Part 7

 Josiah straightened his back as he made his way towards the hotel. He needed to send a telegram to Four Corners and let Nathan and JD know what was happening. Buck was still sleeping, due to exhaustion more than anything else. Chris had awakened several times during the long night, but never seemed to be fully with them. He pushed open the door and spotted a matronly woman standing behind the desk.

“Miss Lottie?”

“That would be me. Is there something I can help you with?”

“I’d like to send a telegram to Four Corners,” Sanchez answered.

“Very well. What do you want it to say?”

“Chris and Buck found. Chris hurt bad. Town doc says he should be okay. Sanchez.”

“Very good. I’ll send it now and let you know when I hear back from them,” Lottie told him.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” the ex-preacher said, tipping his hat before heading back towards the physician’s residence. He nodded to several townspeople that he recognized and answered their queries about Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee. As he pushed open the doctor’s door he heard the familiar voice of their resident ladies’ man.

“Vin, I said I’m fine!”

“Doc says ya need ta rest!”

“I will…”

“Good, glad that’s settled!”

“No, it’s not! Damn it!”

“Is there a problem?” Sanchez asked as he looked at the two men.

“No!”

“Yes,” Tanner corrected.

“What’s wrong?”

“Mr. Wilmington wishes to pay a visit to the woman who claims to be his beloved wife, while Mr. Tanner insists that he should wait!” Ezra explained from his position next to Larabee’s bed. He was leaning back on the chair with his legs stretched out and resting on the windowsill. A soft breeze wafted through the partially open window and he smiled at the newcomer.

“Buck, you sure you’re up to seeing Angela?” Sanchez asked.

“I’m sure, Josiah. I need to do this!”

“All right, but I’ll come along and make sure…”

“I don’t need protection!”

“I know you don’t, but can you guarantee that you won’t strangle her if you get the chance?” the older man asked.

“No…no I can’t,” Wilmington told them as he ran his fingers through disheveled hair. He turned his gaze on the unconscious gunslinger and marked in his mind each and every wound on the man’s body. If given the chance he knew he could easily strangle the woman who had professed to love him and would die a happy man having done so.

“I guess that mean you need an escort,” Sanchez said and saw the quick nod of the dark head. He watched as Wilmington made his way to Larabee’s bed and placed his hand on the blonds’ right shoulder. The heat he felt emanating from the injured man scared him and he knew they would continue to pack the ice around him in an effort to get the fever under control. “Hang on, Pard, ‘cause I ain’t gonna let her away with what they did to you.”

Sanchez heard the softly spoken vow and waited for the gentle rogue to join him. Together they walked out of the doctor’s office and down the street to the jail. The sun had gone behind a cloud, but the heat was still rising with the approach of noon. He pushed open the door and allowed Wilmington to enter before him and nodded a greeting to the sheriff.

“How are you feeling, Buck?” Rawlings asked.

“Better. Came to see Angela.”

“Are you sure about that, Buck?” Rawlings asked and knew his long time friend was indeed serious about going to see his wife.

“Yeah, I need to make sure she knows how much I ha…hate her,” the ladies’ man spat venomously.

“I’ll stay with him, Evan,” Sanchez assured the lawman.

“All right,” Rawlings agreed and threw the keys to the older man. He watched as Wilmington waited anxiously for the door to open and knew his friend was tormented by what had happened.

Buck slipped inside before the door was fully open and locked gazes with the woman who was legally his wife. He walked the short distance to the bars and stood for several long seconds before finally speaking to her.

“I thought I knew you, Angela.”

“You did, Buck. I love you.”

“Love? No, I don’t think you even know the meaning of the word.”

“How can you say that, Buck? Didn’t you feel anything when I touched you? When I kissed you?”

“Yes, I did. I felt dead Angela! You made me betray who I am and your kiss was a kiss of death. It killed everything I ever felt for you!”

“Buck, please, I did it for you…for us…”

“There is no us…never was, Angela. You killed it…”

“NO! Don’t you say that! I love you, Buck!”

“Funny way of showing it,” Wilmington said as Rosemary Clark opened her eyes and stared at him.

“She isn’t to blame, Buck. She loves you more than you’ll ever know and this is how you repay her!”

“Oh, Lady, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Wilmington vowed as he grabbed the bars. “I’m going to watch the two of you hang for murder and attempted murder!”

“You can’t prove anything!” Angela screamed.

“I can prove what I saw you do and that you ordered Turner to break Chris’ arm and guess what? Turner will back me up on that!”

“Turner’s a weasel!” Clark spat.

“That may be, but with mine and Chris’ testimony neither one of you will be able to talk your way out of it! Judge Travis should be here sometime next week and I’m going to stand there and watch them take you away!” Wilmington smiled as he glanced from one woman to the other.

“You bastard, Buck!” Angela cried as she ran at the bars and reached through them before the man could react.

Wilmington felt her nails rake across his cheek and grabbed her wrists in a vice like grip. He smiled and used her hand to wipe away the blood and then shoved her roughly backwards. She stumbled and would have fallen if not for Rosemary Clark’s quick reaction. He smiled, but there was no humor in it as he stared at the two women.

“You reap what you sow, Angela,” Wilmington said and turned away from the women. “Let’s go, Josiah. The smell in here is turning my stomach.”

“As you wish, Buck,” Sanchez said, holding the door and closing it behind them as Angela Tate screamed in outrage.

“Everything okay?” Rawlings asked as Sanchez threw the keys to him.

“Everything’s just fucking fine!” Wilmington spat. “Josiah, I need a drink!”

“Come on, Buck, I’ll buy you a steak dinner and you can buy me a drink!” Sanchez nodded to the sheriff before following the ladies’ man through the door. A stiff breeze had picked up, but it did little to dispel the heat of the day.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“JD, I have a telegram for you from Josiah,” Gloria Potter called after the young sheriff. She handed him the slip of paper and watched as he read it.

“Thanks, Mrs. Potter. I need to show this to Nathan. Have you seen him around?”

