JD ducked low over his horses back and a bullet passed through the space where his back had just been. He slipped to the ground, and followed Chris behind a rock that offered sparse cover from the hail of bullets that rained upon them.
The remuda scattered in a frenzied gallop, accompanied by whinnies of terror, and the dog took off after them.
JD wrested his revolver out of its holster as he sneezed from the dust the escaping horses kicked up. "How many?"
"Four, maybe five," Chris replied, peering around the rock. A Winchester cracked and a bullet struck stone, throwing splinters against Chriss neck and face. He ducked back, cursing. "Theyve got more range with those rifles than we do."
"We gotta get closer," JD said. Sweat rolled down his brow and he swiped at it impatiently.
"How?" Chris demanded. "Theres no cover. Theyd pick us off like were at a turkey shoot."
More bullets kicked up around them, and the two men huddled close behind the sparse cover. Suddenly gunshots sounded from behind them.
"Now theyre behind us, too," JD said, a note of panic in his young voice.
From his hunched position, Chris tried to spot the new arrivals. A grin broke his somber countenance. "Looks like we got some help."
JD twisted around to see Buck, Nathan, and Ezra galloping toward them, firing at the attackers. The distinguishable boom of Vins carbine cut through the other gunshots.
"Vin and Josiah mustve went around," Chris said.
The shots tapered off, and blessed silence filled the empty land.
Chris and JD stood, and Buck dismounted to join them. His expressive face revealed his concern for his two friends, but it was quickly masked by anger that he directed toward the younger man.
"Didnt I tell you to be careful?" Buck demanded, jabbing a forefinger into JDs chest. "Were not even out a day, and youre already gettin in trouble!"
JDs eyes widened with shock, then indignant anger. "We were ambushed! How was I supposed to see em?"
"You were supposed to keep yours eyes open, and be payin attention. How many times have I told you you cant let down your guard!"
"Like youre perfect?" JD hurled back. "Hell, how many times have you got caught with your pants down?"
"This aint got nothin to do with that."
Buck stood toe-to-toe with JD, but the smaller man didnt back down. "The hell it doesnt! Youre accusin me of somethin you done more times than I can remember."
Afraid they were going to come to blows, Chris moved to separate the two men. "Hold on now, both of you."
"Stay out of this, Chris. Its between him and me," JD ordered, surprising the surrounding men with his assertive tone.
"Youre right about that," Buck said. "It started in that Seminole village when you damn near shot my ear off."
"I saved your life!"
"Thats enough," Nathan broke in. "You two just go cool off before one or the other of you says somethin youre gonna regret."
"Buck already did," JD said, then spun around.
Chris watched the young man stalk away, and his brow creased in concern when he saw Barkley join him.
"It wasnt JDs fault," Chris stated in a low voice, close to Buck. "I was just damn lucky I saw the sunlight off the rifle."
Buck removed his hat, and raked his hand through his thick dark hair, leaving strands sticking straight out from his head. "I know that, Chris, but it damn near kills me when I see how close he comes to gettin his head shot off."
"Dont you ever worry about me?" Chris asked in a teasing voice, trying to draw Buck out of his too-serious mood.
Buck stared at Chris, his dark eyes troubled. "Always, but you gave up listenin to me three years ago."
Chris swallowed hard. "I had reason enough."
"Maybe, but JD dont. I dont want that kid gettin killed before he becomes a man. Hes got to be able to live some first." Buck climbed back into his saddle and rode back toward the herd.
Chris gazed silently at Barkley and JD, noting the older mans arm around JDs shoulder in a fatherly manner. Buck was right JD had too much of life ahead of him, unlike him and the other five men whod seen their share already.
"JD aint gonna be with us much longer, will he?" Vin asked softly from beside Chris.
"Not if Barkley has any say in the matter." Chris turned to face him. "How manyd you get?"
"One for sure, a second maybe. Both of em rode off so neither was dead. Yet." Vins cold smile sent a shiver down Chriss spine hed hate to be on the wrong side of the ex-bounty hunter.
"Recognize any of them?"
Vin nodded. "One of em for sure was part of that ambush in Medino."
"Yep." Vin thumbed back his hat. "Im kinda surprised they waited this long to try something. Been expectin them to hit earlier."
