Peter Nichols stalked him through empty endless corridors. There was something urgent, some time limit, something awful that would happen if Buck didn't find J. D. and Casey/didn't kill Nichols' men/didn't warn Chris and the others/ didn't make it to town/didn't do something, _something_, and he couldn't remember what.
Nichols stepped through an open doorway and Buck reached for his gun, but there was only an empty holster. Peter Nichols laughed and in an instant as bright and electric as the strike of a lightning bolt he drew his own revolver and shot Buck in the leg. Everything went grey except the white-hot pain in his leg and he threw himself sideways through an open door only to find himself in the same corridor again with Peter Nichols in front of him, reaching for his pistol...
Suddenly, Buck had a rifle in his hand and he raised it and fired without even thinking. Then he looked and it was Casey, not Peter in front of him. And it was too late, he'd already fired. All he could do was stand there and watch as the bullet struck her smack in the chest, as blood poured from the wound and darkened her calico blouse, as she fell infinitely slowly to the ground.
He dropped the rifle and ran to her, but his leg collapsed and he fell, tumbling through another door into another long empty corridor. He staggered to his feet and Chris was there. "Why'd you do it?" Chris said. "Why'd you make me stay in Mexico?" Buck opened his mouth, but he couldn't speak. No matter how he tried no sound came out and he couldn't even warn Chris when Peter Nichols came up behind him and shot him in the back.
And now, when it was too late, he could hear himself shouting. And what good was that? But he did it again anyway. "NO!!" Then, he turned around and he was in another corridor, but this one ended in the open with a tree and someone hanging. It was J. D. hanging there, he realized, and he wasn't hanging by his wrists, not this time. Peter Nichols had come back. He'd done it all again. And this time it was a proper hangman's noose. J. D. was hanging by his neck. Had been hanging there for a long time and no one, not Buck or Chris or Casey or anyone had even come and cut him down.
//Buck. Buck can you hear me?// Whose voice was that?
Buck sank to his knees. I can't do it all myself, he thought. He felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up and it was Vin. "Need some help, pard?" Vin asked him. Buck stood, but he never had time to answer, because right in front of his eyes, right in that moment, Vin turned from flesh to bone, to a skeleton, to nothing but dust that blew away.
//Buck? It's me, Casey. Can you hear me?// That voice again.
"You're reckless, Buck." "You're crazy, Buck." "You gotta think before you act." "You're full of crap." "You could have saved us." "You should have been there." "Why weren't you faster?" He couldn't even see the people, just voices that whispered to him, so many voices, so many mistakes, so much to pay for.
//Buck? Please, Buck. Wake up and talk to me. You're scaring me.// Casey? Had she said that she was Casey?
//Yes, Buck. Yes, it's me.// Why was her voice so far away?
"I can't..." Couldn't what? Couldn't save her? Hell, he'd shot her. Hadn't he?
"Casey?" He said it again because he couldn't think what else to say, what else to do. There was no before, no after, no nothing. The corridors were fading, the whispering voices were gone. There was only darkness, must be something else besides the darkness? He felt a cool touch on his face, could actually _feel_ which seemed as if it might be an improvement. He reached up, up, up, through layers and layers of darkness, up toward the feeling, past the pain in his leg that the dream had temporarily taken away, past the ache in his knee, all the way to the low burning and the sick pounding in his head. His eyes flickered open.
"Yeah." And even that one word seemed to drain him. Casey laid a cool cloth on his head. Buck sighed and closed his eyes. He fell asleep again almost immediately. But this time he didn't dream.
The sun was almost at the horizon when Nathan rose from the porch steps and went back inside. Casey looked up when he entered the bedroom. "Oh," she said and smiled at him tentatively. "I almost came and got you. Buck was real restless and his fever went up a little. But just now he woke up and he looked at me. So I thought he'd be all right."
Nathan came over and felt Buck's forehead. It was still a little warm, but much cooler than it had been. He'd change the bandage on his leg once more tonight. He had plenty of medical supplies now and the poultice he'd made up seemed to be doing some good. If he could just get Buck to lie still long enough he might just do okay. Nathan looked at Vin. He still worried about him, his wound could become infected and as weak as he was he wouldn't be able to fight that. But he didn't feel a need any longer to help Vin with every breath he took. Even Nathan was starting to believe that things might be looking up.
"You're doin' fine now, honey," he told Casey with a smile and he walked back out into the front room. Josiah was boarding up the broken window for the night. Nathan came up to hold a board for him so he could pound the nails more easily.
"Lotta work to do here," Josiah remarked.
"You gonna rebuild the church?" Nathan asked in his abrupt way.
Josiah paused for a moment, studying the nail he'd just been pounding. He took another swipe with the hammer. "That town is still just as full of sinners as it was yesterday," he said.
"That a 'yes?'"
Josiah lowered the hammer and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I reckon a man could do a lot of penance rebuildin' a church." He looked at Nathan and smiled. "'Course, he could always use a little help."
"Did I mention how much I hate bein' on a roof?"
"Won't have a roof for quite some time, my friend," Josiah said with something almost approaching satisfaction. He slammed his hammer down on the nail he'd been pounding, driving it all the way into the board. "Nope," he repeated. "Not for quite some time."
Nathan smiled. Trust Josiah to find something good about a burned-out church he'd just spent months fixing up. He crossed to the kitchen and poured himself some coffee. Nettie was preparing dinner and it occurred to Nathan that they were probably going through her supplies at a pretty rapid rate. "You want some coffee, Josiah?" he asked.
Josiah laid down his hammer and shook his head. "Me and Ezra and J. D. are headed back to town. They're bringing the horses up now. Figure we better check on those prisoners and see if there are any messages back from Judge Travis and the others. 'Sides," he said with a smile. "Reckon Nettie'll be glad to have us out of her hair."
"Oh, _now_," Nettie said from the stove. "You're welcome here any time, you know that."
"I'm going back with you," Mary said, coming through the door with Chris. "Ezra and J. D. are hooking up the wagon." Chris had a small frown on his face and Nathan wondered if they'd been arguing. "Billy will be worried," Mary said. "And I've got to see to the Clarion and there's a paper to get out..." Her voice drained away as if it were herself she was trying to convince rather than them. "It's perfectly safe now."
Nathan looked at Chris. "I'm stayin'," he said tightly. Nathan figured that was Chris's lot in life, to always be making choices, to always be sure they were the wrong ones, to always feel responsible for everything.
'It ain't all on you,' he wanted to say, but he figured this wasn't the time. "I could use some supplies in the morning," he said instead to Josiah. "And I reckon Nettie could too. Ain't that right?" he smiled at her. "I reckon we been eatin' you right out of house and home."
"Reckon it was worth it, Mr. Jackson," said Nettie. "Of all things," she looked toward the bedroom and Nathan figured she was thinking of Casey, "I reckon it was worth it."
"God almighty, Josiah! Do you think you could make any more noise if you tried?" Buck scooped up a towel from the nightstand next to the bed he was perched on, wadded it up, and hurled it through the doorway into the front room of Nettie's cabin. The cloth unfurled mid-air, losing the fury with which Buck had thrown it, to settle gracefully over JD's head. Casey burst into peals of laughter as the young man snatched the cloth off his face to whirl around and shake it at Buck.