“I saw him go up to his clinic a few minutes ago,” the older woman answered and watched as the young man raced toward the livery.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nathan heard the sound of hurried footsteps on the stairs and opened the door just as the whirlwind known as JD Dunne stepped onto the landing. He smiled at the youth, but quickly read the worry in his eyes as the younger man handed him a piece of paper.

Chris and Buck found. Chris hurt bad. Town doc says he should be okay. Sanchez.

“Damn, I should have gone with them.”

“You were needed here, Nate,” Dunne said, smiling as he remembered the sound of a baby’s first cry. The birth hadn’t been difficult, but the woman seemed more relaxed knowing Jackson was on hand.

“Thanks, JD, still don’t make it no easier.”

“I know, but at least there’s a doctor in Midfield!”

“Yeah, that’s one piece of good news.”

“Are you going out to see Rain today?”

“I was thinkin’ on it, but…”

“There’s nothing you can do, Nate. I’ll send someone out to the village if you’re needed or there’s more news,” Dunne assured the healer. He knew the man would worry about Larabee no matter what, but at least this way he would have something to occupy his time.

“Thanks, JD, think I might just take ya up on that. Besides I need to check Rain’s cousin and make sure her arm is healing properly,” Jackson said and turned his attention to the trip ahead of him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next few days passed slowly as the friends tried to stave off the fever sapping the blond’s strength. Chris would wake up and at times seemed lucid and awake, while at other times he’d fight those who tried to help him. He screamed for his deceased family and cursed Ella Gaines to her grave and beyond as his body arched on the bed. He languished in the throes of nightmares that only he could see until the sun rose above the horizon on the forth day since he’d been found. Sea green eyes opened and looked into the worried blue ones set in the face of his long time friend.

“Chris?” Wilmington whispered the word hopefully.

“Buck? Hap…happened?”

“Is he awake, Buck?”

“Sure is, Vin. Get the doc!”

“Hey, Cowboy, I’ll be right back.”

“Not a cow…boy,” the blond rasped as Wilmington lifted his head and allowed him to take several small sips of water.

“How are you feeling, Chris?” the ladies man asked with a tired grin.

“Don’t know. Sick…hurts to move.”

“I bet it does. Try not to move around too much right now,” Wilmington ordered as he lowered the sweat soaked blond head back to the bed. He stared into the eyes he knew so well and saw the true depth of the man’s pain. “I’m sorry, Chris.”

“G…get that l…look off your face, Buck. N…none of this is your f…fault.”

“Yes, it is, Chris, but I swear they’ll pay for what they’ve done. So help me God I’ll see to it myself if I have to!”

“N…no. Pro…promise me won’t d…do anything s…stupid!”

“I can’t promise you that right now, Chris. Ask me again after the trial,” Wilmington said softly.

“P…please, Buck, N…need to know y...you’ll be there…”

“I c…can’t. Not now,” the gentle rogue told him as the door opened and several people entered the room.

“I hear my patient is awake,” Morton said and took the chair vacated by Buck Wilmington. “Good morning, Chris.”

“Who…you?” Larabee frowned as he looked at the newcomer.

“My name is Richard Morton and I’m what passes for a doctor in these parts. Now I’m going to take a look at you and then see about getting you some broth. How are you feeling?”

“Hopefully not as bad as they look,” Larabee said and motioned with his head towards his friends.

“Well they come by it honestly,” Morton said, taking out his stethoscope and listening to his patient’s chest. “They’ve spent every waking moment sitting with you. Take a deep breath!”

“Damn!” the blond cursed as he coughed harshly.

“Here, drink this!” Morton ordered and held Larabee’s head while Wilmington fed him the water.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Your chest doesn’t sound clear right now, but that’s to be expected with you lying around like this. As soon as you’re up to it we’ll see about getting you out of that bed and sitting up in a chair for a spell.”

“Ready…up now,” the blond tried, but the soft laughter told him that was not to be the case as yet.

“I don’t think so, Son. It’ll be at least another full day before we even attempt to get you up!” Morton warned.

Chris smiled in spite of the renewed pain in his side and leg as the physician continued with his examination. He drank what they gave him and knew one of the liquids had been laced with laudanum as his eyelids grew heavy and he drifted toward sleep.

“How is he, Doc?” Tanner asked.

“His fever’s broke, but that doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods yet,” Morton explained as he turned to face Larabee’s friends. “He needs to take it easy and give his body the time it needs to heal!”

“Chris ain’t one ta be patient,” the Texan observed.

“Don’t expect he is, but you boys are gonna need to make sure he does as he’s told!”

“Damn, give us something easy why don’t you?” Wilmington asked and heard the others chuckle.

“Buck, we’ll sit on him if we have to,” Sanchez said.

“Just make sure you don’t sit anywhere that he’s hurt!” Morton warned.

“Damn, guess that don’t leave much!” Tanner said seriously as he looked at the sleeping man. The colorful array of bruises had spread and covered much of the surface area until Larabee looked as if he’d been put through hell and Vin took a deep breath as he realized that was as close to the truth as anything.

“Like I told you boys his fever has broken, now comes the real chore of getting him back on his feet,” Morton explained.

“We’ll do whatever it takes, Doc,” Wilmington assured him.

“Good. First thing you have to do, Buck, is put that damn sling back on and quit acting like there’s nothing wrong with you! I may not know you very well, but I’m sure your friends here know when you’re hiding something. Now quit acting like you’re a hundred percent and get some rest or I’ll just slip you a little something to make sure you do!” the physician promised.

“Mr. Wilmington, I do believe he sees right through your valiant charade,” Standish said, smiling as he pointed to the little used bed at the opposite side of the room.

“I’m not tired,” the ladies man said.

“That so? Then perhaps you wouldn’t mind letting one of your friends force you into bed. I don’t think it would take much right now. What do you boys think?”

“A soft breeze would probably do the trick,” Tanner observed and watched as the defeated ladies’ man made his way to the bed and sank down onto the mattress with a heavy sigh.

“Well, Hallelujah!” Sanchez said and earned himself a baleful glare from the injured man.

