“Tis the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and to have her nonsense respected.”
― Charles Lamb
Follows “Occasionally By the Way”.
“But he’s going to be all right.” Chris glared at Nathan, and Nathan could see the lines in his face, deeper than usual. Granted, Chris had been up most of the night, dealing with the men they’d brought back into town, one of whom was dead. Nathan had gone out to Nettie’s but after sewing Ezra up, he’d come back and gotten sleep. Chris had come in late and gotten up early – if he’d slept at all.
Nathan nodded, taking a drink of his coffee. “Cleaned it up, sewed it up. As long as he stays put for a few days and doesn’t pull the stitches, he should be all right. Well, that, and assuming he doesn’t get an infection, but he’s at Nettie’s. She’ll watch him like a hawk.”
Chris grunted but Nathan thought there was a hint of relief in the sound.
It sort of worried him that he had come to be able to interpret Chris’ grunts. They’d been at this too long.
“So what happened out there?” Nathan asked.
Chris sighed and sat back in his chair, taking a long drink of his own coffee. After he swallowed, he said, “Caught up with them in a box canyon – don’t think they knew a lot about the area. Josiah tried talking to them but they weren’t interested. Not the dead one, anyway. He was the one who was in charge, though I don’t think they were all with him. They just didn’t know what else to do.”
“So – what happened?” Nathan asked.
Chris shrugged. “Josiah told them to stand down and promised we wouldn’t fire on anyone who put their weapons down. He tried to get them to charge us. When they wouldn’t, he did anyway, coming at Josiah and firing his gun. I shot him.”
Nathan considered it for a minute. Chris didn’t say a lot – which meant there was more to this. “Josiah all right?” he asked. They hadn’t called for him when they got back which meant Josiah wasn’t hurt, most likely, but there were other ways for his friend to be out of sorts.
Chris took more of his coffee before saying, “Don’t think he expected that we’d have to shoot one of ‘em. He’d been talking to the man – Drayton. Man seemed like he knew they were caught and was ready to deal. Sent the boys out to do it – or so it seemed. Boys were talking about forgiveness and the Bible and all those things that Josiah goes on about.”
Nathan winced. When Josiah was feeling the Bible, he was invested in whatever was going on. “Tell me again what happened? This man tried to kill Josiah?”
Chris sighed and looked at Nathan. He’d washed up at some point and his hair was wet and plastered back, making it look darker than usual and making him look more hawkish than usual. And more irritable. “Seems he didn’t like Josiah’s interpretation of the Bible, the ‘love your enemy’ part. I only heard part of it, so you’ll need to check with Josiah for the full conversation. But yes, he said he was going to surrender, but he came charging out of the rocks on his horse, shooting in Josiah’s direction. Buck and I didn’t waste time trying to wing him, not with him having two pistols and firing them both.”
Nathan nodded, knowing that he would have done the same if he’d been there. You didn’t take chances with someone else’s life – especially someone you cared about.
The sound of boots on the saloon’s wooden floor drew Nathan’s attention and he turned to see Buck coming their way, a mug of coffee in his hand. He looked unusually – not like himself. This time of the morning, he was usually hungover or barely awake – and usually both of them. But this morning, while he looked tired, as tired as Chris, he was not hungover and he was awake.
Irritated but not in his usual manner. He slid into the seat beside Nathan and said by way of greeting, “The other two show up?”
“Not that I know of,” Chris said. “Figure we need to check on Nettie and the others pretty soon – make sure they didn’t have trouble in the night.”
Buck nodded and Nathan said, “I was planning on heading back out there soon. Casey’s already trying to get out there, worried about her horse.” She’d been wondering the boardwalk in front of Gloria’s store when Nathan had come down from his rooms.
“Figure if they come, they’ll come for the two in jail. But as far as I could tell, they were kids, younger than JD and Casey. The two guys we got in the cells are their older relatives – cousins, I think, though one might be a brother. I’m less worried about the two we let go that the possibility they got older relatives who will come back on us.” Chris sighed and lifted his mug, looked into it, then shook his head. He pushed himself to his feet and said, “You need more?” He was looking at Nathan, so Nathan glanced at his own cup and nodded.
Before Chris got away from the table, Inez came hustling through the door for the kitchen, a large tray in her arms. She came straight toward them, doling out plates of eggs, beans, bacon, and biscuits, and she had a pot of coffee – fresh – that she used to refill their cups. She’d seen Buck come in, as he, too, had a plate in front of him in seconds, and her sharp command to ‘eat, you look like you’ve had no sleep’.
