TITLE:Legends Born: Beneath a Wand'ring Star --
AUTHOR: Joan Curtin
RATING: PG-13 Language and mildly sexual situations (this is Buck, after all.)
SPOILERS: To the Pilot Episode.
DISCLAIMER: Sadly, I can't claim financial or creative rights to the characters of the Magnificent Seven. Those belong to the writers and producers of the series. ** Denotes dialog from the series.
FEEDBACK: Please.Joan Curtin
Note: I suppose you might consider this an alternate universe since it is my version of the events that took place before the Pilot episode. I'm sure there are other stories which I haven't read, dealing with the same subject, and logic dictates that some cross-over of ideas is inevitable. However, I have not knowingly used any other author's ideas. If there is some coincidental resemblence, it is because great minds think alike, and not conscious plagiarism.
I have also taken liberties with some of the circumstances in the Pilot to provide an opportunity for Fate to bring these seven men together in Four Corners.
Feedback is welcome. And I'd love to read other versions of this idea, so feel free to contact me with URL's.
As always, a thanks to my Beta-readers, particularly Sue N. And a tip of the hat to Sue Bartholomew, for providing the cowardly sheriff with a name. Mel and Elizabeth, thanks for the encouragement.
Legends Born -- Part Three
Beneath a Wand'ring Star: Buck Wilmington
Gloria Potter herded her son Tommy off the boardwalk and into the store. The boy was wriggling and protesting in her hold, but she wasn't taking any chances with her son's safety. She had to guard him, his innocence, from this place and the sort of riffraff that had been moving in. The town hadn't always been like that, Gloria thought sadly. It might not have been her first choice to settle and open a store, but her husband said he saw gold in those streets. Gloria had held her tongue like a good wife should; but she thought her husband had been blinded by the sun. All she saw was dirt.
The store had thrived at first as the town grew. Folks moved in, opening businesses. Small farmers and ranchers started homesteading, settling down, raising families. They even had a fine newspaper run by Steven Travis and his wife, Mary. That had been three years ago. Then things had started changing. People got greedy, wanted more land, more water, more money. The big ranchers got tired of small holders frittering away at their range land, and started causing trouble. At first, it was political -- crooked lawyers and their clients trying to buy votes, get their men into office. Steven Travis had been in the lead of the opposition, campaigning relentlessly against Stuart James, Guy Royal, and their ilk. They might have won, if not for the railroad bosses getting involved. That had been like holding a lucifer to tinder. Bit by bit, the tension had gotten out of hand. Threats and vandalism had escalated into range war. Hired guns were brought in, and in a shocking climax to the violence, Steven Travis had been murdered.
After Travis' murder, the town changed. Some folks moved out, abandoning their property. Stores began closing. People grew suspicious, unfriendly. Oh, there were still good people around, but it seemed the only businesses that were thriving were the saloons and the undertaker.
It seemed there were more and more strangers in town each day, and every one nothing but trouble. Last week, there had been that buffalo hunter. Well, Mary Travis claimed that he only looked rough on the outside; that he was young and quiet, and kind of shy. At least he had cleaned himself up and had started a respectable job at the hardware store. Better than that gambler fellow who had come in the other day, fingered all the men's shirts, spoke so fancy that she could scarcely understand him, and then left without spending a penny. And then this morning, that ... that gunslinger, with the coldest, hardest green eyes she had ever seen. He had come in, dressed all in black like Satan's left hand. Scared the rest of her customers away. He didn't scare her, though. Not even when he looked at her with those eyes, and spoke to her in a whispery voice that was soft and threatening at the same time.
What scared her was that he spoke to Tommy. She saw her son's eyes widen in fear tinged with admiration when he caught sight of the black gunbelt studded with silver conchas. Even a child Tommy's age knew the difference between that rig and the worn brown leather holsters and plain firearms decent men carried for their own protection. She'd headed out of the store, grabbed her protesting son, and dragged him inside.
"I don't want you talking to strangers, young man, and that is that," she scolded.
"Ma, did you see him? Did you see his gun?"
"Hush up! He's a bad man Tommy. Stay away from him and his kind, or the next time I'll have your father speaking to you." She saw the dime novel clutched in her son's hand. "Where did you get that?"
