Disclaimer: The following work of fan fiction is not intended to infringe on any copyright. The characters, setting, and concept belong to John Watson, the folks at Trilogy, and MGM, not to me. The story itself is mine, however; please do not post elsewhere or sue without permission from the author.
Rating: PG-13, mostly for language and a bit of violence.
Notes: A really long time ago, there was this letter auction. I promised two people stories during the course of that auction, and I do intend to get both finished. This is the first: a story involving Buck, JD, h/c, and camping.
This story was partially posted as "Five Seconds" more than a year ago. Thanks go to Carolyn for the new title, and to Carolyn and Shellie both for encouragement and suggestions. All comments appreciated.
Rites of Passage
Thinking back on it, Buck knew the whole thing couldn't have taken any longer than that. Five short, eternal seconds, each one ticking off like the pounding of his pulse in his head.
Five. James Coleman, cattle rustler and brand artist, leapt up from the table where he'd been sitting in the dirty little shack the people of Crooked Fork called a saloon. His left hand was out of sight. Buck just barely had time to recognize the dull, metallic glint of a revolver as Coleman brought it up from under the table.
Four. Buck's hand flew for his own gun, holstered in the hopes that he and JD would be able to get into the saloon and get in position to cover Coleman before Chris and Ezra came in to confront the outlaw. Damn it, how did he know?
Three. The bartender vanished behind barrels and plank that made up his bar. The few patrons in the saloon scattered. Somehow, even in the din, Buck heard the distinctive sounds of three guns cocking.
Two. Coleman smiled as his finger tightened on the trigger.
One. Weight slammed into Buck, but it wasn't the sharp punch he'd been expecting. He crashed to the ground, sawdust stinging his eyes. Two sharp reports, so fast they almost sounded as one, rang out from the doorway where he'd been standing a moment ago.
JD must have got Coleman, Buck thought, trying to blink his vision clear. A warm, heavy weight had him pinned to the floor. He shifted, trying to push it off. Then, through the ringing in his ears from the gunfire, he heard it. Right next to his ear, a low, hurting sound, neither quite a whimper nor a groan.
He knew, even before he could get his eyes clear enough to see, even before he heard Chris's, "Shit, JD. Ezra, get me something to stop this bleeding."
He felt the limp weight being lifted off, and then Chris said in a distracted voice, "Buck, you hit?"
Buck rubbed his eyes, cursing the stinging that kept him from seeing what was going on. "I'm fine. JD?"
The black blur that was Chris turned toward him. "There's blood on your face."
Buck blinked hard. He didn't hurt anywhere--but his stomach lurched as he caught sight of his hands. They were covered in blood, and it wasn't his. "I wasn't hit. What about the kid?"
"Chest. I've seen worse."
Chris's tone said he'd seen better, too. Buck blinked the last of the water out of his eyes and pushed himself up, looking over to where Chris had moved JD.
His first impression was red. Blood everywhere, covering JD's chest and splattered across the side of his face. Chris's hands were covered in it as they pressed down, trying to stop the blood that was still pouring out of the wound high on the right side of JD's chest near his collarbone.
Not his heart. Thank God, it wasn't his heart.
Jumping, Buck jerked his eyes away from the bloody mess that was JD's chest. "What?"
"I said, make sure there's nobody else likely to want a piece of this action. Then see if there's a doc in town." Chris looked up at him, frowning. "Get moving, Buck, he ain't exactly got a scratch here."
"Yeah." Buck shook his head. "Yeah, I'm on it."
Buck shoved himself to his feet, pausing for one last look. Damn, JD was white as a ghost . . . not a thought he really wanted to contemplate at the moment.
None of the patrons of the saloon looked like they had any intention of taking up for Coleman. They were slowly emerging from whatever cover they'd hidden behind and were going back to their drinks and cards as if they were determined not to notice anything was happening. None of them even made a move toward Coleman's body, which was sprawled on the floor with two holes marring its chest.
Buck barely spared it a glance. Doctor. Got to find a doctor. But where the hell am I going to find one in this one-horse dump?
He scanned the saloon, settling on the bartender as the one most likely to be sober enough to give him any information. The grizzled old man had poked his head up from behind the bar and was eyeing the mess on his floor with a resigned expression.
The old man flinched. Buck suddenly realized he was still holding his gun, forgotten in his hand when JD had thrown him to the floor. He'd been damn lucky it hadn't gone off when he'd fallen. Damn lucky, because JD had fallen right in front of him and could have been hurt even worse . . .
What's wrong with you? Get your mind on business.
Holstering his weapon, Buck walked over to the bar. "We need a doc. Any chance you got one somewhere close by?"
The bartender snorted. "Where you think you are, Philadelphia?"
Buck leaned forward, resting his palms on the plank, almost whispering to keep from yelling. He didn't--JD didn't--have time for this shit. "What I think, mister, is that you'd better give me a straight answer, pronto."
The bartender drew back slightly, his eyes widening. "Ain't no doctor in this town. Nearest one's in Alamosa, near on fifty miles from here."
Fifty miles. No way in hell JD could make a trip like that. Wasn't too likely any doctor would agree to travel that far to come see a patient, either.
Abruptly shoving away from the bar, Buck hurried back to his friends, crouching down beside Chris and Ezra, who had returned with his saddlebags in hand. The gambler pulled one of his spare shirts out of the bag and handed it to Chris, then took out another one and started tearing it into strips with sharp, savage jerks.
"No doctor for fifty miles," Buck reported, glancing down at JD and then away again. Except for the spattered blood on the right side of the kid's face and the unnatural paleness, you'd never know he wasn't sleeping. The only indication he was feeling anything was the slight catch in each breath he took. It was downright unnerving, seeing him lie there like he'd just stretched out for a nap.
"Damn." Chris reached up to push a strand of hair out of his face with his wrist, leaving a streak of blood on his forehead. "The bullet went through. I can bandage it up and hope that stops the bleeding. I'd feel better if someone was here that knew what the hell they were doing, though."
"May I suggest locating a . . . " Ezra paused, scanning his surroundings, then continued, ". . . relatively safe haven in which Mr. Dunne might have a better chance to recuperate than in this disreputable establishment?"
"Maybe we shouldn't move him," Buck said uneasily, risking another glance down and jerking his eyes away as quickly as before. He couldn't--blood didn't normally bother him, but for some reason, he just couldn't stand to look at JD's wound. It made his stomach feel like he'd just been thrown off a bronc.
"Can't just leave him here," Chris answered. "Go find out if there's a hotel in town, or someone who'd rent us a room."
Buck felt a flash of anger. Why did Chris keep sending him away? Did Chris think JD wouldn't want to see Buck when he woke up? Then the anger was replaced with shame; how could he be thinking of anything but taking care of JD right now? Standing, Buck went back to the bartender and asked about accommodations.
"You ain't planning on staying here, are you?" the bartender asked, his eyebrows raised in disbelief. "After killing Jimmy Coleman? He's got a passel of kinfolk up in the hills that won't take too kindly to him being dead. I don't know if you're crazy or just plain stupid."
"What I am is just about out of patience. I need a room, now."
The bartender shook his head. "Your funeral, mister. Ma Hendriks runs a boarding house of sorts. Last building on the north side of town, the one with the curtains in the front windows."
With a grunt that might be interpreted as thanks, Buck grabbed a bottle of whiskey off the bar and headed back to his friends.
Ezra watched Chris press a wad of fabric against the wound in JD's chest, then wrap a strip of cloth around it to hold it in place. The gunslinger tied the strips off with practiced ease. Ezra wondered idly how often Chris had done this to be so comfortable with it.
"We got a problem," Buck announced, crouching down on his heels beside Ezra and setting a whiskey bottle on the floor next to his feet. "Coleman's got kin. Apparently they won't be thanking us for killing one of their own."
"Of course he does," Ezra said dryly. "Did I miss something, or did Judge Travis fail to mention that little detail?"
"We'll deal with it if it comes." Chris leaned over JD to grab the whiskey bottle, taking a long swig. "Ezra, help me roll him over."
"I got that for JD," Buck protested. He grabbed the bottle out of Chris's hand and took a drink. "Don't you think we should put it on those wounds?"
Ezra pressed down on the cloth covering JD's chest wound while Chris pulled him over onto his side. Ezra felt the dampness of blood around the edges of the makeshift bandage and tried to ignore the queasy lurch in his stomach.
"Just trying to stop the blood for now," Chris mumbled around the strip of cloth he held in his teeth. "We can worry about cleaning it when we get him someplace private."
"Speaking of which, were you able to procure accommodations?" Ezra looked up at Buck, grateful for the excuse not to watch Chris's ministrations.
"There's a boarding house at the end of town. Maybe we should give some though to heading home, though."
"'Cause of Coleman's kin?" Chris shook his head. "JD won't feel like riding for a few days. I don't much like the idea of driving a wagon into an ambush."
"Do you think we'll have a better chance of defending ourselves in this boarding house Buck located?" Ezra asked. From what he'd seen of the town, none of the buildings were sturdy enough to hold off a strong wind, much less a concerted attack.
JD interrupted with a groan, reaching up to push at Chris's hand. "Quit."
"JD?" Buck leaned over the younger man. "'Bout time you woke up, kid."
JD opened his eyes, blinking in puzzlement at the faces above him. Then he looked down toward his chest. "Damn it. Not again."
Ezra grinned. "You do seem to have a way with the bullets, my friend."
"Wish you'd be more like me and concentrate on the ladies," Buck grumbled.
"Feels like . . . someone punched me in . . . the chest," JD gasped. He glared up at Chris. "Quit that."
Chris tied off the last knot on the bandages. "Sure thing, kid."
"Coleman?" JD asked. His voice caught breathlessly on the word, one hand fumbling at the bandage on his chest.
The shock of the bullet was obviously wearing off. Ezra winced in sympathy, remembering the feeling all too well--a burning, sickening agony that stole one's concentration and self-control.
Buck seemed to recognize the signs as well. He caught JD's hand and put it back down on the floor. "Leave that alone. Coleman's dead, and I'm thinking we might have the same problem if we don't get out of this rat hole. Some of the locals don't look too friendly."
"Think you can walk?" Without waiting for an answer, Chris grabbed JD's arm and started to pull him up. The younger man tried to help, but it took Buck bracing him on the other side to get him to his feet, and the assistance of both men to hold him there.
Ezra grabbed the gun JD had dropped, along with the whiskey bottle and his saddlebags, and followed the other three out the door.
In the beginning, it had only been a pressure shoving against his shoulder from the front and the back at the same time. It hadn't hurt much, just that weight that nagged at him till he had to wake up and pay attention to it.
By the time Chris pulled him to his feet, the pressure had grown to a full-blown, throbbing fire. It was all JD could do not to cry out. He'd forgotten how much it hurt having a bullet rip through his body, how it made him cold and hot at the same time, how his legs got all wobbly like a newborn foal's and his stomach started flipping around like he were standing on the deck of ship in rough water.
All he could do was close his eyes, trust to Chris's shoulder under his good arm and Buck's hands holding him steady on his bad side, and breathe very carefully, because there was no way he was going to puke all over Chris Larabee. He'd rather die right there in the middle of the street.
He wished they would quit walking. If anyone had told him where they were going, he'd lost track of it. He found himself abruptly angry, not only at the fact that the older men were hauling off and taking him somewhere without letting him in on the plans, but also because his feet didn't seem to have any respect for him, either. They wouldn't go in a straight line. Hell, half the time they wouldn't set down flat on the ground. Then his knees would rebel, and he'd find himself falling against Chris or Buck. That made his shoulder start throbbing worse, and he'd want to cuss or yell or tell the guys to stop so he could rest, but he just knew if he opened his mouth, whatever was in his stomach would come spewing out.