"Does seem kinda strange, doesnt it?" Chris asked, frowning. "What were there four, five men that shot at me and JD why not more and why just the two of us? If theyre aimin to stop the drive, they gotta do bettern that."
Vin searched the surrounding terrain. "Theyre plannin something big."
"Yep, and theyre gonna spring it when our guards down."
"Then wed best not let our guard down." Vins blue eyes twinkled. He glanced around, noting that they were alone. "Looks like you need a ride, pard."
Chris grinned. "Looks like."
Vin mounted his blaze-faced horse, then kicked the left stirrup free and Chris climbed up behind him and settled on the horses rump. Taking hold of the saddle seat, Chris hissed at the sharp twinge from the cut on his hand.
"You okay back there?" Vin asked.
"Ill be better when I get my own horse."
Vin chuckled, then nudged Sires flanks and they rode off to join the others.
The sun disappeared behind the western hills, cooling the air with startling swiftness. Where the men had been sweating an hour earlier, now they pulled on their jackets as they gathered around the end of the chuck wagon where a dutch oven had been set up. Buck the dog lay on the ground beside a wagon wheel although he was turned toward the remuda as he kept guard over them.
Mrs. Barkley filled their metal plates with blanket steaks, rice mixed with canned tomatoes, and biscuits made with cinnamon and sugar. The men moved off to hunker down to devour the meal.
"This is real good, Mrs. Barkley," Nathan complimented with a generous smile.
The older woman tucked a strand of graying hair into her bonnet. "Thank you, Nathan. I havent been on a drive for years, and I was hoping I hadnt forgotten how to cook out here."
"You may lay that fear aside, dear lady," Ezra said. "Your culinary expertise is a most welcome diversion from the difficult drudgery."
"Thank you, I think," she said with a smile. "Have you always talked that way or did you have to work at it?"
"I prefer not to work at anything unless I am given no other option."
"So whatre you doing here?" Sam Barkley asked, stepping into the camps firelight.
"I am still trying to ascertain that," Ezra replied.
"Were the only ones wholl put up with him," Buck interjected.
Ezra smiled and the flickering flames reflected off his gold tooth. "Perhaps you have a point, Mr. Wilmington. Or it could merely be that I am the only civilized gentleman among you so feel a responsibility to instruct you all in the ways of tact and diplomacy."
Buck and Josiah exchanged amused looks, then spoke as one. "Are you calling us rude?"
The mens laughter sounded comforting in the evenings empty silence.
"Who goes out when Larabee and Tanner come in?" Barkley asked.
"Me and Josiah," Nathan replied.
Barkley nodded, and found JD among the group. "Youll have to make sure each man has a fresh horse saddled throughout the night."
JD frowned. "What for?"
"In case theres a stampede overnight, there isnt time to saddle the horses. A mans got to get out there right away to stop em."
"You gonna need any help, JD?" Buck asked.
"I think I can handle it," JD replied, his voice sharp with sarcasm.
Buck swallowed a piece of the biscuit, and it settled in his stomach like a piece of lead. He hadnt meant to get JD all twisted out of shape; all he wanted to do was make sure the boy didnt let his vigilance down. While Buck was riding herd, he couldnt very well keep track of JD. It was just damn lucky Chris had been with him when Connors men had ambushed them.
JD finished his supper, then without a word moved off toward the roped corral where the remuda was held. Buck narrowed his eyes when he noticed Barkley follow him.
"Be back in a minute, boys," Buck announced with a mischievous grin.
"No need to rush on our account," Josiah said.
Buck pushed himself up, and handed Mrs. Barkley his empty plate. "Thank you, maam. It was mighty fine."
After patting the dogs head, Buck moved off in the opposite direction of JD and Barkley, but once he entered the darkness at the fringe of the camp, he circled around.
Keeping quiet, he eased around the clumps of buffalo grass and prickly cactus. He heard the murmur of voices, and closed in until he could see their dim forms standing beside the makeshift corral.
"Youre doin a right good job, JD," Barkley was saying. "I wouldve never guessed this was your first drive."
"Thanks, Mr. Barkley," JD replied. "It might just be my last, too."
Buck could hear the frown in Barkleys voice.
"Its a lot different than I imagined," JD admitted.
"Its hard work. But anything worth havin in this life is."
"Maybe," JD said with a dollop of skepticism.
