The sun was merciless, baking the desert sand into a glistening mass of glass. It leached the life out of anyone who dared to enter its domain. Buck Wilmington glared up at it, daring it to best him. He'd been through a lot in his life, nearly been killed more than once, and he'd survived every time. If he was going to die, it was going to be in bed somewhere, preferably with a woman or two on either side, or maybe with his back to a wall protecting his friends. It wasn't going to be because the sun overpowered him. That would just ruin his reputation.
He shifted very carefully, testing the pain his side. It hadn't gone away since the last time he'd moved. He'd had broken ribs before, but it hadn't been all that enjoyable the first time, and he could do without it now. Particularly since there wasn't a feather mattress or beautiful nurse in sight. Broken ribs sure as hell didn't make it easy to sit up, much less ride a horse. Or, more likely given his situation, walk a long distance. He frowned. Damn horse.
He squinted up at the sun, which hadn't moved much at all except to grow slightly bigger, and wondered what was keeping JD. The kid was getting some water for the horses . . . no, the horses were gone, and JD had gone after them . . . damn, where was he?
JD still wasn't completely recovered from being shot. He got tired so easily and Buck had told him to stay home, but he'd insisted, and now he was out on his own, and probably in trouble. Damn kid. Now Buck would have to get up and go make sure nothing had happened to him.
Which turned out to be a bad idea. He'd forgotten about the ribs. He needed to find JD, though. The boy had a positive talent for getting himself into trouble, and Buck couldn't exactly remember where he'd left him.
They'd been riding, he could recall that much. He couldn't remember where they'd been going or how he'd ended up lying here in the middle of the desert without a horse or the kid. Wait, no, he had a vague recollection . . . Buffalo Springs. They'd been going into Buffalo Springs for some reason, and his horse had spooked at something . . . and thrown him? He wasn't sure. He did know that he'd cracked his ribs and hit his head hard enough to knock himself out for a short time. But what had happened to JD? Why wasn't he still here? Had he been hurt too?
The sun seemed to have grown hotter just within the last couple of minutes, baking down through his skin and burning his bones with a cold fire. God, he'd kill for a drink. Maybe he ought to get up and mosey on down to the saloon and get a shot of whiskey, see if anyone else was there . . . Ezra was usually good for a game of poker . . .
//The saloon was cool in comparison to the muggy heat outside. Several of the townsmen had decided to take advantage of it, and a desultory poker game had commenced at one of the tables near the middle of the room.
Ezra, for once, wasn't involved. He was sitting at one of the tables the group had claimed at the back of the room, absently dealing out cards to JD. The kid was paying very little attention, picking up the cards, shuffling them, and then setting them down again for Ezra to pick up and deal again. The original intent, as far as Buck could tell, had been to play two-hand poker, but neither seemed to be interested enough in the game to get beyond doling out the cards.
Buck leaned his own chair back against the wall, not willing to work up the energy to be interested in anything. It was just such a lazy day, events moving as slowly as molasses in winter. Buck had accomplished absolutely nothing except to bully JD into eating some breakfast.
He sighed, remembering yet another in a long string of arguments. Buck didn't think he'd be able to relax completely until the kid was fully recovered, but JD didn't seem to be all that interested in recovering. He refused to eat right, claiming that he wasn't hungry even when he'd skipped the last meal as well as the current one. Still, he wanted to ride out with the others and take part in whatever they were doing.
Buck had been ready to kill JD himself when he saw him in the wagon riding to the rescue in Eagle Bend a few days past. Or better yet, kill Vin and Ezra for letting him put himself in more danger when he wasn't even healed from the last time. They'd almost lost the boy once before they really had a chance to know him. JD didn't seem to have learned any caution from the experience, but Buck had developed an uncomfortable sense of responsibility, like it was his duty to make sure JD survived his exposure to the big, bad world. Which, more often than not, seemed to mean that Buck found himself acting like JD's surrogate mother. It was driving JD insane and amusing the others to no end.
Buck would have felt foolish, but he was the one who'd spent the most time at JD's bedside after he'd torn open his gunshot wounds again. The one who'd fought the fever of infection with no more weapons than water and an old rag. Who'd held JD's hand against the excruciating pain as Nathan changed his bandages, who'd listened to him whimper in the middle of the night when he thought no one was awake to hear . . .//
Buck shifted restlessly. He needed to find the kid. God only knew what kind of trouble JD had gotten himself into that had kept him away this long. Maybe if Buck moved very slowly . . .
It took a long time, and he nearly puked up everything in his stomach, but somehow he made it to a sitting position. He looked around blearily, wishing that the world would stop spinning for a few seconds so that he could actually focus his eyes.
The dusty brown blur around him slowly resolved itself into sand. A pair of mesquite bushes clung stubbornly to life a few feet from where he'd fallen, but there was nothing else. No horses or JD or sign that either had been there before, although the wind was strong enough to blow the sand over any tracks that might have existed earlier.
He didn't remember how he'd gotten here. His last memory was of . . . what? The horses--there'd been some sort of problem with the horses. He could remember being thrown, but what else had happened? What had he been doing out in the middle of the desert, anyway? He and the kid had been riding, but there was someone else. Someone dangerous, shouldn't be left unattended . . .
//"Buck, I have a job for you. Interested?" Chris straddled the chair, nodding a greeting to Ezra and JD before focusing his attention on Buck.
It had been a long time since Buck had been able to look at Chris without being reminded of the debt that he owed the man. He was partially responsible for the hell in Chris's eyes, and someday he hoped he'd be able to something to ease it just a little.
On the other hand, he wasn't stupid.
"Depends on the job."
JD perked up at the mention of something happening, and Ezra hid his face behind the cards. Buck tried to send the kid a stern look so that he would know he wasn't going to get involved in anything more dangerous than this game of cards, but JD wasn't looking at him. On purpose, Buck was sure.
Chris took his hat off and set it on the table. "Prisoner transfer. A federal marshal was transporting a prisoner and got sick. Now the prisoner's stuck in Buffalo Springs and needs a couple of men to bring him here for the next marshal to pick up. Seems there's a lot of sickness in town. The sheriff and his deputy are both down too, and they don't want to leave him there without adequate guards. Judge Travis sent word for some of us to go get him."
"And how did I get lucky?"
"Thought you'd like the chance to get out, see some sights, keep an eye on JD . . ."
"You want me to go?"
"What do you mean, 'JD'?"
Chris waited for the simultaneous outbursts to stop before continuing. "JD's still the sheriff. At least, he's the only one sworn in. He has to go. Seeing as how you've been through most of the available women in town, I figured you might like some new scenery for a day or two."
"Chris, there's no way . . ."
"Buck, would you just shut up? If I have to go, I have to go. I'm not gonna collapse on the way or anything. You don't want to go with me, just stay here."
"You just stay out of this. Chris, he's not in any shape . . ."
"I would think that Mr. Dunne is imminently capable of deciding his own abilities. Certainly more so than any of us," Ezra interrupted, his soft drawl cutting through the argument. "It is, after all, his body that was injured."
"Yeah, and I say I'll be fine. I'm going, Buck. Live with it."
Chris eyed them all until he was sure they were done. "The prisoner, Ephraim Cooper. He already killed at least two people, and he's going to hang. Keep your eyes open. He's got nothing to lose."
"Great, just great. Any more good news you want to share?" Buck asked sourly.
"You need to leave first thing tomorrow."//
He needed to find JD. That was a more difficult proposition than it sounded. He'd only made it to his feet because, aside from a bone-deep coldness, his entire body had gone numb. While he was pretty sure he should be worried about that, all he could dredge up was a sort of vague gratitude. He couldn't find JD if he was hurting too much to walk, and he had a responsibility to the boy to get him out of whatever trouble he'd found. Buck didn't intend to fail another friend.
The key was his feet. All he had to do was make them move. Once they were going, the rest of his body ought to follow. With a massive effort, he got the first one to budge, then the second, then the first again . . .
When he found JD, he was going to give him the lecture of his life, going off and getting into trouble when Buck's feet weren't working right. Damn kid, he had no sense of timing at all, didn't bother to check and see what his friends had planned before he ran off and got himself into something he couldn't get out of.
//"There's no point in humiliating the boy, Mr. Wilmington."
"Huh?" Buck looked at Ezra in confusion. JD had run off to "get supplies," although Buck had no intention of leaving town without checking over those supplies thoroughly to make sure he hadn't done anything stupid.
"He's young, but he's proven that he can handle himself in a tense situation. Yet you persist in treating him as if he had just recently fallen off a hay wagon." The gambler spoke without raising his eyes from his cards, his voice and expression so bland they could have been discussing the weather.
"Yeah, so? If he'd had more sense, he never would have gotten into the 'tense situation,'" Buck drawled the last two words in sarcastic imitation of Ezra's accent. "The kid needs a keeper."
"'The kid' has survived predicaments that grown men have not, and not entirely due to the intervention of his friends. He still makes mistakes, of course, but some of that is due to a lack of confidence that is not helped at all by your treating him as if he 'needs a keeper.' If you continue to humiliate him, he will only strike back by doing something even more foolish in an effort to prove that he doesn't need your 'keeping.'"
"The last time he didn't have anyone watching out for him, he damn near got himself killed. Twice. How many more times do you think he can survive that?"
Ezra looked up sharply, something flashing through his eyes so fast that Buck didn't have time to identify it before it was gone.
"I am more than aware of that fact, Mr. Wilmington." He looked back down at his cards. "But my observation still stands."//
All right, he was standing, he was walking. He just didn't have any idea where he should be going.
Buck's last memories before awakening in the desert were not of this place. They'd been near some sort of water, because JD had gone down to fill the canteens while he stood guard over Cooper. Buck's attention had been divided between the two, making sure that Cooper didn't do anything he shouldn't and trying to decide how JD was handling the trip. JD had been tired the night before, but no more so than could be blamed on the weather and the long ride. In fact, he had been acting more like his old self than he had any time since the shooting.
Buck had a memory of mounting his own horse and holding JD's horse's reins. JD was covering Cooper as the convict got on his own horse. For some reason, their two mounts were restless. He was having trouble controlling them . . . he didn't know how it happened, but he was on the ground, he couldn't breathe, and somewhere someone was shooting at something.
A minute later, JD was kneeling beside him, asking him frantically if he was all right, which was a dumb question since he was obviously suffocating, then . . . his memory went blank. Had he passed out? How had he gotten from there to here? And why wasn't JD anywhere to be found?
He didn't recollect any signs of bullet holes in JD, but he also didn't recollect where Cooper was, and Cooper was one hell of a mean bastard. Buck had taken one look at him in Buffalo Springs and decided that this was one man it wouldn't do to turn his back on. Not that he'd listened to his own advice, paying more attention to the kid than to his prisoner. The thought of JD and Cooper both wandering around the desert, and possibly finding each other, gave him more chills than he already had.
With a sigh, he decided that if he didn't know where he was going, then one direction was as good as another to head in. Or he hoped it would be. Anything was better than sitting around doing nothing and finding out later that something had happened to JD that he could have prevented. He'd had that experience once before, thank you very much, and didn't need to go through it again. He couldn't face Chris again with his failure, couldn't look into those eyes knowing that he had let someone else die when a simple act could have prevented it . . .
//They'd spotted the smoke as they came over the rise. Buck thought stupidly that Sarah must have decided to fire up the smokehouse, because there was far too much smoke for a simple hearth fire. Chris had realized instantly, however, and spurred his horse forward--this man who had never, to Buck's knowledge, been cruel to an animal in his life--at a breakneck gallop.
Buck was only seconds behind, yet Chris had almost made it across the yard before Buck could pull up in front of what was left of the house. Buck never remembered dismounting or crossing the yard. Somehow he managed to get in front of his friend before he could get inside.
"No." It was like trying to stop a landslide, but Buck hung on determinedly. If Chris saw what Buck suspected was inside, he'd likely lose his mind.
Frozen green eyes bored a hole through him, threatening mayhem if he didn't move.
"Get out of my way, Buck."
Buck had never heard that tone from his friend before--so soft, so reasonable, yet somehow carrying all the danger of a loaded gun in the hands of a madman.
"No, Chris, you can't. I'll do it. You can't."
"Get out of my way, Buck."
"Chris . . ."
It was no use. Chris went inside, and all Buck could do was follow.
Chris wouldn't let him help bury the bodies. Buck sat back and watched his friend bury his wife, his son, and his heart, and felt more helpless and heartbroken than he'd ever felt before in his life.
"I should have been here."
It was the only epitaph Sarah and Adam Larabee got, and it hit Buck like a horse stomping on his gut. You would have been, if I hadn't wanted to wait. God, Chris, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.//
" . . . sorry," he sighed, feeling his legs give out again.
He might have laid on the hot sand for minutes or hours. The first indication he had that he wasn't alone came as someone pulled him over and started brushing the sand off his face.
"Buck? Hey, wake up, all right? Where the hell did you think you were going? I told you to stay put."
"JD?" Buck gasped, trying to see through the blur that clouded his vision. "Where'd you go, kid? You get yourself in trouble?"
He heard a sigh, then JD said almost gently, "I was getting help, Buck, just like I told you. You were supposed to stay near the rocks so that I could find you. Come on, let's get going. There's a wagon over here. We just gotta get you up and walk over there, all right? Think you can do that?"
"Can do anything you can do," Buck mumbled, obediently trying to get his feet back under him. Hadn't he just done this not too long ago? "Been walking, where were you? I was looking . . ."
"I know, Buck, you told me. Come on, now, just a little further."
Someone else said something, other hands were grabbing him, someone pulled on him wrong and the pain was back for a second before he saw black.
JD grabbed at Buck and braced himself as the bigger man went limp.
"Damn it, Buck!" He gave a shove and Buck landed in the bed of the wagon with a thud that made JD wince. Buck was not going to be happy about that extra bruise when he woke up.
"Is he in?" the owner of the wagon, Malindy McGregor, asked impatiently.
JD had a feeling that she was ready to take off regardless of whether Buck was on board or not. It wasn't that she seemed unconcerned about Buck's condition. In fact, she was the one who'd urged him to hurry when he'd told her he had a friend lying injured in the desert. It was more that, for an old lady, she had more energy than anyone he'd ever met.
"Yeah, he's in. Let's go."
JD swung himself up beside Buck just in time. Lindy, as she'd insisted he call her, clucked to the mules that were pulling the wagon. As it lurched to a start, JD shifted Buck around so that he was lying flat and leaned over him, trying to block some of the sun.
"Here, boy, cool him down with this."
JD took the canteen and trickled some of it over Buck's face, dribbling just a bit on his lips. Buck didn't even twitch. His skin had burned an angry red in spite of his tan, and JD didn't think he was sweating as much as he should in the intense heat.
JD knew he wasn't all that smart when it came to medical things, but he was afraid that Buck's condition was a lot worse than when he'd gone off to find help. The truth was, JD didn't have confidence in any of the decisions he'd made since the horses had bolted and Cooper had escaped. Buck had pitched off his horse at an odd angle and laid too still on the ground, and JD had gone to him instead of chasing after Cooper or the horses. There was a good chance he'd screwed up there, or if not, then later when he'd left Buck behind.
JD took a sip from the canteen and ran the back of his hand across his mouth. It was too hot and Buck was too hurt for JD to second-guess himself now. Once he had Buck in a safe place, he'd find a way to fix everything he'd screwed up. He'd find Cooper, get him back in custody, and escort him back to Four Corners by himself if need be. Then he'd bring Nathan back to Buck, and everything would be fine.
Buck moaned and shifted, and JD spilled some water onto his hand to pat it on the older man's face. His skin felt frighteningly hot and dry.
"Hey, Buck? You want to open your eyes? Tell me how much I messed up, maybe? Here, try to drink some of this, all right?" He lifted Buck's head and touched the mouth of the canteen to Buck's lips, feeling encouraged when the older man actually swallowed some of it. "There you go. You're gonna be all right. We'll get you in out of the sun, and everything will be all right."
"That's right, boy. We're almost back to my place, and we'll get your friend fixed right up." Lindy called over her shoulder. "He looks like a strong man. He won't let a little thing like too much sun keep him down."
Getting Buck into Lindy's cabin proved even more difficult than getting him into the wagon in the first place. He opened his eyes just as they pulled up, but didn't seem to really understand what was going on. He kept trying to pull away from JD's supporting arm, mumbling about needing to get home in time, although what he wanted to be in time for wasn't clear.
JD was trying to be patient, remembering how gentle Buck had been with him when he was hurting so badly after being shot, but by the time JD and Lindy had gotten the older man into her bed, he was hanging on to his temper by a thread.
"Damn it, Buck, you're a real pain in the butt sometimes, you know? We're just trying to help you here, why do you have to make it so difficult?" JD growled. He'd taken over the task of getting Buck situated in the huge four-poster bed that took up most of the room while Lindy had gone to another room to fetch water and bandages.
"Gotta get back. Get outta my way, kid." Buck struggled to sit up, then fell back with a gasp.
"Buck, you're hurt, you're sick, you're not going anywhere. Just lie back and relax. Let us take care of you." JD pulled off Buck's boots and unbuckled his gun belt, wishing he'd thought of taking it off before lying Buck down. Buck gasped again as JD pulled the belt out from under him, pushing weakly at JD's hands.
"Go 'way. That hurts."
"You're such a big baby. Now be still before I tie you down."
Lindy came back into the room, carrying a bowl and some linen. "You go take care of your horses and my mules, boy. I'll get him cleaned up, and then you can help me with the bandages."
JD fled gratefully, happy to leave the nursing to someone with more experience and patience. The horses were much more his speed.
He found them in the lean-to that served as a barn. With the cow and two mules already there, the horses were a tight fit. The earthy, slightly acrid smell of the animals combined with the musty-sweet scent of the hay, making the hot air almost unbreatheable.
Lindy had taken off the horses' bridles and saddles before JD had interrupted her by stumbling into her yard, but they were still wearing their saddle blankets. The mules were still standing outside, hitched to the wagon. JD started with the mules, letting the familiar movements occupy his thoughts. Once they were unhitched, he led them into the stable, gave them a brief rubdown with an old rag he found lying on top of a hay bale, then turned to the horses.