Finally they did stop. JD forced his eyes open, blinking at the grey shape in front of him to make it come into focus. The shape proved to be a ramshackle house, the A-frame design looking about as sturdy as JD felt at the moment. Whatever paint might have covered the warped boards siding the house had long since peeled away, leaving as the only touch of color a set of calico curtains in each of the two windows and a couple of nearly wilted desert flowers lining the porch.
Ezra walked gingerly up the steps to the porch. He knocked on the door, then repeated the action sharply when there was no answer.
Finally, the door cracked open. A thin, middle-aged woman with greying brown hair falling out of a bun eyed Ezra up and down, then looked past him to JD, Chris, and Buck.
"You'll be wanting a room?" she asked.
Ezra snapped his mouth shut on whatever he was going to say and just nodded.
"Two dollars a night for one room, four dollars for two. Meals are extra, and I don't want any blood on my sheets."
"We'll pay for the sheets," Chris said shortly, starting up the porch steps and leaving JD no choice but to follow. "And one room will do. Ezra, settle up with the lady."
"I'll expect reimbursement," Ezra answered, but mildly, and Chris just grunted as he led JD through the front door.
The front room seemed dim after the sun-lit street. A strong scent of lavender hung in the air, threatening JD's unsteady control of his stomach. Behind him, Buck sneezed. Chris brought the three of them to a halt again, and JD eyed the faded, flower-patterned couch in front of him longingly.
"Which room, ma'am?" Buck asked, his voice tight with the effort not to sneeze again.
"First on your left down that side hallway."
The floor didn't hold any steadier under JD's feet than the street had. Buck and Chris both cursed under their breath as JD's knees betrayed him again, and JD thought with confused shame that he shouldn't be stumbling around the lady's house like he was drunk. Then the world went sideways, and the next thing he knew he was sitting propped up against some pillows on a bed.
For a moment, all he could think was that he wished someone hadn't taken his boots off. His feet felt like they were sitting on blocks of ice. Then Buck sat down on the side of the bed, and the movement set his shoulder and chest throbbing again.
"Damn it, Buck," he gasped, gritting his teeth against the urge to scream the words.
"Sorry, kid. We need to see about getting that wound cleaned out."
"Better give him this, first." Ezra held out a whiskey bottle.
JD grimaced. He didn't like the stuff, couldn't stand the taste of it since that night in the Seminole village when he'd drunk too much and ended up sick as a dog the next morning. It wasn't the memory of the hangover, though, that kept him from drinking. It was the faint flavor of gunpowder and blood that always lingered in his mouth when he tasted whiskey.
"Best drink it, JD," Chris said quietly from over by the window. He stood at an angle where he could see the street without being seen from outside, but his attention for the moment was on the bed. "It won't feel too good when Buck pours it on those wounds."
The thought was enough for JD to give up any idea of arguing. He took the bottle and gulped, trying to swallow the whiskey fast enough that he wouldn't taste it. It burned going down, leaving him coughing so hard his vision went black for a moment. He didn't even notice Buck pulling off the reddened bandages or working his vest and shirt off the wounded shoulder.
He couldn't ignore the explosion of burning pain when Buck pressed a whiskey-soaked rag to the hole in his chest. He said something his mama would have washed his mouth out for, grabbing for Buck's hand in a desperate effort to make the pain stop.
"Easy, JD," Buck grunted, fending off his attack with one hand and keeping the pressure steady on JD's shoulder with the other. "One of you want to help me out here?"
Chris stepped forward to catch JD's free hand, pinning it down to the bed with an ease JD would have found insulting if he'd had the concentration to think about it. He couldn't focus on anything but the red-hot poker being jabbed through his body, though, and he had to bite down hard on his lip to keep from crying out again.
"Try this." Chris held out a dusty bandanna. "You're gonna bite a hole clean through your lip if you're not careful."
"I think I'll, uh, see about procuring some, uh . . . " Ezra backed toward the door, his expression as queasy as JD's stomach.
Before he could make his escape, he bumped into the woman who'd answered the door. She handed him a bowl and a stack of linen strips.
"Thought those might come in handy," she said. She studied the scene at the bed, then added almost grudgingly, "I've got some laudanum. It'll be another dollar for the bottle and the bandages."
Ezra frowned. "That hardly seems a fair exchange rate, madam . . ."
"Folks around here call me Ma, or Missus Hendricks if they want to be fancy. I ain't no madam." She frowned at Ezra. "And you can take it or leave it. You won't get no better at the general store."
JD wanted to tell Ezra to take it, damn it, but his teeth were clenched so tightly on the bandanna he didn't think he'd ever get them loose. Buck had started the slow, agonizing process of picking the threads from JD's shirt and vest out of the wound, and JD would have given a month's pay to pass out, even if Buck ribbed him about it--although Buck was looking a little pale himself.
"Seeing as how you have me over the proverbial barrel," Ezra said, pulling his wallet out of his coat and holding out another dollar, "I'll take it. But I also want some extra blankets and chairs."
"I'll show you were to find them," Mrs. Hendricks conceded, and plucked the dollar out of Ezra's hand.
Ezra placed the bandages and bowl on the bedside stand and followed her out of the room. Buck reached over to grab one of the strips of cloth, folding it over and pressing it against the hole in JD's chest.
"I got to say, kid, you've got better luck than most men I know. Here you've been shot twice and nothing important hit either time."
JD gave him a look that hopefully conveyed exactly what he thought of his "luck." Buck grinned, then handed him the whiskey bottle again.
"Better take another swig of that. We've still got your back to do."
JD spat the bandanna out and took the bottle from him, drinking it without complaint. Between the whiskey he'd had earlier and the loss of blood, he was starting to feel a little distant, like his head could float away from his body if it took a mind to. As long as Buck wasn't picking at his shoulder, the throbbing had grown distant, as well. JD handed the bottle to Chris and leaned his head back against the wall. He was starting to think he could get used to the burn of the whiskey in his throat and belly. Even better, it seemed to be traveling down to his feet, melting the blocks of ice that had frozen around them.
He watched as Chris took a drink and handled the bottle off to Buck. Both men looked tired. JD wondered idly if Buck had scratched his face when JD pushed him down; a thin spattering of blood dotted one cheek, broken by trails of sweat.
Buck set the bottle on the floor. "Well, kid, sooner started, sooner mended. Lean forward so I can get to your back."
"How 'bout you just slap a bandage on it and call it even?" JD asked tiredly. The whiskey had finally gotten him to the point where, if he stayed real still, he was warm and nothing hurt. What really appealed right now was a long nap, not another session of Buck picking at him.
"Better get it over with now, before it starts to swell up," Chris said, his tone more cheerful than JD thought it should be. "Here, bite down on this rag again and lean forward. I'll brace you."
JD did as he was told, his shoulder starting its dull throbbing before Buck even touched it. Chris held him steady, which was nice since the room had started spinning again, but it also kept him from jerking away when the fire exploded on his back.
He made some sort of sound, thankfully muffled by the bandanna, and Chris's hands tightened on him.
"Easy, kid, easy. It'll be over in a minute." Chris sounded oddly gentle, an idea JD would have laughed at if he'd had the breath. "Buck, hurry up."
"I'm doing the best I can. There's all sorts of sawdust and crap in there," Buck snapped. "Just hang on, JD, I'm almost done."
It wasn't much comfort, since the hot poker was still digging its way into his body, but JD was too busy not screaming to tell him that.
"Hey, Chris, remember that time you had to dig that bullet out of me a few years ago? Out near Yuma, I think it was?"
"You mean that time old man Callahan found you with his daughter? As I recall, I was digging it out of some place a little more personal than your shoulder."
"Don't go giving the kid any ideas, now. It was in my hip."
"Awfully far south for your hip."
"Don't listen to him, JD. Man his age starts to forget things."
JD wanted to tell them both to shut up. A small, rational part of his mind knew they were talking to distract him, but their voices grated on his nerves. But even half-drunk and in pain, he couldn't maintain the image of telling Chris to shut up for more than a moment. Buck, yes. Hell, yes, a hundred times a day, but Chris would kill him. Although at the moment, the idea had its merits.
Finally, just about the time he was ready to give in and start screaming, Buck pressed something that smelled of gunpowder to the wound in his back and started wrapping bandages around his shoulder. As Chris let go of him, JD realized to his shame that he was shaking like a baby. He tried to make it stop, but he was cold again and the pain seemed to have settled in his bones, making him want to be sick.
Neither of the older men appeared to take any notice, but Chris stood up from the bed, grabbed the worn quilt that was folded across the bottom, and draped it over JD's legs.
Buck helped him lean back against the pillows. He closed his eyes, his shoulder hurting too badly to sleep even though he felt like he'd just cleaned out every stall in the stables back home. He felt Buck run a wet cloth down his side, probably washing off the blood, but he was too tired to be embarrassed.
A stirring at the door made him open his eyes. Mrs. Hendricks came back into the room with an armful of blankets and a small, brown glass bottle. Ezra followed her, carrying two wooden chairs. Ezra gave JD a sharp look, then nodded as if satisfied.
JD closed his eyes again, shutting out the commotion surrounding getting the chairs and blankets distributed. He wished they'd all just go away and let him suffer in peace, but it didn't seem too likely that they would, so he just blocked them out as best he could.
Then Buck was bothering him again, patting his cheek and telling him to drink something. He obeyed, then nearly gagged at the sickly sweet flavor. It reminded him of pain, and Mattie, and Nathan telling him he had to drink it, and being more scared than he'd ever been in his life because Nathan's expression said he'd come way too close to dying. He wanted to protest, but Buck wasn't listening anyway, so he just swallowed it and tried not to think of anything but the nagging ache in his shoulder and how annoying it was that the guys were still talking when he wanted to sleep.
After a while, though, the pain dissolved and the voices fragmented into tiny little shards of glass that shattered and blew away. His thoughts began to drift off as he grew warm and strangely heavy all over. He wondered if they had piled all the blankets on top of him like a huge cloth mountain. Maybe he'd grow so heavy he'd sink through the mattress to the floor. He wanted to tell Buck to check under the bed and make sure there wasn't anything under there it would hurt to land on, but even his tongue was heavy, so heavy he couldn't move it.
Then someone, maybe lots of someones or one person with lots of hands, slid him down so he was lying flat on the bed. His thoughts slid as well, somewhere off to the side, and then they weren't there anymore and neither was his body.
"You think they'll be coming?"
Chris turned from his post by the window at the sound of Buck's voice. Buck had sprawled out in one of the wooden chairs with his boots propped on the bed. His gun belt hung from the back of the chair, in easy reach if it should be needed.
"Don't know. Could be the barkeep was just mouthing off."
"Even I wouldn't take odds on that." Ezra didn't look up from his game of solitaire. He'd pulled his chair over to the foot of the bed, using the weathered oak chest there as a card table. "Those men in the saloon were apprehensive about something. I would be willing to wager they weren't upset about a few bloodstains on the floor."
Buck just grunted, settling further in the chair like he intended to take a nap. He looked damn near as tired as the kid. Chris figured he'd be snoring in another few minutes if no one interrupted him. Buck always had possessed an unholy talent for sleeping anywhere.
Chris turned back to the window, shutting out the soft sounds of Buck's slowing breath and the slap of paper against wood as Ezra dealt out more cards. In spite of what Chris had said, he didn't doubt Coleman's kin would be coming after them, if only because believing otherwise could get him killed. A man didn't survive as long as he had by expecting the best.