"He-he gave it to me. I told him you didn't let me look at them books. And he said you was right, Ma." He held it out to her. "I'm sorry, Ma. But he wasn't mean, and he looked kinda sad."
Gloria snorted. "That look was not sad." And when Tommy's face fell, she softened and ruffled his hair. "Get yourself cleaned up for supper, son."
He smiled and ran off to do as he was told. Gloria turned back to her counter and nearly jumped out of her skin. She hadn't even heard the cowboy come in. She gasped and looked up, up, up. Lord, he seemed to go on forever. But she knew immediately that this man was no threat to her. His blue eyes were smiling down at her from his great height. He had a wide, laughing mouth beneath a lush mustache, and she felt a kind and genuine warmth beneath that regard. Realizing that he had alarmed her, he took off his hat and held it against his chest.
"I am so sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean t'startle ya so bad."
"Oh no, not at all! I guess I was just wool-gathering," she apologized. He had a lovely drawl of a voice, she thought. Her hands went to her hair in an eternally feminine gesture, and to her horror, she felt herself blushing like a schoolgirl. What on earth was she thinking! "M-my son," she stammered. "Boys can be quite a handful."
The cowboy's smile grew wider. "Yes, ma'am. So I've been told."
I'll just bet you have, Gloria thought. And recently, too. She had to smile back at him, though. "What can I do for you, Mr ..."
"Wilmington. Buck Wilmington, ma'am." He pulled out a short list of items for her to put together for him. While she bustled around the store completing his order, he took a look around. His eyes lit on the paper-covered book on the counter, and he picked it up. His heart beat heavy in his chest. The Legend of Larabee: Showdown in Lawrence. A true story ...
Buck shook his head. No one knew the true story of Chris Larabee, except Larabee and his once best friend, Buck Wilmington. Shit ... he hadn't seen Larabee in two more than two years, and that last time, Buck had been flat on his back, bloodied and broken by Chris Larabee's fists. Hadn't been Larabee's fault, had been the demons raised by whiskey and grief, and Lord knew that the man had cause enough to drink.
Buck sighed, and Gloria Potter was standing in front of him, a concerned look on her motherly face. "Mr. Wilmington, is there anything else?" she asked.
His wide smile returned. "No, ma'am ..." She looked disappointed, and Buck hated to disappoint a woman. "Well, maybe you can help. If I was lookin' fer a gift fer a real sweet -- I mean -- a lady like yerself, what would you suggest?"
She thought for a moment and then pulled a box from the counter. She leaned forward conspiratorially. "I got these in the other day. Lace-edged handkerchiefs, all the way from St. Louis."
Buck nodded. "They're real purty, ma'am. I'll take three."
Her eyes got round, and Buck wondered how much this gallant gesture was going to cost him. The sum set him back a bit, but he'd won a pot from a gambler fella last night, and he was flush enough to spring for a bit of lace t'make his lady smile. He gathered up his purchases, and juggling the packages, still managed to raise his fingers and tip his hat to Gloria Potter before he left the store.
After taking account of his rapidly dwindling funds, Buck came to the sad conclusion that he'd have to abandon his room at the Grand Hotel for simpler quarters at the rooming house. Not that it mattered: he wasn't anticipating spending much time in that narrow bed. Not with Miss Charlene sparkin' up at him like she was.
Whistling, and with a jaunty step, he went to the front desk at the rooming house and said he'd take a room for two days. The tired-looking landlady scarcely brightened at his presence. She just looked at him. "Don't got a room."
"Don't got a room. It's booked up. Gave the last room up an hour ago. Trail herd from Texas came in. Y'can leave yer name and if one opens up, it's yours."
Buck sighed and shook his head. "Anyone willin' t'share?"
Before the woman could answer, a slightly built, long-haired young man came down the steps, carrying a bundle under his arm. He leaned on the desk. "He c'n have my room. I'm checkin' out. I'd like my money back, if ya don't mind."
"No refunds. Says so right here." She pointed at a faded, badly printed poster tacked on the wall.
"I ain't slept in it yet," the young man protested. "Gave ya four bits fer it fer th'week. I figger I'm owed somethin' back."