Buck's horse, particularly, had been restless the whole time he'd worked on the mules. JD figured it was due to the proximity of strange animals. Stripping off the blankets, though, he realized what the real problem was.
He swore viciously, furious that anyone could be so cruel. How Cooper had gotten to the horses was beyond him, but somehow the criminal had managed to smear the dirt of an ant mound on the bottom of Buck's saddle blanket. The horse's back was covered with welts, the blanket coated with the bodies of crushed fire ants and dirt.
Obviously, that was why Buck's horse had gone crazy when he mounted. It must have hurt the horse terribly when he put his weight on its back. No wonder it had started thrashing around and had flung off its rider. JD added another mark on Cooper's tally sheet for when JD found him again. The cruelty to the animal was bad enough, but Buck could have died from that fall.
Buck's mare nudged at him. Scratching her nose, he picked up the cloth to give her a gentle rubdown.
"Don't worry, girl," he murmured. "As soon as I make sure Buck's okay, I'm gonna go find Cooper. I'll make sure he gets what's coming to him."
When JD returned to the cabin, he found Lindy laying out bandages to wrap Buck's ribs with.
"You're going to have to hold him up while I wrap these around his middle," she instructed, gesturing at Buck with her chin as if there might be some confusion over who was going to be bandaged.
Buck was lying very still, eyes closed and a little frown of pain on his face. JD wondered if he'd looked as vulnerable when he'd been hurt as Buck did now. It was the strangest feeling, this protective urge that kept poking his head up when he saw his friend lying there, and it made the younger man very uncomfortable. He was used to Buck being the leader, the teacher, the one who fussed and took care of things. JD felt like he was stepping out of his place when he took charge, and he kept waiting for someone to whack him over the head with a hat and tell him what he was doing wrong.
Worst of all, the fact that Buck was letting JD boss him around spoke volumes about how bad off the older man was. If Buck didn't get well . . . Cooper already had a death sentence where he was going, but if Buck didn't make it, Cooper would never get there. JD would see to that, no matter how long or how hard he had to hunt.
Not that it was likely to be all that difficult a search. When their friends back in Four Corners figured out something was wrong, they'd come to help, JD had no doubts about that. In fact, the most difficult thing might be making sure that he was the one that dealt with Cooper when he was found.
"You gonna woolgather all day, boy, or are you gonna help me out here?"
JD jerked out of his musings. He looked up to find Lindy eyeing him impatiently, her wrinkled hands plucking impatiently at her split skirt as if they couldn't bear to be still for more than a second. He could feel a blush rising into his already burnt cheeks.
"Oh. Sorry." He turned his gaze down to Buck and frowned, at a loss as to what he should be doing.
Lindy sighed. "You're gonna have to lift him up--gently, mind--and brace him whilst I wrap his chest. Let him lean on you so it doesn't hurt as much. I'll tell you, I've wrapped many a broken rib in my time. Thought I was done with it when my George died. It's not a knack you lose, though."
JD tuned her out, concentrating on lifting Buck as carefully as he could. He sat down on the bed and slid his hands under the big man's shoulders. Pushing him up slowly, JD scooted himself behind the older man so that Buck could rest against him while Lindy wound the bandages around his ribs. JD winced as Buck groaned.
The harsh gasp startled him. He'd thought Buck was unconscious again. "Yeah?"
"You got a death wish, boy?"
"No," JD answered guardedly, not sure he wanted to know where Buck was going with this.
"Then quit jostling me around."
"We're trying to help you here, Buck. You make an awful patient, you know?"
"Just be still, young man, I'll be done soon," Lindy said, her voice surprisingly gentle.
JD felt Buck stiffen, as if he was realizing for the first time that they weren't alone.
"I'm Lindy McGregor, son, and I own this place. You'll be fine here till you get better. Just ease your mind and rest."
"Thank you, ma'am." Buck gasped as Lindy apparently hit a sore spot, then continued in a breathless voice. "But we do have to get back on the trail. We were escorting a prisoner . . ."
"Don't you worry about it, Buck." JD interrupted. "If Lindy doesn't mind, I'll be leaving you here to rest, but I'll head out in the morning to find Cooper. You . . ."
"Are you crazy or just--ow--stupid, boy?" Buck's roar wasn't up to its usual standards, but it still made JD jump. "No way in hell--ow--are you going after Cooper on your own, damn it, that hurts!"
Lindy tied off the end of the bandage and gave Buck's leg a gentle pat. "Quit whining, son. It's supposed to hurt. Your ribs are broke and you have a nasty sunburn. Fussing about it won't do no good."
"Buck." JD tried his most reasonable tone. "If I wait for Chris and the guys to get here, Cooper could be long gone. I have to leave as soon as I can. Do you want Cooper to get away?"
"I want you to listen to me, JD." Buck pushed himself the rest of the way into a sitting position, grunting painfully, then turned so that he could see his friend. "No one's coming to help us. We're on our own out here. You can't live your life expecting to be bailed out of your troubles, 'cause it just won't happen."
He paused for breath, and JD took the opportunity to argue. "But Chris and Vin and the other guys will know something's wrong in a few days when we don't show up. They'll come hunting us. Hell, Chris has been your friend for a long time. Don't you believe he'll come looking for you?"
Buck looked away. "I don't believe in nothing, kid, particularly not that anyone's gonna rescue me when I'm dumb enough to get myself into trouble. And you'd better wise up and learn that little lesson if you want to survive out here."
JD just stared at him. Why was he talking so crazy? There were five men in Four Corners who'd ride through hell to help him or Buck, and for whom he'd make the same ride without a second thought. They'd already proven that when Chris had been hunting his family's murderers, and when they'd hunted for Davies. Why didn't Buck know that?
He'd almost forgotten that Lindy was in the room until she stirred from where she was sitting on the edge of the bed.
"That's a mighty depressing attitude, son. But to each their own, my George always said. How about I fix you two some soup? I imagine you can use something on your stomachs." She bustled out of the room, and JD could hear her humming to herself in the kitchen as she worked.
JD was ready to continue the argument, but Buck had moved on to something else. "And if you think you're going after Cooper on your own, you're crazy. I'll have that old woman in there tie you down and I'll sit on you if I have to. He's bad news, and there's no way you can handle him on your own. Look what happened the last time you tried to take someone on by yourself."
JD felt his cheeks begin to burn. Trust Buck to bring that up. The older man obviously thought he was totally incompetent. Well, that was fine, but JD was going to show him just how much he could "handle." JD jumped to his feet and started out, very nearly not stopping when Buck called to him.
"JD. JD. Listen to me, kid. All I'm saying is that Cooper is dangerous. Hell, I wouldn't want to take him on by myself, and I'm a lot more experienced than you are."
JD didn't turn around. He wasn't ready to face Buck yet. "He needs to be caught, Buck. There's no telling what he'll do now that he's free."
"I know that. But you can't go on your own. Promise me you won't try to do this without me."
JD had no intention of promising anything of the sort. Buck wouldn't be up to hunting Cooper down for days, if not longer. But he wasn't going to say that to his friend. "I won't go anywhere tonight, anyway. You need to rest. We'll talk about this in the morning."
"Yeah, we will." Buck started to push himself down. Seeing his wince, JD moved to help. Neither man said anything to each other, and in seconds, Buck's eyes had closed.
"Here you go, boy." Lindy came back into the room carrying a bowl of water with a rag draped over the side and a mug. "Here's something to get your friend cooled down a bit. Make sure you drink some of it, and when you get done, make sure your friend gets some. He needs to start getting some moisture back on the inside of him."
JD took the bowl she held out to him, glancing uneasily down at his friend. "Is he going to be all right?"
Lindy paused long enough to give him a quick smile. "He'll be fine, son. He's a strong-looking man, and he's already woke up to talk to you once. Now, drink that water."
She went back out before JD could thank her. He followed her directions quickly, gulping down a mug of water before refilling it and setting it on the bedside stand. Then, he dunked the rag in the water and squeezed it out, running it gently over Buck's face.
Buck's eyes drifted open. For a frightening minute, JD was sure the older man didn't recognize him. Then Buck blinked slowly and mumbled, "JD? Whatcha doing here?"
"We're at Lindy's, remember? We found you out in the desert and brought you back here."
Buck blinked at him again, one shaky hand groping towards him and finally latching on to his arm. "Would you hold still, kid?" he muttered weakly. "Man can't hardly talk to you when you're swaying all over the place like that."
JD tried not to smile. "Sorry."
Buck frowned at him. "Gotta tell Chris . . ." His voice trailed off as his eyelids started to droop again.
"Tell Chris what, Buck?" JD asked gently. He slid an arm under the bigger man's shoulders and lifted slowly until Buck was resting against him as he had before.
Buck groaned softly, but didn't really seem aware of the move. He hadn't relinquished his hold on JD's arm, and his eyes were distant, as if seeing something JD wasn't privy to. JD took the mug and held it to the older man's lips. Buck swallowed the water that JD trickled into his mouth, but JD was pretty sure he didn't realize what he was doing then, or when he pushed the mug away.
"Tell Chris Jacinto's coming. Saw him on the trail . . . gonna be trouble. Gotta warn Chris." With a monumental effort, Buck tried to sit up all the way. JD's quickly placed restraining arm proved too much for him, and he slumped back against the younger man like a rag doll. His eyes had almost slid shut, but one hand was plucking fretfully at the covers, as if he wanted to remove them but didn't have the strength.
"Easy there." Setting the mug on the nightstand, JD rested his palm on the back of Buck's hand to still his nervous movements. "I'll tell Chris, and everything will be all right. Why don't you get some sleep now?"
"You'll tell him?" Buck mumbled, already giving in to JD's suggestion, but hanging on stubbornly to that last shred of consciousness.
"I'll tell him. Go on to sleep now. I'll take care of it."
With a last, faint sigh, Buck subsided.
As JD moved to lower him to the bed, he realized that he was trapped. Buck still had a death grip on JD's arm that JD didn't think he could loosen without either waking him up or breaking his fingers. Sighing resignedly, JD found a comfortable position on the mattress that wasn't likely to cause his friend too much pain and leaned back to wait.
//Chris Larabee looked rode hard and put up wet.
He'd drifted into Four Corners the same way he'd drifted in and out of so many other towns in the year since Sarah and Adam's deaths. Buck hadn't exactly been following him, but he had made sure he had a general idea of his friend's whereabouts by word of mouth and outright bribery when necessary.
Chris had made it very clear that he didn't want company on his wanderings. In particular, he didn't want Buck accompanying him, so Buck had done his best to stay out of the man's way. That didn't mean Buck was going to abandon him completely, though.
Now, Chris was back in Buck's territory--or at least, Buck had arrived in town the day before Chris had, so technically Chris was following Buck, rather than the other way around. That meant all bets were off. Buck had wanted to have a talk with his friend for a while now, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Buck watched from the porch of the hotel as Chris rode in and headed straight for the saloon, a move that had become typical of him in the last year. Discretion being the better part of valor, Buck gave him time to get a drink or two in him before heading that way himself.
This saloon was no different than any other. The wood on the tables, bar and floor was worn from the traffic it had seen. The mixed odors of whiskey, sawdust, and sweaty bodies hung heavy in the air. Several patrons sat scattered around the tables and stood at the bar, but there was a noticeable lack of people standing around the tall, blond, black-clad man who stood at the bar downing whiskey from a bottle as if it were water.
Buck approached cautiously, ordering his own drink from the bartender and taking a long swallow before turning to his friend. "Hey, pard, long time no see."
Chris gave no reaction except to take another drink.
"I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw you ride into town. I thought you were heading up towards Dodge."
That time, at least, Chris looked at him, even if the expression in his eyes would have frozen chili in July.
"What made you head back this way?"
Chris shrugged and turned back to his drink.
With a sigh, Buck leaned forward against the bar. "You planning on talking to me today, or should I just wait and come back tomorrow?"
"What do you want, Buck?"
"Is that any way to greet your best friend?" Buck tried for a light tone. Chris had always responded to his humor in spite of being one of the most serious and occasionally downright dreary men Buck knew. Of course, that had been before the fire. "Man'd think you didn't want him around."
Chris shot him that look again, but Buck forged ahead. This could be the only chance he had to break through the wall of ice Chris had erected around himself, and Buck refused to let it slip by because Chris was in a bad mood. Hell, when wasn't he, these days?
Buck had been waiting for this opportunity for months, ever since deciding that Chris wasn't going to come out of his funk on his own. He knew he was the closest thing to a family that Chris had these days, and Chris was as near as he got, too. It was his duty as a friend to try to help the man. That, and he'd been mighty lonely lately.
"You wanna eat supper later?"
"How about going for a ride tomorrow? Got some stuff I want to talk to you about."
The total lack of expression in Chris's voice was almost as infuriating as his answers. Buck took a deep breath and tried again for a devil-may-care tone that wouldn't give Chris the satisfaction of knowing he'd hit a sore spot. "How's about I ride along with you, then, like the old days?"
Chris slammed his bottle down on the bar and growled, "Damn it, Buck, don't you take no for an answer? Leave me the hell alone. Go find some little girl with more curves than brains to play with."
For a moment, Buck just looked at him, blue eyes meeting green in a silent battle of will and fury. The cold, quiet, controlled rage that rode him at times when he'd been pushed to his limit had a hold of him now. He know that Chris recognized it and wasn't willing to push him any further. But Chris had no intention of backing down, either.
The moment stretched between them like the instant of eternity between a bullet being fired and hitting its target. Then, for the sake of a friendship he still treasured, Buck reached blindly for some money to throw on the bar for the whiskey and stalked out of the saloon into the hot afternoon sun.
He rode out on his own, aimless, too angry to care for more than that he was moving. He let the pounding of his horse's hooves take over his thoughts. Wind rushed against him, teasing his face under the brim of his hat, giving him something physical to throw his weight against. Letting the mare navigate as she chose, he barely saw the yellow-brown blur of shrubs and dirt as he passed them.
Finally, the mare ran herself out and Buck slowed her to a walk, his anger beginning to cool. God knew Chris had a right to be furious at the world, and more than a little reason to be angry with Buck himself. Fury and grief were one thing, though. This total, bullheaded hatred of everything was going too far.
If it had just been aimed at Buck and at Sarah and Adam's murderers, Buck would have understood and left Chris alone. But when the man set out to take on the whole world, apparently hoping that he could destroy it or it would destroy him. That just wasn't healthy.
Buck had always thought that he and Chris were as close as brothers. Even now, with the vast distance that had grown between them, he couldn't just let Chris destroy himself without trying to stop it. Friends had to stick by each other out here. It was the only way to survive.
With that thought, Buck sighed, straightened his had determinedly, and turned the mare back toward Four Corners.
The ride back was significantly hotter and longer than the ride out. The mare wasn't in any shape for a mad dash, so Buck let her take her time. He used the time to marshal the arguments he intended to present to his friend once he arrived back in Four Corners. Chris was just going to have to see reason, that's all there was to it.
Buck wasn't going to sit back and let him drink away his life. He'd tried that for more than a year now, thinking Chris would work his way through his grief, and matters had only grown worse. Buck fully intended to walk into that saloon--he had no doubt that's where Chris would be--and drag his friend out, kicking and cussing if need be. Then, they were going to take a nice long ride out to some place private, where no one would interrupt them, and Buck was going to reacquaint Chris with certain facts of life.
"Sarah'd be ashamed of you," Buck said, not really surprised that Chris was suddenly riding beside him, even though he knew Chris hadn't been there a minute before. "She wouldn't look twice at a man that got into shoot 'em ups with kids. She'd tell you to get out of her sight until you'd got your head on straight." He sighed, picturing the fire in her eyes as she gave that order. "Then she'd send me after you and tell me to keep an eye on you and make sure you stayed out of trouble. Looks like she'd be mad at both of us, don't it, pard?"
He rode in silence for a moment, then resumed his argument. "Thing is, buddy, you've only got so many friends in this world, and you need every one you can get. It's no shame to count on them when you need them, and it sure as hell isn't wrong to let 'em help you. You can't just shut 'em all out, no matter how bad you're hurting inside. You can't make it out here without friends, Chris." He paused again, gazing morosely at the suddenly empty space by his side. "It gets mighty lonely when you try."//
Lindy set the soup to simmer and wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand, shoving loose wisps of grey hair out of the way absently. It felt strange to have men in the house to cook for. She'd barely had any company since George, and before him Andrew, had passed.
These two men, strangers though they were, seemed to be a good sort. George had always said he'd trust her instincts on people before he'd trust a preacher's word on them.
She'd been trying to get some gardening done when the younger one--hardly more than a boy, that one, still a few years short of Andrew's age when the cholera got him--stumbled into her yard. She'd planned on starting the canning, but for now she had the makings for the soup she'd be feeding the older one till he got enough liquid back in him to handle solid food again.
The younger one, JD, had been nearly frantic when he arrived, babbling about escaped prisoners and someone left in the desert. She'd dealt with excitable young men before, though. By the time he'd finished gasping out his story, she'd had her mules hitched to the wagon and all she had to do was send him to the well to fill himself up with water before they'd set out in search of his friend.
She'd wondered briefly if her people-sense had deserted her when they reached the rock outcropping JD had said he'd left his friend under. Neither hide nor hair of a man could be seen, but JD finally found footprints, and uneven, rambling ones at that, leading away from the outcropping. Sure enough, when they'd followed the prints, they'd seen a man staggering away from them. He was headed out toward the no-man's land in the middle of the desert where even hardheaded people like her and George didn't try to make a life.
He'd fallen a couple of times before they'd reached him, and she'd thought the boy next to her was going to jump out of the wagon and run the rest of the way at one point. The last time, the man hadn't gotten back up. They'd reached him just in time, if she knew anything about surviving in the desert after all her years here.
Abruptly realizing that she'd been standing around mooning, accomplishing nothing but giving the soup an occasional stir as she stared out into the vast bleakness of the landscape, Lindy gave herself a shake. She'd never get anything done at this rate.