For one of the few times since he had met Buck, the man had no witty or sly reply. He smiled at Inez and said softly, “Thank you, Inez. I need it.” And he was rewarded for his sincerity with a quick smile and a pat on the shoulder – as nice as Nathan had ever seen the woman be to Buck.
As she walked away, Chris said quietly, “He wasn’t JD. None of them were.”
Buck sighed and closed his eyes, even though he leaned closer to his plate. He didn’t say anything for a time, but he didn’t move either. Nathan took several bites of his own food, noticing that Chris was doing the same. As usual, Chris was watching his own plate, not looking at anything else.
But also, as usual, Chris seemed to know what was going on around him because he paused in his eating long enough to say, “You didn’t have a choice, Buck. Neither one of us did. And he ain’t laying in that undertaker’s box, like his brother.”
Buck sighed again, but he opened his eyes and picked up his fork. As he lifted a bite of egg and beans to his mouth, he said, “Had dreams about it last night. It coulda been JD.”
“But it wasn’t,” Chris said, around a mouthful of eggs. “JD’s come a long way, ‘specially since that bank robbery.”
Nathan didn’t have to consider what Chris meant; ‘that bank robbery’ was the phrase they all used to refer to the death of Annie Newhaus, the woman who JD had accidentally killed while trying to stop a bank robbery.
Buck didn’t say anything, tucking into his food and eating in a silence that was so unlike him that Nathan worried.
Chris, a determined eater, finished first and got up, picking up his plate and coffee tin and walking to the bar. He came back with the full pot of coffee and refilled Buck and Nathan’s mugs as well as his own before he sat back down, puting the coffee pot in the center of the table, as if he owned the place.
“That man over at the undertakers – Drayton - didn’t do right by his kid brother the way you did by JD,” he said, staring at Buck. “The way you do.”
Buck used his fork to push some of his food around on his plate. After a time, he said, “Sometimes I wonder if we’re doing right by him – if I am. You said, in those first days, that this wasn’t no place for him. I didn’t listen then. I thought – hell, I thought I could make him come to his senses. Then I started thinking I could train him, make him good at this. But that whole thing with Annie Newhaus – and then him getting shot . . . I still dream about that, about him getting caught out again.”
Chris shook his head. “We’ve talked about this, over and over.” There was note of impatience in his voice that Nathan knew well. They’d talked about it so much that Chris was tired of it. “Ain’t nowhere safe. At some point, we all made a mistake that we had to learn from. Hell, you and I have done it more than once. JD’s smarter than we are. He’s not going to get caught up like those boys we left behind, sure as hell not like Drayton.”
Nathan swallowed his food and picked up his coffee, thinking about what he was hearing. It occurred to him that he was hearing a conversation between these two men, a real conversation. Not the usual banter, or lighthearted tomfoolery that belied their long relationship. This was actually a discussion and even more significant, it was Chris Larabee being – well, not the man they were used to. He was being the friend that Buck needed.
And Buck was being far more than the fool he usually was. They had seen traces of the hard man he could be, especially after the crazy Maddie girl had shot JD and he’d almost died, but those instances were few and far between. This looked to be something equally as rare, the sight of Buck being remorseful.
Equally of interest was that he was sitting here and they were having this discussion knowing he was here.
As that thought came to him, Chris said, “Nathan, talk some sense into him.”
Nathan put down his fork and finished chewing what was in his mouth, considering the fact that he was being drawn into the conversation. It made him wary. “Don’t sound like there was a choice – not with Josiah in the line of fire.”
Chris shook his head, looking a Buck. His expression said that it was up to Buck to tell the story his way, which Buck did. It was the same story Chris had told but from a different view.
“We caught up with ‘em at a box canyon. Reckon they didn’t know much about the land around here, and we had ‘em pretty well pinned in. The three of us were spread out, blocking the exit and protected by some boulders. Chris called out to ‘em to surrender, and their leader – the one who’s over at the undertaker’s – said they could wait us out.”
Nathan looked between the two of them, then he said, “He wasn’t speaking for ‘em all.”
“Apparently not,” Chris agreed, picking up his mug. “After an hour or so, we saw a white flag waving, behind some rocks. Josiah decided he was going to see if it was a real effort, so he put down his rifle and went out.”
Damned fool, Nathan thought and from the look on Chris’ face, he knew Chris had thought the same.
Buck picked up the story them. “There were five of ‘em, all told. Their families been working a stretch of land south of here. They’d all been part of a big cattle drive, were headed back home when they stopped off here for the night. Thing was, they’d already lost most of their money before they started playing with Ezra. The oldest ones had been drinking and a couple of them had spent some money on women. Which wasn’t going to sit well with their wives. The young ones . . .” His voice drifted off and he reached for his coffee, using it to distract himself.