"I suppose you think that's funny! YOU try fixing a roof and then putting in a new window without makin' noise an' see if YOU--"
"As a matter a' fact, I'd like to. That's JUST what I'd like to do. I am so sick a' layin' here twiddlin' my thumbs that--"
"Now, now, Buck," Nettie stepped from the fireplace where she'd been stirring a big pot hung over the coals so that she could be seen from, and see into, the bedroom. She shook a large wooden spoon playfully at the tall gunman, but her eyes snapped. "You know we've talked about this. You're just gettin' testy from bein' laid up so long. But you'll get some fresh air soon enough if you'll just hold on to your horses."
The gunman threw himself theatrically back against the headboard, his eyes rolling, and Vin chuckled softly from where he leaned propped against several pillows in the other bed in the room. "You know she's right," he said.
"Oh, just shut up." Buck narrowed his eyes at Vin and scowled. "You oughtta' wear a different color shirt. That one makes you look green."
Vin paused in the task of buttoning the shirt he'd been slipping into with slow and careful movements to look at his own arms, the wrists of which protruded from the loose-hanging cuffs he hadn't yet buttoned, and he turned his hands over several times and then looked up at Buck.
"Yeah. I never seen anyone as pale as you in my life." Buck knotted his forehead. "An' that red shirt makes you look positively green by comparison."
Vin smiled slightly and shook his head, went back to carefully doing up the buttons, one at a time from the bottom up, starting back in where he'd left off, at the bottom of the shirt. He was determined to finally hide away the broad white bandage that had tagged him as an invalid to all and sundry for a week now, and it didn't much matter to him what color the shirt was that did it. He kept slowly twisting the buttons through their holes with great concentration, then paused after doing enough to get the bandage hidden. Buck continued to mutter crossly under his breath. Hands still on both sides of his shirt opening, Vin flashed playful eyes at him and called into the other room, "Hey, JD!"
"Yeah?" The younger man's voice drifted in from the front porch, through the empty space the window glass had been in.
"JD's kinda' busy holdin' glass for me, Vin." Josiah was talking around nails he was apparently holding in his mouth. Casey's merry face popped around the side of the doorway as Josiah finished speaking.
"Let me get whatcha' need, Vin." She was darting into the room already, her dark eyes sparkling with mischief, and Vin colored and pulled the top of his shirt together over his bare chest with a quick movement. Casey laughed. "Oh, Vin! You're so funny! You're like my brother now, for heaven's sakes. Shoot! You slept in my bed for over a--"
"Casey!" Nettie's voice bore a no-nonsense warning that brought the girl up short, but she smirked at Vin and then turned to regard Buck with an expression that veered off into saucy.
"Are YOU gonna' get shy around me now, TOO, Buck?"
The tall man glowered at the girl from where he sat, fully clothed and restless but with his leg heavily bandaged, and then suddenly he burst into a broad grin. "Don't see how I could be, seein' as how I've seen you in your bloomers!"
"BUCK!" Casey squealed in outrage and darted to the bed to snatch the man's boots from the floor beside it, then backed away in a quick motion to the doorway where she stood waving them at him. "Just for that, you're gonna' have to BEG me for your boots to leave."
Vin burst out laughing. "Well, I was gonna' ask you to get me MY boots, but I reckon I'll pass on that now!"
Buck was spluttering, his face red. "Casey! Girl, you give those back to me this minute."
"Or what?" The girl was getting bolder by the minute, her smile growing more and more triumphant.
"Or -- or I'll tell JD what you said to me about--"
"Buck! I never said NOTHIN' to you 'bout JD!" Casey's face fell and she whirled, Buck's big boots hanging one from each hand, as JD yelled wordlessly through the window from the porch. "I didn't, JD! I swear it!"
"All right. That's it." Josiah threw down his hammer and wagged his head at Nettie. "This is gettin' to be like a wasp nest somebody's whacked with a stick!"
The old woman laughed, dabbing her apron to the corners of her eyes, as the sound of harness and hoofbeats, and the rumble of wagon wheels drew up outside. "I've never seen the like," she agreed, and headed towards the front door as Casey ran to beat her to it, emerging onto the porch waving Buck's boots gaily and calling:
"Chris! Nathan! Buck's bein' mean to me again, so I've stolen his boots!"
The gunman's voice trailed out behind her through the opened door, the laughter of the other men and of Nettie threaded all around it. Chris smiled as he jumped down from the wagon seat; Ezra reined in behind the wagon and Nathan leaned forward in the seat to wrap the wagon team's reins around the brake handle.
"Well, we'll just drag that big ol' bad man back to town an' get him outta' your hair. How's that?" Chris's spurs rang as he stepped up on the porch, nodding to JD as he did so. The youth started to nod back, but thought better of it when the glass he was holding for Josiah wobbled in his grip. He blanched and pressed back against it more firmly as his dark eyes slid around and over his shoulder to watch Casey, who was talking a mile a minute to Ezra as she walked backwards swinging Buck's boots. Nathan shook his head, smiling, as he passed the two of them and followed Chris into the house.
"I hope you brought me my pants." Vin looked up expectantly as Nathan entered the bedroom. The healer couldn't help but smile at the sudden wistfulness that came over the tracker's expression at the words, and he nodded.
"Yep. I told ya' I'd bring 'em when it was time to go. An' I did." He set a folded pair of light-colored pants on Vin's lap, over the quilts, and eyed the man thoughtfully. "I hope I'm not makin' a mistake takin' you back to town today. You sure do look pale."
"It's that shirt," growled Buck. He gestured to Vin. "Told ya': makes ya' look green."
Nathan raised an eyebrow and turned to regard Buck quizzically. "I ain't never seen no green man, Buck. Pale, yes, but he ain't--"
"'Scuse me," Vin interrupted. He was nodding towards the bedroom door. "Not that this ain't a real interestin' conversation, but would you mind shuttin' the door so I can put my pants on?"
Nathan's gaze grew more serious, and he studied Vin with eyes suddenly dark with concentration. "You sure you're up to doin' this, Vin?"
"It's puttin' on my pants, Nathan. Been doin' it for some years now."
"Not like this, you ain't." The healer shook his head and prepared to leave the room. "Take it slow an' easy, an' don't try to stand up. Buck, you call me if he starts to look peaked."
"Nathan," said Buck in a flat voice, "Vin looks peaked."
Vin sighed in exasperation as Nathan chuckled. "I meant MORE peaked, but you do got a point. Just call me if he needs help, ok?"
The gunman nodded, his eyes sobering and dilating with sudden memory as he did so, and Nathan left the room, pulling the door shut gently behind him. Vin slowly pulled back the quilts over his legs, unfolded the pants, and began to try to spread them out on the bed in front of him in such a way that he could slide a leg into them. Buck watched him struggle for several long moments, and then he silently swung his own legs to the floor. Vin looked up at him in alarm.
"Buck," he whispered, "What're you doin'?"