It was about time to check on her two young men. She hadn't heard any voices coming from the bedroom in some time. Young JD had shown signs of knowing how to deal with the ailing, as if he'd had some practice in that area even if it did scare him like it did most young ones, so she'd left them alone.
She wasn't much of a nursemaid by nature, anyway. She'd never had patience with the sick even when they were her own. George had done more for Andrew when he'd been sick than she had, and she'd taken over the care of the farm. Good practice, as it turned out, for when George's heart finally gave out. George had been a good nurturer, though. It'd made him a good farmer and a wonderful father, and he'd never complained when she left such matters up to him.
With a smile and another shake of her head to clear the cobwebs, Lindy wiped her hands on her apron and went back to check on the two in the bedroom.
She paused at the doorway, not going in so she wouldn't disturb them. The older one was lying on the bed, asleep with one hand tightly gripping the younger one's arm. It was good thing, too. Sleep would do him more good than anything else, if it was a restful sleep and not one brought on by the crack he'd taken on the head.
The younger one had leaned back against the wall and fallen asleep as well. His out-of-place Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes were all rumpled and dusty in a way that made her want to strip them off and give them a good cleaning. His hair fell into his eyes, making him look younger than she'd given him credit for.
The two could have been brothers, she thought idly. In fact, she'd half thought that when she saw them together. They both had the same dark hair and big dark eyes, although the older one's were blue and the younger's hazel. The way they doted on each other, though . . . As small as the cabin was, she'd had no choice but to listen to the argument about JD going after the prisoner they'd lost. She'd heard the fear in the older one's voice that matched the fear in the boy's when he asked her earlier if his friend would be all right.
Again, she pulled her mind back on track, thinking briefly that she must be getting old, as much time as she was spending woolgathering these days. Spotting the water basin on the floor, she retrieved it and the half-empty mug on the nightstand and left the two to sleep.
The sun was the least of Ephraim Cooper's troubles. He was a damn good rider. Always had been since his daddy had put him up on a horse before he could walk, but trying to guide the animal with his knees over the rocky terrain was a bit much even for his abilities.
He had to get the ropes off. He'd been lucky that the two idiots who'd been escorting him had forgotten to bring handcuffs. Ropes, he could deal with, once he found a safe place to stop his mount.
After that, he had to find some water. His throat was already as dry as the sand that surrounded him. It wouldn't take long before water was a bigger problem that the ropes.
Finally, there was the issue of the two idiots. He had a chance to make a clean escape here. The only two who knew what had happened to him were wandering around in this desert somewhere. If the desert didn't get them, Ephraim Cooper intended to.
A dim light flickered tenaciously against Buck's eyelids, insisting that he pay attention to it. Annoyed, he tried to turn away from it, but several sharp aches and a weight on his shoulder stopped the movement before it really started. He waited a long, drifting moment, but none of it went away.
He supposed he was going to have to open his eyes. It almost seemed like more trouble than it was worth, but the flickering lights kept teasing at him, nagging him until he finally gave a grumpy, resigned sigh and levered them open.
Wood, unfamiliar walls . . . though he'd certainly woken to enough of those in his life. A bed, which was certainly an improvement over many mornings . . . but it didn't feel like morning. A hushed timelessness hung over the room, feeling more like the middle of the night. Good. He could turn off the lamp and go back to sleep.
He started to close his eyes again, but . . . there was something more nagging at him than just the light. Worry, and a warm weight against his shoulder. Dreamily, he turned his head to look, vaguely aware of a burning tightness on his cheeks. The sight that greeted him melted his fear and left a feeling of quiet contentment in its wake.
With a soft sigh, he gave in to the drowsiness that dragged at him. JD lay curled up beside him, close enough that he would wake up if any danger came near. He tightened his grip on JD's arm and let the approaching darkness take him.
JD blinked groggily awake. A warm, heavy weight against his side had him trapped. He looked around in slightly panicked disorientation, knowing there was something he should be remembering and taking care of, but . . . what . . .?
The weight shifted as he looked down. Oh, Buck. JD's eyes slid shut again, only to pop open as events rushed back to him. Sitting up quickly, he laid the back of his hand on Buck's forehead. It was hard to tell if the heat he felt came from fever or from the deep burn that darkened Buck's skin. Either way, the older man was too hot. JD found himself wishing that Nathan were around to take care of things. Nathan could help Buck so much better than JD could.
JD crawled out of bed gingerly, careful not to wake Buck up, although Buck's only reaction to the disturbance was a slight frown of pain. JD patted his shoulder gently and tiptoed out of the room.
The kitchen was empty when he entered. Lindy had obviously been there recently. The soup she had been working on earlier was simmering on the stove, and JD's stomach rumbled as he caught a whiff of it.
First things first. He spotted the water bowl on the table, cleaned and dried, with the rag he'd been using to cool Buck down draped over its side. JD grabbed it and about to go in search of water when the back door opened and Lindy stepped in, carrying the well bucket.
"Finally woke up, did you?" she asked cheerfully. "Soup's ready whenever you are. Probably ought to try and get some in that friend of yours. He'll be needing something with a little more body to it than water." Without pausing for breath, she navigated her way around the kitchen, setting down the water bucket, stirring the soup a bit, and pulling large tin mugs off a hook on the wall as she talked. "Why don't you take some of this water and go wake your friend up. Get him to drink as much as he will of that, and I'll bring the soup in after a minute." She took the bowl from JD and scooped up some water from the bucket, then handed it back to him. "I've got some salve, too, that you can put on those sunburns of yours. What are you waiting for? Go on now."
JD gave up trying to get a word in and simply nodded his thanks. Going back to the bedroom, he set the bowl down and dipped the empty mug Buck had used before in it. Then, getting his rag wet, he patted Buck's face, mindful of the burn.
"Hey, Buck, time to wake up."
The older man shifted restlessly, leaning into the cool sensation. His eyes flickered open, searching his surroundings worriedly. They settled on JD and widened in relief, but almost immediately started to droop again.
"C'mon, Buck. Stay awake for a minute, all right?" JD set the rag back into the bowl. "How about a drink?"
Buck swallowed dryly. "JD? Where . . ."
The hoarse whisper made JD wince. "We're at Lindy's, remember? C'mon, let's get some of this water in you, and then we'll talk about it."
JD shifted over to where he could help Buck up as he had the day before. The older man didn't help much, letting JD prop him up and hold the cup to his lips. JD could feel tiny tremors shake Buck's muscles as they reacted to the strain of sitting. A flicker of fear settled in JD's stomach. Buck seemed to be getting worse instead of better, and JD couldn't help but wonder if maybe there was more wrong with him than JD had first thought. All that sun on top of the broken ribs and the whack on the head wasn't good, but JD had expected Buck's condition to improve once he'd gotten to some shelter and had a chance to sleep.
"That better?" JD took the cup away, but didn't lower Buck back down. Lindy had said she was going to bring soup, and he didn't want to put Buck through the ordeal of sitting up again so soon. "How you feeling, Buck?"
"Hot." Buck shifted against JD's shoulder. "'ja find Chris? Gotta tell him . . . "
JD sighed. "I said I'd tell him, Buck. Don't worry about it." Trying to still his growing worry, he continued gently, "Do you remember why we're here?"
"Jacinto . . ." Buck frowned. "No. Cooper? JD, you're not going nowhere, hear? It's not safe." He tried to sit all the way up, gasped, and fell back against JD again. "Damn it . . ."
"Easy there, easy," JD said quickly, concern struggling with irritation and just barely winning. "I'm not going nowhere while you're sick, anyway. Calm down."
"'m not sick," Buck muttered fretfully.
Lindy appeared at the door before JD could answer, carrying two steaming mugs.
"You're awake," she said cheerfully, crossing to the bed and setting the mugs on the stand. She rested a hand on Buck's forehead, then moved it down to his cheek. "Still a bit warm. I'll see if I don't have some willowbark tea still lyin' around somewhere. And I got some salve for that burn I'll bring in a minute."
Buck's expression, from what JD could see of it, was dazed as he tried to follow the rapid words.
"Thanks, ma'am," he whispered hoarsely. "I . . . "
"Don't you worry none," Lindy continued as if she hadn't heard a word. "A few days' rest, and you'll be back to normal."
"That is something to worry about, ma'am," JD interjected, hoping to rile Buck into making some sense. The older man's disorientation was beginning to scare him.
"Watch it, kid. I'm not gonna be tied to this bed forever," Buck answered gamely, but JD could tell his heart wasn't in it.
"That's right, you're not." Lindy handed JD a mug. "Careful now, it's hot. You," she shifted her gaze back to Buck, "get some of this soup in you whilst I go get that salve and find the tea. Don't go spillin' it, now."
//Jacinto didn't look like a bad man. In fact, with his neatly trimmed dark hair and beard and his well-cut clothes, he looked more like a Spanish grandee than a wanted bandito. Buck stared down at him from the rock outcropping he was hiding behind, swallowing painfully against a dry throat as he saw the outlaw raise a flask to his lips.
Buck had been completely taken in, not realizing that the man who'd approached him on the trail was after anything more than a little company for the last miles into Four Corners. It wasn't until they rode around a bend in the road and straight into a circle of hard-looking men that Buck had suspected anything. They'd wanted his horse, and they'd gotten it, leaving him with only a crack on the head.
A sensible man would have headed into Four Corners, maybe told the sheriff, assuming he could find him, or at least gotten another horse and a decent night's sleep before heading out to find the banditos. Buck had taken off after them on foot, following the trail their horses left.
It'd been long after dark when he found them, mostly out of luck and the glow of their fire. By that point, he was hot, tired, thirsty, and his head hurt like hell. All he wanted to do was shoot him some bandits, get his horse back, and go find a saloon. Or a bed. It really didn't matter which.
There were about ten of them, gathered around the fire in a laughing, drunken circle. Only Jacinto wasn't obviously inebriated. From what Buck could hear, he was trying to plan something--a bank robbery? a stagecoach hijacking?--with one of his men. The second outlaw's interest seemed more focused on the flask being passed around, however.
Buck had decided, once he saw the situation, to wait until the banditos passed out, and then sneak up, get his horse, and let theirs loose. It wouldn't be quite as satisfying as shooting them, but it was a hell of a lot safer. Now, though, as he strained to hear the outlaws' plans, he began to think that he had bigger problems than just being without a horse.//
Buck woke up cold and sticky from the thin sheen of sweat that coated his body. His head felt clearer than he remembered it being when he woke up last, but it still took an incredible amount of effort to put two thoughts together.
At least he'd gotten straight in his head who they were after. He didn't know where the dreams of Jacinto were coming from . . . except he'd spent time wandering around the countryside then, too, when the outlaw had stolen his horse. Maybe all that walking had called up the memories.
Shifting carefully, Buck managed to push himself up into a sitting position. It hurt like hell, making his head swim and his muscles shake, but he felt better doing it for himself instead of having to have JD help him. Actually standing up might have to wait awhile, though.
Speaking of JD . . . Buck frowned uneasily, wondering where the kid was. JD had been so determined to go after Cooper last night, or whenever it was that they'd talked last. The kid just didn't get how dangerous that was. He was used to having backup, six armed, dangerous men who would make sure he got out of the situation alive. It wasn't that he couldn't handle himself under normal circumstances, but going against Cooper was another thing altogether. Buck didn't want to have to spend another couple of weeks at JD's bedside, or worse . . .
A movement at the door interrupted Buck's thoughts. Looking up, he saw the woman who owned the house--Lily? Lindy?--watching him assessingly. As their eyes met, she smiled.
"Well, you're lookin' a sight better than you was last time you woke up." She came into the room, drying her hands on a worn flour sack towel. "Mind if I take a look at those bandages?"
Buck spread his arms wide. "Have your way with me, ma'am."
She gave him a glare that had a hint of amusement in it. "I'm old enough to be your mother, son. I got over 'having my way' with young whippersnappers a long time ago." Reaching behind him, she positioned one of the pillows so that he could lean back on it, which he did with a sigh of relief. She pulled his open shirt down off his shoulders to give herself a better look at the bandages, saying, "Looks pretty good. I'm going to put on some fresh ones, though. Wear the same ones to long, and your skin starts getting chafed."
"Wouldn't want that, now would we?" Buck grinned at her. "Listen, ma'am, I appreciate you helping us out like this. I . . ."
"Oh, now, no need for that. Out here, you help your neighbors when they need it. It's the only way to survive." She took a small paring knife out of her apron pocket and sliced neatly through the bandage at the knot, then began unwinding it. Buck sat up slightly to let her get around his back, bracing himself with his arms on the mattress against the annoying weakness in his muscles. "And don't call me ma'am. Lindy's good enough. Not much use for formalities out here."
"Lindy, then. Pleased to meet you," Buck gave her his most charming smile, which was only marred a little by the grimace of pain he indulged in part way through it. "Ow . . . guess I got some broken ribs, huh?"
"And a crack on the head that ain't doing you much good, either." Lindy finished unwrapping the bandages and set them aside, pulling a new roll out of her apron. "Just cut these this mornin'. Figured you'd wake up enough sometime today to change them. On top of all that, you've got a sunburn on your face and arms. Don't you remember waking up before?"
Buck started to shake his head, then thought better of it as a stab of pain ran through his skull. "Just a little here and there . . . I remember JD was talking about going after . . . shit!" Realizing what he'd said, he added quickly, "Um, sorry, ma'am. JD, my friend--he didn't take off anywhere, did he? I told him not to . . ."
"Calm down, son." Lindy patted his leg comfortingly. "He's been out in the barn cleaning it out for a couple hours now. Young man like that don't much want to be cooped up all day."
Buck frowned uneasily. "He was hurt pretty bad not too long ago. He shouldn't be pushing himself too much."
Lindy placed the end of the new bandages against his stomach. "Hold that still, son." As she began wrapping, she continued, "He seems like a pretty smart fellow to me. I imagine he has enough sense to know when to come in out of the heat."
"Not so's you notice," Buck said dryly. That wasn't entirely fair. JD was usually levelheaded--for a greenhorn kid--but he was a little more sure of his own strength than Buck thought reasonable. "If he had that much sense, he wouldn't have gotten hurt in the first place. He sure wouldn't be talking about going out after a wanted murderer like it was a trip to the swimming hole."
"He did a decent job getting you here," Lindy said mildly, "and he's been takin' good care of you, too. Seems like maybe you should give him a little more credit."
Buck's jaw clenched suddenly around hot words he couldn't say. She was a lady, and helping them out of the goodness of her heart. Problem was, she hadn't put in the time at JD's sickbed, watching him literally hover between life and death as fever and chills ripped through his body. No one, except maybe Nathan, knew what it felt like to have to hold the boy up so he could swallow a sip of water without choking, and to feel how incredibly light and fragile he'd grown in just a few days. Buck knew. Buck had been through it all, had sat there watching a thin, pale face grow more ghost-like with each passing day, and had thought dark, painful thoughts about a life ending too soon . . . and about responsibility. He wasn't going to let it happen again.
"When he earns it," Buck answered finally, calmly, swallowing the angry thoughts that wanted to come spilling out. "Which he isn't gonna do if he keeps up this fool notion of going after Cooper on his own."
As he'd been thinking, Lindy had finished off the bandaging. She gave the knot one last yank to tighten it, then patted Buck's leg again as she stood, her expression noncommittal. "Hold on a minute, and I'll get some more salve to put on your burn. Then we'll see about some food, if you're interested."
A sharp-edged rock took care of the ropes, and an odd-looking cactus someone had once told him captured water took care of his thirst. The only problems left were the sun and the two idiots, Wilmington and Dunne.
Cooper had taken advantage of a tiny recess in a rock formation to hide from the sun. He was going to wait out the heat of the day, then make as much distance back to where he'd lost his escort. With luck, he could pick up their trail in the early morning light, and follow it as far as he could before it got too hot.
Once he found them . . . Cooper grinned. There'd be two less idiots in the world.
Gazing at the horizon with eyes half-closed against the sun, Chris Larabee leaned against the post on the walk outside the saloon. Heat baked the dusty streets, and smart people found reason to stay indoors.
Restlessness had taken hold of him, though, and he'd found himself wandering about town, stopping at the saloon, the church, Mrs. Potter's store, the jail . . . although there wasn't much point in the last, since there weren't any criminals being detained and JD was the only one who spent time there otherwise.
Problem was, Chris's neck hairs were standing on end. He might not have the best instincts in the world when it came to understanding people, but he could smell danger from several days away. It was like the stillness in the air before a tornado set down, and it was hovering over Four Corners just waiting to touch down and destroy everything in its path.
He wanted Buck and JD back in town. They were the two out of the group in the most precarious position at the moment, and they didn't have any backup. It nagged at him, leaving him with the feeling of business untended.
Stupid as he knew the thought was, he had half a mind to ride out and meet them. Buck was capable of taking care of himself, and JD was shaping up better than he'd expected when he'd first told the kid to go home. Fact was, though, JD was still recovering from his wounds, and Buck--Buck was easily distracted.
Sighing, Chris turned away from the street and back into the saloon. Buck would think he was insane, riding out after him like he was a wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn. He'd just have to trust Buck to look after himself, the kid, and the prisoner.
And hope like hell his instincts were leading him wrong.
Buck was drifting pleasantly when Lindy returned with the salve. He wasn't sure why he was so tired all the time, but the spinning and pounding in his head eased when he leaned it back and closed his eyes, so he wasn't going to argue about it.
Lindy came in quietly for once, her touch feather-soft as she spread the soothing ointment across his skin. He sighed gratefully, enjoying the coolness.
"Better watch it, Lindy," an amused voice said from the door. "Buck ain't someone nice ladies want to be seen with."
Buck scowled at JD. "What're you talking about, kid? Ain't a lady alive don't want to be seen with me."
The younger man came into the room, his hands and face glistening slightly, as if he'd just run water over them. He looked at Buck critically, scanning him the way Buck had seen him look over a new horse.
"Could be better, but I've seen you look worse, too." JD's eyes turned serious. "How you feeling, Buck?"
