The Tennessee Stud, part 5

Disclaimers, etc. in part 1

He found him a few moments later, leaning against a rock with his arms folded across his chest. JD approached him warily.  

"I ain’t ever seen you act this way, Buck, and it ain’t just me. After your words with Chris last night, everyone’s thinkin’ you’ve gone loco."  

"Maybe I’m the only one who ain’t loco. You ever think of that, JD?"  

Buck’s frustrated anger relented at the hurt look in JD’s eyes, and the older man took a deep breath. "Look, JD, this has nothin’ to do with anyone but me."  

JD took a step toward him, his fingers nervously wrapped around his gunbelt. "Then why’re you takin’ it out on Sr. Katie?"

"You stay out of my business, boy, and don’t you go guessin’ about things that you don’t know nothin’ about."  

JD stared at him a long moment, and his boyish expression transformed to that of a man’s understanding. "I thought we were friends, but I guess I was wrong."

A part of Buck wanted to tell JD, but the truth of the matter was he didn’t know how to open that wound without spilling too much blood.

"Go get some sleep," Buck muttered not unkindly.  

JD was tempted to do so, but Buck’s uncharacteristic mood swings alarmed him. Tentatively, he approached Buck and settled against the rock beside him. "I didn’t know your ma was Catholic," he began.

Buck shrugged. "It doesn’t matter anymore."  

"It does to you or you wouldn’t be so all-fired up about it."  

"It’s in the past, JD, let it go," Buck said wearily.

JD would’ve liked nothing better than to let it lie, but something told him the man who was like a big brother to him needed to get it off his chest. And JD wanted to help him, even if Buck didn’t want his help.

"Maybe I ain’t so smart about some things – and you don’t have any problem pointing out them things – but I do know you’re not actin’ like the Buck I know."  

"And love?" Buck teased.

JD laughed, more in relief at seeing the old Buck. "I ain’t one of your female admirers," he said. "You ever go to Mass?"  

Buck was silent for a moment, then shook his head. "Ma wanted me to, but I wouldn’t go without her. She taught me the beads when I was a kid." He paused. "I haven’t touched a rosary since the day she died."

"Why?"

An abiding sadness filled Buck’s face. "As Ma lay dyin’, she asked me to have her buried by a priest." He rubbed his eyes. "I tried as hard as I could, JD. I even waved my gun around, but he wouldn’t do it – said my mother had too many mortal sins on her soul, includin’ the sin of not going to Mass." He chuckled without humor. "It was him who wouldn’t let her enter the Church."  

JD bit the inside of his cheek. He couldn’t even imagine someone standing up to Buck like that, especially denying a woman her dying wish. If he’d been in Buck’s boots, he would’ve done more than waved his gun.

"I couldn’t give Ma her last wish, JD, and I ain’t ever been able to forget that," Buck confessed. "I even tried to get baptized after she died, but couldn’t get that neither. Ma lived every day fearin’ that her only child would go to hell when he died because I was never baptized."

"Maybe you can get baptized at this convent we’re goin’ to. There’s bound to be a priest there, right?" JD suggested enthusiastically. "You could ask Sr. Katie. I’ll be she could get a priest to do it."

"No!" Buck said sharply. "I ain’t gonna go down that road again. I failed Ma once, I ain’t gonna try for a second time."  

"But—" JD began.

"Let it go, JD," Buck menaced. "I don’t want to talk about it anymore. As soon as we get these nuns and those girls delivered to the convent, we’ll be on our way and everything’ll be back to normal."  

JD ached for his friend. He knew when Buck’s back was against the wall and this was one of those times. If nothing else, he’d learned how far he could push Buck without getting pushed back. Of course, maybe he had to get pushed around some for Buck’s sake.

"You don’t know that," JD said.

Buck shoved away from the rock and turned to glare down into the shorter man’s eyes. "If you don’t shut up, JD, you’re gonna regret it."

"But—"

"That’s it, JD!"

Suddenly a gunshot, then a few more broke the night’s silence, and their argument was laid aside. JD and Buck ran toward the camp and stumbled into a beehive of activity. More shots sounded and Buck stumbled, falling to the ground. JD knelt beside him protectively and held up his revolver, trying to find a target amidst the army of men that circled them.

"Drop it, boy!" a man hollered out.

JD frantically searched for his companions and found Chris hunkering down beside a fallen Vin, and Josiah standing above them. Ezra and Nathan were nowhere in sight.

"Do like he says, JD," Chris called out. "They’ll shoot you dead if you don’t."  