"My turn. I'm comin' to rescue you this time." The tall man grinned genially and leaned across the space between the two beds with all his weight on his good leg, then turned around in such a way that he managed to more or less fall backwards onto the foot of Vin's bed. He pulled himself up into a sitting position and then reached gentle hands to the pants laying spread on the bed and held up the waist so that they were opened. Vin smiled and slid his feet into the holes in the legs, and Buck tugged the sides of the pants until they were high enough that Vin could reach them himself without bending at the waist. He hadn't said a word or made a sound, but Buck knew that was what had stopped his earlier attempt; it just still hurt too much to move that far. The taller man stayed where he was until he could see that Vin was going to be able to finish the job, and then he returned to his own bed with the same maneuver he'd used earlier. He had just gotten back into his previous position when the door opened and Nathan looked in.
"Everythin' ok in here?"
Vin and Buck exchanged glances and Buck smirked as Vin smiled at Nathan. "Jus' fine," the tracker said softly. "All I need now is my socks an' boots."
"Socks, yes," said Nathan. He came on into the room, leaving the door opened behind him as he set a pair of heavy socks into Vin's hands. "But boots wait 'til you're ready to walk. An' that ain't gonna' be for a while yet." He shook his head at Vin's expression. "Well, ya' don' need to look at me like I kilt your dog. It ain't gonna' be that much longer."
Vin looked at the socks he was holding in one hand, and at his bare feet that were so far away from that hand. He looked back up at Nathan and the healer was surprised to see him blush. "It's not that," he said softly. "I don't think I can get my socks on."
Nathan sat down gently on the foot of the bed and took the socks from Vin, his eyes thoughtful. "Vin," he said slowly, "if you still can't bend far enough to reach your feet, how'd you--"
The tracker looked into Nathan's eyes silently, and Nathan turned away after a moment to look steadily at Buck. The gunman shifted uncomfortably and folded his arms. "Chris!" he called, "are we gonna' leave for town today or tomorrow?" The man he'd called walked into the doorway of the bedroom, his spurs ringing, and a piece of pie in his hand. He was chewing.
"If Nettie keeps feedin' me like this: tomorrow." He winked at the woman as he said it, smiling, and then smirked at Buck.
"Well, you get pie. I get broth." Vin's voice sounded tired, and Nettie came to the doorway as he spoke. She stood there a moment watching Nathan slip the heavy socks onto the tracker's feet, and then she came on into the room and put one hand on Vin's shoulder.
"Vin, I swear as soon as Nathan says you c'n eat it, I'll bring you a whole pie all to yourself." She chuckled as the tracker looked up at her and a shy smile spread across his face.
"Apple it is."
"Oh fine. He gets apple pie, Chris gets whatever it is HE's eatin', an' I get nothin'. That girl a' yours even stole my--"
"Here they are, you big crybaby." Casey tossed Buck's boots one after the other into the room over Nettie's shoulder and stuck out her tongue at Buck as Chris turned away to go back into the main room of the cabin, still eating the pie he cradled in one hand.
"Nettie," his voice was lowered, filled with affection. "Come outside. Got something to show you."
The woman took off her apron and laid it over the ladderback chair with a puzzled look on her face, then followed the man out onto her front porch. She gasped and looked quickly to Chris's face when she saw what Ezra and JD were sliding out of the back of the wagon, and then hurried down the steps to go look more closely at the enormous wooden crate of chickens. She stooped to peer through the slats and then looked back at Chris and around at the other men with wide eyes. "Why, those are Rhode Island Reds! Where on earth did you find such a thing out here?"
"Pays to know the right folks, Nettie." Josiah was grinning broadly, wiping his hands on the towel Buck had thrown over JD's head earlier, and he stepped forward to take one end of the crate as it cleared the end of the wagon. "Where d'you want 'em?"
"Well, the coop I reckon. My, they're fine hens! I don't know how I can ever thank you boys."
JD laughed. "Miss Nettie, you got that all backwards. We ATE almost all YOUR chickens."
"Stands to reason we should replace them," added Ezra.
Nettie laughed in delight as the men carried the crate around the side of the house and pried off one end to release the scattering of plump hens, feathers flying up as the birds ran for the brush and a place to hide until they got used to their new home. Nettie stood watching them settle in, and then turned to face each of the men in turn. "Well, thank you all the same," she said. "Now come on in an' have somethin' to eat before you leave."
"Afraid we can't, Nettie," said Chris. "Nathan said we need to go on and get Vin and Buck back to town before they get too tired from bein' up so long. But we'll come back around."
"You'd better." The woman kept glancing back at the hens as the group walked back to the house and up onto the porch to go inside. She stood in the middle of the room for a moment looking at the activity around her, and her voice grew softer. "I think I'm gonna' miss havin' all you boys comin' around here gettin' underfoot, if you can imagine that."
"Oh, I think one of us might be around underfoot still." Josiah nodded casually at JD, who blushed so profusely that everyone laughed, and Chris clapped the youth on the back. Nettie sighed.
"Still," she said.
"One last thing," said Ezra. He reached into his vest to withdraw a wad of bills. "We sold the horses that the Nichols' and Preston gangs so kindly bequeathed you, and it fetched a tidy sum." He held out the money to the woman and she shook her head firmly.
"No, no, now. That ain't mine."
"Well, it sure ain't anyone else's." Nathan smiled broadly. Nettie looked at the men around her and took the money slowly from Ezra's hand, then unfolded and counted the bills. She looked up at Ezra with surprise.
"As I said, a tidy sum," smiled Ezra.
Nettie looked at the money in her hand for some time, silently, then turned to face Josiah. She reached out to him with a sudden firmness and pressed the bills into his fist so quickly that she surprised him into drawing back a step. "For the church," she said, determined.
"I won't hear of you turnin' me down," she said. "Rebuildin' is goin' to cost plenty, an' this'll get you started. Town needs a church." She pulled back her hands so that he was left holding the money, and she cocked her head to regard him with a defiant gaze that made a slow smile grow on his face.
"God bless you, Nettie. I know I sure do."
"You bless US, Josiah." The woman turned then, blinking quickly, and walked off to stand by the fireplace, where she bent to stir the pot hanging over the coals there. She heard the men's voices behind her as they prepared to take their friends out to the wagon. She straightened to look at them after they'd passed her, and thought how she'd been sure for at least two days that one or both of the men in her back room would be leaving in a pine box. And here they were, both on the mend. It was good. She sighed and went outside so she could see them off.
Buck came out first, one arm over Chris's shoulder and the other over Josiah's, his bad leg held off the ground and Nathan walking close to him with a scowl of warning on his face: touch that foot to the ground and you'll hear from me. He looked pale in the daylight, and thinner, but the tension in his face eased the minute he got to the bottom of the stairs, and he smiled like his old self as Josiah and Chris set him on the tailgate and then slid him into the wagon bed. They helped him into a comfortable sitting position and then piled several cushions and blankets beneath his injured leg.