"It occurs to me," Ezra's low drawl broke the silence, "that this room only has two exits. Were I, say, an angry outlaw looking to avenge my dead brother, I might view it as the perfect opportunity for an ambush."
The muscles in Chris's shoulders tightened, but he kept his voice even. "JD can't ride."
"Obviously." The cards rustled. "I believe I saw a wagon at the livery when we rode into town."
"Wagon's no better than a moving target."
"Moving targets are hit significantly less often than stationary ones."
Chris ignored the comment, hoping Ezra would take the hint.
"We don't know what the odds are, who might be coming after us or what their strength might be. We've got one man out of commission and at least one other tied down protecting him. If we stay here, we're going to end up like so many ducks in a shooting gallery."
Chris turned to look at him, a strange, bitter taste in his mouth. "It'd be a hell of a lot easier to get away without a hurt kid slowing us down, too, wouldn't it."
Green eyes flicked up to meet his, and Chris actually felt a chill.
"I was suggesting, Mr. Larabee, that we throw the boy in a wagon while he's still feeling no pain and get as much distance covered between this cesspit and Four Corners as we can."
Chris studied the gambler's face, but Ezra could bluff a priest into thinking he was a saint if he thought there would be profit in it.
"Give him a night to rest up," Chris said finally, a grudging apology. "Tomorrow you can go see about that wagon."
Ezra nodded once, sharply, and slapped down a card with more force than necessary. Chris turned back to the window, but the room was getting stuffy and all the talk of wagons reminded him of something important.
"I'm going down to the stable, see if I can't get the horses a place to bed down for the night."
Ezra didn't look up as he left.
News spread fast. Chris could hear the whispers behind him as he walked down the street. He wondered if the story they were telling of Coleman's death bore any resemblance to the truth. Probably not, if past experience was any judge.
The horses stood where they had been left, tied to the hitching rail outside the stable. Chris patted his black when the horse whickered a soft greeting, then had to scratch Buck's mare's nose as she nudged him, jealous.
The stableman stepped out of the stable doors, squinting at the bright light. He held a dirty pitchfork in one hand, and used the other to wipe sweat off his forehead.
"How much to put all four up for the night?" Chris asked, not in much of a mood for niceties.
The stableman spat a thin stream of tobacco into the dirt near his boot. "Ain't you one of the men that killed Jimmy Coleman?"
"I'm the man looking for a place to stable my horses for the night."
"Good riddance, as far as I'm concerned. Jimmy weren't nothing but trouble, and that was on his good days. Two bits a head, not including feed, and I get to keep 'em when the rest of the Coleman gang does for you and your friends."
Chris grinned. "Two bits including feed, and you can have first claim to whatever Coleman's kin is riding once they don't need it anymore."
The stableman grunted and spat again. "You ever seen them nags?" He shook his head morosely. "Two bits and feed, but you take care of bedding them down for the night."
Chris had smelled cleaner stables in his life, but the strong odor faded to the back of his mind as he went about the familiar ritual of unsaddling, currying, and feeding the four horses. He'd performed the task so many times he didn't have to think while he did it, and that in itself was a comfort.
He wasn't much in the mood for contemplation. He had some planning to do, had to find a way out of this mess that wouldn't get any more of his men hurt. It was easier, though, to lose himself in the steady rhythm of the brush running down his black's neck and back. Focusing on that, he didn't have to think about the sudden, sickening lurch of his heart when he'd heard the first shot explode from the saloon before he and Ezra had had time to get in place. He could blot out the picture of JD sprawled over Buck, a small pool of blood already staining the wooden floor beneath them. He could ignore the burning in his gut left over from his conversation with Ezra, not question his constant need to push the man, to hunt for the weakness that would betray them all.
He was tempted to take his time and linger in the silence of the stable, but finally he had to give in to the call of the matters that needed his attention. When the last of the horses had enough food and water to keep her comfortable for the night, he shouldered the three sets of saddlebags that had been left on the horses and headed for the hardware store.
The proprietor, a thin, grey man with only a fringe of white hair circling his head, looked up from his ledger as Chris stepped through the door. Rubbing an ink-stained hand on his leather apron, he took a step toward Chris.
"Can I help you, mister?"
"Need shotgun shells, bullets, maybe a rifle."
The proprietor nodded his head toward the far side of the store. "I keep guns and rifles in that corner. Have a look and call me when you see what you want, then I'll outfit you with the ammunition."
Chris nodded his thanks and walked to the back of the room. The display rack hanging from the wall sported a better selection than he'd expected, and he pulled a Winchester down to test its sights.
Behind him, the door opened. He looked up sharply, but he was half-hidden by a support post and the plow bit that leaned up against it. Three men, all townies by the look of them, wandered in and headed for the front counter, settling around it with the comfort of familiarity.
"Shot him in the back, is what I heard."
Chris didn't look around the post to identify the speaker, but the voice sounded young and excited.
"Come on, Jimmy was in the saloon and these guys came in from outside. How could they shoot him in the back if they were coming in from outside?" This voice was thin and whiny.
"He could have been sitting with his back to the door," the kid said sullenly.
"I heard they were playing poker and the fancy-pants dude tried to cheat Jimmy, and that's how they got into a fight." The speaker had a deeper voice than the other two, and he sounded amused by the whole thing.
"Jimmy could spot a card sharp faster than most, I'll give him that," Whiny said.
"That's 'cause his cousin Clint kept fleecing him," Deep Voice drawled, and they all snickered.
"How long you think it's going to take 'em all to find out Jimmy's dead?" the kid asked.
"Maybe another hour, depending on how fast Joe Simmons' nag is running these days," the proprietor chimed in. His voice was louder than the others, pitched to carry to the back of the room. Chris wondered if he were being warned or threatened.
"Joe Simmons' nag ain't run a day in her life," the kid sneered.
"Still moves faster than you do." Whiny snickered, but no one else seemed to find the joke funny.
The kid spluttered, but Deep Voice interrupted him before he could come up with anything witty. "Anyone know anything about these hired guns that came after Jimmy?"
"Knowing Jimmy, he probably got fresh with one of their sisters."
"Men like that don't have sisters," Whiny said. "Probably they was hired by someone who had a sister Jimmy got fresh with. Or a wife."
"Being good with a gun don't have nothing to do with how many kids your mama and daddy have," the proprietor said, his scorn not quite hiding the nervousness in his voice.
Chris grinned faintly as he leaned over the display case to grab the boxes of shells he needed. The proprietor sounded like he was about to have a conniption.
"I didn't say it did," Whiny protested. "Anyway, it don't matter. Clint and the boys are gonna kill 'em all anyway."
"What makes you think they ain't gonna get Clint first?" Deep Voice asked. "They took out Jimmy, and Jimmy's faster'n Clint ever was."
"Hell, one of 'em's half dead already, way I hear tell," the kid piped up again. "That leaves only three of 'em. I don't care how good they are, Clint's still gonna have at least six, seven men on his side. Probably more."
"I don't care who kills who, I just don't want my store shot up and I don't want to get caught in the crossfire," Whiny said. "I remember what happened last time the Colemans got likkered up. I still haven't replaced all the glass in my front windows."
"Might as well say goodbye to what you did replace," the proprietor said morosely.
"Hell, maybe they'll all kill each other before they get to this end of town," Deep Voice said, and they all chuckled.
Chris added a few boxes of bullets to his pile and stepped out around the post, keeping his face blank as the proprietor flushed a dull red and the other three's mouths dropped open. He took his time walking to the front of the store, then gave them all a slow, steady look before tossing some money down on the counter and turning to leave. The store was still silent as he stepped out the door.
A nagging feeling that he was supposed to be doing something dragged Buck from sleep. Long habit held him still and kept his breathing even as he surveyed his surroundings from under the brim of his hat.
JD didn't look like he'd stirred a muscle. His face was still whiter than the sheets he was lying on, but his chest rose and fell with a reassuring steadiness. Ezra had taken over Chris's post by the window, his hands automatically shuffling his deck of cards as he watched the street.
"Where's Chris?" Buck whispered, even though JD probably wouldn't have heard him if he'd shouted in the kid's ear.
"Tending the horses."
Buck shot him a sharp look, wondering what bug had crawled up his butt. A man could damn near get frostbite from the chill in Ezra's voice.
"Been gone long?"
"Did he say when he'd be back?"
Buck gave up. Settling his hat back on his head, he stood and stretched the kinks out. Since Ezra was apparently more interested in his cards than being sociable, Buck ignored him, turning his attention to JD. A quick check of the bandages showed only a little blood had seeped through, but JD's chest around the edges of the cloth had started to bruise up. Buck tucked the blanket back around JD's shoulder loosely so it wouldn't rub on the sore flesh.
Buck rested the back of his hand on JD's temple, then let it trail down JD's cheek. The kid felt a little warm, but having a bullet plow into you could do that. It was too early to tell if there'd be any infection, but if there was, Buck hoped they'd be home by the time that it set in. Nathan had a stronger stomach for cauterizing wounds than Buck ever dreamed of having. He'd come close enough to losing his lunch just cleaning out the kid's wounds the first time.
A noise at the door had him grabbing for his gun, and he felt as much as saw Ezra do the same. His heart didn't stop pounding even when he realized it was just Chris returning.
"Give a man a little warning next time," he grumbled, shoving his gun back in its holster.
Chris smirked. "Just seeing if you're on your toes."
He had a couple of flour sacks in one hand, and he set them down on the chest Ezra had been using as a card table earlier. "I got some extra bullets and supplies. Thought they might come in handy if we're heading out tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Buck asked sharply. "JD won't be in any shape to ride tomorrow."
"Ezra's getting us a wagon," Chris said, his voice flat.
Ezra shot Chris a look Buck couldn't interpret, but Buck didn't have time to wonder about it. "He won't be in any shape to ride in a wagon, either, not without risking him bleeding to death. What happened to staying in town a few days till he healed up some?"
"Locals aren't too happy with the idea of their town being turned into a battlefield. Someone's already rode out to tell Coleman's kin he's headed for boot hill." Chris hooked the chair Buck had been sleeping on with one leg and dragged it over so he could sit. "We're about to wind up caught between the town and the Colemans, and there's only three of us able to fight."
"And we got four walls to stop the bullets if we stay here." Buck hooked his thumbs in his belt and frowned down at Chris. "Seems like those odds are better than what we'd get out in the open."
"One small match would render these walls useless," Ezra said. "And most likely us, as well."
Buck shook his head slowly. He couldn't argue with that logic, but he didn't like it.
He looked down at JD, remembering how hard it was for him just to walk the short distance from the saloon to the boarding house. JD's wound wasn't that bad, not compared to what it could have been, but a man could die from a simple cut if he lost enough blood or got it infected.
"What if he isn't up to it?"
"He's strong," Chris answered.
"And he'll have a much better recuperation in Four Corners than he possibly could here," Ezra added.
Their words sounded certain, but Buck had known both men long enough to see the doubt in their eyes. It did nothing to make him feel more confident.
The pungent odor of kerosene permeated the room. Ezra imagined it would linger long after they were gone, soaked into the faded fabric of the drapes and the blankets on the bed. As a testament to his existence, he thought somewhat morosely, he'd much rather have a statue.
Buck had settled in to the task of cleaning and loading whatever weapons he could get his hands on, a tedious task made necessary more by Buck's restlessness than any danger of the weapons being damaged. Fine black powder formed a pile on the remains of Ezra's shirt that Buck had commandeered as a drop cloth. The thing had been ripped beyond repair to provide bandages, but Ezra couldn't help but feel a pang of outrage at the cavalier treatment afforded to such an expensive garment. The powder dusted Buck's jeans and coated his hands, and he sported a smudge on his forehead where he'd wiped a trickle of sweat away. He had worked steadily and in unaccustomed silence, his concentration only disturbed by periodic pauses to check on JD's welfare, followed inevitably by a glance at his own gun, ready on the nightstand should he need it.