“Now, Gentlemen, I want you all to get some rest. If Chris is anything like the rest of you I may just have to take you up on the idea of sitting on him,” Morton said as he finished his examination and sat back.

“You heard him, Boys. Ezra, I believe you have the funds to procure our next feast,” Sanchez said with a toothy grin.

“Why is it whenever we are in search of a repast I seem to be the only one with funds available?”

“Well, Son, it’s probably because the good lord saw fit to bless you with quick hands and the ability to know who you’re playing against,” the ex-preacher observed.

“Yes, that is true, but…”

“Come on, Ez. We don’t get movin’ and ya’ll have ta cheat some more in order ta pay for it,” Tanner said.

“I do not need to cheat in order to win!” Standish stated as they exited the room.

Morton shook his head at the antics of the trio who’d just left. He turned toward the man lying in the other bed and saw that he was up on his elbow and watching the sleeping blond. The guilt on the rogue’s face was evident as the blue eyes sparkled with unshed moisture.

“Doc, he is going to be all right isn’t he?”

“As long as we keep him from doing anything stupid he’ll do fine. That goes for you as well, Buck. I’ve been watching you and I know you’re not sleeping, so, I am going to get Martha Collins to mix one of her herb teas. I think once you drink that you’ll find it easier to sleep and once you wake up I might even let you sit with Chris for a while.”

“Okay,” the ladies’ mans easily agreed and laid back against the pillow.

Morton looked from one man to the other and was again taken aback by the depth of friendship these men felt for each other. Touching his hand against Larabee’s cheek he was relieved to find it cool to the touch.

“You’re one lucky man, Chris Larabee,” he whispered and used the cloth to wash over the man’s face before standing and stretching the kinks from his back.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Angela Tate-Wilmington grew angrier with each passing minute. Rosemary Clark was fairly well recovered from the minor wound she’d received and at present was sleeping on one of the small cots. The red head stared at the man sleeping on the cot in the next cell and silently cursed the traitorous sonofabitch. No matter how much she threatened him, no matter how many ways Rosemary told him they could chop him into little pieces, Ethan Turner refused to listen.

“Don’t worry, Angela, things will work out,” Rosemary had assured her more than once in the last week, but as she heard the approach of the stage she knew things were about to get worse. She moved to the side of the jail and tried to see out into the dusty alley, but even on her toes she could not reach the bottom of the window.

“Damn it!” she cursed and sat spitefully on her cot as she awaited word on her fate.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Orrin Travis was hot and tired and was glad he’d been the only passenger since leaving Eagle Bend. He’d been thinking about the last telegram he’d received from Sheriff Evan Rawlings and was worried about one of his peacekeepers.

According to the message, Chris Larabee had been shot twice, had a broken arm and several bruised or cracked ribs, plus several stitches to a wound above his right eye. Travis hated that one of the men he’d hired and respected had been seriously injured, but his distaste grew as soon as he’d read that two of the three people charged were women. It would be hard to get a conviction because men seemed to shy away from the idea of hanging a woman, but if everything he heard was true they deserved to be strung up from the nearest branch. As the Stage drew to a stop in front of the hotel, Travis leaned out the window and quickly spotted several familiar figures. He quickly stepped down and waited for his bag, not at all surprised when the lanky Texan grabbed the piece of luggage and carried it toward the hotel.

“How is Chris?” the judge asked.

“He seems better today. Dr. Morton says if he continues to improve he might just let him sit a spell tomorrow,” Sanchez explained.

“As long as he doesn’t overdo things,” Travis said. “I’d like to see him as soon as I’m checked in.”

“I would be honored to take care of registering you, Judge Travis,” Standish said.

“Thank you, Ezra. Tell Lottie I said to put it on my tab,” Travis told the gambler and headed towards the physician’s house at the edge of town. He’d been there several times in the past, taking statements and getting the full story on a supposed crime. He knocked on the door and hurried inside when a male voice bid him enter. “How is he, Richard?”

Chris had been resting his eyes, but opened them at the familiar voice. “Hello, Judge.”

“Hello, Chris, I hope you’re not giving Dr. Morton any problems.”

“He’s being real good, Judge,” Wilmington said from his seat at the small table.

“Shut up, Buck,” the blond groaned. “How are Billy and Mary doing?”

“Billy is doing very well in school and is excited that his mother is staying with Evie for a month. He’s really come out of his shell since his father’s killers were brought to justice.”

“He’s a good kid. Didn’t deserve what happened to him.”

“You saved his life, Chris, and I’m forever in your debt. That goes for all of you,” Travis said. “Now, how do you feel about telling me what happened?”

“I…”

“Orrin, does this have to be done right now?” Morton interrupted.

“The sooner the better, Richard. I’d like to know where we stand on all issues. We all know how hard it is to see someone hung and it’s especially hard when it comes to a woman…two women,” Travis said.

“That may very well be, but right now Chris needs his rest. When are you setting the trial for?”

“Tomorrow morning if Gerald will allow us use of his saloon,” Travis answered.

“I don’t think Gerald will stop you from using his place. Now why don’t you and I go speak with him and let my patient get the rest he needs?” Morton suggested. 

“All right,” the judge said and turned to Larabee. “Chris, get some rest. I’ll speak with you before the trial starts tomorrow.”

“I want to be there!” the blond stated, shocking everyone present.

“Chris, you can’t be serious!” Wilmington stated.

“I’m sorry, Chris, but I don’t think you’re strong enough to be out of bed that long!”

“I need to be there! Need to make damn sure they don’t get away with any of this. Did anyone telegram St. Louis to see if their stories were true?”

“Evan sent out several telegrams yesterday, but there’s been no answer yet,” Wilmington explained.

“Chris, I’m not gonna say yes to you being there tomorrow, but I’m not saying no either. If, and this is a big if, you get plenty of rest tonight and there’s no sign of fever in the morning, then maybe we can arrange for you to be present during the trial. However, there is something I want from you.”

“Anything, Doc,” Larabee stated tiredly.

“I want your promise that when I say you’ve had enough then you’ll come back here without an argument. Got that?’

“I got it,” the blond said with a small grin and a heavy sigh as he turned towards his long time friend. “I just need to make sure they can’t hurt you anymore, Buck.”