JD could hear the pure rage in Chris’s tone and knew they had to be far outnumbered for Chris to be surrendering when he was in that mood. He tossed aside his weapon, and a couple strangers came forward to jerk him and Buck to their feet. Buck groaned and JD saw the blood stain on his leg, above the knee.  

They were unceremoniously ushered toward the other men. JD noticed the nuns and girls for the first time. They were dressed in their nightgowns although a few had had enough sense to grab a blanket and the girls huddled close to share the warmth. Their round eyes told JD how frightened they were, and he empathized with them. He wasn’t brimming with courage at the moment either, but no one was going to know that by looking at him. If he’d learned one thing from his friends, it was that only a foolish man wasn’t scared; the brave man is the one who feels fear but keeps it inside.

The men shoved him and Buck, and JD caught Buck before he slipped to the ground. He bowed under the bigger man’s weight, and was relieved when Josiah lent his support. He glanced at Chris who was still on the ground beside Vin’s still body.  

"Is he—" JD couldn’t finish his question.

Chris shook his head. "Bullet grazed his head. He’s unconscious and it’s bleedin’ a lot."  

JD clenched his teeth, knowing how tricky head wounds were. By the anxious look on Chris’s face, he knew it, too.

"Buck?" Chris asked.

"I’m okay, but I ain’t gonna be winnin’ any footraces for a while," Buck replied with a pain-roughened voice.  

JD turned his attention to their captors and recognized a couple of the men from the four thieves who’d stolen the stallion originally. They’d obviously been intimidated enough to get a small army to steal the stud back.

"Saddle up your horses. You’re going with us," the leader of the gang ordered.  

"We got two injured men here. Can’t we leave them?" Chris asked.  

The outlaw nearest Chris swung his rifle stock into Chris’s face, knocking him to the ground. JD tensed, but Buck tightened his hold on him.  

"Wait for an openin’, JD," Buck said hoarsely.  

Chris rose, shaking his head like a dog that had been kicked by a mule.

"I said, get five horses saddled up," the leader ordered.  

Josiah and JD settled Buck on the ground beside Vin, then helped Chris to his feet. As the three men got the horses saddled, Sr. Adrian came forward with a few strips she’d torn from a blanket. One of the thieves blocked her from getting too close to Buck and Vin.  

"Their wounds should be attended to," Sr. Adrian said indignantly.

"Where they’re goin’, it don’t matter," the outlaw stated in a gravelly voice.

Sr. Adrian thrust the crude bandages at the thief. "At least give them these to wrap around the wounds."

He stared at her a minute, then shrugged and snatched them from her hand. "Get back over there with the others."

Sr. Adrian did as he ordered, and he tossed the strips of cloth at Buck. "Here, use them if you want."

Buck glared at him, but reached for the strips and set to work wrapping one about Vin’s forehead. Vin groaned as Buck knotted the bandage at the back of his head.

"It’s okay, Vin. I’m just gettin’ you fixed up," Buck said softly.

Then Buck took care of his own bullet wound, hissing in pain when he tied the bandage tightly.

Chris, Josiah, and JD led their horses, as well as Buck’s gray and Vin’s blaze-faced black, over to the two injured men. Two of the outlaws grabbed Vin roughly.

Nutmeg broke away from the other girls and with tiny fists, punched the thieves who’d hauled Vin to his feet . "You bad men hurt Mr. Vin. Let him go!"

One of the men raised his hand as if to hit her and Sr. Katie hurried over and grabbed Nutmeg, pushing her behind her skirt. The two outlaws eyed the nun with a lecherous look that caused JD to cringe. Sr. Katie merely met their gazes with a defiant tilt of her chin and a steady stare. The two men looked away first, and Sr. Katie tugged Nutmeg back to the group.

The outlaws lifted Vin into the saddle, then tied his wrists to the saddlehorn. Josiah helped Buck onto his horse’s back, then climbed up into his big Mexican saddle. Once everyone had mounted up and had their wrists tied to the saddlehorns, the outlaws rounded up their own horses.

JD pulled at his rope, but the man who’d bound him had done his job well. The knot didn’t give at all. He nudged his horse’s flanks and moved closer to Buck whose face was wreathed in sweat in spite of the cool air.

"Don’t look so worried, kid. We got a couple aces in the hole," Buck said in a low voice.

JD nodded. He glanced around, hoping to spot Ezra or Nathan but neither man was in sight. It was a miracle they hadn’t been caught, too. Of course, the horse thieves hadn’t known about them since only Chris, Vin, Josiah, Buck, and himself had gotten the stallion back.

"Where are you taking them?" Sr. Adrian demanded.