Ezra had hesitated to break the silence as well, although he had little fear that speaking would wake JD. Laudanum, whiskey, and blood loss had the young man down for the count. Ezra seriously doubted an explosion going off next to his ear would wake him, let alone a quiet conversation.
Chris was another matter. He had leaned his chair back against the wall and appropriated the chest Ezra had used as a card table for new duties as a footrest. With his hat tilted down over his eyes and his arms crossed over his chest, he had every appearance of being asleep. Regardless of his actual state, Ezra had no real urge to speak with him at the moment.
The lack of conversation left few alternatives for passing the time. Mrs. Hendricks had supplied a filling, if bland, supper, and Ezra had defeated himself at solitaire more times than he cared to count. Even with those distractions, the night remained relatively young. Ezra could see faint hints of red still streaking the west horizon through the window.
All in all, it was a hell of a way to spend an evening--bored out of his mind and actually tired enough to go to bed in spite of the ungodly hour. By silent agreement, though, only one of the three men on guard slept at a time, and Chris had claimed his turn without asking Ezra's opinion on the matter.
Ezra stifled a yawn, returning his gaze to the window. By Chris's account of the conversation he'd overheard, the Colemans could be making their appearance at any time. Ezra wasn't precisely holding his breath in anticipation of their arrival, but he would feel more confident knowing their current plans and location.
He had just begun to contemplate the benefits a scouting mission, with a stop at the saloon along the way, when a low voice broke the silence.
"Been thinking," Chris said from under his hat.
"Had to happen sometime," Buck commented, running his oil rag down the barrel of the last rifle. He eyed it critically, then rubbed at a smudge.
Chris's hat tilted up a fraction. "Shut up, Buck," he said evenly. "Ezra, soon as it's full dark, you're going back to Four Corners."
Ezra raised an eyebrow, letting his face fall into a mask of casual inquisitiveness that hid the sudden tightening in his shoulders. "And what, dare I ask, prompted this decision?"
"Backup." Chris sat up, pushing his hat far enough back on his head that he could meet Ezra's eyes. "I figure if you ride hard, you can get the boys and meet us on the trail late tomorrow."
"You sure that's a good idea, pard? That gives us one less gun getting out of town."
"And four more for the majority of the trip home," Ezra pointed out. His thoughts were racing, figuring the odds and not coming up with anything he liked. "Not that the plan is without its flaws, but the chances of getting back to Four Corners would increase in direct proportion to the size of the escort."
"Glad you approve," Chris said dryly.
Ezra gave Chris his blandest look. "Hardly. I just know when to bet and when to fold."
"Can't say I like gambling with the kid's life." Buck started wiping the oil and gunpowder off his hands with one of the linen strips. "If the Colemans come after us . . . "
"You think three of us can hold them off?" Chris shook his head. "What kind of chance do you think JD's going to stand against seven or eight men when there's nowhere to run?"
"Better with three of us than two."
Buck had that stubborn set to his mouth that said he had very little intention of listening to his compatriots' reasoning. Ezra sighed, then said quietly, "There's no doubt the three of us are better protection than two possibly could be. No one is arguing that. But the addition of our compatriots would more than double our chances of getting home--of getting JD home, which is, after all, our ultimate goal. I can make it back to you with the others by tomorrow evening at the latest . . . "
"Then we'll wait right here for you," Buck snapped. "Chris and me can hold this house that long with all this fire power."
"No, we can't," Chris said. "The townsfolk aren't any too happy about having a war on their doorstep. I don't think they have much use for the Colemans, but we're the ones who're bringing trouble down on their heads. Even if we could hold off the Colemans, we might end up with a lynch party coming right behind them."
Buck frowned, shaking his head slowly. Ezra could sympathize. He had little more confidence in the plan than Buck. However, he could see few alternatives that ended in anything better than utter disaster.
"Buck." Ezra paused as JD stirred slightly, then continued in a softer voice as JD sighed and settled into a deeper sleep. "What do you think will happen to our hostess should the Colemans attack us here? Or to her house, which is not only her home, but also her means of livelihood? Do you want to be responsible for destroying that, or for her being injured? And what about the women and children in this town who would be right in the line of fire?"
Scrubbing a hand over his face, Buck sighed. "Damn it, all right. We'll do it your way. But if anything happens to JD . . . "
"We'll see that it doesn't." Chris pushed his hat brim down and settled back in the chair. "Ezra, get some shut-eye for an hour or two before you set out."
Ezra raised an eyebrow, but before he could say anything, Chris continued, "And make sure you get out of town without being seen. Last thing we need is an ambush when we leave tomorrow."
Ezra's preparations for his trip were quick and quiet, but Chris tracked every move from under the brim of his hat. Ezra checked through the contents of his saddlebag, adding a box of bullets and a few carefully wrapped chunks of bread left over from their supper. He filled his canteen from the water jug, then settled his hat on his head and the saddlebags over his shoulder.
"Ride safe, pard," Buck said quietly, holding out his hand.
Ezra shook it firmly. "I'll see you tomorrow evening." He glanced over at the bed, started to say something, then stopped himself.
Chris stood slowly, stretching to pop the kinks out of his back. Ezra looked at him, but again visibly didn't say anything.
Chris followed him to the door, putting a hand on his shoulder to stop him before he could leave. "We'll be taking the same route home that we took to get here. I can't guarantee how far we'll get . . . "
Ezra nodded. "We'll find you."
"Make sure the stableman knows to have the wagon ready before dawn. Remind him he doesn't get that bonus if the Colemans find out we're leaving."
Ezra nodded again, his expression dry. Chris considered that he was giving advice on bribery to a con man and moved on to more familiar territory. "Have the boys bring some extra supplies. I don't want to mess with more than we can carry getting out of here."
Ezra shifted the bags he was carrying. "I'd best be getting started."
Chris nodded. He gave Ezra's shoulder a parting squeeze. "Keep your head down out there."
Ezra tilted his hat brim with a fingertip, then slipped silently out the door.
Buck had switched over to the chair by the window, turning it slightly so he could keep an eye on JD as well as the road in front of the house. With no more weapons to clean, he'd resorted to rolling the linen strips into compact balls ready for travel.
Chris glanced around the room. Everything was ready to go--everything except JD, who was sleeping so hard Chris wondered if he'd wake up when they moved him. It might be easier if he didn't. The kid was no lightweight, but if he wasn't awake to feel anything when they were manhandling him, they might be able to move a little faster.
They had hours to wait till dawn. Chris settled back in his own chair, forcing himself to relax. He wouldn't be any good tomorrow if he wore himself out tonight.
"You think Ezra'll make it?"
Chris shrugged. "He's a damn good rider. If he doesn't run into any problems . . . "
"If he does, he ain't got any backup," Buck said, tightening the strip of linen with more force than necessary.
"He can handle it," Chris said. If he didn't run into the whole gang at once. If his horse didn't come up lame. If there weren't any problems back home that would delay his return. Chris shook his head and ran his hand over his face tiredly. He didn't like it that Ezra was out there on his own. Ezra could wiggle his way out of a tight spot better than most men Chris knew, but on his own he was vulnerable.
And so, a small voice in the back of Chris's mind whispered, were they. If Ezra just decided to head for the hills instead of getting help, Chris, Buck, and JD were screwed. Ezra had enough rope to hang himself; Chris couldn't do anything now except wait and see if Ezra used it as a noose or a lifeline.
Getting out of town proved simpler than Ezra had expected. He stuck to the shadows on his journey to the stable, avoiding any prying eyes. The stableman accepted his arrival--and his money--without question. They dickered briefly over the wagon, but Ezra didn't have time to waste driving a hard bargain, and the stableman took complete advantage of the fact. Ezra did manage to extract a promise to have the wagon and the other three horses ready to go before dawn the next morning.
"And don't worry none about them Colemans finding out you're skipping town," the stableman added, counting the roll of bills Ezra had given him. "Ain't never had no use for them anyways, and that Jimmy was always sniffing around my daughter like a mongrel in heat. Far as I'm concerned, your friend did this town a favor."
"And the ten dollars my associate will pay you upon his arrival tomorrow morning will hopefully prove an adequate gesture of our appreciation for your assistance," Ezra said, eyeing the money morosely. Chris would owe him for this one, no doubt about it.
"I'm sure it will." The stableman grinned. "Hang on a minute. I'll turn down the lantern so's you can get out the door without a big show."
Ezra waited till the stableman opened the door, then led his horse out into the street. He stayed on foot until they reached the edge of town, only mounting and setting off at a gallop once he could be certain his departure would go unheard by the majority of the town.
A few miles down the road, he began to let himself relax. If anyone had spotted him leaving, he surely would have had some evidence of pursuit by now. Instead, all he had was a truly lovely night in which to ride. The sky was clear and the air had a hint of coolness to it, and if his mission hadn't been so urgent, Ezra would have enjoyed himself thoroughly.
The pounding of his own horse's hooves masked the sound until it was almost too late. If not for his pursuers' impatience, he most likely would have died that night. As they drew close, one of them yelled, "Damn it, shoot him!"
Jerked from his thoughts, Ezra kicked his horse into a faster gallop. He didn't have time to think; he let his horse have her head and hoped he had enough lead to escape.
Intense, extreme pressure exploded against his head, a white-hot streak that wasn't exactly pain. He reeled, had a sudden impression of horse's hooves, felt his horse's mane beneath his hand and grabbed on desperately. Then the pain hit, threatening to split his skull in half, and all he could do was cling to his horse and let her run.
Buck could think of worse things to do with his time than sit around and wait for dawn. Getting his teeth kicked in by a half-broke mule came to mind, or getting thrown from his horse in the middle of the desert and having to walk back to civilization.
On the other hand, if either of those things had happened, he would be doing something about it instead of just sitting here, watching JD sleep and Chris pretend to sleep. He wouldn't be bored; he wouldn't be worried. Or at least, not worried about anybody except himself. He could handle worrying about himself. He could stop that any time he wanted, and he could usually fix whatever the problem was.
Worrying about his friends, worrying about JD, that wasn't something he could shut off, and it wasn't something he liked to do. It made him pretty damn uncomfortable, as a matter of fact. Made him think about things he didn't want to think about, like how quiet it got when JD wasn't jawing on about something. Like how easy it was to make the blood spill out of a body, and how many times that could happen before the body just didn't have the will to heal up anymore.
Buck shifted in his chair, trying to get away from the picture that thought put in his mind. He eyed Chris resentfully. If Chris wasn't going to sleep, the least he could do was take Buck's mind off his worries.
Taking that as encouragement, Buck continued, "You think Ezra got away all right?"
From under his hat, Chris answered, "You hear any shots earlier?"
"Then likely he did."
Chris's tone didn't invite conversation, but Buck was like to come out of his skin if he didn't get something to do, and JD wasn't exactly up for talking.
"What if he didn't? What if the Colemans caught him and are just waiting for us to make a break for it?"
Chris sighed. "Don't borrow trouble, Buck."
"I'm not borrowing nothing. I'm just trying to think of all the possibilities."
Chris pushed back his hat just enough that his eyes were visible below the brim. "How 'bout you get some rest while there's still time?"
Buck frowned. "I'm not tired."
"Then how 'bout you let me get some rest?"
Buck heard the testiness in Chris's voice but ignored it. Hell, it wasn't like Chris would shoot him with the kid lying right there sleeping. It'd make too much noise.
"You're not tired either, or else you'd be asleep, and you haven't slept since Ezra left."