"Well, I ain't gonna be out busting broncs tomorrow, but I think I'll live."
"That's good to hear. I'd hate to have to think of something nice to say at your funeral." JD's eyes twinkled, and Buck couldn't help but grin back.
"You think you're capable?"
"I think it's time for a bite to eat. I've still got some soup, and some panbread I baked whilst you was sleeping." Lindy stood, wiping her hands on her split skirt. "You boys interested?"
"Sounds great, Lindy." JD smiled at her.
Buck shook his head. The kid was well on his way to being as much of a charmer as Buck himself. Buck could be proud.
When Lindy had left, JD sat down gingerly on the bed next to Buck. "Listen, Buck, now that you're better, I was thinking about heading out after . . ."
Buck sat up straight, grabbing his ribs as he jerked them too hard. "Like hell you are, son."
"Buck . . ."
"You just listen to me, kid. Cooper's not a man to go up against on your own. He'd kill you as soon as look at you."
JD pushed back his damp hair in frustration. "Which is why I gotta catch him, Buck. We can't leave him running around loose. You ain't in any shape to go out after him, so that leaves me."
"That leaves no one, JD. When I can sit a horse again, then we'll go after him together, or go back to Four Corners and get some help. Until then, you're just gonna sit tight."
"I just can't do that, Buck," JD said quietly. "We were responsible for letting him loose, and that means we gotta make sure he don't do no more damage. Only you can't right now, so I've gotta do it."
"No," Buck said flatly.
"Then what do you suggest we do? If we wait till Chris and the others come looking for us . . ."
Buck shook his head. "How many times do I gotta tell you, JD, Chris isn't coming. No one's coming. It's every man for himself out here, and you just ain't experienced enough to handle Cooper on your own."
A dark flush spread through JD's cheeks. "If it's every man for himself, how come you don't want me going out on my own? Huh? And since when do you speak for Chris or any of the boys?" He stood up and walked toward the door. "I'll be leaving in the morning."
"Damn it, JD . . ." Buck tried to go after him, but twin stabs of pain in his head and ribs left him gasping helplessly against the pillows. "Damn it all to hell."
"Such language, son." Lindy stood in the doorway again, her expression bland. "Is there a problem?"
". . . stubborn kid . . . doesn't know what's best for him," Buck gasped.
Lindy's mouth twitched. "Looks like he ain't the only one."
Buck shot her a glare. "You gotta get him back in here, let me talk some sense into him. He's gonna get himself killed going out there by himself."
Handing him the mug and square of bread she had brought, Lindy sat down on the edge of the bed and gave him a fierce frown until he took a sip. "Tell me about this Cooper. Why's it so important for young JD to find him?"
Buck sighed, swallowing a bite of the bread before he answered, "Cooper's a convicted murderer. We were taking him to Four Corners to meet up with the federal marshal. He got the jump on us and got away while I was hurt." He shook his head wearily. "He's a bad man, Lindy. Don't care a bit if he has to kill you . . . in fact, he'd probably enjoy it. JD don't stand a chance against him."
"What about these friends of yours? The ones JD's expecting?"
Buck sighed. "They're not coming. He's got this fool notion they're gonna come riding to his rescue whenever he gets himself in trouble."
"Don't sound that foolish to me," Lindy said quietly. "Sounds to me like you don't have much faith in your friends, son. Any of them."
Buck's eyes flew up to meet hers, but her calm, steady look stopped his angry first response. Forcing himself to speak quietly, he asked, "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means I'm old enough to know better than to stick my nose in where it don't belong." Lindy smiled as she stood. "It's none of my business, son. Don't mind me."
With that, she left, leaving Buck staring after her in perplexed frustration. What the hell did she mean, he didn't have much faith in his friends? He took a savage bite of the bread and washed it down with a swallow of soup. What did she know? Just because he didn't want JD out hunting down Cooper on his own . . . was it so wrong to want the kid to see his next birthday? And Chris, hell, it didn't have anything to do with faith. Buck just didn't expect him to come pull his fat out of the fire every time he got in a bit of trouble. Chris expected a man to take care of his own problems. Nothing wrong with that. It was what men did. They didn't sit around waiting for their friends to solve their problems for them.
Finishing off the last of the food, he set the mug aside and maneuvered himself painfully into a flat position. Being upright so long had taken it out of him. His head had commenced pounding worse than ever, and he had that burning sensation in his eyes and the back of his throat that meant the fever was coming back.
Damn, how am I supposed to sit on the kid if I can't even move? He closed his eyes tiredly and thought about calling Lindy or JD, but then decided he didn't much want to talk to either of them at the moment. Maybe if he got some sleep, he'd feel good enough to talk some sense into JD.
No, that wasn't how it happened. The guns came later.
A shot that tore into his ribs, surely shattering at least one of them.
No, not like this.
Where was Chris? Chris should have been there. He'd sent for him, sent a boy on a fast horse and a telegraph, too, just to be sure. Four Corners wasn't that long a ride. Why wasn't he here?
Damn them, anyway . . . what was so important about a one-teller bank in a two-bit town? Lord, his ribs hurt.
It didn't happen like this. Why couldn't he remember?//
The porch barely provided enough protection from the sun to make it bearable to be outside, but JD couldn't stay in the cabin any longer. If he had, he would have said something to Buck that he might just regret later.
Bad enough the older man was treating him like a child. JD had grown accustomed to that in the past few months, particularly after he had been shot. Absentmindedly, JD rubbed at the scars on his stomach, wincing at the ever-present tenderness. He'd figured out that a lot of Buck's attitude had to do with the scare he'd gotten when JD was hurt. Having gotten a scare of his own at the same time, JD didn't mind Buck's protectiveness as much as he might. He even understood why Buck was so determined he wasn't going after Cooper on his own. Hell, he was worried about it too. Worried enough, in fact, that a little support from his friend wouldn't have hurt any.
With a sigh, he sank down onto the steps, staring out across the countryside. The land around Lindy's cabin was barren and harsh, nothing but rocks and scrub bushes and a fine, brown sand that clung constantly to skin and clothes alike. A few sparse patches of green struggled for life in the garden, but the overwhelming impression was of stark, arid emptiness. JD eyed it uneasily, not sure if he was more uncomfortable with the barrenness or with the idea that Cooper was roaming around in it. With any luck, the outlaw would end up in worse condition than Buck.
He was trying to be patient with the older man. He felt awful, all tired and achy, his chest and stomach hurting like they hadn't in over a week. If he felt this bad, Buck must be ten times worse off.
JD was getting mighty sick of being told he couldn't do things, though. And Buck's attitude about his friends needed some work, too. Their five friends back in Four Corners were damn fine men, all of them. JD couldn't think of any greater compliment than to be told he belonged in their company. How could Buck think they wouldn't stand by him in time of need? It would be different if they were all strangers, nothing but hired guns pulled together by the promise of gold. All seven of them had moved past that point the day they'd faced down Lucas James in front of Potter's store, standing together against a threat just because it was the right thing to do.
JD didn't understand how Buck could not see that, any more than he understood how Buck could be willing to let their prisoner escape. Cooper was too dangerous to be left wandering around on his own. JD sighed again. If only he could convince Buck.
"You're thinkin' heavy thoughts, son."
JD looked up at Lindy as she came out and sank into the worn rocking chair by the door. "Just wishing Buck would quit acting like he was my mother. My real mother wasn't even this bad."
Lindy chuckled. "Might be it's easier on a mother. She was used to worrying about you. My Andrew, he didn't take well to me worrying out loud about him, but he liked to know I watched out for him." She sighed. "He was a good boy, my Andrew."
"What happened to him?"
"Cholera." Lindy's eyes were distant, gazing at something only she could see. "Then my husband, George, went a few years later. His heart gave out on him." She smiled wryly, her gaze coming back to rest on JD. "Sometimes I miss having people around to worry about."
//It didn't happen like this.
The area in front of the general store was crowded with men on horseback, milling around in confusion, as a stream of women and children rushed past them into the waiting arms of their families.
In the center of all the confusion, a small, crumpled body sprawled, leaking a slow trickle of blood into the ground, a dumbfounded expression in his face. Blood covered his shirt and a smoking gun lay loosely in his hand as he stared with empty eyes at the sky.
No. This wasn't how it happened.
Buck scooped him up and cradled him gently, ignoring the blood that was staining his shirt the same color as the kid's.
Buck jerked awake, looking around frantically for the kid. Too late. Damn it, I'm too late.
Ignoring the pain that threatened to send him back into blackness, he shoved himself to his feet. Grabbing at the nightstand and then the wall for support, he staggered for the door. He had to find JD, had to make sure he didn't go out and face down Davies . . . no, Jacinto . . . damn, why couldn't he think?
He didn't recognize the next room. JD wasn't there, though, so it didn't matter that it was unfamiliar. Not too far away, a half-opened door led outside. He could make it that far. He had to. The kid's life depended on it.
He all but fell against the doorframe, peering out to see JD--thank God--sitting on the steps. As JD looked up at him, relief turned his knees to water, and the next thing he knew, he was on the ground.
"He's burning up." The worried voice came from above him. That was strange. Wasn't JD shorter than him? "C'mon, Buck, let's get you back to bed."
There was something he had to tell JD. What was it? Something important. If only JD would quit manhandling him so he could think.
A sudden lurch in his belly drove all thought from his mind for the moment. He heaved helplessly as he grabbed the doorframe for support against the recklessly tilting world.
"Damn it, Buck." JD's tone was gentler than his words, but it still pounded against Buck's skull like a blacksmith's hammer. "That was my only pair of pants. Couldn't you have waited a minute?"
Buck looked up at him blearily. "Gotta tell you something, JD."
JD sighed. "I know, Buck, it's all right. Let me and Lindy help you back to bed, all right?"
Bed sounded good, but he didn't ever want to have to make the trip there again. Sinking back onto the pillows with a grateful sigh, he closed his eyes and tried to ignore the annoying voices chattering above him.
"This isn't just the heat, son. He should be getting better, not worse."
"Then what's wrong with him? He was talking sense a few hours ago." JD paused. "There was a sickness in Buffalo Springs. That's why the sheriff couldn't keep Cooper there. They didn't have enough men to guard him."
"That's likely it, then. I'm gonna get some more of that tea. It took his fever down for a bit, maybe it'll do it again. You try cooling him off again."
Then a cool softness touched his face and soothed him into darkness.
JD ran the wet cloth gently over Buck's face and chest again, then dropped the cloth into the water bowl. Was it his imagination, or was Buck hotter than he'd been the night before?
"You were supposed to be getting better," he murmured, mostly because he wanted to hear someone's voice. Buck and silence just didn't go together . . . although the past few hours of quiet had given JD some time to think. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming down sick?"
Buck's only answer was a soft moan as he shifted positions in his sleep.
"Good news is, those folks in Buffalo Springs were getting better by the time we got there, so you should too in a few days." Sighing, JD squeezed out the cloth and patted Buck's face again. "Wouldn't have hurt you to wait till we got back to Four Corners, though. Nathan's a hell of a lot better at this than I am."
His brow creasing in a frown, Buck's eyes drifted open. "JD?" He swallowed dryly. "Thirsty."
JD grabbed the mug of tea Lindy had brought in earlier and helped Buck sit up. "Here, try this. It's not exactly hot anymore, but it should do the job."
Buck drank greedily, finishing the mug before he leaned back. "Thanks."
"How you feeling?"
"Been better," Buck answered wearily. "JD, I gotta tell you something . . ."
"What?" JD asked absently, not expecting much more sense than he'd been hearing the past day.
"You gotta watch out for Davies. He's gonna come looking for you."
JD felt a flicker of unease in his stomach. "Davies is dead, Buck. I killed him, remember?"
"Dead? But . . ." Wincing, Buck shook his head.
"Buck, listen to me." JD folded the cloth and lay it on Buck's forehead. "We're out here because we were taking Cooper to Four Corners, remember? You got hurt, and you must have gotten whatever sickness the folk in Buffalo Springs had, because you've got a fever and you're not thinking real clear right now."
"I know that," Buck said peevishly. "Why are you telling me something I already know?"
"So maybe you can remember it," JD snapped, then sighed. There was no point in getting mad. Buck couldn't help the fever confusing him. "Just try to remember, there's nothing you gotta worry about right now, all right? You just gotta get well."
"Yeah . . ." Buck closed his eyes. Then, urgently, "JD, Cooper . . ."
"Don't worry about him, either. I was thinking while you were asleep. I'm gonna head back to Four Corners tomorrow. Lindy said it was only a day and a half ride, so hopefully I can get there and get some help, maybe get Nathan to come out here and do something about your fever."
Buck sighed wearily. "Not gonna help, kid. 'spect you to deal with it on your own . . ."
JD shook his head. Buck was drifting off again, so he didn't try to argue. But he couldn't help but wonder why Buck was so convinced their friends wouldn't be willing to help.
//"What do you mean, I don't have faith in my friends?"
Chris gazed down at him with cool green eyes. "You don't believe in us. You don't believe we'll back you up. You don't believe JD has enough sense not to get himself killed."
He crouched down behind the teller's counter, the badge they'd forced on him digging into his chest. He could hear Jacinto shouting orders to his men, telling them to circle around to the back of the bank, and he hoped Peters was paying attention back there.
"You didn't back me up. Where were you? When Jacinto came and tore up that little town, where were you?"
Davies was a huge man, build like a bull and fast as a snake, and he loomed over JD in the deadly silence of the nearly deserted street.
Down the street, a ranch house wavered behind a wall of heat, flames licking up through the boards on the roof. A high-pitched scream echoed from inside . . .
. . . Davies laughed, the sound mingling with the scream . . .
. . . Jacinto bellowed at his men as a bullet plowed through the counter above Buck, sending a spray of splinters into his face . . .
. . . Chris's voice cut cleanly through the cacophony. "Sounds to me like you don't have much faith in your friends, son."
. . . Buck lunged at Davies and tripped, falling into a burning hell, surrounded by screaming flames, screaming himself . . . //
Cooper scanned the little farm carefully, looking for trouble. He was fairly sure the family--an old man, old woman, and a younger couple, as far as he could tell--had settled in for the night, but he couldn't afford to take any chances of one spotting him and taking a rifle after him. He needed food, weapons, and most importantly, water.
He was gambling he could find all that in the barn and at the well. He'd have liked to just go into the cabin and take what he wanted, but with no gun, that would be suicide. He grinned sourly. It sure as hell wasn't the first time he'd scrounged to survive, and he'd be willing to bet it wouldn't be the last, either. He'd just have to be sure to take payment out of Dunne and Wilmington's hides when he found them. If it weren't for them, he'd have escaped from Buffalo Springs and be living in style--or at least, civilization--right now.
Moving slowly, he worked his way down the small, rocky bluff he'd used as a scouting blind. He hadn't seen any sign of a watchdog, but it paid to be careful. Just as cautiously, he crept across the yard. It was a well-kept farm; the door to the barn didn't squeak at all as he lifted the bar and opened it.
He found a lantern and flint on a shelf next to the door. Lighting the lantern and turning the flame down low, he pushed the door shut, whispering softly to the two cows and mule who were staring at him with dull curiosity.
Several minutes later, he'd discovered a small sack that he filled with grain, a couple of old leather bottles that would work for carrying water, and a rusty axe. As weapons went, the axe wasn't much, but it would do until he could find better.
Blowing out the lantern, he set it back on its shelf and opened the barn door carefully. He didn't see anyone outside. The tricky part was still ahead of him, though. He had to get to the well, which was a hell of a lot closer to the house than he wanted it to be, and fill his bottles without being noticed.
He almost made it. He'd filled the bottles and was lowering the bucket back down when his hand slipped. The bucked clattered against the side of the well, and a few seconds later, light spilled from the door of the cabin.
Cooper didn't wait around. He was halfway to the bluff when the rifle boomed. A bullet plowed into the ground to his right, sending up a puff of dust that was much to close for his comfort. He'd just cleared the top of the rocks when another shot rang out, but it was nowhere close to him, and then he was on his horse and riding away.
Chris looked up sharply at the impatient drawl, then shook his head as he realized what Ezra wanted.
"I'll take two."
Ezra raised an eyebrow, but obligingly passed Chris the cards. "Mr. Jackson?"
Chris took his cards without looking at them. He didn't hear Nathan's answer, his mind somewhere out in the desert between Four Corners and Buffalo Springs. He didn't have any cause to believe Buck and JD were in trouble. They weren't due in for another day at the earliest, and more than likely it'd be two or three before they got back. He'd been telling himself all day that Buck could handle anything that came at him just fine and hadn't needed a sitter in all the time Chris had known him.
Chris told himself that, and he still was about ready to jump out of his seat and take off after the two, middle of the night or not. His feeling of impending danger had grown all day, and once he'd gotten it into his mind that JD and Buck were the ones in trouble, he couldn't ignore the feeling.
He sighed, looking down at his cards without really seeing them. There was nothing for it; he'd just have to take a ride tomorrow and see what he could find. With luck, he'd run into his men on the road. Buck would rib the hell out of him, but it would be worth it to get rid of this nagging feeling that had the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. Besides, he'd been in town too long. He needed some fresh air.
"Chris? You still in this game?"
Chris glanced up at Josiah, then shook his head. "Sorry, boys, my mind's just not in it tonight. I think I'll just turn in so I can get an early start tomorrow."
"You going somewhere?" The soft drawl emerged from under Vin's hat, where the tracker had presumably been dozing the last hour or so.
"Just thought I'd ride out a ways, get some fresh air. Might be gone a day or two."
"Want company?" Vin asked.
"I could stand to see some wide open spaces myself, if you do," Josiah added.
Chris thought about it for a moment, but ended up shaking his head again. "Think I'll do this one alone. Town still hasn't settled down since Davies rode through, and the stage is coming in tomorrow. Seems best to have more'n two of us here in case anything happens."
He didn't add that Vin still wasn't in any shape to be riding anywhere. The tracker had only been over the fever from his run-in with the rattler and Walkin for a few days, and he was still a lot shakier than Chris liked to see him.