“Hell, Chris, wasn’t me they hurt,” Wilmington stated.

“Look in the mirror and say that, Buck. A blind man could see the pain in your eyes.”

“Chris…”

“No Buck, don’t say it. Just know this and mark my words. You have nothing to feel guilty about and I’ll damn well kick your ass if you don’t smarten up!”

“He’s right, Brother, you did nothing to be ashamed of,” Sanchez assured him.

“Buck, may not kick…kick your ass right n…now, but will soon,” the blond said and gave in to the siren call of sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Orrin looked at the two women, both so beautiful, yet as deadly as a rabid wolf searching for prey. The two women refused to acknowledge his presence, but Ethan Turner was more than willing to share details about what they’d paid him to do. He swore he had nothing to do with any murders, but was guilty of kidnapping and forcible confinement with intent to injure. Gerald Carlton had readily agreed to have the trial held at the saloon and with the help of several townsmen, plus Sanchez, Tanner, and Standish was already setting it up for the trial.

“Mrs. Clark, you do realize these charges are very serious?” Travis asked, and was again met by a wall of silence. Shaking his head he turned away from the cell and walked out into the sheriff’s office once more.

“They still on a vow of silence?” Rawlings asked.

“I don’t think they realize just how much trouble they are in,” Travis said, shaking his head as he sat across from the lawman.

“They know and I think they just might be able to wrap some of the men in this town around their fingers. No matter what happens tomorrow there are at least four men who will be dead set against hanging women!”

“You may want to deputize a few men or use Josiah, Ezra, and Vin to help control the hot heads,” the judge suggested.

“I’d be grateful for all the help I can get,” Rawlings said as the door burst open and a man walked inside.

“Sheriff, tell me you’re not going to let this farce of a trial happen!”

“Judge, do you remember our mayor,” Rawlings asked.

“Indeed I do. Hello, John.”

“Hello, Orrin. Please tell me you won’t be holding a trial in Midfield.”

“I’m sorry, but I will be holding a trial and I believe it to be in the best interests of the town if you show the court the respect it is due.”

“But you’re talking about putting two women on trial for attempted murder…”

“Actually, after the telegram I received today they’ll be facing charges of murder as well,” Rawlings explained.

“You know, John, there’s something wrong with your attitude,” Travis said, his voice laced with deadly force.

“What are you talking about, Orrin?”

“Are you forgetting there’s a man on trial here for the same charges, and yet you don’t give a damn about what he’s facing!”

“But…but they are women and have been a good part of this town since they moved here!” the mayor fumed.

“That may very well be, but think about what they’ve done and if that’s not enough then come over to Morton’s office and take a good look at what they did to Chris Larabee!” Travis raged.

“He’s a lawman and should be used to getting hurt in situations like this!”

“John, Chris Larabee was shot twice and had his arm broken because those two women thought they could control another man’s life. He deserves to see justice done!”

“Not in my town!”

“Then perhaps it’s time you stood down and let us elect a man with a lick of sense!” Rawlings stated and stood up.

“Easy, Evan,” Travis said and turned to the town’s mayor. “John, I am sworn to uphold the law and that means the trial will go forth tomorrow. If you don’t like it then I suggest you take a trip for a few days. Perhaps your twisted judgment will find a way to live with what you’ve been saying here!”

“You can’t talk to me like that!”

“I just did! Evan, it stinks in here and I need to get some rest before the trial tomorrow morning!”

“Orrin, I apologize for the mayor’s behavior,” Rawlings said and smiled as the man huffed and shot out the door. He shook his head and watched as Travis followed suit and was glad the judge had been able to get the upper hand with the town’s mayor.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The saloon was packed with men waiting to find out the outcome of the trial, but the three defendants had yet to make an appearance. Several of the older men were trying to cajole Gerald Carlton into opening the bar and let them have a libation, but with no success as the saloon owner shook his head and pointed to the sign proclaiming BAR CLOSED FOR DURATION!

“So when’s this trial supposed ta start,” Peter Frost asked, licking dry lips hopefully.

“Soon’s the judge says it does!” Carlton assured him and motioned for one of the lawmen to come forward.

“What can I do fer ya?” Tanner asked, leaning against the bar.

“The crowd’s getting a little out of hand. Any idea when the judge is gonna get here?”

“Should be here as soon as they bring Chris over,” the lanky Texan answered.

“Well, I hope it’s soon!” Frost told him and watched as several men began a shoving match at the rear of the saloon.

“Ya boys wanna stick ‘round ya’d best sit down and shut up!” Tanner warned and nodded as Standish joined him.

“Josiah and Buck are bringing Chris over now,” Standish informed the younger man.

“Good, ‘cause much longer and we might have ta shoot a couple of trouble makers,” the Texan said and saw Frost break away from the counter, a look of fearful indignation on his face.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Now, Chris, no one will think anything bad of you if you just stay put!” Wilmington tried once more. They’d managed to get the stubborn blond into a pair of pants by slitting up the seam and making room for the bandages around his leg. An oversized shirt was draped over his shoulders and buttoned up the front. There was a new light in the gunslinger’s eyes today since they’d found Pony safe and sound and he was now housed in the livery, and being fed and cared for by the liveryman.

“I’m going!”

“Stubborn sonofabitch!” the ladies’ man cursed as Sanchez returned.

“I take it you’re still hell bent on going to the trial?” the ex-preacher asked.

“Hell yeah!” Larabee answered and knew the doctor was still shaking his head as he returned to his position next to the bed where his patient sat.

“All right, Chris, I’m agreeing to this against my better judgment, so here’s how we’re going to do this. Buck and Josiah are going to walk beside you and if I see anything I don’t like I’m calling a halt to it. Understood?”

“I hear you, Doc,” Larabee said, glaring at his two friends.

“Good!” Morton said, giving his patient another once over before turning to Wilmington and Sanchez. “All right, gentlemen, here’s how this goes. Buck, you’re on his right, Josiah, you’re on his left. I’m going to walk behind Chris and make sure ‘Mr. Hard Head’ here doesn’t fall on his hard…”

“Shit!” the blond spat as he tried to stand on his own.