"I would if you weren't over there twitching around like you got ants in your pants."
Buck sighed. "I was thinking about JD. Damn kid still hasn't learned how to duck a bullet."
"Near as I could tell, he was trying to get you out of the way 'cause you didn't duck," Chris observed dryly.
Another thought he'd been trying real hard to avoid. Buck stood up, but Chris's legs stretched across the only route out of the corner he'd been sitting in, so he turned to look out the window as if that's what he'd intended to do all along.
"You practicing to be a target?"
Buck growled under his breath, but he moved away from the window. He could feel the smirk aimed at his back as he crossed over to the bed. Ignoring it, Buck sat down on the edge of the mattress next to JD and pulled the covers back to check JD's bandage. The small spot of blood that had seeped through earlier hadn't grown too much, but the bruising around the edges of the bandage had darkened and spread.
Satisfied, Buck tucked the covers back around JD's shoulder. He could still feel the heat of a fever coming off JD's face, but it didn't seem too high, and there wasn't much he could do about it anyway. Nathan had a couple of truly foul concoctions he liked to pour down people who'd made the mistake of telling him they were running fevers. Once JD was home, Nathan would know how to deal with whatever was wrong with him.
Buck wasn't going to think about not getting home.
"How is he?"
"Holdin' his own." Buck stood again, crossing over to the window but taking care to stay off to the side. "I wish we knew if Ezra made it."
"If they plan on attacking us, why don't they just get off their butts and do it?" Buck continued peevishly. "It's not like we're hard to find."
"Shut up, Buck," Chris said tiredly. "Sit down. There's no point in wearing yourself out."
Easy for him to say. Buck had never had any patience for waiting.
"Maybe we should go now. Even if they saw Ezra leave, they won't expect us to go so soon after."
Chris shoved his hat back on his head and fixed Buck with a sharp stare. "Buck, every time you go trying to change the plan, something goes wrong."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Remember Laredo?" Chris pulled his hat brim back down and settled back, obviously feeling like he'd won the argument.
"I remember you damn near got your fool head blowed off by some punk kid," Buck answered, but not too loudly. He did remember Laredo, remembered deciding to confront the punk kid even though the plan was to wait until Chris was in position and had given him the signal. He didn't need Chris reminding him that the punk kid had nearly killed him and Chris both because Buck had moved too soon.
"We'll leave at dawn. Now sit down and shut up."
This time, Chris's voice had that edge to it that said he would shoot, noise or no noise. Buck sat, but he couldn't stop himself from muttering, "I'd just feel better if I knew Ezra'd made it."
Dawn finally arrived, a dim yellow light brightening the room. Chris shouldered the remaining saddlebags and headed for the stable to collect their wagon. Buck was stuck with the thankless task of getting JD on his feet and coherent enough to walk under his own power. JD didn't make it easy. Fretful mumbling gave way to language Buck hadn't been aware JD knew.
"There's no call for that," Buck admonished, pulling JD into a sitting position and holding him there in spite of his attempts to melt back against the bed. "Come on, JD, we've got to get moving. Chris'll be waiting with that wagon, and you know Chris don't have much patience for waiting."
"Would you hold still?" JD said peevishly, his words slurring slightly. "I need some water."
Buck poured some water one-handed and gave it to him, keeping a hold on the mug to steady it.
"Easy, now, not too much," Buck murmured absently, glancing out the window at the steadily rising sun. "That's enough. We need to get moving."
"Well, we'll never get home if we stay sitting around here." Buck rammed one of JD's boots onto his foot.
"How 'bout we stay here, then?"
Buck rammed JD's other boot on, wincing as JD grunted in pain. "Sorry. Tell you what, you explain to Chris why he went to the trouble of getting that wagon for nothing, and we'll stay."
JD blinked at him blearily. "Chris'd be pissed," he concluded finally.
Buck straightened up, glancing around till he saw what he needed. He picked up a long strip of the fabric they'd used for bandages, knotting it into a circle before easing it over JD's head and sliding his bad arm into it. JD swore again, but once his arm was settled into the sling, he seemed to relax a bit.
Grasping JD's free arm, Buck pulled the kid up and all but held him there as JD's knees threatened to buckle. JD pressed his forehead against Buck's shoulder, clutching his injured side protectively.
"Oh, God . . ."
Buck cupped the back of JD's head with one hand, mentally cursing the necessity of putting him through this. JD needed another day or two to rest and regain his strength. He didn't need to be dragged all over creation dodging unfriendly fire.
"Just breathe, JD. It'll pass."
JD swallowed rapidly. "Just stand still for a minute, will you?"
"Oh." Straightening, JD frowned dizzily up at Buck. "Isn't Chris waiting?"
Buck grinned slightly, ruffling JD's hair before he turned the younger man in the direction of the door. "Let's go."
Ezra recognized that he was riding long before he was able to comprehend the ramifications of that act. Slowly, though, the realization filtered through the haze clouding his mind that he was hurt, that he wasn't anywhere he'd call "home", and that he was most definitely in some kind of trouble.
An icy knife jabbed through his skull. Nausea gripped his stomach and clawed at his throat while his vision blurred and fractured in the bright sunlight. He clung to his horse as much by instinct as intent and prayed, as darkness closed in on him again, that it would be over soon.
Buck had one hand resting very lightly on the back of his neck and the other under the elbow of his good arm, but JD still felt like he was slowly sinking through the floor as he walked. Keeping his eyes shut helped the sick feeling in his stomach a bit, but nothing stopped the sharp spike of pain that drove through his chest and shoulder each time he set a foot down. He desperately needed to lie down again, but Buck's grip kept him from curling up on the floor right where he was.
Buck pulled him to a stop in the kitchen. JD didn't bother to listen to whatever Buck was saying to the landlady. Truth was, if the conversation didn't have something to do with getting him a bed or a bullet to put him out of his misery, he really didn't care. He just kept his eyes closed and leaned his weight back against Buck's supporting hands.
Finally, Buck gave him a gentle shove to get him going again and steered him out the door. The fresh air cleared his head a bit. Blinking at the sunlight, he glanced up to see Buck watching him with an expression he didn't have the energy to figure out.
"Chris should be here in a minute," Buck said, looking away to scan the horizon. "How you doing?"
Torn between pride and the truth, JD settled for a noncommittal grunt. Buck squeezed the back of his neck gently.
"Here comes our ride," Buck said a few minutes later.
Startled, JD jerked out of the daze he'd drifted into. An icy dagger shot through his chest, and a shameful whimpering sound escaped him as his knees started to buckle. Buck grabbed him before he went down, sending a second wave of pain through him.
Suddenly certain he was either going to throw up or pass out, JD tried to pull away. Buck kept his grip, cupping JD's cheek with his free hand.
"I'm sorry, kid. Take it easy, take it easy." Buck's voice was pitched low, not much more than a whisper.
JD barely heard him as he fought through the pain and nausea. He still hadn't regained control when he felt another hand on his good shoulder.
"You still got that laudanum?" Chris asked. "Give it to me."
Cold glass pressed against his lips. He had to swallow to keep from choking on the sickly sweet liquid that flowed into his mouth. Then he was being guided to sit and finally to lie down, and a slow, heavy numbness crept over him. He could still feel the wagon rocking under him and hear the low voices of his friends as they talked, so he couldn't have slept. Unless maybe he was dreaming, a long, drifting nightmare that hovered just this side of agony . . .
" . . . thinking maybe we jumped the gun?"
Buck's voice slid over him, lazy and muffled. He latched onto it, letting the familiar sound anchor him.
"Hadn't been any sign of trouble. Maybe we should've just waited for the boys back in town," Buck continued.
"Buck." Chris's voice held a warning. "The decision's been made."
"He almost didn't make it from the bed to the wagon. He's not in any shape . . ."
"We've got laudanum and bandages. We got out of town without any hassle. Don't borrow trouble, pard."
"Don't have to borrow it if we already got it," Buck muttered.
JD had a feeling they were talking about him. He wanted to tell them he was fine. Aside from a nagging pressure in his chest and shoulder and the ice someone had dumped on his feet again, he couldn't remember ever feeling better. True, opening his eyes seemed more trouble than it was worth, and his thoughts didn't seem to want to form into words even if he could have convinced his mouth to speak them, but he felt incredibly good in spite of all that. Probably too good, but he wasn't going to question any favors.
"You think Ezra's made it back home yet?" Buck asked after a short silence.
Ezra? JD suddenly realized he hadn't seen or heard from the gambler since he'd awoken that morning. That seemed worth making an effort to ask about. When he tried to make his mouth work, though, the best he could manage was a low moan. Neither of the other men seemed to hear.
"If he didn't just head for the nearest saloon."
A saloon sounded nice. Except Chris didn't sound too happy about the idea, and usually he was the first one to the bar.
"I don't know why you got such a burr under your saddle about Ezra these days. He hasn't done nothing to make you ride him like you been doing."
The wagon hit a bump, sending a hot stab of pain through JD's shoulder. He couldn't breathe. He tried to move away from the pain, but it followed him, pressing on his chest for a long moment. It wasn't until the pressure finally lifted that he could hear Chris's voice again.
" . . . out on us once."
"Hell, Chris, that was years ago. He's stood by us a thousand times since then."
"He was set to leave with that money from that hired gun."
"He saved Mrs. Travis's life and got a bullet hole to prove it," Buck countered.
The only reply JD could hear from Chris was a grunt. Both men were silent long enough that JD nearly fell asleep again. Then Buck spoke, his voice almost too low to hear over the creak of the wagon.
"Sometimes when a man makes a mistake, he'd rather die than repeat it."
Chris's voice held a note that could have been weariness or warning. JD's thoughts refused to move fast enough to figure out which. He tumbled back into sleep, his last thought a rather vague feeling that he'd missed something important.
When he awoke next, his head was much clearer and his shoulder hurt a lot less. He still felt about as strong as a rag doll, but at least he could think again. Well enough, at least, to notice that he was starting to have another problem. He tried to ignore it, but eventually he had no choice.
"Buck?" It came out raspy and soft. He swallowed and tried again. "Buck?"
"Yeah? You all right?"
"We got to stop."
"What's wrong?" Buck sounded so worried that JD almost hated to tell him.
"I got to go."
There was silence, then a snicker.
Buck laughed again, but he pulled the wagon to a halt and helped JD out. JD chose to focus on the dull throbbing in his shoulder and not look at Chris. At all.
The area where they'd stopped was flat and open, a valley in the midst of low mesas and jagged outcroppings of rock. Brown scrub bushes spotted a brown landscape that wavered at the edges from the heat. At least, JD hoped it was the heat. He shook Buck's hand off his arm and walked cautiously away from the wagon. Unbuttoning wasn't easy with one hand and almost no balance, but Chris and Buck were blessedly quiet while he figured it out.
He was starting the laborious process of buttoning everything back up again when Chris broke the silence.
"Buck, you seeing what I'm seeing?"
JD turned to look and nearly fell, the sudden movement destroying the tenuous hold he retained on his balance. His stomach flipped and everything went grey for a moment. A hand gripped the back of his shirt and kept him from pitching forward.
"JD, wagon, now." Buck tugged him in that direction.
"What . . .?" JD gave up asking in favor of staying on his feet. His head spun as Buck pulled too roughly. "Buck . . . "
"In the wagon, kid," Chris said, appearing at his side so suddenly that JD jumped. "Trouble's coming."
JD looked past him and finally saw what had Buck and Chris so worried. A cloud of dust surrounded a group of riders coming up fast from the direction of Crooked Fork.
"Coleman's kin?" JD asked.