"We’re going to show folks how Ross Calendar takes care of horse thieves," the outlaw leader replied.

"You’re going to hang them?" Sr. Katie asked, her face pale.  

"That’s right, Sister." The outlaw sneered. "A fitting end, don’t ya think?"  

"But that horse is ours. We have a bill of sale," Sr. Adrian argued.  

"So does Mr. Calendar."  

"Forged by the best, I’m sure," Chris said dryly.  

"I wouldn’t know about that, mister," the grizzled thief said. "But if you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep that big mouth of yours shut, or I may just use a bullet instead of a noose."  

Chris narrowed his eyes, and JD shivered at the cold stare he gave the outlaw.

"Have a good evening, ladies," the outlaw leader said with mocking gallantry. "And if you’re in Ruthville day after tomorrow, you can have front row seats for the hangings."  

If looks could kill, Sr. Katie and Sr. Adrian would’ve mortally wounded the outlaw.

He swung his horse around and the others followed, keeping Chris, Vin, Josiah, Buck and JD surrounded so they wouldn’t attempt an escape. However, JD wouldn’t even have tried if he’d seen an opening – Buck and Vin wouldn’t be able to make it, and JD wasn’t about to leave them behind. And he knew Chris and Josiah felt the same way.

They’d have to wait for Ezra and Nathan to make their move. JD only hoped they’d be in time – being hung as a horse thief wasn’t one of those experiences JD yearned to experience in the uncivilized frontier.

Ezra moved out of the brush he’d been hiding behind, and spotted Nathan approaching the camp from the opposite side. Ezra trembled from the unspent adrenaline coursing through his veins. The scene he’d just witnessed brought back too many memories of the one and only time he’d abandoned his friends. This time, however, he had wanted to plunge right in, save Chris and the others, but the odds had been stacked against him. He didn’t have to be a gambler to know one man against twenty would’ve been suicide. Still, he felt like a coward for hiding while the others had been tied and led away like cattle to the slaughter.  

"Ezra," Nathan called out, and hurried toward him. "You okay?"  

Ezra nodded, his fancy words seeming trite in the face of their situation.  

The nuns and girls gathered around the two men.  

"Thank the Lord you two were spared," Sr. Adrian said. "It’s a good thing those outlaws didn’t know about you or they would’ve turned the camp upside down."

"What’re we going to do? They’re going to hang Mr. Chris and the others," Susan said, tears staining her cheeks in the faint light. Ezra felt a tightening in his chest at the girl’s obvious distress.  

"And they hurt Mr. Buck and Mr. Vin," Judy piped up.  

"Those men were bad!" Nutmeg exclaimed.  

"I couldn’t have said it better myself," Ezra drawled, laying a hand on Nutmeg’s slight shoulder. He looked at Nathan. "We have to go after them."

Nathan nodded.  

"We’re going with you," Sr. Katie stated, lifting her chin stubbornly. "It’s our fault your friends are in danger."  

"No offense, Sister," Ezra began, "but how can ya’all be of assistance?"  

Sr. Adrian narrowed her eyes. "You might be surprised, Ezra. We may be nuns now, but we could shoot a rifle by the age of seven, as well as ride with the best. Besides, two men against that army is not very good odds."  

"She’s right, Ezra," Nathan said. "Fact is, we’re going to need all the help we can get."

Ezra nodded reluctantly. "All right, but we’d best be moving out right away. If I heard correctly, they’re going to hang them day after tomorrow which doesn’t leave us much time."  

"What’ll we do when we get there?" Robbie asked quietly.  

"That, Robbie, is a very good question, and once we get there, I hope to have an answer for you," Ezra replied.

"Okay, girls, let’s get to work," Sr. Adrian called out. "Cal, Rina, get the mules hitched up. The rest of you get everything stowed in the wagon."  

The girls quickly went to work, leaving Ezra and Nathan alone.  

"You think we can save them?" Ezra asked softly.  

Nathan shook his head, his dark eyes somber and worried. "I don’t know. I think we might need one of them miracles this time."  

Ezra’s stomach twisted into a knot. "I hope the Lord sees fit to overlook my past transgressions, and gives us that miracle we require."

Nathan and Ezra’s gazes met and held for a long moment, each one knowing miracles were few and far between, but hoping the nuns would give them the advantage they needed.  

Buck shifted his position on the dirt-packed floor of the cell, and groaned at the pain that arrowed up his wounded leg.

"You okay, Buck?" JD asked quietly in the pre-dawn darkness of their prison.  