“That’s lesson number one, Chris. You’re weak and you need to let us help you with everything for now,” Morton warned as Sanchez and Wilmington moved in to help the injured blond to his feet.

“Thanks,” Larabee said as the ladies’ man plunked his hat on his head. He concentrated on staying on his feet and forced his legs to move, groaning as the movement pulled on his injured leg.

“Ah, Chris, take this,” Morton said, handing the man a cane.

“I don’t…”

“If you plan on walking to the trial you do, or Josiah and Buck can carry you!” the physician warned.

“Damn!” Larabee swore and reached for the item in Morton’s hand. He used it and reluctantly acknowledged the need for the cane. Using what little strength he had the gunman slowly made his way toward the door. He felt his two friends walking close beside him, but everything he had, and everything he was, he was putting into this one trip. He would make it to the saloon under his own steam or die trying.

Buck watched as Larabee’s stubborn pride worked to give him the strength he needed to persevere and smiled inwardly at the strength generated by the blond. No matter how beaten he was, no matter how hard the fight could be, in the end, Chris Larabee would win. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to and that was a strength few men had.

Josiah watched over both friends and knew Wilmington was putting on a brave face. The man was hiding a pain that ran deep and a guilt that was just as fierce. It would take seeing Chris Larabee completely recovered and back on his feet to see the light hearted rogue back to himself. Sighing, the ex-preacher remained steadfast next to the blond and could see how difficult each step was.

Richard Morton could not believe that his patient had made it out the door let alone half way down the street. Something told him that Chris Larabee would and could do just about anything he set his mind to do. They made it to the saloon, but not without incident as Larabee stumbled several times, but refused help as he straightened himself with the use of the cane.

Chris looked at the two steps that lead up to the batwing doors and took a deep breath. He could hear the people inside and knew the saloon had probably never been so packed during regular hours. People had this morbid need to see what was happening and he knew they would probably have to deal with several troublemakers. The fact that the trial involved two women made it more like a circus than a courtroom, but Chris knew Orrin Travis would make sure things ran smoothly no matter what it took.

“Chris…”

“I’m okay, Buck,” Larabee insisted and found the strength to lift his right leg and put all his weight on the cane. He heard Ezra and Vin, but didn’t acknowledge either man as he made it to the top.

“Mr. Larabee, your color…or lack thereof is suggestive…”

“Ez, not now! Tell me you boys have a place for me to sit down!”

“Got a seat front and center fer ya, Cowboy,” Tanner told him and held the door as the group moved into the dim interior. Between the four peacekeepers they managed to keep the town’s men at a distance and give Larabee a clear aisle to the chair reserved for him. By the time the blond was seated he was covered in a fine sheen of sweat and his face had a washed out quality to it. He didn’t know who it was, but someone handed him a glass of water and he drank it slowly.

“Chris, the judge is about to come in and Evan is bringing over the prisoners,” Sanchez explained as he watched the younger man’s face closely.

“Okay,” Larabee nodded as the men took up places around the courtroom. Besides, Sanchez, Standish, Wilmington, Tanner, and Rawlings there were four other men who’d been sworn in to help keep the trial orderly.

“Chris, you need anything don’t hesitate to say so,” Morton said as he sat beside his patient.

“But they’re women!” one man shouted and the outrage was picked up by others as Travis took his seat.

“Order! I will have order in this court or I’ll have you all barred from the proceedings!” the judge warned and the crowd grew quiet as Rawlings and Tanner led the three prisoners to the defendants’ table. Mark Lewis stood as the trio were brought to him and knew his case was lost before it even began. Ethan Turner was only too glad to make his statement and the evidence against the women was damning.

“This court is now in session and I’m warning all of you that any transgressions will get you a contempt charge and you’ll find yourselves as guests in the town’s jail. Now the defendants are facing several charges of kidnapping, assault and attempted murder. How do your clients plea, Mr. Lewis?”

“Your honor, Mrs. Clark, and Mrs. Wilmington have refused to answer that question. Mr. Turner has pleaded guilty to kidnapping and assault,” Lewis explained.

“All right, we can resolve Mr. Turner’s case easily and proceed with the charges against Mrs. Clark and Mrs. Wilmington,” Travis said as he watched Chris Larabee closely. The injured man was listing slowly to the right and was soon propped up by Buck Wilmington. He quickly pronounced Turner’s sentence and had him removed from the courtroom until such time when he would be needed for testimony.

“Chris, why don’t we get you back to bed,” Morton suggested, but saw the stubborn set of Larabee’s jaw.

“I’m f…fine, Doc, need to be h…here!”

“No you don’t, Pard, I can testify to what they did to you,” Wilmington tried.

“Buck, I want to see this through…for me,” the blond said, but knew the ladies’ man could see right through him.

“All right, ol’ son,” Wilmington agreed softly and looked toward the judge once more as he finished calling him to the stand. It had been decided that the ladies would have a bench trial without a jury and it would be up to Travis whether or not the women were guilty or innocent and whether they would face further charges once they heard from St. Louis. Buck nodded to the blond and walked to the front of the saloon and took the witness stand where he was sworn in.

“Mr. Wilmington, do you swear to tell the…”

Buck’s eyes locked on to the green ones he once thought he could lose himself in. Now all he felt was disgust, that this woman had hurt not only him, but also a man he had considered to be his best friend for many years.

“Yes,” the rogue answered as he tore his gaze from the woman.

Angela Tate-Wilmington could not believe that this man was going to bring her down. There was no doubt that his words would see Rosemary Clark found guilty and she turned in her seat until she spotted Chris Larabee. He would also testify to her wrongdoings and see her either faced with a life in prison or the hangman’s noose.

‘I’ll kill you first,’ she thought as she glanced at the two men closest to her. She recognized them from the town and knew them to be honest and law abiding, which was probably why Rawlings had chosen them. She heard her husband testify as to what he’d seen and been forced to do in order to save Chris Larabee’s life and knew she had to see her plans through to the end, Larabee’s end. Turning toward the man closest to her she judged the distance and knew she could get the man’s gun, but could she get a shot away before someone reached her.