He wasn't in any shape to be defending the town, either, and that only left Josiah, Ezra, and Nathan to take care of any problems. Chris couldn't see taking one of them with him on what was probably a wild-goose chase when they might all be needed here. Not when he was still haunted by the memory of what happened the last time almost all of them had left town.
"Say hi to Buck and JD for us, then." Vin's voice, still muffled by the hat, sounded distinctly amused.
Chris ignored him. He lay his cards on the table and stood, wishing the other three men a good night and managing to knock Vin's hat off its precarious perch as he walked away from the table.
Exhausted, JD leaned back against the bedpost. Buck was asleep again, but JD wasn't willing to bet it would last much longer than the last several times the older man had drifted off. JD didn't know if it was the pain from his fall off the horse or the fever, but nightmares and restlessness had plagued Buck all night. Sometimes JD could calm him down, but other times, it was all JD could manage to hold him in bed.
Lindy had been in and out throughout the night. She'd sit with them for a time, but before long, she'd be up and tidying something. She didn't seem to doubt that Buck would get better, which JD found a comfort. Looking at the tight lines of pain that creased the older man's forehead, listening to Buck's worried, disconnected ramblings, JD couldn't find it in himself to be so sure.
It reminded him too much of his mama, that last month before she passed. She'd barely known him at times, talking to people who weren't there, sometimes even to people JD had never heard of. He'd never known what to do when that happened. Nothing he'd said would comfort her, and he'd felt horribly alone even though she was right there in the room with him.
That same feeling of lonely helplessness haunted him now, even though he told himself over and over that Buck wasn't sick like his mama had been, that Buck was strong and too damn stubborn to let a little thing like a fever beat him. His mama had been sick for so long that that last illness had been more than she could fight. Buck . . . Buck was strong. That's what JD had to keep telling himself.
"Strong as an ox, ain't that what you always say?" JD murmured, taking up the one-sided conversation he'd carried on with Buck all night. It seemed to calm the older man to hear someone talking, and it made JD feel a little less alone. "Strong as an ox and a hell of a lot better looking."
He looked at Buck consideringly. "Don't know that I can agree with that last part, though. Especially now that you're redder'n Miss Blossom's fancy nitey you was telling me about all the way to Buffalo Springs."
Buck shifted slightly, dislodging the wet cloth JD had laid across his forehead. JD caught it before it could hit the floor, dipping it in the bowl of water by the bed to wash out all traces of the fever heat it held before placing it back on Buck's forehead.
"'Course, I ain't buying that anyone would try to sleep or . . . " suddenly remembering that Lindy was just in the next room, he stumbled a little over his next words, "or anything else in nothing more'n lace and a few ribbons. Seems like it'd be way too scratchy . . . ."
"JD?" Buck whispered.
JD jumped. Buck's eyes were still closed, and JD hadn't thought he was hearing anything JD was saying.
"Yeah, I'm here," he said softly, not wanting to wake the older man any more if he was just talking in his sleep again.
"Need a drink."
"All right, hold on a second."
JD leaned forward to grab the cup off the nightstand and helped Buck sit up enough to take a sip, then eased him back down.
Buck coughed, opening one eye to look at JD blearily. "That's water, boy."
JD grinned. "I got some tea if that'd suit you better."
"Kick a man when he's down, why don't you?"
JD patted his leg. "Fraid we don't got nothing stronger. You'll just have to wait till we get back to Four Corners."
"Great." Buck sighed, shifting his head on the pillow as he shut his eye.
JD waited, not sure if he was going back to sleep or not. At least he seemed more there than he had all day. Maybe that meant he was getting better.
"Listen, kid," Buck said hoarsely, his tone suddenly serious, "I know I ain't been thinking too straight lately . . . "
"Lately?" JD asked, trying to make his voice light. He didn't like hearing the uncertain note in his friend's voice.
"JD." Buck's voice wavered somewhere between exasperated and pleading. "Listen, will you? I ain't feeling so great here, and I got a headache that's making it damn hard to think."
JD patted his leg again. "Sorry, Buck. What did you want to tell me?"
Buck untangled a hand from the covers to rub at his eyes, dislodging the cloth from his forehead. Absently, he closed his fist around the cloth.
"I ain't been thinking too clear . . . can't keep things straight whether they're happening now or a long time ago. But . . . " he paused, swallowing dryly, then continued, "but I ain't crazy, kid. I still know stupid when I see it."
"Buck," JD started, suddenly seeing where this was going and not happy with it.
"Listen," Buck snapped, then winced and lowered his voice. "I ain't saying I don't trust you, JD. I'm just saying there's some things a man would be a fool to take on by himself."
"And there's some things a man would be a fool not to take care of." JD took a deep breath, deliberately lowering his voice to a calmer tone. "We can't leave Cooper running loose, Buck, but I'm not gonna do anything stupid. I'm going back to Four Corners to get help, like I told you before. I won't try to take on Cooper by myself."
Buck pressed the wadded cloth against his eyes. "Guess there's not much else you can do, but listen to me, kid. Chris isn't coming, and Jacinto, he's mean as a cornered polecat. Don't let them good manners fool you."
JD flinched. Jacinto again. Damn it, for a minute there he'd thought Buck was really with him.
"Buck, who's Jacinto?" he asked gently.
Buck frowned. "Jacinto, kid. He'll be here by morning. Aren't things set up yet?"
The older man's voice was rising, tightening with anxiety. JD patted his leg soothingly.
"Yeah, everything's set up. There's nothing to worry about, okay? Just get some rest."
Buck didn't say anything, but some of the tension left him. JD sat quietly for a while, but something Buck had said was bothering him too much to let it go. From the bits and pieces of Buck's ramblings, JD was getting the idea that there was some sort of history between Buck, Chris, and this Jacinto, whoever he was, that somehow made Buck think he couldn't depend on Chris. JD couldn't believe Chris would leave Buck sitting in a bad situation and not help him, but Buck was so confused with the fever that there was no telling what he was thinking.
"Buck? Why did you say Chris isn't coming?"
"I don't know. I thought we was still friends, even after Sarah and . . . ." Buck's voice trailed off, the hurt and confusion in his tone enough to make JD look away.
"Buck . . . " He stopped. He didn't know how to make this better, especially not when he didn't know the story behind Buck's ramblings. If Buck had been in his right mind, JD could have made a joke and eased things over--but then, if Buck had been in his right mind, JD would lay odds he'd never have said half the things he did. Buck hardly ever shut up, but he wasn't one to lay his heart on the table, either. "Chris'll be there when you need him, you can count on that. He don't leave friends in trouble without helping them out."
"Then maybe we're not friends no more. Maybe we never were."
"Now who's being stupid?" JD's voice was gentler than his words. He didn't like the note of sadness he heard in Buck's voice. It wasn't like the older man to let anything pull him down like that. "Chris is just about the best friend you could ever have, and you know it. You're the one who's always telling me about all the times you two got into trouble and nearly couldn't get out. No one goes through that much for someone who isn't their friend."
Buck opened his eyes, a grief mirrored in them that JD didn't know how to deal with. "There's some things that a man just can't forgive, even if you are friends."
"Like what?" asked JD, suddenly suspecting that he had lost all track of the conversation.
Buck coughed dryly. "Got any more of that water, kid?"
JD helped him sit up enough to swallow some of it, then asked again, "What can't you forgive, Buck?"
Buck blinked at him, suddenly seeming to have trouble keeping his eyes open.
"Forgive? I'm not mad at you, kid." He yawned. "What're you talking about?"
JD shook his head. "Never mind. We'll talk about it later."
" 'kay." Buck yawned again, already half asleep.
JD sat back and let him drift off.
Several virtually sleepless hours later, JD slipped quietly out of the sick room and headed out to the barn to saddle his horse. The sun had risen just enough to be able to see what he was doing, and the air still had a hint of coolness in it that would be gone within a few hours. By that time, he hoped to be well on his way back home.
He'd feel a whole lot better once he had some backup, not to mention Nathan to take a look at Buck. Lindy seemed to know what she was doing, but Nathan knew Buck and would know what was best for him.
"You about ready, son?"
JD jumped, automatically grabbing for his guns as he whirled to confront the speaker.
Lindy raised an eyebrow at the pistols pointed at her, but merely said, "Bit jumpy there, aren't you? I brought you something to keep your belly full on the road."
JD could feel his ears grow hot. He holstered his guns and took the leather sack Lindy held out to him, hooking it over his saddle horn.
"And don't worry none about your friend. I'll keep an eye on him till you get back."
"I appreciate it, ma'am." JD hesitated, taking off his hat to run a hand nervously through his hair. "When he wakes up, tell him I'll be back in a day or two, all right? Tell him everything's going to be fine."
"I'll take good care of him. You just go get the help you need."
JD shoved his hat back onto his head, tipping the brim respectfully before turning to mount his horse. He rode out at a steady, ground-eating gallop, not allowing himself to look back.
Chris set out before first light. He'd stuffed a few days' supply of hardtack in his saddlebags, along with some bandages and salve that Nathan had leaned out the door and handed him as he passed the healer's room on his way down to the stable. He'd also turned down Nathan's offer to go along, and he hoped like hell he wouldn't regret it later. He was gambling that Buck and JD wouldn't need Nathan's skills, but in the back of his mind, he could hear Buck's voice nagging about how JD wasn't ready for a job like this. If the kid came up sick again, there might not be much Chris or Buck could do for him, and Buck would never shut up about it.
Chris still couldn't see leaving the town without protection, though, so he set off on his own. This morning was the type he'd always liked for riding: cool, fresh, with only a few bright streaks of sunlight touching the horizon and the grating call of crickets splitting the silence. If it weren't for the tension that nagged at him worse than Buck on a tear, he'd be happy to shake off the responsibility of the town and just ride.
Fact was, he had half a mind to ride off anyway. He hadn't stayed in one place so long in years. He half-expected to see moss growing off his ears those mornings when it seemed worth it to shave. The fresh air, the strong surge of his horse's muscles between his legs, the stillness . . . he felt like a free man again.
And like a fool, for giving a damn one way or the other. Stay, go . . . he'd learned not to let it matter to him, any more than he cared about the people he met on the way. They got in the way of the one important thing left in the world: finding the sons of bitches that killed his wife and son.
He'd sent Buck and JD out on this job, though. Maybe he'd keep riding after he'd hooked up with the boys and made sure they were handling things, but first he had to make sure the whole deal hadn't gone bad. He owed them that much.
He and Buck had talked about the best route to Buffalo Springs. Going through the desert hadn't been the easiest route, but it was the shortest. Buck hadn't wanted to spend any more time on this job than he had to, saying the more time they took, the more chance there was that something would go wrong. He'd planned on going the desert route, so that's the way Chris turned.
By noon, sweat poured down his face, caking the dust on his cheeks. He'd crossed the thin stretch of scrub bushes marked the edge of the desert more than an hour before, and now was following the hard-packed dirt path that served as a trail through the sand. The sun glared off the ground, throwing heat back up in his face. It wasn't hard to remember why he'd never spent much time in the desert.
He didn't like it that he hadn't seen any sign of the boys yet. If they'd stuck to their schedule, they should have been out of the desert and half way across the grassland back toward Four Corners. Buck wasn't much for being on time, but Chris couldn't see him lolly-gagging around when he had a prisoner to deal with and didn't think JD could handle the trip in the first place. Buck would be in a hurry to get back to familiar ground.
//"What are we going to do?"
Buck felt trapped by the desperation in the faces of the people gathered around him on the boardwalk outside the town jail. He'd just wanted to walk into town and find an experienced sheriff and the makings of a well-armed posse. Instead, he found a teenage deputy, a bunch of women, and a few old men. Apparently the sheriff and the able-bodied men had ridden over to Solomon's Bluff, nearly two days ride from town, to help round up a pack of rustlers who'd been preying on the local herds.
While the men's absence probably explained why Jacinto was hitting this particular bank, it also left Buck with a problem. Jacinto was coming. As much as he might want to, Buck couldn't go off and leave the town all but undefended against the banditos. Not if he wanted to be able to look at himself in the mirror of a morning. Besides, Jacinto had stolen his horse, leaving him to walk to the nearest town or die trying. Buck owed him one for that.
"Well, we know he's coming, so we've got a little advantage there," he said slowly. "But I'd still feel better if we had more guns. Kid," he turned to the deputy, who flushed at the name but had enough sense not to waste time arguing about it, "get someone with a fast horse to ride to Four Corners. He'll need to find Chris Larabee and tell him Buck Wilmington said trouble's brewing. If we're lucky, they'll get back before Jacinto rides into town tomorrow."
"Chris ain't coming, Buck." JD polished the sheriff's badge that was hanging from his lapel for all the world to see. "This is your problem. If you can't handle it, that's your tough luck."
"Chris ain't like that, kid," Buck protested. "He wouldn't let a friend down. Why're you talking like that?"
"Don't be a fool." The sun reflected off JD's badge like fire, and the glow spread to the white cotton of his shirt, leaving behind a bright red stain. "You can't count on anyone but yourself. Helping people just causes problems. Look at what it got you here."
JD gestured to the chaos around them. To one side, an old man--Smith, or was it Michaelson with the long beard?--lay groaning on the floor, trying to hold his blood in his belly with one weak hand. Shattered glass glittered on the floor from the barrage of guns and rifles that had blasted through the windows to announce the arrival of Jacinto and his men. Smoke and dust swirled in the air.
Buck could feel the rough grain of the teller's counter against his back. The wood was thin and made for lousy cover, but it was all he had. He could hear Jacinto yelling at his men outside. It wouldn't be long before the banditos got up the courage to come into the bank. Buck just hoped he could hold out till Chris finally got there.
Buck shifted, moving into a better position to jump up and start shooting, or to run. Then something caught his eye that sent a chill up his spine. In the center of all the confusion, a crumpled body sprawled, leaking slow trickles of blood into the floor, a dumbfounded expression in his face. Blood covered his shirt and a smoking gun lay loosely in his hand as he stared blankly at the ceiling.
Footsteps rang across the wooden floor. Jacinto was coming. Chris wasn't there, but it was too late anyway. Peters was dead, the kid deputy never to grow into a man. Buck hadn't been able to save him, and now JD was dead.
No. JD wasn't there when Jacinto attacked the bank.
Buck scooped him up and cradled him gently, ignoring the blood that was staining his shirt the same color as the kid's. He heard the footsteps draw closer and stop next to him. Jacinto stood over him, the faint hint of a smile hovering at the corners of his mouth.
"So we meet again, gringo. Your horse, he is a fine one. Very strong."
Buck grabbed his gun, meaning to put a bullet right between the bastard's cold eyes. He wasn't able to complete the movement before the bullet blasted into his side.
"Go find some little girl with more curves than brains to play with," Chris said mockingly, and Buck spiraled into blackness.//
Taking a sip of the warm water in his canteen, Chris wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. As he was screwing the cap back on, a movement on the horizon caught his eye. He rested his hand lightly on the butt of his rifle and watched as the dark speck resolved itself into the shape of a man on a horse.
As the man rode closer, two realizations hit Chris and left a cold emptiness in his belly: first, that few men were likely to be riding out in the desert wearing an Eastern-style bowler hat, and second, that the one man who would be wearing that kind of hat shouldn't be riding alone.
Urging his horse to a faster gait, Chris closed the distance between them. He noticed with distracted approval that JD's hand didn't leave his gun until Chris was close enough to recognize even with the sun behind him.
"Where's Buck?" Chris asked as soon as he was close enough. "And where's your prisoner?"
JD took his hat off and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his arm. "Buck's about half a day's ride back. He's got some broken ribs, and I think he's come down with whatever laid out the sheriff in Buffalo Springs. I left him with an old lady, Lindy MacGregor, who has a little homestead not too far from where we lost Cooper."
Chris raised his eyebrows. "Lost Cooper?"
Glancing away, JD answered in a subdued voice. "Yeah. Somehow he got to Buck's horse, got ants smeared all in his saddle blanket. That's how Buck got the broken ribs."
"Son of a bitch," Chris swore softly. "How much of a lead does Cooper have?"
JD frowned. "Two days. It was yesterday morning when he gave us the slip. He was on his horse, too, so there's no telling where he is now." Finally he brought his eyes back up to meet Chris's. "I was going to ride out after him, but Buck nearly had a conniption when I told him about it. Only way I could get him to calm down was to promise to go back home and get some help first."
Chris nodded without saying anything. He'd have made JD do the same thing if he'd been the one laid up. The kid had learned a lot since he'd first arrived, but he wasn't up to taking on an outlaw like Cooper without help. Hell, Chris wouldn't exactly rush to do it himself unless he had some sort of backup. Cooper had a reputation as a cold-hearted snake.
"Any of the boys with you?" JD asked. "I'd feel a lot better if Nathan could get a look at Buck."
Chris gave him a sharp look. "Just how bad is he?"
"He's . . . " JD hesitated. "He's not in his right mind most of the time, Chris. He kept getting Cooper mixed up with Davies and some guy named Jacinto, and half the time he didn't really know who I was. Lindy said it was the fever talking, but I'd just feel better if Nathan could check him over."
"Nathan's back home. Buck's strong, though. He'll probably be up and romancing this lady you were talking about before we get there," Chris said, trying to sound more confident than he felt. Buck had the constitution of an ox, but he wouldn't be the first strong man to be felled by fever or a bad fall from a horse. No use borrowing trouble, though, and the kid looked worried enough without adding Chris's concerns to his own. "What do you say we head back in that direction. It's getting too late to do much scouting tonight, but we can stay at Miss MacGregor's place tonight, if she'll have us, and set out to find Cooper in the morning."
"I don't think she'll mind." JD sounded relieved as he wheeled his horse back in the direction he'd come from. "And maybe you can talk some sense into Buck."
"Been trying to do that for years," Chris said dryly. "Haven't had much luck yet."
JD didn't even grin. "He kept saying nobody'd be coming to look for us, that you expected everyone to take care of their own problems and I shouldn't be expecting someone to bail me out of trouble every time I got in it. Then he'd tell me Jacinto was coming." Shaking his head in frustration, JD wiped the sweat from his face again. "Just who the hell is Jacinto, anyway?"