"Don’t you be worryin’ about me, kid. I’ll be just fine," Buck managed to say in an even voice.  

Buck was sitting up, his back against the dank brick wall of the cell, and JD sat next to him, their shoulders touching. A couple feet from JD Josiah lay sleeping, his soft snores strangely comforting. On the other side of Buck lay Vin, who’d regained consciousness only a few minutes in the twenty-four hours since they’d been unceremoniously dumped in the fetid blockhouse. Chris sat on the other side of Vin, and by the rhythm of his breathing, Buck knew he was awake. In fact, Buck would be surprised if Chris had slept at all since their capture.

He knew how worried Chris was about Vin and himself with the leg wound – the fact that Chris’s cheekbone had swelled and turned a sickly shade of purplish blue didn’t trouble Chris in the least. It was his friends he was concerned about. And the fact that if they didn’t escape in the next twelve hours, they’d be dangling at the end of a rope when the sun set that night.  

Buck swallowed hard, remembering the vicious words he’d hurled at his oldest friend. Now that they were facing death, their argument seemed unimportant. He looked toward Chris and picked out his dim form. "I owe you an apology, Chris," Buck said quietly.  

Chris’s head turned slightly. "What for?"  

"For them things I said to you a few nights ago." Buck scrubbed his grizzled face with his palms. "Seein’ them nuns brought back a whole wagonload of memories, most of them bad, and I took it out on you."  

"Don’t worry about it," Chris said off-handedly. "Ain’t a man alive who’s said things he didn’t mean."  

"Maybe, but I didn’t want to face my Maker without gettin’ that off my chest."  

He and Chris stared at each other, the apology accepted and the words forgotten in that brief communion of gazes.  

Vin moaned, and Chris laid his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. "It’s all right, Vin. Everything’s just fine."  

Buck squeezed his eyes shut. Vin had bled plenty from the head wound, and they were all scared that the bullet had plowed too deeply into his brow, maybe cracking his skull. The few minutes he’d been awake had only unsettled them further – he’d ranted and raved about rats and death and some massacre. It hadn’t made a whole lot of sense to Buck, but he didn’t know Vin that well. Fact was, nobody knew Vin that well, but that didn’t matter a whit. The only thing that really mattered is they knew he was a good man by his actions. In the western frontier, that was pretty much the highest compliment a body could pay to another.  

Buck opened his eyes to see Chris trying to get Vin to drink some water the guards had left behind. The liquid dribbled out a corner of Vin’s mouth, and Chris’s hand closed into a fist.  

"Take it easy, pard," Buck soothed in a low voice.  

Chris rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "I feel so damned helpless, Buck," he said hoarsely. "There has to be something I can do."  

"Not unless you got some way to overpower ten armed guards."

"I been watching them," JD said. "And ain’t a one of them fell asleep."

"Even if they did, we couldn’t do much with the door locked," Buck said.  

Chris pushed himself to his feet in one fluid motion and paced the small square of open floor. "The whole damn town can’t be loyal to Ross Calendar! There’s got to be somebody who might help us."  

Josiah awakened and sat up, his back against the wall. "Calendar is smart enough to make folks believe he’s a real philanthropist," he said. "That way nobody will turn against him."

"What about Ezra and Nathan?" JD asked in a hushed voice. "They ain’t gonna give up on us."

"As good as they are, they’re no match against twenty guns," Chris said.

"Sr. Adrian and Sr. Katie aren’t going to sit still while Ezra and Nathan work on a plan," Josiah said with a slight smile.

Buck scowled. "They better not get anywhere near here or Calendar’s men’ll shoot’em down, nuns or not."

Vin began to thrash about on the floor, and Chris knelt beside him, taking hold of his upper arms. Vin’s compact body contained muscles earned by honest labor and Chris had to struggle to restrain him.

Vin fought against the hands that held him. He wouldn’t go back to the orphanage where he was punished for making a pet out of a squirrel or going outside after dark to search for his mother among the stars in the heavens. His mother had told him to remember he was a Tanner, and he always would no matter how long Mr. Jenkins locked him in the cellar.  

With a surge of strength, Vin pushed away from his captor and his eyes flew open. Pain exploded in his head and he stared at the men who looked back at him.  

One of them laid a hand on his arm, and leaned close to him. "It’s okay, Vin. We’re your friends."  

Slowly, recognition seeped into Vin, and he slumped forward into Chris’s arms. He closed his eyes a moment, gathering what little strength he possessed to battle the weakness that made him want to slip back into his world where there was no pain. Chris helped him to a sitting position, bracing his back against a wall.  