“Angela, what are you thinking?” Rosemary Clark asked softly.

“He’s going to pay for this!”

“Who?” Clark whispered and frowned as their lawyer continued to ask questions of Wilmington.

“Larabee! Just look at that bastard!”

“What are you going to do?”

“I need you to get their attention, but wait until Larabee is called to the witness stand,” the red head said and knew Angela understood what she meant. As the lawyer continued his questioning of Buck Wilmington, most of the men’s attention was focused on the witness stand and they were not watching her.

“You know this will go against us?”

“I know, but what difference will it make?” She saw the smile on Clark’s face and knew the woman would do what was needed. She settled back in her chair and smiled sweetly at the ladies’ man.

Chris had not missed the woman’s backward glance at him, and wondered why he suddenly felt so damn cold. He shifted on the seat as Travis dismissed Wilmington from the stand.

“Mr. Larabee, are you able to take the stand at this time?” Travis asked.

“Chris, it can wait,” Tanner stated.

“No, it can’t. Faster them two are sentenced the better,” Larabee stated and sat up straighter in the chair.

“Mr. Larabee?”

“I’m fine, Judge,” the blond said, but was glad when the Texan offered his arm and helped him to his feet.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Angela smiled as Larabee stood on shaky legs and began the slow walk towards the chair reserved for witnesses. She nodded to Clark as the blond walked past her and heard Rosemary’s sharp intake of breath and several outraged cries as the woman fainted. Before anyone could realize it was an act, Angela reached for the weapon in the deputy’s holster and pointed it toward the blond. Several shots rang out as the outraged alarm turned into fear and unarmed men hurried to find cover.

Buck had just stepped away from the chair when Rosemary Clark seemed to faint, but his well-honed instincts told him it was far from real. He turned his attention to the second woman just in time to see her level a gun at Larabee. He drew and fired in one motion and watched as a look of disbelief shone on his wife’s face just before she looked down at the blossoming red stain on her bodice.

“B…Buck,” she stammered and turned her weapon toward her husband as another shot rang out. Ezra’s weapon had slid into his hand with an accuracy born of practice and desperation. He had pulled back on the trigger and watched as Angela Tate-Wilmington crumpled to the floor in a heap.

“NO!” Rosemary Clark was on her feet in and instant and grabbing for the weapon in Rawlings’ holster, but was quickly grabbed by a nearly hysterical John Matthews. “Let me go! He murdered her!”

“Someone get Doc Morton!” Tanner shouted as they eased Chris Larabee to the floor.

“Vin, is he all right?” Wilmington shouted and was soon joined by Orrin Travis as the rest of the deputies emptied the courtroom.

“I don’t know! He’s bleeding!”

“Let me through!” Morton ordered and looked first at the dead woman and then at his patient. “Where’s he hit this time?”

“N…not,” Larabee stammered.

“I think he’s just bleeding because I shoved him! The woman had him dead to rights!” Samuel Duff explained.

“You’re not hit?” Wilmington asked, his eyes showing a mixture of concern and hope.

“No, just knocked the wind outta me!”

“Did more than that, Chris. Think maybe it opened up the wound in your side. Be still now and let me take a look.”

“Buck…Angela?”

“She’s dead,” the ladies’ man answered as he watched Sanchez place his coat over the dead woman’s face.

“You murdered her! You bastards are gonna pay!” Rosemary Clark struggled against the sheriff and the mayor as they dragged her out of the courtroom.

“Doc, how does it look?” the ladies’ man asked.

“Like I said, the banging around opened the wound. It’s a setback, but not so bad as having another piece of lead in him!”

“Thanks, Mister…”

“Samuel Duff. Folks ‘round here call me Duff. Ain’t nothin’ ta thank me for. I saw her grab the gun and look at ya and I had ta do somethin’ real quick.”

“You saved m…my life…”

“Chris, you can thank him later. Buck, Vin, we need to get him back to my place. Think you boys could carry him?”

“I can…”

“Lie there and be quiet!” Travis ordered and watched the physician as he pressed a piece of material against the bleeding wound.

“Nothing more I can do until we get him back to my place. Buck, you and Vin, get him on his feet, but be careful and don’t let him put any pressure on his leg!” Morton warned. He stood and watched as Larabee’s friends got him on his feet. Sanchez and Standish turned up and between them they carried a protesting Chris Larabee out of the courtroom.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Evan Rawlings made sure his two prisoners were locked in their cells before hurrying back to the saloon. Angela Tate-Wilmington’s body remained on the floor, but most of the people had left. He spotted two boys peeking under the batwing doors and shooed them away before entering the saloon. He spotted Samuel Duff standing with Gerald Carlton and moved towards them.

“Cecil will be here in a few minutes to take care of her,” Rawlings explained.

“Hell of a mess,” Duff said.

“Yeah. I think it really shook the mayor up,” Carlton observed.

“He’ll get over it!” the sheriff said. “Duff, you saved Chris’ life today and I’m indebted to you,” the sheriff patted the older man on the shoulder as he spoke.

“Well, Sheriff, I figured even though he’s a friend of yours he must have some redeeming qualities,” Duff said with a grin. He’d known the sheriff since he’d taken the job, and they had a quiet respect for each other.

“Oh, that’s one more I owe you,” Rawlings said.

“Hell of a thing when a fine lookin’ woman like that tries to kill a man,” Carlton said softly.

“Yeah, it is, but at least she won’t be hurting anyone else,” Rawlings said as Cecil Leonard entered the saloon. The lawman took a deep breath and moved to help the man take care of the dead woman.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris gritted his teeth as Morton worked on his side and silently cursed his own refusal of laudanum. He felt each tug of the needle as each stitch was put in place and clenched his fingers in the edge of the blanket.

“Last one,” the physician assured him.

“Thank Christ!” Larabee ground out.

“He offered you the laudanum, Son,” Sanchez tried as he held Larabee in place.

“I know…shit!”