“The boys,” Chris said, his tone sharp, “had more sense and were worried about what they were going to tell the families. They tried to stop the attack at Nettie’s – and they were the ones who made the others leave. Smart kids, if you ask me. Just like JD.”
And now those kids had to go back home and tell their families that that one of their number was dead and the other two were in jail.
Nathan shook his head. “Seems to me that they did have more sense than the older ones. Were they negotiating to give themselves up?” He looked from Chris to Buck. Buck was still sipping on his coffee, so Chris answered, his words still short.
“They were, according to Josiah, when Drayton rode out of the pass, firing at Josiah. I didn’t have a choice. Nor did Buck,” he added, looking at the other man. “Not sure which one of us actually killed him, could have been either of us. But it was like he wanted to be killed.”
Buck put his cup down with enough force to splash coffee onto the table. “Son of bitch – how could he do that to his family? He’s got a wife and kids and - “ He trailed off, lifting both hands to cover his face.
And Nathan understood. “Was one of those boys his son?”
Chris glanced to Nathan and his fine eyebrows rose. Nathan guessed it was a thought that hadn’t occurred to him.
But Buck knew. “Kid brother,” he said, his voice muffled. “The one who tried to make peace. John.”
John was JD’s first name. And Buck might have killed his father. No wonder he was in this state.
Chris drank the rest of his coffee and dropped his empty mug onto the table with a dull thud. “I’ve got to get over the to jail, check on the other two, then wire the Judge. Nathan, you might want to stop by and check on them, too. Might be some problems now that they’ve had a night to calm down.” He pushed to his feet and started away but as he drew near to Buck, he dropped a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve done good by JD - hell, Buck, you did good by those boys last night. It was ‘cause of you that we let ‘em go.”
With that, he walked out of the saloon, leaving Nathan staring across the table at Buck, who still has his hands over his face.
Nathan wasn’t sure what to say so he looked back at his plate and went back to eating. It didn’t take long for Buck to get himself together, wiping at his face and sitting up. He picked up his fork, put it down, then picked up his mug, taking a long drink and emptying it. Chris had left the pot on the table, so he refilled his mug and sat back, staring at his plate. After a time, when Nathan was almost finished with his own meal, Buck said, “I know it’s stupid. I got no reason to think of JD this way – hell, I know Chris is right. JD would not have let any of this happen – or, even if it had, he’d have left those idiots days before. As soon as the older ones started losing the money.”
He picked his fork back up and dug around at the foot on his plate, as if he were thinking of eating.
Nathan shook his head. “JD would have left,” he agreed, keeping his voice quiet. “But you know him better than that. He’d have taken the rest of the money while the others were all sleeping, and he’d have run his horse hard, as hard as he dared, to get that money home before the others could catch up with him.”
Buck was still staring at his plate, pushing his fork around, but he grinned. “Reckon you’re right about that. JD probably would, wouldn’t he. He’d be more worried about the women folk.”
“As he should be,” Nathan agreed, thinking about how tight money was, how he had learned early on, before he’d lost his ma, that you didn’t squander money, ever. “He could teach those boys a thing or two – but then, sounds like you and Josiah did that, already.”
Buck set the fork aside and looked up at Nathan, catching his gaze. “Thanks, Nathan. I know Chris means well – hell, I know he’s right. But he doesn’t see the real harm in this, and I think you do. Chris . . .” He shook his head and reached for his mug again, but just held it. “Chris had three brothers and two sisters growing up. He thinks everyone was raised like he was, rough and tumble like a barrel of puppies. He doesn’t understand that some of us had to learn right from wrong the hard way – and that sometimes, it cost us a lot more than a spanking.”
Nathan thought about that, about Chris coming from a big family. Nathan had two sisters, both of whom he’d been writing letters to, since his father had told him where they were. But like Buck, he’d spent much of his childhood, especially after they’d lost their ma, struggling to figure out what was right and what was wrong – and when you stuck by people even when you knew they were in the wrong. He’d spent a lot of time being angry with his pa, so angry that he’d taken the chance on running away.
After the War, he’d looked for his sisters, sending out the notices in the church papers, but instead of actually going South, he’d come West.
If his pa hadn’t come looking for him, he might never have seen the man again. That thought plagued him these days. Much like this thought was plaguing Buck. “Hard when you have to choose between people you care about. Not easy on any of them.”