Vin was next, carried in a sitting position by Josiah and Nathan, his feet dangling several feet off the ground, and Nettie had to press her lips together so the young man wouldn't hear her gasp of dismay at how bad he looked now that he was in the sunlight. Pale didn't begin to describe it, but he was smiling and relaxed and she knew -- had seen it herself -- that he was a lot better than he had been even a day or two before. It would be all right. She gripped her hands together and reminded herself that Nathan wouldn't let him travel if it wasn't all right for him to do so. They'd laid a pile of blankets and a thin mattress in the bed of the wagon for Vin, and he'd kicked about it at first -- but it was obvious by the time he got to the wagon that vertical just wasn't a posture he could maintain for long, supported by his friends or not. He sighed as they gently laid him on the mattress and Nathan pulled the blankets over him. The healer looked down at Vin over the side of the wagon bed as he did it, and smiled gently.
"Yeah." Vin's voice was weak, but he smiled. "Good to feel the sun."
Nathan patted his shoulder and then looked at Buck. "You doin' ok sittin' up that long?"
"Shoot yeah. I been sittin' up most a' the day now for twenty, maybe thirty years." He snorted at the exasperated look that ran across Nathan's face at his reply, and then smiled. "I'm ok, Nathan. Thanks."
The healer smiled back and went to the front of the wagon to climb up into the seat next to Chris, who was unwinding the reins. Nettie came up close to the wagon to reach in and lay her hand on Vin's chest over the blanket Nathan had drawn over him. The tracker raised his hand to lay it over the top of hers, and looked into her face.
"Thanks, Nettie," he said softly. "Sorry we put you outta' your beds for so long."
"Son, don't you never apologize to me for nothin'." There were tears in the old woman's eyes. She looked up at Buck, nodded, and then back down to Vin. "The two a' you brought me back my --" her voice broke and she nodded again. "I'll come an' see you both in a day or two. You behave yourselves now."
She withdrew her hand as Chris whistled up the team, and stepped back as the wagon began to roll away. Casey walked up next to her and they wrapped their arms around one another sideways as they stood watching the men leave.
Vin looked up at the blue sky, and at the leaves passing overhead. He listened to the birds, felt the breeze on his face, and slowly fell asleep without even knowing that he had.
The first night they could rest easy, and Chris was doing anything but that.
Chris slept fitfully. His mind wouldn't let go of the events of the past few days. Over and over again he saw it- his friends, down and wounded. The fear in Mary's eyes as he left to invade the Nichol's camp. Casey's wide eyed innocence lying in shattered pieces on her aunt's wooden floor.
They were crouched behind a wagon, Chris and Josiah and JD and Nathan and Ezra, and Chris thought that was odd, cause hadn't they brought more people? There seemed to be so many of the bad guys out there- surely he hadn't thought they could defeat them all with just five men?
"Oh, yeah, Buck, right." He thought, breathing a sigh of relief, before letting out a bloodcurdling cry and pushing himself to his feet, whirling around to watch the Nichol's camp. "BUCK! NO!" he tried to scream, but nothing would come out. He watched as his friend came barreling out of the woods to the side of the camp, guns blazing, cocky grin everpresent on his face. "Don't worry, buddy," Buck seemed to say to him, though he was all the way across camp. Chris watched as he stumbled and fell under a rain of bullets. "It's just how I am, remember? It's just me."
"NO!" Chris threw himself across the camp to his friend's side. Buck lay on the ground, blood pooling beneath him. "Why?" Chris asked, "Why'd you do it?"
"It's who he is, remember?" Chris turned to the new voice and saw Vin was seated beside him. But the bounty hunter was pasty and thin, looking just this side of death.
"You too?" Chris asked. Vin nodded, and the black-swathed gunslinger shook his head. "Why?"
And the ammo wagon exploded behind them.
Ezra didn't want to fall asleep. He knew what waited for him the second he let his eyes drift closed, and he didn't fancy what that something was. //I thought I'd gotten past all this,// he thought angrily, even as he forced his eyes to remain open. //It should have remained in it's historical perspective, not translated to it's modern day equivalent....//
Blood and fire surrounded him, and there was no escape.
Guns blasted somewhere near him, and he raised his own musket to fire at the enemy. He couldn't see them for the smoke, but he knew they were out there somewhere. His bullet must have made contact, because he heard a groan nearby, and felt the warm blood of his foe splash his cheek, shower his hand with it's red promise of life. He didn't even think on the fact that he had come pretty close to certain death himself. There was no time to focus on that. The Yanks were fast approaching, and they couldn't take this position. It was too important.
The aftermath was worse than the battle. Because you had to think. Had to listen to the groans of the dying out on the battlefield, so many that numerous members of their company would never even survive long enough for the stretcher to reach them. The worst were the cries for, "Mother!"
And you had to think about the blood on your hands from the Union soldier whose life you ended so quickly; whose fifteen year-old body still lay where you left it like so much refuse in the mud.
Sweet, sweet lips. Big liquid eyes and soft, lithe body.
JD smiled at Casey, focusing on how the sun dappled her hair, made it seem to float like a honey halo around her. Odd, she wasn't wearing her customary braids...... Oh well, didn't matter. She still looked mighty pretty. He wanted to kiss her again.
//Well, gosh, she must have been reading my mind!// he thought happily as the girl leaned forward and brushed her lips against his again. "I love you, Casey," he whispered through the kiss. He could feel her smile, and it made him smile, too.
"I know," she whispered back. Then they didn't talk for a long time after that.
Casey tossed and turned, her mind too cluttered with fearful memories to let her rest easy.
JD! We have to help JD! Please don't hurt him! Please! He never did anything to hurt you! JD! OH JD!! Please be OK.
Vin! Vin, you're hurt. Don't argue with me, I know you're hurt. Why don't you just rest a while. I'm a big girl, I can take care of myself. Please, get better. I don't want you leaving me! I'm too scared if you leave me....
Buck! Oh, no, Buck, not you too! You don't look so good. Buck, please rest. Please! So stubborn, dammit! I can't lose all of you!
Miz Travis, is it going to be OK? Are they gonna be all right? What's that noise? Miz Travis? Miz Travis! We have to help them! Vin! Buck! Aunt Nettie! We have to HELP THEM!
Oh, JD, I'm so scared...
Soft, soft lips, and warm arms around her. "It's OK, Casey," JD whispered into her hair. "I won't let anyone hurt you again."
She punched him playfully in the arm. "Don't go getting full of yourself, JD Dunne, or I might have to teach you some manners-" But she was cut off as his lips pressed against hers, and she didn't say anything else for a long time after that.
Mary knew she was losing him.
Chris dangled over the edge of the cliff, and she gripped his wrist between both her hands, but all the strength seemed to be gone from her arms. "HOLD ON!" she screamed, but he didn't seem to notice her voice.
"I can't," he said matter-of-factly. "I have to join them." And he pointed down to the ground hundreds of feet below, and Mary saw Vin and Buck and JD and Ezra and Josiah and Nathan and she screamed again, because she didn't want to lose him because he felt he had to protect them.
"Chris, they can protect themselves! They're strong, too! Please, don't let go of me!"
"I have to, Mary," he said softly, and she felt his fingers begin to loosen on her wrist.
She started to scream again, but then she heard a soft voice behind her. "Don't let go, Chris." She glanced over her shoulder and saw that it was Vin. How he'd gotten up here she didn't know, nor did she care.
"Tell him he can't let go!" she cried.