"Cain't do it."
"Hell, ya got this feller here ready to take it, right?" He fixed Buck with a pair of sharp blue eyes. "Y'ain't losin' nuthin' on my not bein' here."
"I still gotta pay for washin' and cleanin.'"
"I hardly set foot in th' room, ma'am," he said softly. "And I ain't got a disease."
Buck gave him a considering look. His clothes were clean, but worn, and he looked tired, a bit pale. Like he didn't need t'be standin' here arguing with a stubborn woman. Probably couldn't afford t'lose two bits. Buck had been there more times than he could count. He leaned over the counter and fixed the proprietress with a warm smile.
"Ma'am. Why don't ya give this feller half of his money back? I'll pay for the rest of t'day an' all of tomorrow. That all right with you, Slim?"
"Name's Vin, and I'd be right obliged t'ya."
"I'm the one needs a place to sleep." He dug into his pocket and laid the coins on the desk. "Ma'am, it's a fair deal, and you look like a woman who c'n appreciate that."
Damn, if the Wilmington magic didn't work again! Buck's smile broadened, and the woman, tired and tight-fisted as she was, relented under his charm. "Oh, all right." She reached under her apron and laid a quarter on the desk. "Here. But if I find the room in a mess, I'll make this gentleman pay fer it."
"The room's like it was this mornin'. I ain't even unpacked." He turned to Buck and held out his hand. "Thanks."
"It's nothin', pard. I need a room and you don't. Seems a fair trade t'me. I'm obliged." They shook hands, and Buck followed the landlady up the steps. The room was so small that even a man the size of the previous occupant would have felt cramped; for Buck, it was nearly comical. The slope of the roof cut off nearly half of the head room, so that he had to walk half-hunched over to the bed, and more than once, he managed to scrape his scalp against the rough ceiling. He unpacked his clothing and shaving supplies, and reached for the wrapped packet of handkerchiefs at the bottom of his sack. His fingers brushed against something that felt unfamiliar. He pulled out the penny-dreadful, The Legend of Larabee.
"Hell," he sighed. He flipped through the pages, wincing at the purple prose. He lay down on the bed, letting his long legs half-hang off the foot of the iron bedstead. Damn, but he hoped Charlene was gonna share her feather bed, 'cause this puppy wasn't nearly big enough.
He opened the book to page one, and began reading.
It was awful. He had to remind himself that whoever had written it had no more idea of the man Chris Larabee than they did of Abe Lincoln. And yet, there was a kernel of truth there. In his travels, Buck had come across stories. The first time he'd heard Larabee's name mentioned in that whispered hush accompanied by a glance of fear, he told himself it was a mistake, it couldn't be his Chris Larabee. But he had known, like a touch of ice around his heart, that it was true.
He'd seen it in Chris' eyes during the war -- that this was a man capable of cool and ruthless killing. When other men quailed in terror, Chris didn't blink. It was what had made him an officer men would follow into battle, because they believed if he lived, they would not die. That gift hadn't been without its price, however, and Buck had seen the fractures of guilt that had opened in Chris' heart. Saw him becoming hard and scarred in body and soul. Saw him bury a lot of emotions so deep that Buck didn't think they'd ever resurface.
He had been wrong. The instant Chris had set eyes on Sarah Connelly, he'd started returning to life. She had reached that scarred heart and healed it with love. Damn, Buck thought, if he could find a love like that, he'd stop wanderin' and settle down without a backwards glance. Times were he didn't know which was worse: not having that sort of love, or having ripped away with the abrupt cruelty that had cost Chris Larabee his soul.
Buck sighed and closed the book. He couldn't read any more. He knew he couldn't continue to see Chris in that golden haze of nostalgia. He was just blinding himself to the truth. The truth was that the last time he had set eyes on Chris Larabee, the man had been coming at him like a freight train, and had left him near as dead as if one had run him down.
Months later, Buck had been doin' a stint as a lawman in Texas and a letter had finally caught up to him. Larabee -- almighty, prouder than God, Larabee -- was asking his forgiveness. At first, Buck had been so angry that Larabee had taken the coward's way out, that he'd torn the note in half and thrown it away. Then, prompted by Sarah's memory, he'd read it again, and realized that those few, dry words were probably all Larabee could spare, like blood from a fresh-healed wound.