"I'm not willing to take the chance it's not," Chris replied. "Let's get moving."
By the time JD was settled into the wagon again, his shoulder felt like someone had started a bonfire in it. His pride ached a bit too, but he couldn't have made the climb by himself if his life depended on it. Which, given the rapidly approaching riders, it just might. JD lay back on the blankets and tried to focus on something, anything other than the pain that seemed to be spreading all the way down his side.
The sun burned fiercely for all that it was not quite mid-morning. Vin had taken refuge with Nathan and Josiah in the saloon, sipping a beer and listening idly as Josiah told some fanciful tale about some people who lived far across the ocean, or maybe just in Josiah's head. The town was quiet, Chris and the boys weren't due back until late afternoon or the next day, and Vin had nothing pressing to deal with.
And then Ezra walked in, heading straight for the bar. Vin blinked, not sure he'd seen what he'd seen, but Ezra was still there. Vin set his glass down and went over to the bar.
"Ezra? When did y'all get in?"
For a moment, it seemed like Ezra hadn't heard him. The gambler stood with his hands flat on the bar, staring at the bottles that lined the back wall. Then he turned, and Vin had a sudden feeling like someone had punched him in the gut. Blood streaked the side of Ezra's face. His eyes were glassy and unfocused. Vin heard a low curse and the sound of scraping chairs from behind him.
"Ezra?" Vin spoke softly, reaching out to clasp Ezra's arm. "What the hell happened? Where's the rest of the boys?"
Ezra blinked slowly. He started to say something and then frowned, as if he'd forgotten the words. Taking one hand off the bar, he raised it to his head.
"I think," he said dreamily, "that I would like a drink."
Vin caught him as he fell. Nathan stepped up to help him, turning Ezra's head gently to inspect the damage.
"Looks like a bullet graze," Nathan said after a minute. "Let's get him up to my room so I can make sure that's all that's wrong with him."
Vin looked up at Josiah. "You mind giving Nathan a hand here? I want to see if he rode in alone."
"Go on," Josiah answered, leaning forward to lift Ezra's legs. "Let us know what you find out."
Vin spotted Ezra's horse as soon as he stepped out of the saloon. The gelding stood, still saddled, his reins thrown haphazardly across the hitching post. He looked like he'd been ridden fairly easily, at least toward the end of his journey. That might have meant that Ezra hadn't traveled far, but given his condition, it more likely meant that he'd been too hurt or too confused to push his horse. Vin shrugged. What mattered was that the horse was still fresh enough to ride, which would save him the time and trouble of having to saddle up his own horse. If the boys were in trouble, every second could be vital.
An hour later, after riding a wide back-and-forth pattern which turned up no signs that his friends were anywhere in the area, he had to admit that he would have accomplished just as much staying back in Four Corners waiting for Ezra to wake up. He knew damn well Chris wouldn't have let Ezra ride back to Four Corners by himself if Ezra had been wounded at the time. Either Ezra had been hurt after he'd left the others, or else Ezra was the only one of them still alive. Only Ezra knew the answer.
"But I can still shoot with my left hand!" JD protested.
His glare might have been more effective if he'd been a little less pale, but Buck wasn't much in the habit of paying attention to JD's attempts to be tough anyway. "Not if your hand's shaking."
Chris shoved past them, carrying the saddle bags and flour sacks that held their ammunition and supplies. "I counted at least seven of them, maybe more. We need all the guns we can get."
JD smirked, and Buck had an urge to smack him upside the head instead of helping him check the load in his guns. But as Chris had said, they needed all the guns they could get, and knocking JD cross-eyed wouldn't do anything to help his aim.
Seven against three weren't good odds, even with the advantage of their location. Chris had remembered a spot where the rocks rose up to form a partially enclosed shelter with an indention just deep enough to call a cave at the back. Buck had thought for sure either the wagon would fall apart or JD would bounce out before they got to it, but somehow they'd made it with just enough time to spare to stake down the horses in the enclosed area. They'd left the wagon at an angle in front of the cave, giving them some cover and leaving nothing but a wide expanse of ground for their pursuers to cross before getting anywhere near the cave.
As if reading Buck's mind, Chris said, "We can hold out here as long as we don't run out of water or bullets."
"Or food," Buck added, not at all in the mood for optimism. "They may not be able to sneak up on us, but all they got to do is sit out there just out of range and wait."
"Least we got shade," JD said, his tone too cheerful for a man with a hole in his shoulder.
Buck gave him a hard look, noting the slightly glassy eyes and the tremor that shook more than just his hands. Being shot took a lot out of a man. Add to that the whiskey and laudanum that had been the only thing to hit JD's stomach since yesterday, and it was a wonder the kid wasn't still passed out. The excitement of trying to stay alive and a few steps ahead of the Colemans was the only thing keeping him on his feet right now. And Chris wanted him with a loaded gun in his hands.
"Just make sure you don't shoot me in the butt with this thing, okay?" Buck handed JD his gun. "I hope Ezra gets back with help soon."
The only answer to his wish was the ping of a bullet ricocheting off the rock outside.
Vin stepped into Nathan's room, taking his hat off with one hand as he eased the door shut with the other. Ezra lay on Nathan's bed with a white bandage circling his head. Nathan sat nearby, crushing some sort of fragrant herb with a mortar and pestle, while Josiah ripped an old cloth into bandage-sized strips. They both looked up as he walked in and relaxed subtlety as they recognized him.
"Any sign?" Josiah asked.
"No." Vin sat on the trunk near the foot of the bed. He wiped a trickle of sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. "Ezra woke up yet?"
"No." Nathan added a few new leaves to the mortar bowl and continued grinding. A sharp, bitter scent overpowered the earthy one that had previously filled the room. "He's stirred around a bit, though. Probably be awake soon."
Vin sighed. "If he don't, I'm riding out anyway. I'll most likely meet the boys on the trail. And if I don't, I'll go on to Crooked Fork and find someone who can tell me where they are." Even if he had to beat it out of whoever he found.
"Reckon I'll ride with you," Josiah said.
"Reckon I could use the backup." Vin studied Ezra's face, pale and drawn with pain. "Ezra won't be up to riding even if he wakes up. Nathan, you staying here, too?"
"If he don't wake up. If he does . . ." Nathan trailed off, but Vin got his meaning. It would all depend on the condition Ezra woke up in.
Vin stood. "I'll go get some supplies together. We can get there by nightfall if we leave in the next couple of hours."
As Vin reached the door, Ezra stirred, mumbling something too low to understand.
"Ezra?" Nathan set his pestle down and crossed over to the bed. "Ezra. Come on, now, time to wake up."
"Mmm . . . wha--?" Ezra's eyes blinked open as he reached for his forehead.
Nathan caught his hand and pushed it back down. "Easy now. Looks like someone took a shot at you. Just missed giving you an extra hole in the back of your head."
"N-nathan?" Ezra squinted painfully. "How . . .?"
"Ezra, where's Chris and the boys?" Vin interrupted as he walked back to the bed.
Ezra blinked again, frowning as he tried to focus on Vin. "Chris?"
"Easy," Nathan said again, but he was looking at Vin this time. "Don't rush him. Ezra, you came back alone. Where are Chris, Buck, and JD?"
"I . . ." Ezra pressed the heel of his free hand to his eyes. "I . . . don't remember . . ."
Vin leaned forward, gripping the footboard so tight his knuckles turned white. "Come on, Ezra. What happened?"
Josiah placed a heavy hand on Vin's shoulder and squeezed. "Give him time."
"They may not have time," Vin said, but softly. None of this was Ezra's fault, but knowing that didn't ease the worry nagging at the back of his mind.
"I remember . . ." Ezra winced, then continued in a shaky voice. "I think JD was hurt? He was bleeding. It wasn't safe." He paused, his breath coming faster.
Nathan took the rag he'd left sitting in the water basin by the bed and touched it to his neck and temple. "Slow down, now. Take your time."
"We had to leave. Had to get help. They were going to burn the house down." Ezra's eyes went wide as they flew to meet Vin's. "You've got to help them. Chris said to bring help."
"Where?" Vin asked softly. "Where are they?"
Ezra closed his eyes and sank back into the pillow, his brief energy drained. "I don't know. I can't remember."
Vin sighed, but reached down to give Ezra's leg a pat. "That's all right. We'll find them." No matter what it took.
Buck hated waiting, and yet it seemed like that was all he'd done recently. Coleman's kin hadn't made any moves toward attacking the cave except for random shots from time to time. Even those had stopped in the past hour, as if the Colemans had finally realized they were wasting bullets.
"You reckon they gave up?" Buck asked Chris, more to pass the time than because he truly thought they might have left.
"How 'bout going out there to check?" Chris suggested, a faint grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"Hell, I'm bored, not suicidal." Buck shifted against the wall of rock he was using as a back brace. He couldn't move far, what with JD asleep and drooling against his shoulder, but it wasn't like he had anywhere to go in the tiny cave anyway.
"Good thing the Colemans aren't looking to die, either," Chris said. "Be a bit hard to hold off all seven of them with just the two of us."
"Kid's pretty much tuckered," Buck agreed. JD had managed to eat enough to stop the shaking of his hands, but he'd nodded off just a few minutes after. Buck had slipped his gun out from under his hand and sat mostly still when JD sagged sideways against him. "He's pretty hot, too. I'd feel a lot better if Nathan was here with some of those concoctions of his."
"I'd settle for his gun." Chris bit into a strip of jerky and chewed for a moment. "Josiah's and Vin's, too."
Not missing the name he'd left out, Buck sighed. "More than likely, Ezra's riding back with them now. Probably be here before nightfall."
Chris gave a pointed look toward the sunset-red stripes that banded the western horizon, but all he said was, "Won't make a difference if the Colemans kill us before they get here."
Buck grunted in unhappy agreement. Moaning, JD shifted against him. Buck patted his leg to quiet him.
The silence lengthened, broken only by the soft calls of crickets and the stomp of a horse's hoof. Buck yawned. He hadn't slept enough the night before, and this night didn't look any more promising.
"I'd like to be back at the saloon right now," he murmured, not really caring if Chris was listening. It was a way to pass the time. "A bottle of whiskey on the table and Blossom on my lap. Did you know she can . . ."
He broke off as he heard a shout from the rocks where the Colemans had set up camp.
"Hey! You still alive in there?"
"Come and find out," Chris yelled back.
"We want to make a deal."
Even in the dusky light, Buck could see the skeptical look on Chris's face. Buck wasn't too impressed with the idea, either. What did they have that the Colemans could want, other than their lives?
"What kind of deal?" Chris asked.
"We figure you owe us for killing our kin. Give us your horses, money, that wagon, and anything else you got that's valuable, and we'll let you go."
Buck snorted. "Sure they will."
Chris flashed him a quick grin. "No deal!"
A brief silence was broken by a new voice. "Don't be stupid. You got one man injured at least. We got you outnumbered three to one, and there ain't no help coming 'cause we caught the man you sent ahead. He screamed real pretty, too."
Chris stiffened. A hard spike of fear shot through Buck's stomach as he cursed softly.
"No deal," Chris yelled again. And, quieter, "They don't have Ezra. They would have said something before if they did."
"Unless they were just too busy staking him out to an anthill," Buck added.
"Look on the bright side, why don't you?"
"Buck?" JD murmured drowsily, making an unsuccessful attempt to straighten up. "Wha's goin' on?"
"It's nothing. Go back to sleep."
"'Kay." Yawning, JD settled back down.
"This is your last chance," the first Coleman yelled. "You want out of this alive, you'd best do what we say."
"We'll take our chances," Chris answered.
This time, only silence came from the rocks.
"Reckon they'll attack?" Buck asked.