Chris frowned. He knew the name, but he wasn't exactly sure where he'd heard it. He was more bothered by the first thing JD had said. Since when had Buck started thinking he couldn't depend on anyone--on Chris, in particular--to pull his butt out of the fire when it got too hot? There'd been times enough when Chris had wanted things that way. Times when the only way he knew to keep his sanity was to shove everyone and everything that might mean something to him as far away as he could. Times when he'd cursed anyone who threatened to breach the walls he'd built up, even when he might lose his life without someone to back him up.
Buck had never thought like that, though, not once in all the years Chris had known him. No matter what the circumstances, no matter if they'd just been in a knock-down, drag-out fight the night before, Buck would be beside Chris the next morning if Chris needed him, and he'd unquestioningly expect Chris to do the same for him.
Hell, half the time that was why Chris had shown up to back him up. He'd known that Buck would get his damn fool head blown off because he wouldn't be watching his own back in the expectation that Chris would somehow magically show up and do it for him. Differences of opinion didn't matter when your friend might be killed, that had always been Buck's philosophy. Hadn't he just proven that a month or so ago riding out to Stewart James' ranch to make sure Chris and the rest of the boys got away safe even though Chris had all but threatened to carve him a new smile?
Chris shook his head. Either JD hadn't understood Buck right or else Buck really was out of his head.
Jerked out of his thoughts, Chris frowned at JD. "What?"
JD blinked at him, then repeated cautiously, "Do you know who Jacinto is?"
Chris pushed his hat back on his head and rubbed away some of the sweat that had collected under his hatband.
"Seems like I do, but . . ." he trailed off, squinting at the horizon like maybe the answer would be written there. "Seems like there was a Mexican bandito that went by the name of Jacinto back a couple of years ago. If I recollect, he was gunned down trying to pull a bank job over in Callerton. Far as I know, Buck never had nothing to do with him, though."
Although, a small voice in the back of his mind pointed out, he hadn't exactly made an effort to keep track of Buck's whereabouts in those days. For all he knew, the man could have run for president in the long stretches between the times they bumped into each other.
"Well, Buck sure thinks he did," JD muttered.
"We'll just have to ask him about it when we get there." Chris guided his horse around a shrub. "Which we'll never do if we just sit here and jaw all day."
JD gave him a small grin. "Then let's ride."
Cooper watched the small, well-constructed wooden cabin in the valley below and wondered how long his luck would hold out. Finding the homestead itself didn't have much to do with chance. Any fool could figure out that roads in this hellhole of a desert were likely to run between spots inhabited by folk. He'd found this particular place by shadowing the hard-packed dirt track that ran out from the farm he'd visited the night before.
Fortune had smiled on him, though, when she'd led him to the one homestead where he could find what he most wanted. He recognized the grey horse down there stabled with a couple of mules. That meant one, maybe both, of the clowns he was hunting were most likely in that cabin.
Fingering the axe he'd stuck in his belt, Cooper started to think out a plan. He'd have to keep watch for a while to see how many people were in the cabin. Once he had an idea what he was up against, he could decide how to proceed. If his luck didn't desert him, he'd get a chance to pick off Wilmington and Dunne one at a time, without anyone else being the wiser.
Then he'd have to make a decision about the rest of the cabin's inhabitants. Odds were, Wilmington and Dunne had told their hosts why they were out in the desert, so now even more people knew he'd escaped. The smart thing to do would be to kill them off, just like he intended to do to Dunne and Wilmington, but he'd learned long ago not to bite off more than he could chew. It would all depend on how many people were in that cabin and how well they could defend themselves.
JD didn't try to talk as they rode. Chris wasn't much for conversation on a good day, and right now he was solely focused on getting where they were going. That actually suited JD just fine. He hadn't slept much the night before, between taking care of Buck and worrying about what Cooper could be up to. Coming up with casual conversation seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
The sun beat down with a heat strong enough to make him a little light-headed. A sudden, vivid memory of Buck staggering under that same heat hit him. Wincing, JD shoved the image out of his mind and spurred his horse on a little faster. Chris matched his pace.
The sun was near to setting by the time they topped the little rise above Lindy's cabin. Chris pulled his mount to a halt. JD followed suit, even though he wanted to rush down to the cabin and check on Buck.
"Looks quiet," Chris remarked, scanning the area around the cabin.
"Let's go, then."
Chris's hand on his arm stopped JD before he could urge his horse down the rise.
"What's that over there?" Chris nodded to the west. "By those rocks."
JD looked in the direction Chris indicated. His heart gave a sudden lurch as he spotted what Chris had seen: the unmistakable form of a man's head and cowboy hat silhouetted against the horizon. He would have missed it completely if not for the glow of the setting sun.
"Cooper." JD felt for his gun, pausing as Chris's hand tightened in warning on his arm. "What? We gotta get him before he tries to go after Buck and Lindy."
"Hold on." Chris shot a glance from Cooper down to the cabin. "I don't think he's in position to see us yet, particularly not if he's watching the cabin. I'm thinking I can get a drop on him before he sees me coming if I can slip around and come up behind him."
Thinking fast, JD nodded. "And if I keep his attention by riding on down to the cabin like I hadn't seen him . . ."
"Only so long as he don't start shooting at you. You hear bullets, you head for cover as fast as you can go, hear?"
JD sighed. "I'm not stupid, you know."
"Then don't act it." The hint of a grin softened the words. "Get inside and make sure Buck and the lady are all right, and stay there. If Cooper sees me coming, he might make a break for the cabin, and it don't sound like Buck's in any condition to stop him."
"I'll make sure he doesn't get in." JD nudged his horse forward. Then he stopped, glancing back at Chris. "Watch your back."
The grin was more than a hint this time, but Chris's only reply was to touch his hat brim with one finger before wheeling his horse and riding off.
JD continued on down the slope, trying to ride as casually as if he were out for a morning's ramble. The spot between his shoulder blades where he imagined Cooper's rifle to be pointed itched unbearably, and his stomach muscles clenched in preparation for the remembered agony of hot metal piercing through flesh. More than anything, he wanted to look back and see if Cooper was watching. It took all his will power to keep his face turned toward Lindy's cabin and his mount's pace to an easy walk.
The wind picked up a bit as he got nearer to the cabin, blowing a fine, warm dusting of sand into his face. He caught the scent of wood burning, then heard Buck's horse call out a greeting to his own. Dismounting, he unsaddled his horse and threw down some extra feed, then headed for the cabin.
The curtains twitched as he stepped up on the porch. Lindy opened the door, rifle in hand, and motioned for him to come inside.
"Short trip, son. Did you get lost?"
JD looked around quickly. "Is everything all right? Buck?"
"He isn't doing any better, but he's not doing any worse, either. That's something to be thankful for." Lindy leaned the rifle in a corner as she fixed JD with a sharp look. "Now what brought you back so soon?"
Taking off his hat and turning it in his hands, JD replied, "I ran into one of those friends I went to get. We were coming back here for Buck when we saw Cooper, the prisoner that escaped, camped out on that hill to the west."
"And your friend went after him?"
JD nodded. "Chris--my friend--was gonna try to get behind him while he was watching me ride up to the cabin." He looked at the window, barely resisting the urge to look out and try to spot Chris's progress. There was no telling how good Cooper's eyesight was. If the outlaw got the idea that JD knew he was out there, he might try moving around and run right into Chris when Chris wasn't expecting it. "Can't say I like him taking on Cooper by himself, though."
"Well, I haven't heard any gunshots, so we'll just hope for the best," Lindy said. "Or does your escaped prisoner even have a gun?"
JD frowned. He'd been thinking of Cooper like the outlaw was armed to the teeth, but the truth was, Cooper hadn't been armed when he'd ridden out of their camp yesterday morning. Unless he'd found a gun or rifle along the way, odds were Cooper was weaponless.
Suddenly realizing what he was doing to his hat brim, JD stilled his hands.
"I don't think he does, ma'am, now that you mention it."
"That's good, then." Lindy nodded as if something were settled. "I'd imagine you'll be wanting something to drink?"
JD nodded gratefully. "I'd sure appreciate it, ma'am. And if you don't mind, I'll just head back and check on Buck."
"What did I say about calling me 'ma'am'?" Lindy smiled as she gestured toward the bedroom. "Get on in there and let him know you're still alive. Maybe that'll ease his mind enough he'll be able to get some rest."
JD walked back to the bedroom. He stopped in the doorway, studying the man on the bed uneasily. How could Buck look so much worse after only a few hours? Hollows had developed under his eyes and cheekbones that JD knew hadn't been there that morning. His whole body seemed smaller, sunken in on itself.
"Here you go, son."
Lindy's voice behind him made JD jump. He turned, accepting the mug of water from her with a nod of thanks.
"I know he looks bad," Lindy continued, "but most likely it's just the fever reaching its crisis point. Once it peaks, it'll break, and he'll be on the mend."
"And if it doesn't break?"
Lindy patted his shoulder. "Have a little faith, son. I don't think he's ready to give up yet."
JD looked back at Buck and swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. "I sure hope not."
He downed the water she'd handed him in one gulp, then handed the mug back to her. Entering the bedroom, he walked quietly over to sit on the edge of the bed.
"Hey there," he whispered, reaching for the wet rag he'd used the night before to cool Buck down. "I gotta tell you, Buck, you look just awful."
He hadn't really expected a response, but Buck's silence still made him uneasy. He pressed the rag against Buck's temple, hoping that would rouse the older man. To his relief, Buck's eyes blinked open.
"Hey, kid," Buck rasped. "Thought you'd left."
"I came back," JD answered. "Ran into Chris on the way. I told you he'd come looking."
"Too late. Jacinto's already here."
JD sighed. "Jacinto's dead, Buck. He's been dead for years."
Buck gave him an exasperated look, reaching up to push the rag away from his face. "He'll hit that bank by morning if we don't do something to stop him."
He pushed himself up on his elbow, a soft grunt of pain escaping him. JD grabbed for him, but didn't dare push him back down for fear of hurting him.
"Buck, come on now . . ." JD protested. "I really need you here with me. Chris is out there looking for Cooper. Things could get hairy real fast."
Buck shook his head slowly. "Don't hold your breath, kid. I told you Chris isn't coming."
"Damn it, Buck, would you listen?" JD struggled to keep his voice calm. "Chris is here. He came."
"No." Buck went still suddenly, his eyes widening. "No. He didn't come. I remember that."
JD didn't know how to deal with that, so he let it pass. "But he's here now, out there with Cooper." Unless something's happened. "Look, why don't you just lie back down and rest? Everything's going to be fine."
Buck obeyed--or collapsed, JD wasn't sure which--gasping in pain as the sudden movement jarred his ribs.
"Just make sure you bar the doors to the bank, you hear?" Buck whispered breathlessly.
JD didn't have the heart to argue with him. "I hear. Get some rest."
Buck sighed and let his eyes close. JD waited a few moments until he saw the older man's breathing even out, then went into the kitchen. He found Lindy there chopping carrots.
"He still doesn't know what's going on," JD said. "I was hoping . . . "
"Don't fret yourself too much, son." Lindy handed him a piece of carrot. "You weren't gone but a few hours. Like I said, it'll take that fever breaking to see any real difference."
JD sat down at the table, rubbing his face with one hand. "I just keep thinking it might not break. Not soon enough, I mean."
"Don't go borrowing trouble," Lindy admonished, then reached over to pat his hand. "Why don't you finish up these carrots whilst I take the bread out of the oven. You can tell me about this friend you ran into on the way home, and how much trouble we're likely to have from this outlaw fellow."
Obediently, JD took the knife she held out and started chopping carrots. After a moment, he found the rhythm that had grown familiar when he used to help his mother with the cooking. The memory relaxed him a bit.
"Chris Larabee is the friend I ran into. He and Buck have known each other for years. We've been working together the past few months, serving as the law in Four Corners, over west of here."
Lindy nodded as she opened the oven door and pulled a pan of bread out. "I've heard of it. Seems like I recollect talk of a bunch of guns-for-hire running the town, too."
JD frowned. "It's not like we're some outlaw gang that's taken over the town. Judge Travis hired us on as the law, and that's what we do."
Lindy raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment except to ask, "And this prisoner you were escorting?"
"Ephraim Cooper. He killed three men, stole their horses and was trying to sell them when he got caught, so he ain't going to have any problem killing any of us. We saw him out on that hill watching the place." He chopped a few more carrots, popping a piece in his mouth. "Chris went off to try to sneak up on him while I came down to check on you and Buck." He frowned. "Seems like we would've heard something by now, though."
"You think your friend ran into trouble?"
"There's not much Chris can't handle," JD answered, trying to sound sure of what he was saying. Chris was the best he'd ever seen with a gun, and could certainly handle anyone who crossed him. JD would have felt a lot better, though, if Chris had shown up right then on Lindy's front porch with Cooper in tow.
He didn't want to think about the possibility that Cooper might show up without Chris, or worse, with proof that Chris had finally found someone he couldn't handle. JD forced himself to consider it, though. If worse came to worst, he might be the only defense Buck and Lindy had against Cooper.
"Lindy, you got any way to barricade that back door?" he asked.
"I guess we could shove the table in front of it," Lindy replied, frowning. "The table's good, solid oak. It'd take a lot of determination to get through."
"Good. Any other way in besides the front door?"
Lindy shook her head. "Windows are too small for anyone bigger than a child, and there aren't but the two doors. You thinking we're going to have a stand-off?"
JD shrugged. "Just trying to figure all the angles."
"Well, we've got food enough for a week, just with what I've got stored away here in the kitchen and down in the root cellar. We'll need to bring in water from the well, though, and lay out extra food and water for the animals."
JD nodded. "I'll see to . . . "
"Hold on just a minute, son," Lindy interrupted. "If this Cooper fellow's been watching the house long, he's bound to have seen me go in and out of the house and to the barn a hundred times today. He's used to it, so he likely won't think anything of it. If he sees you out messing with the horses, he might get the idea you were planning on leaving. It could make him tip his hand before we're ready."
"I should be able to bring in water and extra firewood without him seeing me, as long as he hasn't moved since I rode in." JD stood up. "Hopefully, Chris'll show up before we're done."
"But if not, at least we'll be prepared." Lindy nodded in satisfaction. "Better than just waiting around twiddling our thumbs, too."
It was well after dusk by the time they got finished. JD checked on Buck several times, each time finding him sleeping restlessly. He also paused to scan the horizon a few times before it got too dark, but couldn't see any indication that Chris or Cooper either one was anywhere nearby.
Once all the preparations had been made, JD sat down by the front window to keep watch. The only lamp they had lit was the one in the master bedroom where Buck was sleeping, and that one was turned down as low as it could go. JD's eyes had grown accustomed to the dark. He was able to see the moonlit yard clearly enough to spot any threats, but it remained empty.
Lindy had gone to lie down so that she'd be rested for the second watch, leaving JD alone with his thoughts. He mentally reviewed everything they'd done to get ready and couldn't think of anything he'd forgotten. He'd even remembered to give Lindy a description of Chris and of Cooper, so she wouldn't accidentally shoot the wrong man. Everything was as ready as he could make it. All he could do was sit and wait for Cooper--or Chris--to show up.
Waiting gave him time to think, to picture riding back to Four Corners without Buck or Chris. The thought gave him the same breathless, cold feeling he'd gotten in the seconds after he'd been shot. To have to face the other men, not only with his own failure to keep Cooper in custody and protect Buck and Chris, but also with the knowledge that they'd never again be able to rely on Chris's steady presence or Buck's good-humored loyalty . . .
Shivering slightly, JD tried to shove the image out of his mind. No point in borrowing trouble, as Lindy had said. He'd just have to believe that Buck would get well and that Chris was alive until he saw proof otherwise.
Rising carefully so that he wouldn't make a shadow against the window, he walked back to the bedroom to check on Buck. The older man was shifting restlessly, but he was still asleep. JD backed silently out of the room and returned to his post. Hopefully, a full night's sleep might give Buck the strength to fight the fever and win.
After a few hours, Lindy came out to take over the watch. They talked softly for a few minutes, then JD went back to catch whatever sleep he could on the pallet she'd laid out for him next to Buck's bed. He had a hard time falling asleep, between Buck's fretful mumbling and the lingering aches in his chest and hip where his healing wounds were protesting the exercise they'd been getting. Finally exhaustion claimed him, and he drifted off.
//. . . he waited, the bitter stench of burning wood stealing his breath. Pain dug sharp fingers into his side, blood forming a dark stain on the white of his shirt. He leaned back against the teller's counter and wondered how long it would take Chris to ride to his rescue . . .
. . . in the distance, he could hear screams. A woman's voice, or perhaps a child's, high and terrified and almost drowned out by the crackle of flames . . .
. . . he waited, knowing he would soon hear the thud of footsteps that heralded his death. He wondered if Chris would make it in time. Not far away, a young man lay bleeding . . .
. . . sprawled in the street, blood soaking into the ground, while a crowd of people did nothing but stare with avid eyes at the life ending before them . . .
. . . he waited, the desert sun white-hot as it burned through his skin all the way to the bone and left nothing but ashes and bitterness and grief . . .
. . . and he waited, and waited, and Chris never came.//
Jerked out of sleep, Buck groaned as his various aches and pains made themselves known. He looked around blearily, knowing there was some reason why he should be worried but not quite sure what that reason might be.
Then he remembered. JD had gone down to meet Davies . . .
No. It hurt like hell, but he pushed himself up on one arm, ignoring the trembling that nearly sent him crashing back down on the mattress. Get it right.
JD had gone to Four Corners for help. To get Chris and bring him back before . . .
Get it right. Jacinto's not coming. Jacinto's been dead for years.
But if that were true, why did his ribs still ache where Jacinto had shot him? Why did he feel the weakness that came from lying behind that teller's counter for what seemed like forever, watching the blood leak out of his side while he tried to hold Jacinto off, waiting for help that wasn't coming?