“That’s it. Now all you have to do is lie there and give yourself time to heal!” the physician warned him.

“He will, Doc,” Wilmington vowed. Since returning to the room his mind kept replaying the instant in the courtroom when he’d drawn his weapon on a woman and pulled the trigger. It was something he thought he’d never do, but it had happened and although he knew he had no choice, it still weighed heavy on his heart.

Chris saw the look on his long time friend’s face and waited for the doctor to finish with him. Once he was finished Chris motioned for Tanner to come close and waited until the younger man was close enough to hear him.

“Need to talk to Buck.”

“All right,” the Texan said and stood up. “Boys, think maybe Sheriff Rawlings could use our help.”

“Yes, I’m sure he would be appreciative if we were to…”

“Jest say you agree, Ezra, no need of sermonizing it,” Sanchez said.

“Chris, we’ll be…”

“Buck,” Tanner interrupted the ladies’ man. “Someone needs ta sit on Chris ta make sure he stays put!”

“Doc’s here…”

“Sorry, but I have a couple of other patients to check on.”

“Guess you’re stuck with me, Buck,” Larabee said.

“Buck, I’m leaving the laudanum in case he needs it,” Morton explained and placed the bottle on the bedside table.

“We’ll bring ya back somethin’ ta eat, Buck,” Tanner said as the judge held the door open for them.

“Don’t forget me, Tanner!” Larabee warned.

“Chris, I’ll bring your lunch when I come back,” Morton assured him.

“Anything but broth,” the gunslinger said and heard soft snickers from his friends. It didn’t take long for the room to empty out and Chris watched as his friend walked to the window. He knew he’d been right about the gentle rogue needing to talk and wanted to give him the time he needed together his composure.

“I killed her, Chris.”

“You didn’t have a choice, Buck,” Larabee said, hating the sorrow and pain he heard in his friend’s voice.

“Didn’t I?” Wilmington turned toward the injured man with tears threatening to spill from the corners of his eyes.

“What choice did she give you?”

“I didn’t have to shoot to kill!”

“Is that what you intended when you shot her?”

“I don’t know. I just saw the gun and knew I couldn’t let her hurt anyone else, especially you. She hurt you too much already,” Wilmington swallowed the painful lump in his throat as he tried to keep the horror from his voice.

“I’m not the only one she hurt, Buck! She hurt you in the worst possible way. She hurt you through me…”

“Ya got that wrong, Chris. I wasn’t hurt.”

“Weren’t you? I think Angela hurt you more than any bullet to the chest could, Buck. She took your heart and for the lack of better words, she broke it and that’s something I’ll never forgive her for. Tell me you’re not hurting…”

“I wish I could, Chris, God help me I loved her and hated her at the same time. How is that possible?”

“Someone once told me there’s a fine line between love and hate, Buck. What we have to do is know where we draw that line and why we step over it. I thought I loved Ella Gaines and was ready to marry her, but you know what a fucking mistake that was!”

“My mama would say Angela and Ella were both cut from the same cloth and should be burned until there’s nothing left for the wind to blow away,” Wilmington said sadly as he sat on the chair next to Larabee’s bed. He studied the handsome face that still seemed to pale and knew Chris was the one man who could understand what he meant. They’d been through many of the same emotions and now it seemed as if it really was time to let go.

“Get your head up, Buck, and walk proudly. There are few men who know as much about me as you do and not another man I’d rather have at my side. I know we’ve had disagreements, but don’t ever doubt that I’ll be there if and when you ever need me.”

“Thanks, Chris, I needed that,” Wilmington said and reached for the bottle of laudanum. Now, it’s ‘bout time you took this and got some sleep.”

“No way in hell!” Larabee spat as he saw the relief on his friend’s face.

“Now, Pard, you and I both know you don’t have the strength of a newborn calf and I’m a lot stronger than that. Open up!”

Larabee glared at the rogue and knew there was no choice in the matter as Buck held the spoon in front of his mouth. He swallowed the medicine and took the offered water, before closing his eyes and waiting for it to take effect.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris smiled as Evan Rawlings and his new wife entered the room. He’d wanted to attend the wedding, but Morton refused to be cajoled into letting him out of bed. Three days had passed since the incident at the trial and during that time Chris had suffered through a mixture of fever and chills that succeeded in sapping what little energy he had. Now he was finally starting to come around, but it was too late to attend the wedding itself.

“Chris, you look a lot better than you did yesterday,” Rawlings advised.

“Thanks, I think,” Larabee said and tried to sit up straighter.

“Don’t you mind him none, Mr. Larabee. You look fine.”

“Thank you, Miss….Mrs. Rawlings.”

“I thought we were past that, Mr…”

“Only when you agree to call me Chris,” the blond told them as Wilmington and the others came into the room. He knew the ladies’ man had stood for their friend and also knew the wedding present he was about to give the two would go far in making sure they had a comfortable future.

“I’ll try, Mr…I mean Chris,” the woman blushed and suddenly Chris saw the true beauty in this woman.

“Congratulations to you both and I hope you’re both showered with riches that a man and woman can truly enjoy,” Larabee told them.

“Thank you, Chris,” Rawlings said.

“Evan, me and the boys decided to give you both a wedding present,” Wilmington said, and shook his head as the others tried to protest. “I know it is rightfully mine, but it comes from all of us and I hope you won’t refuse it because…well he…shoot, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

“Buck, stop blubbering and tell the newlyweds your news,” Standish said impatiently.

“I’m getting to it!”

“By the time ya do they’ll be complainin’ about bein’ grey,” Tanner cut in.

“I’m getting there!”

“You are?” Sanchez asked.

“Damn, okay look, Evan, Martha,” Wilmington reached for Martha’s hand and held it in his own. “I want so much for you to have this and knowing how hard things can be on a lawman’s wages I figured you’d have a hard time getting a place of your own.”

“Buck…I…we,” Rawlings interrupted.