"Don't let go, Chris." This time it was Buck, too, and Mary felt Chris' hand tighten on her wrist.
"Vin? Buck? How'd you two get up there?" the gunslinger asked.
"We're stonger than you think," Vin said softly. "We know how to climb."
And to Mary's great relief, so did Chris, as he pulled himself up over the edge of the cliff to sit beside her.
But Buck and Vin, in their own beds for the first time in a long time, slept soundly. So deeply that nothing short of a stampede or the wrath of God could have awakened them.
The sky was a light pink and the sun hadn't risen yet. It was Vin's favorite time of day. No people were about. It was a pleasure to walk the boardwalk and hear the satisfying clump, clump of boots. Mind you, Vin wasn't moving at any great speed and it had taken forever to get them on. But after being laid up over a week at Nettie's and Nathan holding his boots hostage, this was the first time he had a chance or was even able to walk the boardwalk. Vin stopped to rest. As he inhaled deeply, he felt the nagging tug of his wounded side. Be awhile before he could ride again but it was satisfying to be out of bed and moving. Vin continued down the boardwalk until he was in front of the Clarion's office.
If Vin was in town and not on patrol, this was where he spent his early mornings, sitting at the table at the front of the Clarion. Before Chris moved out of town, it would be the two of them in the early morning. Often they just sat; sipping coffee Mary made them. Other times, they would talk. About the men mostly. Vin smirked --yeah, like old gossips talking about women and love lives mostly or something one of them had done to piss them off. Generally, it was something either Buck or Ezra did. Vin smiled. I miss those mornings.
As Vin was getting enough gumption up to sit down, Ezra walked up. "Give you hand there, Mr. Tanner?"
"Thanks, Ezra," Vin grunted as he used Ezra's arm for support as he gingerly sat down. Vin exhaled sharply from pain but then he relaxed back and extended his legs back. If he didn't have to move he was fine. He squinted up at Ezra. "Awfully early in the morning for you."
"Mmm. Sleep seems to elude me these days," the southerner drawled.
"You fight in the war?"
Ezra eyed Vin. He nodded slowly. "Took a long time then too."
Vin nodded in understanding. The nightmares did fade slowly. He didn't press Ezra on the issue. Ezra understood Vin was available if or when he wanted to talk about it.
"Mary, puts a pot of coffee on in the morning. She leaves the backdoor unlocked, you can just help yourself."
"Sounds good. I'll be right back."
Ezra walked around to the back of Mary's building. Vin could hear him say something to Mary and her tinkling laugh brought a smile to Vin's face. She had come back to town a week ago and he had missed that laugh. Ezra came out the front door with two cups of coffee.
"Mary, all right?"
"Mrs. Travis is an uncommon woman with extreme fortitude."
"Not bad with a gun either. Chris ask you about the shooting lessons?"
"Mr. Larabee and I are not in the habit of discussing Mrs. Travis. I take it, he asked you. What insight did you provide our jealous friend as to Ms. Travis's acquisition of expert shooting skills."
Vin looked at Ezra like he was some kind of idiot.
"I take it that means you told him nothing?"
Vin smiled. "You'd have me say something."
"Think it would best if we leave it to Mary."
"Just make sure I'm no where in the vicinity when she does." They both chuckled.
They heard the familiar creak of leather and hoof beats indicating a rider coming in. Vin saw Chris stiffen as he spied Ezra. Vin chuckled, if he only knew about Ezra's pistol lessons or his rifle lessons for that matter. For a man keeping the widow at arm's length, he sure could get jealous.
Chris dismounted and joined them on the porch.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee. What brings you to town at this hour?"
Chris looked hard at Ezra; a half-smile creased his face. "I'm thinking it's more strange you being here at this hour, than me."
Ezra smiled sheepishly. "Yes, well . . ." he apparently didn't want to say more and Chris didn't press him. He understood about sleepless nights.
Chris looked over at Vin. "Nathan know you're up?"
"Nope." As his response, both Chris and Ezra made a move to leave. Vin started chuckling but quickly grabbed his side to ease the pain he caused. "Nathan's bark is much worse than his bite."
"Bite me," Ezra commented dryly. All three chuckled.
"Just don't overdo it," Chris warned.
"If I could, I'd be out ridin' and not sittin' here. Speaking of which, one of you mind exercisin' Sire."
"I've been taking care of it."
Both Chris and Vin looked over at Ezra in surprise. It wasn't like him to volunteer for anything without first being asked. "Thanks, Ezra." Ezra nodded his head in acknowledgement.
Mary stepped out on the porch with the coffeepot and a couple of copies of the day's edition of the Clarion, which she handed to Chris and Ezra. She filled all the coffee cups and frowned at Vin. "Nathan know you're up and about?"
Mary quickly grabbed the coffeepot and turn to go back to her office, "I'm sure I have something to do."
"Coward," Chris said softly.
"That's right." Mary inclined her head across the street. An obviously agitated Nathan was crossing.
"Mary, I'll help . . ." Chris started to say.
"Vin, seems like a perfect time to take your horse . . ." Ezra spoke simultaneously.
"Cowards," Vin smirked as both men were quickly on their feet to get out of the way of Nathan's wrath.
"VIN, what'ya doin' . . ."
Chris and Mary laughed as they escaped into the front office and quickly closed the door.
Mary went over to the counter and started straightening the papers. Chris laid a hand over them.
"How have you been?"
Mary looked over at Chris. It had been over a week since they had talked. Chris had been spending most of his time at Nettie's. Ezra, JD, and Josiah had taken care of transferring the prisoners to the troops and maintaining peace in the town. Fortunately, it had been quiet in Four Corners.
"Yes, really," Mary averted her eyes from his all knowing gaze.
"Mary, we can talk."
"Right, Chris, we do that real well," Mary mocked.
Chris smiled sheepishly. "We could try."
"We could. So talk to me about Buck."
Mary raised an eyebrow at his response or lack of one. "Yes, talk to me about what happened on the cliff trail and why you can't forgive yourself for leaving him."
Chris smiled slightly but the smile didn't reach his eyes. "Buck has been there for some of the worst moments of my life. But he's been there. I can't say the same."
"Why do you push him away?"
"Because he scares the hell out of me." Chris ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "He takes stupid, stupid chances."
"Mmm. Don't know anyone like that," Mary mused.
"Are we talking about Buck or me?"
"You, I guess."
Mary's knees weakened at the sound of her name on his lips. She took a deep breath to regain her composure; this had to be said. "I just don't think you see how similar your behavior is to Buck's. Or its impact."
"It's my job."
"And it's not Buck's or Vin's? Or any of the others?" Mary asked incredulously.
Chris reached for Mary effectively shutting Mary up. His arm snaked around her waist. She looked up at him. Chris yanked her against his frame and his mouth swooped down to deliver a hard kiss. He released the pressure on her mouth slightly only to press her more firmly against him and tease her lips with several short, hard kisses. Mary groaned and Chris deepened his kiss.
Chris raised his head and looked at Mary. "Thank you for caring."
Mary looked up at Chris still half-dazed from the Chris. She noted Chris's bemused expression before his head dropped to deliver another devastating kiss.