Buck inched his legs off the side of the bed, holding his ribs with one arm while he propped himself up with the other. He could hear voices in the other room, one blessedly familiar. JD could tell him which of his memories was true.
And Chris isn't here. He didn't come. He never came, not even in the dream. He'll never forgive . . .
He stood, swayed, and didn't let himself fall, because that would have hurt more than he had the strength for. A bone-deep coldness threatened to shake him apart, but he held himself together with the arm he had pressed to his ribs.
It was Cooper out there, Cooper that JD was so dead set on getting killed by. Unless Cooper and Jacinto had teamed up?
No, get it right. Jacinto's dead. Shot through the heart. At that range, I couldn't have missed. And his eyes were empty when he fell beside me.
Shuffling like an old man, he crossed the few feet to the door. He leaned on it with a faint sigh of relief, pressing his forehead against the steady wood of the doorframe until the room stopped spinning and he could hear what the two people sitting at the kitchen table were saying.
"I'm going out to look for Chris," JD said. "As long as he's been gone, he must've run into trouble."
No. Buck tried to say it, but his mouth was too dry.
"You sure that's such a good idea, son? That puts you right out there with that outlaw," Lindy said doubtfully.
"Chris is already out there. I couldn't hardly live with myself knowing he was lying hurt somewhere while I could be helping him."
"Can't say I blame you. Just be careful. I don't much fancy explaining to Buck how you got yourself killed."
Buck finally got his mouth working. "He's not going to get himself killed."
JD whirled around in his chair. Buck noted with vague approval that his hand went automatically to his gun until he saw who had spoken.
"What're you doing out of bed?" JD asked.
He stood and crossed over to Buck, slipping an arm gingerly around Buck's waist to support him. Buck rested his free hand on JD's shoulder gratefully, letting the younger man support some of his weight.
"I heard you talking," Buck answered. For some reason, it took more effort than it should to string the words together. "You're not going anywhere, kid, not with Cooper out there."
JD sighed. "Come on, Buck, let's get you back to bed."
Buck shook his head, regretting the movement almost instantly as it set the room spinning again. "No. I'm not going nowhere as long as you have this fool notion . . . "
"Then come sit," Lindy interrupted. "No point wearing yourself out."
Buck moved toward the table, using JD's shoulder as a crutch as the room dipped and turned. The chair came up to meet him too fast, but he felt JD's hand on his shoulder, anchoring him in his seat until he had his balance back.
Once the room had gone still, he continued wearily, "How many times I got to tell you, Cooper's too dangerous for one man alone?"
"Then Chris shouldn't be out there by himself," JD answered. "Buck, Chris could be lying hurt somewhere. If Cooper got to him before he got to Cooper . . ."
Buck leaned his head on his hand, his other arm going back to its protective hold on his ribs. Chris isn't coming, son. Get it right. But he didn't have the strength to argue. "Chris can handle himself."
"And I can't?"
"Not against Cooper."
JD glared at Buck in silence, but Buck could see the look of betrayal in his eyes.
"That may be," he said finally, "but I'm going anyway."
Buck sighed as he watched JD stalk out of the kitchen. He hadn't wanted to get the kid's back up, but he couldn't seem to get his point across any other way. Lindy reached across the table to set a cup of tea in front of him. She didn't say a word, but he could almost feel the disapproval rolling off her.
"You don't . . . " He trailed off, rubbing at his suddenly throbbing temples. "He got shot a couple of months ago. Nearly died then, and then again when he faced down the man who shot him. He doesn't lack for courage, but there's times when that gets in the way of his common sense."
Lindy smiled slightly as she sat back down across from him. "Sounds like any other young man his age."
"Except most young men his age don't face men as bad as Cooper and Davies." Buck took a sip of the tea, trying to ease the dryness in his throat. "Our job puts us in the way of bad men more than most people. Usually, he's got someone with a little more experience to back him up, make sure he don't do something that's going to get him killed."
He looked up to meet Lindy's eyes, trying to make her see reason. "He's too good a man to end up in a grave before his time. And I sure as . . . as anything won't be the one who buries him. I can't do that."
Lindy nodded, reaching out to pat his hand absently. "My Andrew, my son, could be as headstrong as one of those mules out there when he wanted to be." She spoke softly, her eyes distant, and Buck wondered for a moment if she'd heard what he said. "His father was just as stubborn. They'd butt heads on something, and the more George pushed, the more Andrew would do the opposite of what George wanted.
"I remember one time, Andrew was dead set on plowing up the back field to plant wheat. George had it in his head that only corn would grow in that back field, and they must have argued about it for nigh on a year." Lindy smiled. "Finally, George gave in, told Andy if he was that sure wheat would grow in that back field, then they'd give it a shot. He even went out and helped Andy with the plowing and planting."
She shook her head, her smile growing softer. "Turned out it was a bad year for planting anything. The whole crop, corn and wheat both, were lost to a swarm of locusts. But you should have seen the way Andrew swelled up when his pa told him he could plant that wheat. Just having his pa trust him enough to make that decision, it meant more to him than anything."
Buck shifted his weight, trying to find a position that didn't hurt his ribs. He ached, exhaustion and fever sapping his strength, but he wasn't going to let himself think of going back to bed yet.
"There's a mighty big difference between planting wheat and hunting down a murderer."
Lindy's focused back on him with a sharp look. "That may be. There's not a lot of difference in young men, though. They all have a need to know someone believes in them, trusts them to do what's right. If they don't have that, they get all proddy trying to prove themselves."
Buck winced, hearing an echo of Ezra's words before they left. "If you continue to humiliate him, he will only strike back by doing something even more foolish in an effort to prove that he doesn't need your 'keeping'."
"So I should just tell him to go out and get himself killed, he has my blessing?" he asked, more weariness than anger in his voice. He was too tired to know what was right anymore. He just wanted to keep his friend safe. What was so bad about that?
"It seems to me he's going whether he has your blessing or not. The question is, is he going angry and not thinking straight, or is he going knowing you trust him to make it back alive?"
Before Buck could answer, he heard JD's boots crossing the wooden floor. A moment later, the younger man came back into the room, a saddlebag thrown over his shoulder and both his and Buck's canteens in his hand.
"I took some of the bandages, just in case Chris needs them," JD said to Lindy. He didn't even look at Buck.
"That's fine, son. I'll wrap you up some food again, in case you're out there for a while."
"Thanks. I appreciate it."
Still not looking at Buck, JD went over to the bucket of water sitting by the back door and started to fill the canteens. As he finished, he straightened slowly, putting the lids back on the canteens as he watched Lindy cut some bread and cheese.
It was the first time Buck had really taken a good look at him since they'd lost Cooper. He looked tired and drawn, like he'd lost some of the weight he'd put back on after being shot. He was standing straight, though, a calm determination in his eyes and the set of his mouth. There was nothing weak or frightened or childish about the man Buck was looking at; he was taking on a hard job, but he knew that and was ready to give it his best.
Sighing softly, Buck closed his eyes for a minute. The truth of the matter was, Cooper had to be dealt with. JD was the only person available to go after him. The kid had made the only decision he could make.
Finally, JD looked at him. Anger shone from his eyes, but there was also a hint of fear. JD wasn't as confident as he was trying to look.
"If you keep your head on, if you remember everything I've told you and everything the rest of the boys have told you, you'll do fine. Cooper's a mean cuss, but he's just a man. He's been out in the desert for two days, while you've had at least a little sleep and some decent food. Just keep your wits about you and take your time. Don't do anything foolish. If you're not sure of your shot, wait. Remember, it's not the man who shoots first, it's the one who shoots straightest. Just . . ."
"Buck," JD interrupted gently.
Buck stopped, blinking as his tired eyes threatened to blur. "What?"
"I'll be careful, okay? I'm not trying to be a hero. I just want to find out what happened to Chris and help him out if need be."
"I know you will." Buck swallowed hard, his throat burning from more than the fever. "You've got good instincts, JD. Just don't forget to use them, okay?"
JD grinned, and the uncertainty in his eyes disappeared. "Okay."
JD took the sack of food Lindy held out and put it in his saddlebag, then, with a last glance at Buck, he slipped out the back door.
Buck held his breath, listening for a gunshot that said Cooper had been keeping watch over the house, waiting for one of them to come out. Instead, after an impossibly long time, he heard hoof beats as JD rode away.
Across the room, Lindy let out a soft sigh of relief. Buck shivered, suddenly chilled, and then he was shaking with cold again and couldn't stop.
"You need to get back to bed," Lindy said abruptly, bustling over to help him stand.
Buck still hadn't taken his eyes off the back door.
"If he don't come back," he said, mostly to himself, "I'm going after Cooper even if I have to tie myself to my horse to do it. There's lots of ways you can make a man suffer in the desert before he dies."
Lindy gave his shoulder a gentle pat. "If it comes to that, I'll loan you a rifle and some rope to tie you onto the horse."
Buck looked up at her, then couldn't help cracking a grin. "Ma'am, your George must have been one hell of a man to win you."
Lindy snorted. "Let's just get you to bed, young man."
Which sounded like a good idea, until Buck tried to get his legs under him and the room started spinning again. He sat down hard, everything suddenly going white in front of his eyes.
Chris guided his mount down toward the cabin where JD and Buck had found refuge. When he'd reached the point where he'd seen Cooper watching the house, he'd found nothing but tracks to show that Cooper had been there. Not knowing if Cooper had spotted him, Chris had started a cautious search, only to be forced to give up when night fell. By morning, he'd decided that the best thing he could do was head back to the MacGregor place to check on Buck and JD before heading out again.
He approached the cabin cautiously, all too aware that Cooper could be sighting on him from one of the rock outcroppings or even from inside the cabin. He didn't see any signs of habitation, though, until he reached the front step. The distinctive cock of a shotgun froze him in his tracks.
"I got me a shotgun pointed right at your midsection, son. Unless you want your next meal to fall right through you, you'd best be telling me who you are and why I should let you set foot on my porch."
It was an old woman's voice, but one without any give to it. Chris raised his hands slowly to show he didn't mean any threat.
"Chris Larabee, ma'am. You've been giving shelter to a couple friends of mine."
There was a short silence.
"I was told Chris Larabee would know who watched for crows."
Chris bit back a grin. Trust JD's sometimes overactive imagination to come up with a password--but it wasn't anything Cooper would know.
"That would be Josiah Sanchez, ma'am, a friend of ours back home."
The door eased open. A grey-haired woman, an inch or two shorter than JD and just a little on the plump side, stood watching him with eyes that hadn't quite lost their suspicions.
"You'd best put your horse in the barn and then come in. Call out before you come through the door, though, or you're likely to get that extra hole after all."
Chris tipped his hat and did as she said. The absence of JD's horse in the small barn worried him. He took care of his mount quickly, wanting to get back to the cabin and find out what was going on.
He remembered to call out before he went through the door. The woman was waiting for him, shotgun still in hand.
"I'm Malindy MacGregor," she said as he took off his hat. "Most folks just call me Lindy. I'll offer you something to drink and a bite to eat in a moment, but right now you're just in time to help me get your friend back into bed."
Chris frowned, not particularly liking the sound of that.
"Where's JD?" he asked as he followed Lindy back toward the back of the cabin.
She led him into the kitchen. All other thoughts fled his mind as he saw Buck slumped over the table, a worn quilt tucked around him. Chris brushed passed Lindy without apology. Pulling off his leather gloves, he put a hand on Buck's shoulder.
He could feel a steady, reassuring rise and fall as Buck breathed, but the heat burning through Buck's shirt worried him.
"Hey, pard," he murmured, crouching down to be on eye level with the other man. He moved his hand up to brush the hair away from Buck's face, wincing as he saw the peeling sunburn and the dark shadows under Buck's eyes.
Buck mumbled something but didn't open his eyes. Chris looked up at Lindy.
"How long . . . ?"
"About an hour or so, since right after JD rode out," Lindy answered. "Looks like his fever's finally peaking. He drifts in and out, but he doesn't stay awake long, and he's too big for me to carry back to the bed by myself."
Chris turned back to Buck. He didn't like the sound of 'JD rode out,' but he could only deal with one crisis at a time. Moving his hand back down to Buck's shoulder, he gave it a gentle rub.
"Hey, pard, time to wake up."
Buck stirred again, blinking his eyes open for a second before settling back down. Chris let out a soft breath, forcing himself to ignore the unease that grew the more he saw of Buck's condition. Buck was a strong man. He'd pull through this just like he'd pulled through everything else he'd faced.
"C'mon, Buck, rise and shine."
"Wha-?" Buck opened his eyes, staring at Chris for a long moment without any recognition. Then, finally, his eyes cleared, and he started to push himself upright. "Chris? What're you doing here?"
Chris smiled faintly. "I heard you might need some help."
Buck held his ribs, blinking at Chris slowly. "When'd you get here?"
"Few minutes ago. How you feeling?"
"Been better." Buck grimaced. "Chris, we got a problem."
"I know." Chris stood, keeping one hand on Buck's shoulder as the other man swayed in the chair. "How 'bout we get you on to bed, then we'll try to figure something out."
"Can't. He's going to be here. We've got to get ready."
"You ever known me not to be ready?" Chris asked gently. "Come on, you're tuckered out."
Not giving Buck a chance to argue, Chris slipped a hand under his arm and tugged him up. Lindy, who had been watching the exchange from the door, came over and supported Buck from the other side.
"Where's JD?" Buck asked, suddenly wary and almost accusatory. "He went out after you. What did you do with him?"
"I didn't do anything with him," Chris almost growled, torn between irritation and amusement. "I never saw him."
"Damn it." Buck's expression turned pleading. "You've gotta find him, Chris. He can't last against Davies, not hurt like he is. I know you had call to be pissed at me, but JD ain't done nothing."
Chris frowned at him uneasily. "You ain't talking sense, pard. I'm not mad at anybody yet."
"Davies'll kill him this time. He hasn't done nothing to be left out in the cold, Chris. He needs back-up."
Chris sighed. "Get your butt in bed and I'll go look for him."
Buck gave in and started toward the bedroom, swaying gently between Lindy and Chris. He didn't object when they lowered him onto the rumpled bed. His eyes had already started to drift shut as Chris lifted his legs and swung them onto the bed. Lindy reached across him to grab the sheet and faded patchwork quilt that had been tossed to the side, pulling them over Buck's legs. She brushed absently at a smear of dirt left on the quilt.
Resting the back of her hand on Buck's forehead, she shook her head and sighed. "I'll make some more of that willowbark tea and get it down him while you're gone," she said softly to Chris. "It brought the fever down a mite the last time he drank it."
"I'd appreciate that, ma'am." Chris paused as she left the room, reaching down to clasp Buck's arm. "Get some rest, pard. I'll be back with JD and Cooper by nightfall."
For a moment, Chris thought Buck had drifted too far into sleep to hear. But he frowned slightly and opened his eyes, swiveling his wrists so that he could catch hold of Chris's hand.
"He's a good kid," Buck said as if they'd been arguing that point. "Hell, he's a good man, one you can trust to watch your back. But Jacinto's as mean as a pissed off rattler, and he's got three others with him that're just like him." He closed his eyes, a little breathless after the long speech. "If I could handle 'em myself, I wouldn't've had to send for you. JD just ain't got the experience to take them on by himself."
Jacinto again. When this was over and Buck was thinking straight again, Chris was going to pin him down and find out who Jacinto was and why Buck was so obsessed with him . . . and what Buck meant by "sent for you." For now, all he could do was calm Buck down enough that he could go and make sure Cooper didn't kill JD.
"He won't have to face anyone by himself, pard. You got my word on that. Now try to get some sleep, and we'll be back as soon as we can."
Buck tightened his grip. "It's not that I don't believe in him, Chris. I just can't stand to see him get himself killed. He hasn't even had a chance to live yet."
Buck's eyes pleaded with Chris to understand, but Chris's throat suddenly tasted too much of smoke and charred wood to get words out. He jerked his hand away and strode to the door.
"Chris?" Buck was trying to push himself up again.
"Get some sleep, Buck."
Chris left the room, not letting himself hear the almost panicked voice calling his name.
JD pulled his horse to a stop and slid off, crouching down to study the tracks marring the ground. The dirt was loose and sandy enough to hold a decent print. JD had no doubt that if Vin had been there, he could have told whether the horse was Cooper's or Chris's, how long it had been since the horse had come through, and probably what it had eaten for breakfast that morning.
The best JD could manage was to recognize the tracks as those of a horse that was headed in the general direction of Lindy's cabin. It was the only sign hinting at human life he'd seen all morning, though, so he mounted up and turned his horse in the same direction the tracks were leading. A part of him hoped he'd come up on Cooper before the outlaw heard him. He'd told Buck he wasn't looking to be a hero, and that was true . . . mostly. There was still a small voice in the back of his mind that whispered how impressive it would be to ride up to Lindy's cabin, leading a horse with Cooper slung over the saddle. But every time he tried to picture exactly how he got Cooper slung over the saddle, his gut gave a sharp twinge, a reminder of what playing the hero had gotten him before.
Cautiously, JD rode on, stopping a few times to hunt for the tracks as they disappeared across rocks or hard ground. The sun turned scorching as it rose in the sky, burning against the reddened skin on his cheeks and hands and glaring off the heat-bleached earth. Even the air he breathed in felt hot, and it tasted faintly of ashes.
The tracks led eventually toward a rock outcropping. As large as a small hill, the rocks twisted around so that JD couldn't see where the tracks led. A soft, drawling voice in the back of his mind urged caution. JD slid off his horse and pulled his gun, looping the gelding's reins around a nearby scrub bush to keep him from straying. JD had never completely picked up on Vin's trick of moving across rock without making any sound, but he did his best imitation.
He edged up to the rock, peering cautiously around the first outcropping. The path leading up to the summit of the rocks was clear, but JD could see places where the sand was scuffed, like someone had tried to wipe out tracks. He hesitated, drawing back against the outcropping. Cooper could have gone up into the rocks. He might have seen JD riding up and planned an ambush. He could have been there and gone on already; the ground leading away from the outcropping was pure rock, too hard to leave any traces JD could recognize.