Buck forgave him. But he'd never sought him out, or inquired where he was. He figured he was still alive, for Chris Larabee's death would have been news in any town west of the Mississippi.
Why this dime novel had made him want to see him again, Buck couldn't say. He swung his legs off the bed and decided it was time to seek more congenial company than the brittle pages and dingy room could provide. A hot bath, a drink, and then the solace of Charlene's lovely bosom and white arms; that was what he needed. Not the ghost of Chris Larabee.
Buck hesitated on the threshold of the saloon. Quite a crowd had gathered, including the fancy gambler he'd won the pot from last night. His latest victims were a crew of rough-looking customers that Buck wouldn't have played cards with to save his soul. 'Course, the gambler probably had no soul -- he sure as hell didn't have much of a conscience. Buck, despite his luck last night, was certain the gambler had fleeced more than a few of his playing partners to recoup his losses.
He was looking for a different kind of lucky tonight. He searched the saloon for Charlene. She was one of the upstairs girls, but a step above the whores trolling the room for customers. Charlene had what she referred to as a "dance card," and Buck had the very literal pleasure of being the only name on that card tonight. Charlene also had a husband who she claimed was in Yuma prison. Buck figured that was far enough away for a safe dalliance.
Anticipating the evening, Buck pushed open the bat-wing doors and strode inside the crowded, smoky saloon. He was instantly surrounded by a bevy of feminine admirers. Buck himself couldn't have explained it -- didn't care to even try. It seemed to be his own special gift. For a few minutes he reveled in the attention before they all seemed to part like the Red Sea as Charlene came through and wrapped her arm in Buck's elbow.
"Hello, sugar," she purred against Buck's throat, "I've been waitin' for you."
Buck caught the hand that was caressing his cheek to his lips. "And I'm aimin' to be worth waitin' for," he twinkled at her, set his arm around her waist, and with a wink at the other ladies sighing after him, followed Charlene up the steps to her bedchamber.
"Disgustin' display," the red-coated gambler grumbled. "The fairer sex has no powers of discrimination whatsoever."
"Deal, fancy man." The scarred and bearded man sitting across from the gambler spat onto the floor. "I'm lookin' t'win this hand."
The gambler, Ezra Standish, gave the man a hard stare. "I am an artist, sir. I deal when the cards tell me that they are ready."
Suddenly, there was a gun resting on the rim of the table, aimed right at Standish's heart. He swallowed. "I believe they have spoken."
He dealt, his hands quick and clever. No one at that table, or in the room, noticed the tall, dark stranger slip from the saloon.
The moon was as big and bright as a silver dollar rising over the roofs of Four Corners. Buck leaned on the windowsill and looked out over the quiet town. Behind him, Charlene was sleeping, her body lush and shadowed by moonlight. Lord, she was a fine-looking woman, and she knew how to pleasure a man. Buck had dozed after their lovemaking, but something had waked him, and he wasn't sure now what it had been. Just a dream, he figured. A warm breeze blew in the open window, stirring his hair, cooling the sweat on his body. He drew a breath deep into his lungs.
Buck was not a man to do things by halves; be it fighting, drinking, or loving. He'd seen too much misery and death to let them cast a pall over his life. He was the bastard child of a prostitute who had no notion of his father. He'd been raised in a Mississippi bordello; a naturally merry child, surrounded by doting women, and a mother who genuinely loved him. He'd grown up with the dark, seedy side of his own sex -- seen women beaten and abused, seen them fight back with laughter and tears, seen them hold tight to those tatters of pride that kept them from being nothing more than receptacles for the pleasures of men.
His mother had died when he was sixteen. He was big for his age, and strong. He'd worked at the bordello for a while as sort of a guard, but without his Ma, the place was just another ugly whorehouse. An incurable wanderlust had taken hold of his heart. He moved West. He worked as a ranch hand, then as a freight driver in St. Louis. He piloted a riverboat, and hired himself out as gunman in Kansas before the war broke out. Then one night, he'd met Chris Larabee. They'd gotten pretty likkered up, raised holy Hell, and wound up in front of a judge who told them if they was so all-fired determined to shoot folks, they might as well sign up for the War.