Chris gently released Mary and took a step back. "I know you care."
"I'm not sure you do."
"Care about you?"
Mary smiled. "I know you care about me and Billy. But until you care about yourself there isn't much you can offer us."
Chris nodded pensively. "I'm not there yet."
Mary looked at Chris with sad eyes. "I know."
"I'll protect you." Chris wagged a finger, "even though that is very difficult when you get in the middle of trouble."
"I can protect myself."
"I know you can. You've had to. But let me help. Let us help."
"You all will leave." Chris started to say something but Mary put her hands to his lips. "Maybe not today. But one day. I have to be able to do it myself."
Mary looked at him under her lids. Mary stuck her tongue in her cheek. "Yes, shooting lessons, riding lessons . . ."
"You're not going to tell me."
"Chris, why, are you jealous?"
Chris cocked his head, "me?"
Mary started laughing.
"CHRIS!" Billy ran into the room. "Are we going fishing today?"
Chris scooped Billy into his arms. "Sounds like a great idea, pard. Get your gear." He set Billy on his feet who ran out back to get his fishing pole.
"We can talk later."
Mary laughed at Chris. "Yeah, we do that so well." Chris chuckled and followed Billy out the back door. "We'll be back for lunch."
Mary nodded. She grabbed a mug for Nathan and headed back to the front to offer him some coffee. She could hear Billy's excited voice as she exited the kitchen and Chris's deep laugh. Mary smiled. I guess things are getting back to normal. The boys going off to play and the man and woman still not really saying what needed to be said.
Mary stepped out onto the porch. "Good morning, Nathan."
Nathan stood as Mary came out the front door. "Good mornin', Mary." He smiled appreciatively as she poured him some coffee. "Thank you."
Mary refilled Vin's cup and returned to her office to finish the paper.
Nathan looked over at Vin. "You never said why Ezra was up at this hour."
Vin looked over at Nathan but didn't say anything initially. "He said something about not sleeping. Is he okay?" Vin finally asked.
"Nope." Vin started at Nathan's matter-of-fact assessment.
"Will he be okay?"
"Eventually. Where'd he run off to."
"Going to exercise Sire for me."
"Yeah, he's been doing that all week. I asked him why he's up so early and he says that's when your horse is used to being ridden." Nathan laughed shortly. "Talks about everything except what needs to be said."
Vin gave Nathan a sideways glance of surprise. "Funny talk from you. Didn't think you could stand to listen to Ezra."
"Well, we had things that need to be said."
Nathan decided to change the topic. "So, how are you really doing?"
Vin smiled. "Been better, pard, been better."
"Let's get you back in bed. You shouldn't be up." Nathan assisted Vin to stand and very slowly they made their way back to Vin's room.
JD had ridden out to the Wells' cabin before sunrise. He knew both Casey and Nettie would be up, having to take care of the chickens and do chores early. If he was lucky, he could get another great meal by Mrs. Wells. JD smiled, boy, he'd been really spoilt staying at her place. Man could get used to a woman cookin' for him. He frowned as he saw Casey mount her horse. What the hell did she think she was doing? Riding around with no protection.
Casey looked up to see JD and groaned. "Hi, JD."
"You goin' for a ride?"
"Yes, I'm goin' for a ride. I suppose you want to come with me to protect me."
JD straightened up in the saddle and placed a hand on his pistol. "That's right," JD said defiantly.
"Okay." Casey spurred her horse into a gallop. JD had to wheel his horse around that she was far down the road before he could give chase.
Casey rode hard for several miles before she pulled up and slowed to a walk. JD caught up.
"What the hell was that about?"
"I've been goin' stir crazy. Vin, Buck, and Chris insisted that I stay at the cabin all week. I couldn't even go for a quick ride. They were driving me nuts."
"They just wanted to protect you. How are you really doing?"
Casey looked at JD and wondered what to say.
"Are you okay?"
Casey shook her head. "I've been havin' nightmares."
"Have you talked to your aunt?"
Casey smiled and shook her head. "All he talks about is not letting me out of his sight. I haven't been out of the cabin in a week."
"He's just wants to protect you."
"There's protection and there's smotherin'. Speakin' of which, you've been doin' it too," Casey changed the subject.
"You're not going to tell me."
"Fine." JD huffed.
"Smotherin' me. That's what you all are doing." Casey protested, trying to distract JD.
"I'm allowed," JD stated firmly.
"Allowed?" Casey squeaked.
"Yeah, allowed. You bein' my girl," JD replied smugly.
"Since when?" Casey mocked.
"Since I kissed you."
"You presume a lot."
"Do I?" JD asked. "I remember the feel of you against me. How much you wanted me?"
Casey slapped JD across his face.
JD wheeled his horse around. "Let me know when you grow up."
"You can go to hell, JD Dunne."
JD waved dismissively and rode off.
"Dang it." Casey was tempted to chase after JD but figured it was best that she wait till JD cooled off. She continued down the road at a slow walk when a horse approached. Casey stiffened with fear until she recognized Vin's horse with Ezra Standish on it.
"You see JD?"
"He still upset?"
"Mr. Dunne is displaying the typical behavior of a jealous swain. Why is that, Miss Wells?"
"We were talking about you, sort of."
"Ah. And you were not forthcoming about the nature of our relationship."
"None of his business."
"I beg to differ."
"You takin' his side?"
"It's not a matter of taking sides. He feels guilty and responsible. Only you can relieve him of that burden."
"But he's not responsible for what happened," Casey exclaimed.
"Maybe you should tell him that."
"I have. I have. It's all we seem to talk about."
"Your lives will always be affected by the unfortunate events that transpired with the Nichols' gang."
"But we have to get past it."
"I concur. But if you two do not converse on these issues, you will never get past them."
Ezra's gold tooth flashed as he smiled. "Of course, I am."
Casey smiled reluctantly.
"Come, Miss Wells. I'll race you back to your aunt's."
"Race." Casey's laugh was gleeful as she kicked her horse into a gallop.
Ezra let her have a slight head start before giving pursuit.
JD could have kicked himself. He let his jealously overcome his manners. That was no way to talk to a lady. He'd implied Casey was easy. JD winced, nothing easy about that girl and I wouldn't want it any other way. He really should apologize. JD turned his horse and cut through the forest to catch up to Casey before she got home.
JD stopped suddenly. He was on a ridge that overlooked the road. He stiffened when he heard Casey's laugh. He quickly spotted her. Her hat had blown back off her head, she had her horse at a full gallop and Ezra was giving chase. Just what the hell did he think he was doing? She's my girl.
JD turned his horse to return to town furious at himself and Ezra.
Ezra returned about a half-hour later. He returned Vin's horse to the livery.
Ezra smiled at the greeting. His daily conversations with the liveryman were fast becoming a highlight of the day since his return to town. Ezra didn't want to examine that turn of events too closely.
"Vin's horse give you any trouble?"
"Why sir, are you casting aspersions on my abilities to stay mounted?"
The liveryman chuckled. "From what I hear, you boys have a hard time staying on your horses. JD fell of his horse once; Buck once on purpose, once not on purpose - his horse fell on him; Preacher once because his horse shot out from under him; the Tracker, like three times."