JD's intention to find Chris faltered. If Cooper were so close, JD might not have any choice but to face him down. No matter which direction JD tried to ride away, someone sitting at the summit of the rock formation could get a bead on him with no difficulty at all.
Of course, Cooper might not be at the summit. He could be anywhere. JD sighed, crouching down on his heels. He needed to think this through, make the right decision. He absently pulled off his hat and wiped a trail of sweat off his forehead, then put it back on to shade his eyes as he squinted out into the distance. If Cooper wasn't up in the rocks, JD would just have lost a little time, but he would at least get a chance to look over the surrounding area. On the other hand, if he went up into the rocks and Cooper was there . . . then either JD would have the perfect chance to get a drop on the outlaw, or if Cooper had seen him coming, Cooper would be the one to get the drop.
Chris, Buck, any of the other men would know what to do. JD wished they were here now. He could use the advice, not to mention the extra guns.
And then something moved into view against the horizon and made his decision for him: a black-clad man on a grey horse. Chris would be riding straight into the line of fire if Cooper was up in the rocks . . . assuming Cooper was armed in the first place. With Chris's life on the line, JD couldn't take the chance that he wasn't.
JD peeked around the rocks again. Finding the way still clear, he moved forward, cautiously but not slowly. He stayed close to the rock wall and tried to think what Vin would do. Place his feet carefully, keep his head down, listen. As an afterthought, he took off his hat and set it on the ground before continuing on.
He eased around the last boulder, then jerked back as he caught sight of the mare Cooper had been riding. Her reins had been looped around a jutting rock, and she bobbed her head when she saw him. Cooper was up there, and Chris had to be almost in range. JD took a deep breath, cocked the hammer of his gun, and slid around the rock.
Cooper never saw him coming. The outlaw lay on his belly, completely focused on the dark figure riding toward him. From this high vantage, he'd probably seen Chris long before JD had. JD leveled his gun at the back of Cooper's head and took a deep breath. Cooper wasn't likely to take him seriously if his voice squeaked when he told the outlaw to put his hands up.
Then Cooper shifted slightly, and JD saw a rifle in his hands, the barrel pointed directly at Chris.
As he rode, Chris spotted a large rock outcropping that looked promising. The less time he spent hunting for JD and Cooper, the happier he'd be. With any luck, he'd spot one or both of them from the top of the rocks. Then they could get this damn fool game of hide-and-seek over with and get back to Lindy's. He steered his horse toward the outcropping, instinctively scanning the countryside around him as he rode. Still no signs of JD or Cooper.
He'd covered about half the distance when a gunshot rang out. Ducking instinctively, he looked around, but didn't see the shooter or any sign of the bullet hitting near him. The rock outcropping was the only cover in sight, but also most likely where the shooter was hiding. Either way, it made sense to get there as fast as possible.
When he saw JD's horse tied down at the foot of the outcropping, he felt the same feeling of foreboding he'd had back in town. He tied his horse to the same shrub as JD's and worked his way cautiously up the rocks, gun drawn.
The sight that met his eyes as he rounded the top of the outcropping made him stop in his tracks. JD knelt beside the corpse of Ephraim Cooper, his gun held loosely in one hand. The back of Cooper's head was a bloody mess. JD looked up.
"I thought he had a rifle." JD's voice was as empty as his eyes as he gestured toward the object lying next to Cooper's hand. As Chris stepped closer, he realized that the object was a beat-up ax handle.
Buck awoke and remembered clearly where he was. Lindy's house, with JD out in the desert hunting Jacinto and likely to end up dead if Buck didn't do something about it. As much as JD had proven he could hold his own in a fight, Buck still couldn't see letting him protect the bank from Jacinto and his gang all by himself. Not because Buck doubted him, but because Buck stood by his friends.
It was a good thing his head had finally cleared. If he hurried, he'd get to JD before Jacinto did. He knew JD would be waiting.
JD looked shell-shocked. Chris had seen the same expression on men walking away from a desperately fought battle, men who'd never really left the battlefield in their mind. He wasn't going to let JD get lost, too.
"Be best to take him back to Lindy's and bury him there," Chris said, walking over to where JD knelt by the body. His voice was ruthlessly matter-of-fact. "It'll probably be easiest to tie him to his horse and bring him down that way. Lindy will probably know a good place to bury the body."
JD jerked as if he'd been slapped, his dazed look changing to outrage. "Chris, he didn't have a weapon. I shot an unarmed man."
He watched Chris's face like he was expecting Chris to pass sentence right there and then. Chris shrugged. "Did you know he wasn't armed?"
"No! I told you . . ." JD gestured at the ax handle. "It looked like a rifle. For a second, I thought . . ." He trailed off again, his shoulders slumping. "I didn't look close enough before I took my shot."
Chris squinted out over the ledge. He could see the tracks his horse had made riding up to the outcropping, a narrow trail leading back to the MacGregor ranch. "Looks like I'd be the dead one about now if you'd been right about that rifle and hadn't taken the shot." He studied the view for a few moments, giving JD time to think about that. When he glanced back at the younger man, JD was staring off in the same direction he'd been looking, his shoulders a little straighter than they'd been before. "Go get Cooper's horse and we'll load the body."
JD went over to the mare and pulled her reins free. She was skittish from the gunfire and didn't like the smell of blood as he led her toward Cooper, but he coaxed her with soft words and a good rub on her nose.
His stomach rolled as he came back to the body and saw that Chris had worked Cooper's duster off and used it as a wrap. He didn't see how Chris could stand to touch the corpse. He really didn't see how he was going to touch it, but Chris couldn't very well load it onto the horse himself. Just the memory of Cooper's head, little more than an open mass of red tissue and blood after his bullet had plowed through it, made JD feel light-headed.
He wasn't going to pass out in front of Chris, though. He'd rather walk all the way back to Four Corners barefoot and blindfolded. Focusing on that image helped him grab Cooper's feet and boost him onto the horse, then walk around to position the body while Chris held it steady.
Then one limp hand fell out of the wrap and hit him in the chest. He barely made it away from the mare before his stomach turned itself inside out, and he fell to his knees as he retched helplessly.
By the time he was able to stand again, his hand shaking a little as he wiped his mouth, Chris had tied Cooper's body down. Chris didn't say anything as they were walking down the path to their horses. It wasn't till they'd ridden a ways back to the MacGregor's ranch that he broke the silence.
"Sometimes a man has to make choices he doesn't want to make. Only decent thing he can do is live with the consequences and not let them turn him into something he's not."
It wasn't comfort, and knowing Chris, probably wasn't intended to be. But to JD, it sounded like Chris thought JD would do the decent thing. Somehow that made it easier to look behind him and see the still form draped over the saddle.
They drew near to Lindy's cabin about midday. The air had turned hot and still under the relentless sun; even the water in their canteens was warm and brackish. Flies buzzed around the corpse and swooped over from time to time to investigate Chris and JD. Chris wanted nothing more than a bottle of whiskey and some shade. He had a feeling both would be a long time coming.
JD pulled up next to the lean-to that served as a barn. "I'll take care of the horses."
Chris gave him a long look. He'd been unnaturally quiet on the ride back, but his eyes were clear and met Chris's unflinchingly. His hands still shook a little, though, and Chris suspected he could use a few minutes to himself.
"I'm going to check on Buck," Chris said. "We can bury Cooper this evening, when it's cooler."
JD paused on his way into the barn. "I'll take care of it."
"No need to do it by yourself. Nathan'd skin me if you wound up busting something open again."
"I killed him, Chris. I'll take care of the burying." JD worked up a faint smile. "And I'll go easy, so Nathan won't have any cause to get mad."
He had that stubborn look on his face that Chris would swear he'd learned from Buck. Chris shrugged and turned toward the cabin. If it were that important to him, Chris wouldn't argue.
"Make sure you do. Nathan's knives are mighty sharp."
As Chris walked up onto the porch, he could hear Buck and Lindy's voices raised as if they were arguing. Chris thumbed the safety off his gun as he eased the door open.
He found them in the kitchen, Lindy facing Buck with her hands on her hips and a mixture of exasperation and concern in her expression. Buck towered over even in his stocking feet. He swayed like a drunk but had an all too familiar obstinate set to his jaw. He might have nothing but pig-headedness holding him up, but he wasn't going to fold.
". . . get back in bed," Lindy was saying as Chris stopped in the doorway. "You're not doing yourself no favors wandering around like this."
"It's gonna be too late, woman, can't you see that?" Buck made an impatient gesture with his hands. Chris realized with a chill that Buck was holding his gun.
He took a step into the room, keeping his hands well away from his own holster. "Buck? What the hell is going on here?"
Buck stared blankly at Chris for a long moment, his gun wavering somewhere between the floor and Chris's chest. Then his eyes narrowed and he took a step closer to Chris, bringing his gun up to aim directly at Chris's heart.
"Where's JD? What did you do to JD?"
Chris took a cautious step forward. "He's out in the barn, seeing to the horses. Why don't you give me the gun? You're not looking to good."
"You're a liar," Buck growled. "You killed him too, didn't you? Shot him down like you did that Peters kid. Where'd you leave him, you murdering son of a bitch?"
Chris knew that tone. Cold, controlled rage that seemed to have no place next to Buck's tall tales and good-natured teasing. Smart men got out of the way on the rare occasions when Buck's voice took on that low, deadly note; only crazy men stepped up to the challenge. Chris had done both in his time. But today, Buck's eyes glittered with fever and his gun hand shook minutely in a way Buck's hands never shook, not even when he was too drunk to see straight. Chris knew, the way he knew the sun rose in the east, that Buck would never draw on him if Buck were in his right mind. So for both their sakes, he pushed down the instinctive anger that burned through him in response to the threat, and he kept his voice low and level as he held up his hands peacefully.
"Take it easy, Buck. Give me the gun and we'll sit down and talk about it, all right?"
"That's right, son," Lindy said, her voice gentle. "Let's just calm down and work this out."
Buck stared at her like he'd forgotten she was there. Then he swung the gun around to point at her. "It was you, wasn't it? Shot him down in the street like a mad dog." He started to move the gun back in Chris's direction, his eyes darting between them, wild with confusion. He licked his lips dryly, his voice hoarse and almost plaintive. "Where is he?"
Chris took another slow step toward him. "You're not talking sense, Buck. JD's fine. He'll be in as soon as he gets done with the horses. How about handing me that gun now?"
Abruptly the gun was pointed back at Chris's chest. Buck's face twisted from confusion to hate. "Like hell I will. You're a lying bastard, Jacinto, but I ain't letting you get away with it."
Jacinto? At least a few pieces were beginning to fall into place.
"Look at me, pard. I'm not Jacinto. You know that." He took another step, holding out his hand. He was right in front of Buck now, close enough to touch the gun pointed at his chest. "You're just sick and you're not thinking straight. Now give me the gun before you shoot somebody."
Buck shook his head, confusion taking over again. "No. That's not right. I shot you. You thought you could outwait me, but I shot you. I shot you right here." With his free hand, he reached out and touched Chris's shirt right above his heart. "I killed you."
Chris heard a soft sound to his side like a door being carefully opened. He hoped it was Lindy taking the opportunity to run to the barn and get JD, but he didn't dare take his eyes off Buck long enough to look.
"That's right, pard," he said soothingly. "Jacinto's dead. He can't hurt nobody now." He almost had a hand on Buck's gun. Just a few more inches. "So it's all right to give me your gun. You don't need it right now."
Buck swayed, his hand clenching on Chris's shirt in an attempt to balance. He licked his lips again. "Chris?"
Chris let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "That's right. I'm gonna take your gun now, all right?" With out waiting for an answer, he slid Buck's gun from his grasp with one hand, the other gripping Buck's elbow to keep him from falling over.
"But . . ." Buck closed his eyes for a second, shaking his head. "Why didn't you come, Chris? I held them off as long as I could, but I really needed your help."
Chris frowned. Just when he'd thought Buck knew what was going on around him . . . "Come where?"
"I thought you'd come," Buck whispered, bewildered. The look in his eyes cut something deep in Chris's chest and left it bleeding. "Do you still hate me that much?"
Chris wanted to back away, but he was supporting most of Buck's weight. The burning air from outside had seeped into the kitchen, making it hard to breathe. He swallowed dryly. "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm here, aren't I?"
Buck shook his head, his knees buckling slightly with the move. He blinked slowly at Chris. "You're here? Chris. You gotta find Cooper for me. He got away." His hand tightened on Chris's shirt. "Take JD with you. He'll watch your back."
"Looks like you're the one needs watching over." JD's voice cut in from the direction of the door. However dark the thoughts were he'd dealt with in the barn, his smile was clear as he walked over to Buck and Chris. "You don't look any better than you did the last time I saw you, Buck. How're you going to win any ladies looking like that?"
Buck just stared at him for a long moment. "JD? You're alive."
"Yeah, but you're looking dead on your feet." JD caught Buck's free arm, sliding under it easily to support some of his weight. "How 'bout we get you back to bed?"
Buck went with him unsteadily. They probably would have had an easier time if Chris had lent a hand, but he couldn't move. He stared down at the gun in his hands. As he watched it tremble, he heard Buck's voice in his head again. Do you still hate me so much?
JD shoveled rocks onto Cooper's corpse from the pile Lindy kept "for when they're needed" down by the field where Lindy said her husband had eked out a small crop of corn. She'd told him to bury the body there. "Not much good for anything else now," she'd said a bit sadly. The repetitive motion made his scars ache, but it was bearable. He had learned what true agony felt like. This pain was little more than a nuisance to be ignored.
His thoughts were more demanding. Cooper wasn't the first man he'd killed. He'd looked Davies in the face as he'd killed the man. He'd shot down men in the heat of battle, too, but all of those men had been ready and willing to kill him. Killing Cooper had been different.
He straightened, resting the shovel on the hard-packed ground as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. He was more than half-finished, the body covered from feet to waist in grey-white rocks. He'd been moving slowly, mindful of Chris's warning. Chris wasn't the only one Nathan would skin if JD busted something open. But night was drawing near, and the thought of being out in the dark with a dead body wasn't too appealing.
He turned back to the shoveling, working a little faster than before. It wasn't like JD doubted that Cooper would have killed him, given a chance. He was just bothered by the fact that he could have taken Cooper alive if he'd just taken a few minutes to study the situation. He'd acted before he'd thought through what he was doing, and now a man was dead because of it.
But if he'd been right about the rifle, if he'd hesitated too long, then Chris would be the dead man. JD couldn't have lived with himself if Chris had died and he'd been in a position to prevent it.
And that, he thought tiredly as he piled the last of the rocks on Cooper's body, was what it boiled down to. He could live with killing Cooper. He wasn't proud of it. He doubted he'd ever forget the sight of Cooper's body lying all bloody on the rocks. But he could live with that memory, and he couldn't have lived with the responsibility of Chris's death. He'd made the best choice he could, and now he'd just have to live with the consequences.
He drove a stick into the ground, took one of Cooper's boots, and hung it upside down on the stick. Then he turned and walked back to the cabin.
The early morning sun had just pierced the gloom less than an hour before. Buck had made his way out to the rocker on Lindy's porch with a mug of coffee. He still moved cautiously, mindful of his sore ribs and the waves of dizziness that would crash into him when he was least expecting them. He sipped slowly on the mug of coffee in his hand as he watched the bright pink and yellow streaks in the sky that announced the sun.
It had been almost two days since he'd woken up drenched in sweat to find Chris sitting by his bedside and JD sleeping on a pallet a few feet away. Buck couldn't remember much from his illness. Crazy visions of gunfights and JD dying had mixed with faces from a past he hadn't thought about in years. He suspected from the measuring looks Chris kept giving him and JD's mollycoddling that he'd probably been out of his head for a while there. He still had strange dreams at night. He'd woken up each time sweating and shaking as badly as if his fever had only just broken.
Footsteps rang across the floor inside, too heavy to be Lindy's. JD would still be asleep at this hour, which only left . . .
"Chris." Buck nodded a greeting as Chris crossed to sit on the porch step. Chris stretched his legs out in front of him as he sipped at his own mug.
"Buck." Chris studied the horizon for a long moment. Inside, Lindy began singing an old hymn. "Fine morning."
"Be hot later," Buck replied.
A low hum of cicadas mixed with Lindy's voice to fill the silence. The faintest hint of a cool breeze ghosted across Buck's face as he raised his mug to his lips.
"What's the story with you and Jacinto?" Chris asked as the cicadas ebbed.
Buck jerked in surprise, nearly dropping his coffee mug. Just what had he said when he'd been fighting that fever?
"Hell, that was years ago. You remember the last time we ran into each other before you came looking for guns for that Indian village?"
"That was, what, three years ago? In Four Corners, wasn't it?"
Buck traced the rim of his mug with his finger. "Yeah." He could feel the imperfections, the gentle rises and dips that marred the mug's symmetry.
Chris sighed, taking a long swig of coffee before saying gruffly, "Seems like we had words. I remember riding out that same afternoon."
Buck's finger stilled in the center of a depression. He stared at the back of Chris's head for several moments. "You left?" he asked finally.
"Yeah. Headed up north for a spell, as I recall." Chris turned enough that he could see Buck. "That where you ran into Jacinto?"
Buck shook himself back to the present. "No. Ran into him a couple of days later on the trail. Man thought he needed my horse. Turned out I needed it more."
Chris took another drink, studying Buck assessingly. Buck could tell that he knew he wasn't getting the whole story, but being Chris, he was willing to wait until Buck was ready to tell him.
And Buck might, someday when they were both old and grey, two codgers sitting in front of a fire sharing whiskey and memories that were more than half tall tales. They had plenty of time.
They lapsed back into a silence broken by the sound of Lindy's voice harmonizing with the cicadas. The sun continued its journey into the sky, soft pinks and yellows heating into a relentless white glare. Buck drained the last of his coffee and set the mug aside with a sigh.
"Hey, Chris?" he asked suddenly. "Why'd you ride out here after us? We still had a day or two before we'd be late."
Chris shrugged, squinting as he looked out at the horizon. "I just had a feeling you might be needing some help."