“No, Evan, let me finish, okay? See I loved Angela Tate, but not the woman she became. When I first met her I thought God had seen fit to send me an angel, but that was not to be and like so many people who fall for the wrong person, I was hurt…not in the same way Chris was, but it hurt me still. I’m not getting this across very well, but what I’m trying to say is that I want you to have Angela’s place. Now hold on and listen to what I’m saying. I won’t ever live there and that means that beautiful home and all the stuff inside will just go to dust and what good is that. This way I’ll know that someone I care about is living there and making it a home…a real home with kids and maybe even a dog…”

“Buck, I don’t know what to say,” Rawlings said as he watched his wife’s face fill with sadness.

“Say yes, Evan, and all I ask is for you both to be happy,” the rogue said.

“Oh, Buck,” Martha cried and pulled him into a fierce hug. She knew this man wasn’t being forward in his offer of the home and she turned to her new husband with tears in her eyes. “This feels right, Evan. I think God has shown us exactly what he wants us to do. By accepting this offer from Buck, we’re releasing him from any bonds he had to that despicable woman and he’s giving us the means to raise a family.”

“Never argue with a woman, Evan, especially when she’s your wife and smart as a whip,” Sanchez explained.

“Looks like I’m outnumbered…”

“And outgunned,” Standish said with a grin.

“Well, it seems like there should be some kind of toast,” Larabee said and tried to sit up a little more.

“Doc always has a bottle handy,” Rawlings said and moved to check the cupboards. He smiled as he reached for the unopened bottle of whiskey and several glasses that he quickly poured a measured dose into.

Chris reached for a glass, but was intercepted by a very wily female.

“Sorry, Chris, whiskey is not on Dr. Morton’s list of things you should have,” Martha scolded softly.

“Ah, hel…heck, Martha, wasn’t gonna drink it, just make the toast,” Larabee told her.

“Sure you were…”

“Really I was…”

“Then water will do just fine,” the woman said and handed him a glass of clear water.

“Damn,” Larabee said.

“Feel sorry for you, Chris, I surely do,” Rawlings said with a hint of a grin on his face.

“Just remember this when you’re laid up sick or hurting, Evan, and she hands you a glass of horse piss,” the blond said and heard the others laugh.

“A toast,” Wilmington said and they held their glasses high. “To a lifetime of happiness and a houseful of children underfoot.”

“Thanks, Buck,” Rawlings said as they completed the toast.

Chris nodded at his friend who seemed so much more at ease now that he’d handed over the Tate ranch to the loving couple. He knew Evan and Martha would have many years of happiness under the roof and erase the memories left over from Tate’s ownership. He closed his eyes and listened to the others talking and knew Wilmington was beginning to rid himself of the guilt he felt. Chris knew it would not go away overnight, but at least it was a beginning and Chris knew all about beginnings. His own world had crashed in on him nearly four years ago when Ella Gaines had hired Fowler to kill his family, but he’d managed to pull himself back from the brink and had found a new family. One made up of six other men who relied on each other and were there to help each other when the deck was stacked against them. These men were his family and Four Corners was his home he though and drifted towards an easy sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Nathan, I see ‘em coming!” Dunne shouted as he raced up the stairs to the healer’s clinic. Two weeks had passed since the wire from Josiah stating that Chris and Buck were healing and that Angela Tate was dead. Ethan Turner was sentenced to Yuma while Rosemary Clark had been sent to a sanatorium to live out her life. Since finding out that Angela Tate was dead he woman had become quiet and withdrawn. She wouldn’t eat or drink and never spoke a word. Morton had said she was probably in deep shock and might never be the same again. Either way she faced a lifetime of seclusion.

Nathan hurried out and met the kid at the top of the stairs and glanced toward the street as five men rode up. He gave them all a quick once over until his expert gaze came to rest on Chris Larabee. The stitches had been removed from above his eye, but he couldn’t see the wound, because a familiar hat covered it. The blond’s arm was still immobilized and he could tell Larabee was favoring his injured side. Nathan hurried down the stairs and reached the bottom at the same time the group drew to a stop before the clinic.

“Chris, come up to the clinic and let me take a look at you,” Jackson ordered.

“I don’t think so, Nate. I need a drink!”

“Chris…”

“Mr. Jackson, might I remind you that it has been a long dry road we’ve traveled and perhaps Mr. Larabee would be more willing to submit to your examination if he is feeling slightly tipsy,” Standish suggested.

“It’d take more than me feeling a little tipsy,” Larabee told him, dismounting and wincing as his feet hit the ground.

“It won’t take long,” Jackson tried.

“Nate, let the man have a drink and I promise I’ll personally hogtie him and carry him up to your clinic,” Wilmington said.

“Try it and I’ll…”

“Shoot me?” the gentle rogue laughed, contented now that they were finally home. ‘Home,’ he thought as he gazed at the weather-beaten buildings and felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.

“Buck, are you okay?” Dunne asked as the others walked towards the saloon. He’d been watching the older man closely and could still see the evidence of what he’d been forced to do. This man was a lover of women and he’d been forced to shoot someone who he thought he loved.

“No, Kid, not really, but I’m getting there,” the ladies man said, removing the younger man’s hat and hitting him with it and laughing as dust billowed up from the youth’s clothing. They made it to the saloon and entered through the batwing doors. Once inside they hurried to their usual table and sat down as Inez delivered the drinks.

“Ez, not sure if I said this, but even if I did, I’ll say it again,” Wilmington said as he looked at the gambler. “You saved my life that day and I’m beholding to you.”

“I believe that debt has been paid many times over,” Standish said simply.

“That may be, Ez, but we’re all grateful that you’re quick with that little hide-away of yours,” Larabee said and lifted his glass.

“Mothah always said to be prepared,” Standish told them.

“Time for a toast,” Larabee said as he looked at each man before returning his attention to the liquor in his glass.

“Whatcha got in mind, Cowboy?” Tanner asked.

“To family and the strange places we find them,” the blond said and knew the others understood what he was telling them. They lifted their glasses and relaxed, yet each man knew that at any time their lives could be put on the line without a moment’s notice. Theirs was a family of misfits, but the design was perfect. Chris sat back and his eyes met Buck’s and a silent vow passed between them, a vow that no one, man or woman, could ever break.

  

The End