Ezra was laughing but felt it was his duty to defend Vin. "Actually, I believe Mr. Tanner fell only twice."
"Good thing you boys take better care of your horses than yourselves. Not a scratch on 'em."
"We have our priorities straight."
The liveryman laughed.
"See you in the morning."
The liveryman waved as he turned to attend to Vin's horse.
Ezra was still chuckling over the falling of your horse count when JD stalked up to him.
JD pushed at Ezra. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
Ezra pushed JD back just as firmly. "Do you have a problem, Mr. Dunne?"
"Damn straight I do." JD pointed a finger at Ezra's face. "You stay away from my girl."
Ezra grabbed JD's finger.
"EZRA." Nathan yelled rushing over from across the street.
Ezra ignored Nathan and backed JD against the wall, his arm across his throat. His voice lost most of his accent as he growled at JD, "Then you take care of her because if you don't some man will."
JD struggled against Ezra's chokehold. "What, you?" JD spit out furiously.
Ezra eased up on JD. "Not me," Ezra responded wearily, "I'm not good enough for a jewel like Miss Wells."
All the fight went out of JD. "Just so we understand each other."
"Fine," and JD stalked off after giving Nathan a look daring him to say anything.
Nathan put his hands up defensively and said nothing.
After JD mounted his horse and rode out in the direction of the Wells' cabin, Nathan turned to Ezra. "You'd be wrong."
"Wrong, Mr. Jackson?"
Nathan smiled slightly. "That you're not good enough."
Ezra's head reared back at what Nathan said. "Thank you, Mr. Jackson. That means a lot."
"So, you coming over the church to give a hand with the rebuilding?"
Ezra grimaced. "Not that good."
Nathan chuckled but noted Ezra fell into step beside him and they headed to the church.
Buck sat at a table on the boardwalk his bad leg propped on a second chair and a dark scowl on his face. It was too early to sit in the saloon but that's where he figured he'd be later, drinking beer and playing cards until he was too tired and his leg hurt too much to do anything but go back to his room and try to sleep. That ought to be about five o'clock in the afternoon, he thought disgustedly.
He wanted something he couldn't quite put his finger on and even making time with Miss Amy or Rosie, the new girl at the saloon, didn't seem to make the dark feeling go away. If he thought about it, which he was determined not to do, he'd have maybe realized that the dark feeling was always there, merely kept at bay by the people and the noise and the action he typically succeeded in surrounding himself with.
Buck looked up from his rapidly cooling cup of coffee to see Josiah pulling out a chair and taking a seat. "How 'ya feelin'?"
"How do you think I'm feelin'?" Buck smiled at Josiah, but his eyes remained dark.
"Bored. Fed up. Anxious for some unspecified reason you can't put a finger on."
Surprise flickered across Buck's face. "What makes you say that?" He tried to keep his voice light, but there was an underlying roughness that revealed how close Josiah'd come to guessing his current state of mind. "Hell, Josiah," he added with a grin, just in case Josiah'd actually been going to say something he didn't want to hear. "a man's got to be able to move if he's going to keep the ladies interested."
"And if he's going to make a quick exit when her husband shows up unexpectedly." Josiah grinned at him.
But then, Josiah sobered. "Buck, we gotta talk."
Buck's face immediately shuttered. He went through his life not talking, except occasionally around a campfire with Chris. If a man joked enough and laughed enough and complained enough, pretty much no one ever noticed that he never really said anything about the past. "What," he said flatly.
"I know that in a fight I can always count on you, Buck," Josiah said. "And I figure that's an important thing to know about a man. But you're reckless, Buck. Goin' back into the Nichols' camp after those guns. It ain't just you. Someone else could get hurt because you do something like that."
Buck could feel anger start to smolder deep inside him. Josiah's remarks echoed uncomfortably with the dream he'd had at Nettie's, with those voices that never quite went away. If he'd been more mobile, he'd have made some joke and left, but he couldn't leave and Josiah didn't seem about to either, so all he said was, "We needed the guns."
Josiah nodded. "As it turned out, we did. But you sure didn't know that at the time."
"You never been reckless, Josiah? In your whole life, you never done one reckless thing?"
Now it was Josiah's turn to be uncomfortable, remembering...well, he couldn't remember everything he'd done during the final battle with the Nichols' but he might, perhaps, have been a little reckless. "I'm just sayin,' Buck, that people count on you now."
"And I'm sayin' that maybe they shouldn't."
Josiah looked at him. The truth was, he realized, that he liked having Buck in a fight with him. Buck really thought his role in life came down to protecting every living thing except himself. And if he was reckless, well, it wasn't just for recklessness sake. Josiah wished he knew more about the darkness Buck tried to hide, but in the end it came down to a man's own past and Josiah sure had to respect the privacy of that.
"People _do_ count on you, Buck, just so you know. _I_ count on you." He reached across the table and took Buck's coffee mug from his loose grasp. He tipped it so he could see the contents. "But that's enough serious talk for this bright and glorious morning. How about another cup of coffee?" And without waiting for a reply he headed over to the saloon.
Buck watched him go, thinking that he would not be happy again until he had his leg back in shape and no longer had to sit still for damnfool conversations with anyone who happened along.
An hour later his mood had improved considerably as more people had appeared on the street. He'd had a fine conversation with Miss Amy, who expressed suitable concern over how quickly his leg was healing every time she saw him.
He heard the sound of jingling spurs and knew without even turning his head that Chris was walking up behind him. "Mornin' Chris."
"Buck." Chris pulled up a chair and sat.
Buck figured he should get up and move soon if he expected to move at all. His knee was throbbing and he knew it would be stiff and almost impossible to walk on when he did stand. If he sat here much longer...but there was a cool pleasant breeze blowing down the street, the sounds of people greeting each other, and the quiet movement of a few scattered horses. It was a quiet day in Four Corners, all right. Quiet enough that Buck could hear, carried on the breeze, the sound of hammering from Josiah's church. The sound of Nathan yelling something carried too. Buck couldn't make out the words, but figured he was likely yelling at Ezra about something. Yesterday he'd been complaining because, although Ezra was always there he never seemed, at least as near as Nathan could tell, to be doing anything useful.
Buck smiled. "Nathan suspects that Ezra's running a pool at the saloon on when the roof is goin' up at the church," he said to Chris. "But he can't find anyone who'll admit it to him."
Chris smiled. "I got a week from Wednesday myself."
Buck laughed. "Me, I put down three weeks from next Thursday."
"You been down there yet?"
Buck scowled at him. He didn't have any desire to see a burned-out church. He didn't need more reminders of the Nichols' boys. He had the throbbing in his leg already that woke him up at three o'clock in the morning. Besides, what good could he do down there? Just stand around and look?
A quiet voice interrupted his dark thoughts. "Howdy, boys."
Chris's head snapped around. He stood and offered his chair to Vin. Bringing himself another one from farther down the walk. "You sure you should be out?" he asked Vin mildly.
Vin eased himself slowly down into the chair. He winced slightly then relaxed. "Reckon I _gotta_ be out," he said. "Man could go crazy sittin' in his room all day."
"Amen to that, brother," Buck seconded.