Buck shook his head, but he picked up his fork again. “Those boys . . .They’re good kids. Hate they had to go through this.”
Nathan nodded, as much at the fork full of food Buck put in his mouth as at the thought. “How about the two in jail?”
Buck chewed and swallowed before answering. “They didn’t shoot in the canyon, far as we could tell. Seems Drayton was the one making all the trouble. But they did shoot back at Nettie’s, and they weren’t brave enough to stop Drayton. Chris’ arrested them for what happened at Nettie’s, and I reckon that’s what he’s wiring the Judge about.”
Nathan nodded, thinking it through. “If this is their first time making trouble, Judge’ll probably go light on them. Guess it will depend on what Nettie and Ezra want to do.”
Buck was chewing again but he slowed and Nathan saw his eyebrows rise. After he swallowed, he smiled. “Well, hell, I can help with that. Ezra owes me a couple of favors and Nettie – well, I can make a couple of promises that will make her happy.”
Nathan grinned, amused at the other man. “You might have to fight Casey on this – she’s pretty het up because of her horse.”
Buck snorted. “I’ll get JD on that. Time he learned how to talk her down.”
At that, Nathan did laugh. “Buck, you ever been in a relationship longer than a week with a woman?”
Buck tilted his head, thinking about it as he chewed. “Once,” he said, slowly. “About a month, truth be told. But about three weeks of that, in the middle of the beginning and the end, I was on the trail.” He grinned wider and Nathan couldn’t stop laughing again.
He sobered though, when Buck said, “Ezra’s really all right?”
Nathan nodded. “He is. Think it hurt his pride more than anything. Especially as he’s having to stay at Nettie’s ‘til he can travel. Lost some blood, enough to make him tired and weak. Knowing Nettie, he should be back on his feet in no time. She’ll feed him up and make him rest, even if he doesn’t realize it.”
Buck smiled, a softer expression. “She will,” he agreed. He’d managed to clear his plate and he pushed it away, finished this time. “Reckon I should get over to the jail, give Chris a hand. You coming?” He stood and picked up his plate, carrying it over to the bar. As he set it down, Inez came out of the back, carrying another tray for another table of men who’d come in.
“Gracias,” she said as she passed Buck.
“No, thank you,” Buck said, grinning widely – back to himself.
Though Nathan could still see the lines in his face. Tired, still, and though he was better, the effects of this situation were still there. And would be for a while.
Buck watched Inez walk past, her colorful skirt swirling, then he walked back to the table, picking up his hat from here he’d set it in a chair.
Nathan rose, gathering his plate, mug, and the coffee pot. “Think I’ll check in on Josiah,” he said, wondering how his friend was holding up. “Then I’ll gather my things and stop by the jail, on my way out to Nettie’s.”
Buck nodded. “I’ll let Chris know. Thanks, Nathan.” He smiled, nodded, and headed for the door, Nathan heading to the bar. As he put his things on it, stacking his empty plate on Buck’s, Inez came back, heading back into the kitchen.
As she passed, she asked, “Is everyone all right? Senor Ezra has was not here last night, and I heard some things this morning. . .” She stopped beside Nathan and looked toward the doors still swinging from Buck’s exit.
“Ezra’s all right. Got shot yesterday – not bad, he’ll be back to double dealing in no time. But there was a gunfight and a man got killed.” As the words came out of his mouth, he felt them in his gut. Even though he hadn’t been there, he knew what it was like to take a life. It rarely ever felt good.
She was looking at him now, her pretty face solemn. “I will pray for him,” she said softly, “and for his family. And for all of you.” She glanced again to the door and asked, “Did he, Buck, did he . . .”
Nathan shrugged, feeling a little awkward about discussing this with her. But she’d seen Buck upset, and though she acted as though he were a thorn in her side, it seemed she did care for him after all. At least a little. “Maybe. Both Chris and Buck had to fire, so could have been either one. Think he’s feeling some guilt about it, not because he was protecting Josiah but because of the kid brother – and the family.”
She nodded, as if she understood. And maybe she did.
“Thanks,” he said, nodding to her. “And for the breakfast – hey, can I take some thing over to Josiah? I want to check on him.”
As he stood, waiting for her to put together a plate for Josiah, he thought on what he’d seen this morning – what he’d been part of. In his own way, Chris had opened up, enough to show his concern for Buck. And enough to involve Nathan in the conversation.
It was a sign of – something, though Nathan wasn’t sure what. But it had been a hard year so far, for all of them. And maybe it was a sign that they were all learning to count more on each other.
He hoped it wasn’t a sign of something worse.