"Not till full dark, if they got any sense at all." Chris stuck the last of his jerky in his mouth and chewed. "Soon as the sun goes down enough, I'll head over to their camp and see if I can spot Ezra. Might be able to take out a few of them while I'm at it."
The worry gnawing at Buck's belly grew stronger. "You sure that's a good idea?"
"Best one I got right now. If they got Ezra, we can't just leave him there."
Having known Chris a long time, Buck knew better than to question Chris's sudden change of heart regarding Ezra. They sat quietly watching the sunset until Chris sighed and pushed himself to his feet.
"Best be going."
"Be careful, pard." Buck tried to ignore the chill that crept down his spine as Chris eased into the shadows and disappeared.
Buck hated waiting.
The air cooled abruptly as the sun went below the horizon. JD shivered, groaning as he rubbed at his eyes.
"Buck? Where's Chris?"
"Scouting around. How you feeling?"
"Cold." JD pushed himself up with his good arm. "Guess Ezra isn't back yet."
He screamed real pretty, too.
"Not yet. Shouldn't be long, though." Buck must have sounded more convincing than he felt, because JD didn't question him.
Maybe he should have told JD about the Colemans' threats. Ezra was his partner, too. He had a right to know. But JD sounded shaky, his movements slow and painful in the dim light, and Buck told himself JD didn't need to be burdened with anything more.
And Buck was hoping--praying--that Chris had been right about the Colemans lying. He didn't want to believe them, and as long as he didn't say anything, he could pretend it wasn't true. Problem was, not thinking about it left him with only two choices: thinking about Chris, or thinking about JD. Chris, out there alone against a gang that wanted nothing more than to kill him, or JD, already shot and feverish and trapped by the same gang. Both of his closest friends stood a good chance of dying before dawn. His own impending death was a cold comfort.
"Buck?" JD's urgent tone pulled Buck from his thoughts. "Did you hear that?"
Buck listened, hearing only the crickets and an occasional stirring from the horses. JD's breathing sounded unnaturally loud for a moment. But then he heard the sound that had alerted JD. A muffled crunch, like boots walking across hard-packed dirt. Squinting, Buck tried in vain to see into the darkness. He thought for a moment that he was imagining things, but then he was sure. A faint glow grew steadily just beyond the wagon. Buck reached for his gun, easing JD's over to him.
"Buck, it's me. Don't shoot. We're coming in."
Even though it was Chris's voice, Buck didn't relax. Chris shouldn't be yelling, and Buck couldn't think of any good reason he'd be saying "we". Careful not to make any noise, Buck stood and reached down to help JD up.
"Be ready," he murmured, the only warning he had time to give.
Chris came around the wagon, his hands up and his expression thunderous. A step behind him walked a tall, thin man with light-colored hair and a dark scowl. He had a gun pointed just behind Chris's ear. Another man, similar to the first except for being stockier and wearing a beard, followed just behind them with a lit torch. More men stood in a semi-circle at their backs, two holding torches and all with guns. Judging by their faces, they were all kin. None of them were happy.
"Got a problem, pard?" Buck asked.
"Got company," Chris answered dryly.
"Shut up and put your guns down," the man with the gun to Chris's head snapped.
Buck wanted to object. He could feel JD tensing beside him, but that damn gun was pointed just behind Chris's ear, and he couldn't take a chance. Moving deliberately, he took JD's gun from his hand and leaned over to place it and his own on the ground.
"The one in his belt, too." The man nodded at JD.
JD reached across himself awkwardly, pulling the gun free and handing it to Buck without a word. The scowl on his face was an eerie copy of Chris's. Buck set the gun on the ground next to the others, his fingers brushing fine sand. He could grab some, throw it in the face of the man holding Chris, but there were others behind him and there was that gun. Buck straightened, his empty hands in plain sight.
"That's better," the man said. "Now then, since we's company, I best introduce myself and my kin. Name's Clint Coleman, and this here's my brother Jed," pointing at the bearded man with the torch, "and the rest of these fellers is cousins of some sort or 'nother. Hiram, Benjamin, Amos, John, Samuel, and Thaddeus. I'd introduce you to Jimmy, but you done killed him already." He pointed to each in turn with the hand that wasn't holding the gun, his tone as mannerly as if he'd been in a lady's drawing room. "Which circumstance unfortunately makes it necessary for us to kill y'all, too."
"Don't go to any trouble on our account." JD's voice held remarkably steady, even if Buck could feel his arm trembling slightly where it pressed against Buck's shoulder.
Clint smirked. "Well, now, we was just gonna shoot you all clean and simple, no trouble at all. But then we had to chase that other feller all night, and I'll be damned if we didn't just get back into town when we had to turn around and head out after y'all. No time for a beer or nothing."
"Now ain't that just too bad," Buck drawled with no sympathy at all. He was trying to watch Chris without taking his eyes off Clint's gun. Chris was the planner; Buck usually took his cues from Chris and threw himself into making sure the plan worked. Chris wasn't giving him anything at the moment, though, except a clear indication that Chris was mad as hell. Buck didn't find that reassuring. "How 'bout you ride on back and get that beer and we'll call it even?"
"Don't think so," Clint replied. "No, I was thinking more along the lines of stripping your skin off piece by piece. Or maybe ripping your belly open and staking you out for the buzzards."
"Now me, I always favored cutting off a man's fingers and toes and letting him bleed to death," Samuel added.
Buck's skin crawled, as much from the glee in Samuel's voice as from the descriptions of torture. He felt JD draw a sharp, shuddering breath, but Chris didn't even blink.
"I say we start with the little one." Jed nodded at JD. "Jimmy got him good. He ain't likely to last long, and then we can get to work on the other two."
"Why don't you try it," JD snapped.
"Shut up, JD." Buck leaned forward slightly, not really daring to step forward but wanting to distract Jed from watching JD. The look in the man's eyes was predatory, hungry. It sent chills down Buck's back.
"I think you got yourself a damn find idea there, Jed." Clint grinned. "Let's see what you can do with the mouthy little bastard."
"Touch him and you're a dead man." Chris didn't raise his voice, but Jed hesitated, throwing him a quick look as if to be sure Clint still had a gun on him.
It was all the chance Buck figured he was going to get. Maybe Chris was working on a plan, but they were running out of time, and Buck couldn't sit back and watch JD be hurt. He dove for his gun, his hand just touching the butt when he felt cold steel press against the back of his neck.
"Don't move," Jed warned. "Unless you want to be real dead, real quick."
"Take it easy," Chris said. "Let him up. He won't try anything. Will you, Buck?"
"He better not." Jed kicked Buck's calf, sending a spike of pain up into his knee. "Get up slowly, now. Do anything stupid and I'll shoot you first, then your little friend."
Buck held his hands up, keeping them in plain sight as he eased himself to his feet. He raised his eyes to meet Jed's, hoping the warning in his own was clear. Touch him, touch either of them, and you're a dead man.
"Stand over there," Jed said, pointing to a spot off to the side away from both JD and Chris.
Buck moved reluctantly. He wanted JD close, wanted to be able to see when Chris got ready to move. But as long as the Colemans' attention focused on him, his friends were safe. It felt like a mixed blessing.
"You planning on taking all night, brother?" Clint asked. "'Cause if that's so, I'm just gonna go on and get to work on one of these others. I plan on sitting in the saloon and drinking my supper tomorrow night."
"I'm getting to it. Keep your pants on," Jed said testily. "Amos, you mind keeping an eye on this feller?"
Amos, by far the tallest and skinniest of the cousins, simply grunted as he pointed his gun at Buck. Standing off to one side of the torches as he was, he appeared almost demonic, black shadows haunting the hollows of his cheeks below eyes that seemed to glow.
Buck shivered as a cool breeze touched the sweat-dampened shirt clinging to his back, and tried not to think about well-trodden graves. He forced his gaze away from Amos, focusing on JD as Jed moved closer to the younger man. JD glared at Jed, no give in the line of his back even though Buck could tell it hurt to stand so straight. Buck wished he'd look down, show submission, let Jed win this round so that Jed would lose interest, but that wasn't JD's way and never would be.
"Got a problem, little man? That why you keep staring at me?"
"Just can't believe anyone so ugly hadn't been killed already."
The words were barely out of JD's mouth before Jed hit him. The hard backhanded blow sent him crashing against the rock wall behind him. He sagged against it, gasping.
Buck cursed, taking a step forward before Amos's gun reminded him of his place. He glanced back at JD, thinking it might be worth taking the chance. But JD was already staggering to his feet, blood trickling from a cut on his cheek. He swiped at it with the back of his hand and glared at Jed.
"That all you got?"
"JD, shut up!" Buck cast a desperate glance at Chris. The damn kid was all bravado and no brains; he was going to get himself killed if someone didn't do something, and Buck was out of ideas. What was taking so long? Why wasn't Chris taking advantage of the distraction?
Chris wasn't looking at him or at JD. He was staring off into space with the same furious expression on his face, but he wasn't showing any signs that he planned on moving any time soon. Buck stared at him in disbelief. Was he just going to let Jed kill JD?
"You want to see what I got?" Jed grinned. The next blow was straight to JD's stomach, doubling him over and knocking the air out of him. JD dropped to his knees, his good arm pressed to his abdomen, and Chris didn't even twitch.
"Why don't you pick on someone your own size, you son of a bitch." Buck's throat was so tight with anger that the words came out low and cold.
"Shut up," Amos said idly. "You'll get your turn soon enough."
JD started to stand. He moved slowly, his expression dazed, but he was still getting up and Buck nearly hated him for it.
"Stay down, JD," he asked, but softly, so JD didn't have to hear him.
JD, eyes still locked on Jed, pushed himself upright.
Jed reached down and grasped the hilt of a knife that stuck out of his boot, sliding it free with a whisper of metal on leather. Still grinning, he stepped forward and touched the tip of the knife to the trickle of blood running down JD's cheek.
"Just don't know when to quit, do you?" he said, his voice eerily gentle, like a man talking to his lover. "Just got to keep pushing." He trailed the knife down JD's cheek and neck, finally bringing it to a stop just below JD's ribs. "Just can't shut up for a minute."
JD didn't look like he was breathing. Buck let out sharp hiss of air for him, readying himself to jump if Jed even twitched. Amos and his gun be damned; Buck wasn't going to stand by while JD was murdered in front of him.
Then a low, familiar drawl cut through the deadly silence. "You move, mister, and you'll be deader'n a turkey at Thanksgiving."
The moments after that were never clear to Buck. He remembered Amos whirling to face the new threat.
He remembered diving for his gun, his fingers scrabbling in the dirt as he tried to fit them around the butt. Rolling to knock JD down was pure instinct, barely even noticed as he came back up to his knees in front of his friend, already shooting.
Red blossomed between Jed's eyes.
Hot liquid drops splattered Buck's face.
Jed crumpled to the ground, gun and knife both falling from lax hands.
Gunsmoke and dust littered the air. The shapes of men lunged and fell, and Buck couldn't tell who it was safe to shoot. He glimpsed Josiah standing over Amos's sprawled body, aiming toward the wagon. For just a moment, he saw Chris and Clint struggling, each fighting for possession of the gun held between them.
He felt a tug on his arm. JD was trying to get up, using him for leverage.
"Stay down," Buck snapped. He pushed JD back, leaving his hand on JD's chest to keep him in place. "You trying to get your head blown off?"
"Trying to get my gun," JD said stubbornly.
Sighing, Buck grabbed the closer of JD's guns and handed it to him. "But stay down," he repeated. "For once, just stay--"
JD lunged forward, his hand biting into Buck's arm as he shoved him sideways. The sound of a gun exploded in Buck's ears, gunpowder and dirt stinging his eyes. All he could see was red. Blood everywhere, covering the kid's chest and splattered across the side of his face.