"What war?" Buck had asked. Lord, had they found out!
Four years later, he and Larabee were still alive. Skinny, worn out, wounded, and ill, they had limped away from the army, looking for a life. Chris had met Sarah. He and Buck settled into an informal ranching partnership. Buck had thought for a while there that his wandering days were over. He had been wrong. Sadly, tragically wrong. When he'd healed up from the beating Chris had given him -- funny, now he couldn't even recall why Chris had lit into him that night -- Buck had moved on again. Did a stint as a lawman, but decided he didn't much like the politics involved. Since then, he'd drifted. And that drifting had brought him to Four Corners. Why, he wondered? To put a dime novel about Chris Larabee in his hands? It was a mystery, and he wasn't much in the mood to puzzle over it.
He heard the rustle of bedclothes as Charlene woke and came to his side. She rested her hand on his shoulder, her curly blonde hair brushed his skin. "That moon sure is pretty."
"Yeah, it is." He smiled down at her, ran his hand over her silky skin. "Makes you look like an angel."
Charlene laughed softly and let her fingers drift down his chest to his flat stomach, and lower. "I don't feel much like an angel, sugar. And neither do you." She raised a speculative brow, and Buck's flesh stirred to arousal. With a devilish grin on his handsome mouth, he swept her up and carried her back to the bed.
"I'm no angel, darlin'. But I figger I know the way to heaven." Charlene giggled and surrendered.
Buck slept soundly, lulled by the feel of a soft, feminine body next to his. Lord, how he loved waking with a woman in his arms. Wasn't too crazy about gunfire being the first thing he heard, though. Charlene didn't seem to notice it, but then she slept with her head burrowed in her pillows to shut out the sounds of the day. A working girl needed her beauty rest.
Buck fumbled for his turnip watch. Late morning, nearly afternoon. A bit early for drinking and carousing, but Four Corners didn't exactly strike him as a place where folks obeyed the laws of genteel society. He went to the window. Couldn't see much but a bunch of cowboys shooting up the town. Decided it wasn't his fight and turned back to bed. He felt a twinge of conscience as he slid his arms around Charlene, but relaxed when the sound of gunfire faded after the cowboys rode out. Buck inhaled the scent of lilacs and woman and went back to sleep.
Charlene made his second awakening far more pleasant by kissing her way from his chin down to Paradise. Buck savored every moment, and then was only too glad to return the favor. Sated and pleased, they drifted into a pleasant doze, lingering in bed until the sun was high in the sky.
They were just beginning to bid each other a fond adieu -- having started getting dressed, and finding that slowly covering skin up was as erotic as revealing it -- when they were jolted apart by the sound of fierce hammering on the door and a rough, angry voice shouting through the panels, ** "Hey, you in there with my wife!"
Charlene leapt from the bed. "Oh Lord, it's gotta be my Billy!"
Buck's heart thumped. "I thought he was in Yuma prison!" He rolled off the mattress, reaching for trousers, gun, shirt -- in no particular order.
"He is! Was ..." Charlene stammered, and tried to cover herself with a shawl. "Just a minute, hon!"
Again the thudding and that gravelly voice. "I hear you in there! Open up!"
Buck and Charlene exchanged desperate, longing looks. Then Buck swept her back in a deep, swooning kiss, and took off out the window; pants half on, half off, trailing everything but his hat, which he had clapped on his head. Charlene tossed a sock out the window and stood blocking the view from the door to give Buck a moment to gather things together.
The door burst open, and Charlene gasped, first in fear, and then in puzzlement. She'd never seen this man before in her life!
Vin Tanner tapped the brim of his hat. "Sorry ma'am, wrong room." ** A bright smile curved his mouth, and one blue eye winked at her teasingly before he closed the door. Charlene just sat on the bed and tried to remember how to breathe.
"Afternoon, Buck. Interrupt somethin'?"
That voice! That lean, dark figure leaning negligently against the porch post, that cool, amused gaze from jade-green eyes. Buck didn't know which knocked the breath out of him faster -- falling off the roof, or the sight of Chris Larabee.