"'Sides I was out yesterday," Vin said with a half-smile, "And didn't no harm come of that."
"Except you slept for about eighteen hours after," Chris said.
"Hmmm," Vin said, not choosing to pursue that line of talk.
The three men sat quietly for several minutes watching the normal everyday activity of the town flow around them. No one, seeing them there, looking relatively happy and relaxed, would know that they listened automatically for voices raised in anger, for gunshots, for sounds of fighting. Listened in ways they themselves probably didn't completely understand, so deeply ingrained in who they were and what they did.
The sound of the stagecoach arriving filled their ears. The men watched the horses swing around the corner. The driver pulled back on the reins to bring the carriage to a stop just across the way from where Buck and Chris and Vin were sitting. No one disembarked, but the driver unloaded several packages from the top of the coach.
The driver handed down the last package and jumped off his seat. He walked around to the back of the coach and lifted the cover. He looked up and spotted Chris, Buck and Vin. "Hey!" he called to them. "Ain't you the fellas that know that preacher?"
Buck sat up straight, ignoring the warning twinge in his leg. He could feel Vin shifting beside him. "Yeah," he said cautiously. "Yeah, reckon we do."
"I got a package for him."
Shit! Buck's hand went to his pistol and he didn't even know it. He heard Vin turn quietly to Chris. "Where's J. D.?" Vin asked.
"I don't know," said Chris. He rose without another word and walked over to the stage coach driver.
Buck could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. It couldn't be. There were only two of them left. Matthew and John. They were back in Kansas City. Under federal armed guard. They weren't even allowed to communicate with anyone. It couldn't be. He was just being paranoid. But his heart sank into the pit of his stomach anyway. Where the hell was J. D., he wondered angrily.
"Hey, fellas," came a voice from directly behind him.
Buck grabbed his chest with his hand. "Damn! J. D. Don't scare a man like that."
And Vin said, "Hell, J. D., don't you got nothin' better to do than creepin' up on us?"
J. D. looked at the two of them. "What's wrong with you two?"
"Nothin,'" Buck muttered. But he kept his eyes on Chris who was damned sure takin' his time getting that package.
When Chris came back to the table, he had two packages with him. One was fairly small and square. The other was large, rectangular and, judging from the way Chris carried it, heavy.
"J. D.," he said. "Go and get Josiah. I got a couple of packages here for him."
"Heck, I can take them over there, Chris. I'm headed that way now."
"Just get him," Chris said harshly.
"Okay. Geez!" J. D. muttered to himself as he left. "Man can't get a civil word out of anyone around here."
Chris looked at the packages.
"What d'ya think, Chris?" Buck asked him.
Chris picked up the smaller package and shook it. It rattled like the last package that'd come in on the stage, the one with the prison guard's teeth in it.
"Could be nothin.'"
"Could be this one here says it's from Kansas City," Vin said, reading the label on the larger package.
"What!" Buck said. "Kansas City? We should have just shot the last two and had done with it. This ain't never gonna be over while they're still walkin' around."
"Now, Buck, we don't know what's in these packages," Chris said, though he was glad in a way that Buck had said out loud what all three of them were thinking. Better to have it laid out flat in sunlight than just sitting there working away at them.
"Gentlemen." Josiah's deep calm voice was a welcome relief. "J. D. said you had a package for me."
"We thought it must be a considerably tremendous package if you couldn't manage to carry it to the church yourselves, gentlemen," Ezra said from behind him. He was in his shirtsleeves, but if he'd been doing any strenuous work at the church he'd managed to do it without getting any dirt on him anywhere.
"You know, when I say you need to rest, I don't mean you need to sit on the street all day until you get too tired to stand up." Nathan on the other hand, looked like he'd been working right where he best liked it, right in the middle of everything. He was covered with a fine sheen of golden sawdust from head to foot. Buck and Vin ignored him. "You ain't never gonna get better if you don't take better care of yourselves."
"You got two packages here, Josiah," Buck said. "We'd like to see you open them."
"Well, Buck, I get alot of packages," Josiah said. He picked up the first one and his eyes widened when he heard it rattle. "Oh," he said.
"This here package," Vin said pointing to the other one. "Says it's from Kansas City."
"I see." Josiah pulled out his knife and ripped through the strings holding the paper on the package in his hands. He peeled off the paper and pryed open the box. "Gentlemen," he said and showed them the contents. Nails.
"Well, damn," Buck said crossly, annoyed at the anxiety he'd felt. "Nails."
"There's still this one from Kansas City," Vin said.
Josiah studied the box carefully. "Haven't ordered anything from Kansas City," he said thoughtfully.
"Open it," Chris said harshly.
"Gentlemen, I think--" Ezra began, but no one was listening.
Josiah cut the strings on this package slowly. The box was constructed of heavy wooden crating and he had to pry loose several nails before the lid would lift.
"Well, I'll be--"
"What the hell is it?" Chris demanded.
Josiah reached in and pulled out a portion of the box's contents. Hymnals. Brand-new, fresh-from-the-printer-in-Kansas-City hymnals. Josiah opened the one he held in his hand and looked at the fresh crisp pages. He raised it up and smelled deeply of the clean leather binding and the new ink on the pages. A grin broke out on his face.
"Well, well, well," he said. "Where do you suppose these came from?"
He lifted the heavy crate in his hands and prepared to head back to the church. He looked at the others. "It's a day for miracles, gentlemen. Yes, positively, a day for miracles."
Nathan gave both Buck and Vin a warning look. "I'll be back in a little while," he said, "and I expect you both to be restin.' And not in no saloon, neither." Then he turned and followed Josiah.
Ezra started to leave too, but he was brought up short by Chris. "Ezra," Chris said in that voice he had that brooked no nonsense. "I'm thinkin' you know something about those hymnals."
Ezra clapped a hand to his vest. "Mr. Larabee," he said. "Surely you can't think that _I_ would part with my hard-earned cash for something as frivolous as hymnals. Why, when the sanctified dead rise from their graves--"
"Heard it." Buck and Vin said firmly in unison.
"Well, I...," Ezra crossed his arms and tried to adopt an innocent look. Chris thought sardonically that someone really ought to tell him that it didn't work. "I don't know what to say." He touched his hat. "Good day, gentlemen," he said with a wicked grin. "I have work to do."
Chris, Vin and Buck sat for a moment and watched Ezra disappear down the street. Each of them needed a minute to settle himself back to the quiet rythms of moments earlier. The Nichols' brothers were really gone. Really.
"You know," Buck said after a bit, "I been sitting here long enough. And I figure my knee'll just lock right up if I don't get up and move. And you know where I'm figurin' on goin'?"
Vin looked up at him and grinned. "Saloon?"
Buck pushed his chair back and levered himself into a standing position. "Hell yes," he said. "You boys care to join me?"
Chris looked up at him from under the brim of his hat. "Reckon I better," he said. "Cause you ain't never gonna make it all the way over there by yourselves."
"Aw, hell, Chris," Buck began. And the friendly banter continued the entire long slow way to the saloon.
Sarah B.--author of the set-up story
DesertSage, Joby, Deb, and Melissa R.--Thread A authors
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