"JD?" He rubbed at his eyes, his voice catching on more than the dust in his throat. "JD?"
The response was more peeved than pained, allowing Buck to relax as he blinked the water out of his eyes. JD lay sprawled in the dust close by, most of his weight resting on his bad arm. His other arm still stretched before him, his gun aimed at the body of Samuel Coleman. Pain tightened his expression, but he didn't look much worse than he had a few minutes before.
"You all right?"
"Just great." JD winced as he pushed himself up to a sitting position. "Is it over?"
Buck hadn't noticed the lack of gunfire until JD mentioned it, but as he looked around, he saw nothing but the corpses of the Coleman clan littering the ground and his friends picking their way through the bodies, checking to be sure no one was playing possum.
"Looks like it."
Nathan finished his inspection and crossed over to JD. "Heard you went and got yourself shot," he said cheerfully.
JD grimaced. "Wasn't on purpose."
Nathan shook his head. "Never is." He touched JD's shoulder. "You want to let me look at it?"
JD lay back with a sigh. "Just don't poke at it, all right? It already feels like I got kicked by a bull."
"Josiah, you mind coming over here with that torch?" Nathan called over his shoulder, then turned back to JD. "How'm I supposed to check it out if I don't touch it?"
Grinning, Buck left them to their argument.
Chris and Vin stood over Clint Coleman's body. They spoke quietly, paying the corpse at their feet no mind at all.
Nodding a greeting to Vin, Buck joined them. "Glad you could make it."
Vin shrugged. "Thank Ezra. If he hadn't made it back when he did, we wouldn't've known y'all were in trouble."
"Ezra's all right, then?" A knot Buck hadn't been aware of dissolved in his chest. He'd wanted the Colemans to be lying, but a small part of him had prepared itself for the worst.
"Nathan says he will be. Came damn close to having an extra hole in his head. Reckon it was this trash that shot at him." Vin nudged Clint Coleman's body with his foot.
Buck glanced at Chris and saw an odd expression cross his face, but it was hard to place in the flickering torchlight. Relief? Surprise?
Nathan's shout startled him out of his thoughts.
"Vin, you mind getting my bag from my horse? I got some supplies in there I need."
"Might as well bring the horses back here," Chris added. "No point in heading back tonight. We'll give JD a night to rest and head back when it's light."
Vin nodded and handed the torch to Chris before slipping silently into the darkness.
Buck stood quietly for a moment, just listening to the low sounds of Nathan and JD bickering, with Josiah's deep voice interjecting from time to time. JD's voice was steady, strong, and with Nathan here, Buck knew he'd be all right. It was a good feeling, being alive and knowing his friends were all safe and reasonably sound.
"Looks like you were wrong about Ezra," he said finally, shooting a sideways look at Chris. A comment like that was as likely to get him hit as it was to be ignored, but sometimes Chris needed to be shown the error of his ways. Sometimes he just got a wrong-headed notion, and the only way to make him admit it was to shove it in his face.
Chris frowned at him. "Good thing I was."
Buck nodded, accepting that as all he was going to get. But another thought nagged at him. "I thought you'd fallen asleep or something when that son of a bitch was hitting JD. If the boys hadn't come along . . ."
Chris's look was sharper this time, like the sun glinting off the blade of a knife. "I saw Josiah right after the Colemans drew on me. I figured as long as the son of a bitch was hitting JD, he wasn't shooting him. Seemed like a good trade off till the boys got in position."
Buck nodded again. "You should say something to Ezra when we get back."
Chris only grunted, his eyes gone flat.
Buck shrugged. "I'm just saying."
Buck clapped him on the shoulder. "How 'bout you help me move these bodies so we got room to sleep tonight."
Chris stood still under his hand for a moment before bending to grab Coleman's legs.
The bodies had been removed and a fire started. Nathan had forced a vile concoction down JD's throat with a promise that it would make him feel better. So far, the only result JD had noticed was a bitter taste in his mouth that wouldn't go away no matter how much water he drank. He certainly didn't feel anything like "better".
Sighing, he shifted on his bedroll. Rocks dug into his back through the blanket he lay on, minor annoyances that seemed to make his discomfort that much worse. Bad enough he had what felt like a metal spike running through his shoulder and a dull ache in his middle that twisted into something sharper every time he moved. Was a bed really too much to ask?
Around the campfire, his friends still talked quietly. Josiah murmured on, probably telling a story, as the bitter odor of Chris's cheroot mingled with the scent of burning wood. It would normally be the kind of night he enjoyed. Tonight, everything just seemed to grate on his nerves. He wanted to sleep, but very ache, every smell, every sound, even the sting from the cut on his cheek yanked him awake every time he came near to drifting off.
He wanted to sleep. Wanted to forget how much he hurt. Wanted to forget . . .
"Hey, I thought you fell asleep already."
Buck's silhouette, backlit by the fire, loomed over JD. With a soft grunt, Buck settled on the hard earth next to JD, stretching his legs out and resting his hat on his knee. Firelight danced with shadows on his face and left him looking as worn as JD felt.
"Shoulder hurting?" Buck asked.
JD shrugged his good shoulder. "A little."
"Bet having Coleman punch you didn't help much." Buck's voice was as dry as the desert wind. "'Course, he might not have done that if you'd kept your mouth shut."
JD glared at him silently.
"Unless maybe you were trying to get yourself killed. Damn stupid to tease a rattler."
"Shut up," JD growled. He was used to Buck's need to criticize his every move; normally he didn't let it get to him much. But tonight Buck's nattering just made him remember things he really didn't want to.
"What the hell were you thinking?" Buck continued, oblivious to JD's irritation. "What made you think it was a good idea to talk back to a man who was holding a gun on you? Wasn't getting shot once this week enough for you?"
"I'm not a coward," JD snapped. His stomach roiled again, the same panic churning it that he'd felt when staring into Jed Coleman's eyes. The man had been insane. JD was sure of it. He'd had a look on his face after he'd hit JD, a look like a man about to touch a half-naked woman.
JD had seen the look and known he was going to die. He was going to get beaten again, stabbed again, shot again. Every one of those things had happened before, but this time, this time he wouldn't live through it because Jed loved it too much. Jed loved the pain. He loved the blood, the moans, the sight of flesh bruised and cut and blown apart by the force of a bullet. His eyes promised JD all of those things, and the worst part was, JD knew exactly how much each one would hurt.
And he was afraid, because he already hurt so much. He was too tired, too weak to stand that much pain again. He was afraid, not just of the pain, but of the sound of his own voice begging, weeping, shaming himself and his friends.
"That's the problem, isn't it?" Buck shot back, breaking JD from his daze. "Maybe if you'd had enough sense to be scared, you wouldn't have been so mouthy."
JD bit back a laugh, a little bit afraid that he'd never stop once he got started. "I was scared, Buck. I was so scared I could barely think. But I wasn't going to die a coward."
Buck stared down at him. "JD, no one thinks you're a coward. Hell, you took a bullet for me yesterday. A coward wouldn't have done that."
The cut on JD's cheek throbbed as blood rushed to his face. "I was just pushing you out of the way. I didn't plan on getting hit."
Buck grinned, reaching out to rest his hand on JD's hair. "I hope not."
JD looked away. Buck's hand stayed in his hair, but he didn't mind so much. It distracted him from the memory of Jed Coleman's lustful eyes.
The quiet between them was comfortable, broken by the sounds of their friends stirring around getting ready for bed.
"JD," Buck said softly some time after the other men had settled into their bedrolls. "Being scared, that don't make you a coward. I thought you knew that by now. As long as you keep going, it don't matter if you're scared or not."
JD sighed. "You don't get it." It was hard to say, even to Buck, who knew most of his secrets. "It hurts being shot, Buck. It hurts getting a knife stuck in you. I knew I couldn't take it again." He looked up to meet Buck's eyes. In this, at least, he was determined not to be a coward. "I figured, if I could make him mad enough, he'd kill me fast and I wouldn't feel anything."
Frowning, Buck stared at him again. JD waited, not exactly holding his breath. He didn't quite feel strong enough to deal with Buck's scorn.
Finally, Buck just shook his head. "JD, I don't know if that's the stupidest plan I ever heard, or one of the smartest."
JD felt the air rush out of him. "Wasn't really a plan. Just the best I could come up with at the time."
"Now why does that sound familiar?" Buck chuckled, patting JD's hair gently. "Just don't hang on to that idea to use in the future, all right?"
"What future?" JD asked, abruptly miserable again. "I lost my nerve, Buck."
Buck snorted. "Like hell, kid. You just figured out what the rest of us had to learn years ago. You're human, JD. You can die, and now you know it down deep in your gut where you really believe it. That's not the same thing as losing your nerve."
"But what if I freeze up the next time we face someone down? What if I get you all killed?"
Buck shook his head. "Won't happen."
"How do you know?" JD wanted badly to believe, but Buck hadn't felt his fear.
"'Cause every time you've been hurt, you've got back up and done the job. You didn't even give up tonight with Jed Coleman, no matter how scared you were." His voice grew more serious. "You've been tested before, JD, and you already passed. I'm not worried."
JD turned back toward him, but couldn't see any signs that Buck was being anything less than honest. "You really think that?"
"Yeah. And if you get in too much trouble, you got six guys watching your back."
Which was more of a comfort than Buck knew. Or, JD thought as he studied Buck's expression, maybe not. "Thanks, Buck."
Buck grinned and ruffled his hair. When JD fell asleep a short time later, his hand hadn't moved.
The saloon was hot and dimly lit, as usual, and it stank of alcohol and sweat and something worse, possibly vomit. As usual. Chris sighed as he stepped through the batwing doors and off to the side, out of the direct sun. It was good to be home.
As his eyes adjusted to the light, he noticed Ezra at one of the tables. The gambler sat alone, playing a game of solitaire with a squint-eyed frown that spoke of a powerful headache. The whiskey bottle near his left hand suggested that he'd found a remedy more to his liking than Nathan's usual concoctions.
Chris hesitated for only a couple of seconds before crossing over to the bar to pick up a shot glass. He nodded at Inez, who smiled a silent greeting as she worked at drying the stack of wet plates on the back counter. Turning away, he glanced once more around the saloon, empty aside from himself, Inez, and Ezra, then stepped over to Ezra's table.
"Mind if I join you?" He pulled the chair out without waiting for an answer and sat, reaching across the table to grab the whiskey bottle.
"Be my guest," Ezra answered, his voice dry.
"How's the head?"
Ezra touched the edge of the bright red gash on his temple with careful fingers. "Nathan assures me it isn't likely to detach itself in the near future." He took a sip of his whiskey. "More's the pity."
"You were lucky that bullet didn't take your head off."
Ezra flipped a card over. Three of spades, not a match for any of the cards showing on the table. "Indubitably."
"We were lucky, too." Chris raised his glass to his lips, the whiskey sliding down his throat like cool fire. "If you hadn't sent the boys, we likely wouldn't have made it home."
Ezra tapped the edge of the card against the table, studying him as intently as if he'd just bet his entire pot.
"I believe you should render your thanks to Mr. Tanner. His tracking ability succeeded where my memory failed."
Chris shrugged. "You made it through. He wouldn't have known to go looking if you hadn't told him there was a problem. I'm just saying, it's a damn good thing you made it through."
Ezra dropped the three in the discard pile and took another one. A jack of diamonds, and also not a match. Sighing, he tossed down the card. He looked back at Chris, smiling slightly.
"Would you care to indulge in a game of chance?"