"Thanks," Vin managed to say past the drums that pounded through his skull.  

"Want a drink?" Chris asked.

Vin began to nod, thought better of it, and said, "Yeah."

Chris poured some water into a tin cup then handed it to him. He drank the contents and Chris took the cup back from him. Vin raised his hand and tentatively touched his wound, then hissed through gritted teeth. "Damn, what the hell happened?"  

"You were shot," Chris replied simply.

Vin sought to recall what had happened after he’d gone to check on the stallion that night. "The horse thieves?"  

"Yep. Only this time they got us and the stud."  

Vin bit back the cuss words that sprang to his lips. "You were right – they didn’t give up." He rested the back of his head against the wall, and closed his eyes. "How long I been out?"  

"Over twenty-four hours," Chris replied.

Vin’s eyes flew open once more, and he focused on the men around him, noting that Buck had been injured, too. He also noticed Ezra and Nathan weren’t there, which sent a shaft of fear through him. "What about Ezra and Nathan?"  

"They’re still out there. The outlaws didn’t know about them," Josiah answered.  

Relief flooded through Vin. "So, what’s gonna happen to us?"  

"We’re gonna be the evening entertainment," Buck said dryly. "They’re hangin’ us before sundown."  

Vin was silent for a long moment. They hadn’t even made it to Tascosa and here he was facing a hangman’s noose. "We got a plan?"

"Not yet," Chris replied. "But you can bet Ezra and Nathan ain’t sittin’ around twiddlin’ their thumbs."

Although the night was cool, Ezra removed his green jacket, handing it to Kristen, then glanced at Misty who looked dwarfed by his red coat that she wore over her shoulders. "I am entrusting you both with the care of these until I return – a most important mission."

Kristen accepted the coat reverently. "I’ll take care of it, Mr. Ezra."

"Me, too," Misty stated.  

"I have the utmost confidence in you both," he said with a smile.  

"I can’t get my hair to stay inside," Susan murmured as she attempted to stuff her long, curly hair in the nun’s uniform.

Sr. Katie, wearing a pair of Cal’s trousers, helped Susan finish with her masquerade.

"I hope the Lord forgives us for our slight fib," Sr. Katie remarked.

"It’s for a good cause, Sister," Nathan said. "Since the men who stole the stallion will be lookin’ for a couple nuns, we’d best have two for them to see."

"A slight prevarication is the least of our worries, Sister," Ezra said. "In order for our stratagem to work, I must have something to wager, and that means we have to get the stallion back."

"Are you sure you can beat him at poker?" Sr. Adrian asked, concern furrowing her brow.  

Ezra smiled, revealing his gold tooth. "That Sr. Adrian, is like asking Shakespeare if he can create a sonnet."

"Pride goeth before a fall, too," Nathan murmured.  

Ezra arched an eyebrow. "Pride is of little consequence; it’s confidence in my God-given gifts."  

Nathan snorted, but didn’t comment further.

Sr. Adrian’s eyes twinkled, then sobered. "I wish I was going with you."  

"You have to stay here with the girls in case someone comes lookin’ around," Nathan said. "Ruthville is only a few miles away and Calendar’s men are probably watchin’ for you. With Susan dressed in Sr. Katie’s habit, they’ll see two nuns, and we just have to hope they didn’t count the girls." He glanced at Cal and Rina who would go with him, Ezra, and Sr. Katie to steal back the stallion. "I’m not sure this is such a good idea, but I ain’t got a better one."

"We can handle Goldie so he don’t get scared," Cal said.

Nathan smiled slightly at Cal’s willingness to help. "You and Rina be real careful. Anyone sees you two near the horse, they’re gonna shoot first and ask questions later."

Cal met his gaze with an expression that bordered on friendliness. "Don’t you be worryin’ about us, Mr. Nathan. You look out for yourselves."

"We’d better ride so we can get in and out before the sun rises," Sr. Katie said.

Sr. Katie and the two girls rode mules, while Ezra and Nathan rode ahead of them on their own horses.

"It might’ve been easier to break Chris and the others out," Nathan said to Ezra.  

Ezra shook his head, uncharacteristic somberness clouding his face. He and Nathan had spent the late afternoon scouting out the town and learning as much as they could about Ross Calendar, and where Chris and the others were being held. "They have too many guards around the facility. And with Buck and Vin wounded, the chance of successfully extricating them isn’t favorable."

"Buck’s leg wound didn’t look serious, unless it gets infected." Nathan took a deep breath. "Vin didn’t look too good, though."

Neither man spoke aloud their fears that Vin might already be dead.

Part 6