Buck rolled to his feet, nearly tripped in the tangle of his trousers, pulled them up past his knees. "Chris! Y'old war dog, you!" He bounded up the steps and wrapped Larabee in a bear-hug, overjoyed, relieved, and amazed. Utterly careless that he was wearing only a union suit that left little enough to the imagination of every passer-by. "Good t'see you, buddy!"
"Easy, big fella. Folks'll talk," Larabee's dry tones were a tonic. Buck laughed, stepped back and pulled himself together. Lord, it was like they'd never been apart.
Chris gave him a look. "I've got a job. Y'interested?"
Interested? Hell, his life had been damned dull since they'd parted. Chris'd always had a bent for trouble. Of course Buck was interested. "What's it pay?"
Not too shabby. But judging from the tilt of Larabee's brow, there was something missing. "A day?" Buck queried. Chris shook his head. "A week?" The luster was coming off the offer fast.
"I know it ain't much," Larabee said.
Would hardly feed his horse. But still, where else could he find that sheer joy of riding with a friend, and fighting with him at his side? "How're the odds?" he asked.
"Three, four to one."
"Our kind of fight." Buck did up his trousers, his head no longer in the clouds. "How'd you know I was here?"
"Make a point of knowin' who's in town. Live longer that way."
That was Chris, always watchin' his back. His back ... Buck's eyes narrowed as the young man he'd met at the boarding house came around the corner, slipping in at Larabee's side and settling up against the porch post like he belonged there.
"You with us?" Vin asked.
"Is he with you?" Buck asked. Chris nodded, and Buck saw something in those eyes that had been missing for a long time. Warmth, humanity. Faint and flickering, but alive.
"There gonna be any ladies where you're goin'?"
"I imagine so."
A smile touched Chris' mouth. It did Buck's heart good to see it. "Then I imagine I'm in." He looked to Vin. "We gonna get a formal introduction, pard?"
There was a moment of wary hesitation. Buck felt that he was being measured up, wondered why. Then there was a slight nod of his head. "Vin Tanner."
"Buck Wilmington." They shook hands, renewing their acquaintance. "I reckon I'll jist mosey on over to the boarding house and put myself t'gether."
Chris nodded. "Meet you at the livery. We got another man to see."
Buck shook his head. His five dollars was looking smaller all the time.
Buck thought the men Chris had gathered, himself included, must look like a pack of mongrels as they sat around a table in the saloon later that day. All but the gambler, who seemed to think he was pure-bred and better than everyone else. About the only thing they all had in common was that look about their eyes that said they were dangerous, that said they were killers. Even Nathan Jackson, who called himself a healer knew his way around a fight according to Chris and Vin Tanner.
Buck slouched in his chair and eyed the disparate group from the cover of his hat brim. Chris, who he had once known like the back of his own hand, was now unfamiliar, and would have to be relearned. Larabee tossed back whiskey like a man who was used to hard drinking, but he was lean and sharp, his skin burnished and taut over his cheekbones, his eyes burning with cold fire. He lounged on his spine, easy and alert, utterly deceptive in his stillness.
Standish made Buck nervous. Didn't understand why they'd want a cheater in their company. "We might need one," Chris had said, when Nathan Jackson had questioned the gambler's presence. Standish handled a gun as easily as he dealt cards. When he shuffled a deck, they looked like liquid flowing though his hands. And his words -- why they could dazzle a man's brain -- made you want to trust him, even though every instinct screamed that you were about to be taken for a ride. He'd not said much, just sat there with his poker face and cool eyes, aloof.
But it was Vin Tanner who had him puzzled. There were things about him that just didn't seem to fit. Sitting there next to Chris, silent as a shadow, sort of scary in the way he could make you forget he was there: his slim body hunched into that hide jacket and the rest of his clothing a bit loose and confusing to the eye. Even his voice was as soft and raspy as the desert wind rustling through the mesquite. His way of speaking was uneducated -- Hell, not that Buck himself knew much more'n the essentials -- but Tanner treated the serving girls like ladies, said "please," and "thank you," and "much obliged," like he'd been taught real good. And then there was the fact that he was next to Larabee.
