’m grateful, but I can’t. There’s too many things I want to do before I settle down." A grin tugged at his youthful features. "Besides, somebody’s got to look out for Buck."

Buck tried to muster some outraged indignation but failed, and he slapped JD’s back, raising a cloud of dust. "I think you got that backwards there, kid."

"And who rescued who from Connor?" JD demanded, though his dark eyes twinkled.

Buck sobered and said, "You did, JD, and I’m damn proud of you."

JD’s expression slipped. "Thanks, Buck. That means a lot comin’ from you," he replied.

"We’re all proud of you, JD," Josiah added.

"You’ve become a man without us even noticing," Chris said.

JD didn’t speak, but Chris noticed his shoulders became a little straighter.

Barkley stood. "I guess there’s nothing left for me here. The offer still stands, JD, so if you ever change your mind, you’re always welcome."

"Thank you, sir," JD said, shaking Barkley’s hand.

The older man turned to leave, then paused. "By the way, what’s your Christian name?"

JD grinned. "Let’s just say that I prefer JD."

Barkley smiled, then walked out of the saloon.

"C’mon, JD, we’re your friends. You can tell us," Buck said.

"Ain’t nobody that close of friend," JD retorted. "I don’t know about you, but I can’t live with my smell no more. I’m headed to the bath house."

He stood, and Buck, Nathan, and Josiah joined him. As they left, Buck put an arm around JD’s shoulders, and Chris could hear him trying to cajole JD into revealing his secret.

"You think JD’ll tell him?" Vin asked, his blue eyes dancing.

"Only if he wants the rest of the world to know," Chris replied with a smile. He filled his and Vin’s whiskey glasses, then raised his. "To Tascosa and clearing your name."

Vin lifted his shot glass and grinned. "And to every adventure along the way. As long as it ain’t driving cattle."

Then they tossed back their drinks. For today, they’d enjoy the comfortable companionship of friends, the quiet of a dim saloon, and the soothing burn of the whiskey. Tomorrow was soon enough for the next adventure to begin.
 

The End

The Trail to Tascosa #4: Chains of the Past

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