Most men would have stayed as far away from the gunslinger as humanly possible, and Chris would have been glad of the distance. Tanner's chair was positioned just slightly outside the circle of the table, as if he felt the need to make a fast getaway, but still closer to Larabee's than any other. Chris didn't seem to mind Tanner's presence at his side, and when the hunter spoke, Larabee tilted his head slightly, giving those words weight and merit.
Bit by bit, Buck pieced together the story of the gunfight; his blue eyes growing wider and brighter as some folks dropped in on the conversation to add their two cents worth. "Damn, I wish I had seen that!" he finally crowed and slapped his knee.
"I am sure it was a sight to behold," Standish commented, still smarting from his own impressment into the cause by Larabee. "Goodnight, Gentlemen. I despair of ever getting a poker game going in this town again, my reputation has been so tarnished."
Chris gave him one of those tolerant, lazy appraisals, for all the world like the panther he resembled. "You think on it. We're leavin' at dawn, remember."
"It is not something I am likely to forget." He gave them a brief nod and left their company.
Jackson rose next. He'd kept his talking to a minimum, favoring his raw and swollen throat. He lifted a hand, gave them a rueful smile. "'night."
Tanner looked up at him, a touch of a smile on his mouth. "Hold up there, Doc. I'll walk y'out." He nodded at Chris, at Buck, didn't say another word, and seemed to melt into the haze and shadows.
Buck fixed Chris with a look. "Don't know if I'd trust a man who c'n come and go like smoke."
"I trust him," Chris said.
"How long have you known Slim, there?" Buck asked.
Chris smiled. "Since this morning."
"That ain't much t'go on."
Chris set the legs of his chair down. "Ya fight next to a man, you get a pretty good idea what's inside a' him. You know that, Buck."
"Yeah, reckon I do." He stretched out his long body. "Leavin' at dawn?"
"Plannin' to." He rose all in piece, compact and dangerous. "Got any 'romantic' liaisons planned for the evenin'?"
Buck laughed and clapped Larabee on the shoulder. "Hell, pard. You're soundin' like that gamblin' feller already!" His eyes brightened. "You know me, Chris. I jist take it as it comes. And Lord, I hope it comes." He was already looking around at the ladies still lingering downstairs.
Chris shook his head. "Y'ain't changed, Buck."
"Not when it comes to that, Chris." He grinned, tipped his hat. "See ya in the mornin,' amigo."
Chris left the saloon, and Buck sighed and picked up his empty glass. As he was about to take it to the bar, one of the girls came over to him, tucking her arm into his, and smiling up at him. "Evenin', cowboy. You looking for some company?"
"Darlin', you've just saved my life." He let her lead him upstairs. Briefly, he thought of the two bits he'd paid for the room at the boarding house. Two bits lost, but a fair exchange for a soft bed and a willing occupant.
The moonlight stealing across Buck's eyes prodded him to wakefulness. He gave the girl curled at his side a kiss on the shoulder and got out of bed. The scent of tobacco drifted in through the open window. Buck padded over and looked out.
A narrow, dark shadow of a man stood on the porch of the Grand Hotel. As Buck watched, a figure he recognized as Vin Tanner dropped from the overhang of Watson's hardware and walked over to Larabee. Buck saw the tip of Larabee's cheroot harden briefly. Tanner slouched against the porch post, and after a moment, Larabee set his shoulder against the opposite side of the support, his body mirroring Tanner's easy stance
Buck envied that ease. He and Chris had shared it once, and lost it. Chris had said Buck hadn't changed. He was wrong. They'd both changed. But enough of the old friendship remained to give him hope that they might recapture some of those lost years.
He looked up at the moon, at the ever-wandering stars. Sometimes they told him to move on, sometimes they told him to stay. But they always led him true. They had led him to Four Corners and to Chris Larabee.
"Buck?" A sleepy whisper and a graceful extension of a white arm towards his empty side of the bed.
Buck smiled. "I'm here, darlin'." He slipped back into bed, gathered his companion into his arms. She snuggled closer to his warmth, and Buck settled deeper into the pillows. Morning would be here soon enough, and his stars were telling him to stay.
Continued in:'Dust and Ashes: Josiah Sanchez'