"What do you wanna do with your life, JD?" Barkley asked.
For a long moment, JD was silent as he ran his hand along the paints neck. "I aint sure. Id read about the west since I was knee high to a grasshopper, and I wanted to experience everything that was in those books. I met Chris in Four Corners." He smiled, his teeth a pale white in the darkness. "The first time I saw him he was with Vin. They were trying to save Nathan from a lynching. Two men against a dozen it was just like Id read about. I wanted to help, but my idea of help was shootin a man in the back. Chris taught me right off that wasnt the way to be doin things."
"I figured Larabee to be cold-blooded when it came to killin a man."
JD shook his head vehemently. "Folks who dont know him think the same thing, but Chris aint like that at all. Hes about as honorable as a man can be."
"Sounds like you admire him."
"Hes a man to look up to."
"What about the others, Wilmington, Standish, and Sanchez?" Barkley asked.
"Ezras a gambler by trade, but hes a square player. At least, he is now. Josiah can preach from the Good Book bettern a lot of real preachers I know, and you can tell hes lived through a lot of them bad things the bible talks about, so he knows what temptation and sinnin is all about." He took a deep breath. "And Buck, well, Buck is Buck. I aint figured him out yet. He treats me like Im still in knee pants, but theres other times I think hes proud of me. He never says it, but I can see it in his face."
Buck clenched his teeth it was easier to rail at JD than to give him praise. That way, when JD left, hed never know how much hurt itd give Buck. It was a sight easier to hide pain behind a curtain of anger.
"You ever think about havin a place of your own?" Barkley asked JD, bringing Bucks attention back to their conversation.
"What man doesnt," JD replied. "But thats a long way off."
"What if I was to offer you my ranch?"
Bucks shoulders tensed.
"Id have to pass. I dont have moren five dollars to my name," JD replied, apologetic regret in his voice.
"Im not talkin about sellin it to you. Im talkin about leavin it to you, like a man leaves a place to his son," Barkley explained.
"We aint related."
"Maybe not by blood, but I feel like I know you like a son, JD," Barkley said. "Youre a good worker and eager to learn. You couldnt lie if your life depended on it, and you keep your word. A man couldnt ask for a better person to leave his lifes work to."
JD turned to gaze into the darkness, and Buck instinctively ducked low.
"What about the others? Theyre my friends," JD said plainly.
"Theyre friends whore gonna lead you to your death."
"Thats crazy," JD fired back.
"Is it? Each of those men make a living off their guns, even Standish. They cant help it its just their path in life. But you dont have to follow them down that trail. Im offerin you a home, a place to build a life instead of destroying it."
Bucks gut muscles tightened, and his fingers curled into his palms. His first reaction was to step out of his hiding place and punch Barkley. He had no right tryin to take JD away from them.
Then he realized what Barkley was actually offering JD a safe haven where he wouldnt be in the line of fire of the enemies he and the others had made through the years. Buck wouldnt have to worry about JD getting killed by someone like Stuart James or Cletus Fowler. Or pinning on a badge again and making himself a target for any liquored-up cowboy.
The more Buck thought about it, the more he recognized the value of the gift Barkley was offering JD.
"I dont know, Mr. Barkley," JD said, his voice uncertain. "Im honored that you think that highly of me, but those six men are my friends. I just dont know if I can leave them behind."
"Then offer them jobs at the ranch. God knows we can use the cowhands."
JD smiled weakly. "They arent cowhands. It was me and Josiah who talked them into stayin and helpin you."
Barkley clapped JD on the back. "You think about it, son, and let me know when you make your decision."
Barkley turned away and walked back to camp, passing within five feet of Bucks hidden position. Buck remained where he was, watching JD who was staring up at the stars as if they held the answer.
Buck rubbed his brow, and swallowed hard. JD had a secure future with Barkley; with him and the other men, JDs future was uncertain at best. He considered telling JD to his face that hed be a fool to pass up the offer, but decided the kid would just dig in his heels deeper. It seemed him and JD hadnt exactly been on the best of terms lately, and Buck took a large portion of the blame.
Maybe if he pushed a little harder, JD would decide to accept Barkleys offer rather than put up with Buck any longer. It might work. Hell, it had to work. He cared too much for the boy to have him die in a blaze of so-called glory.
Though he knew he made the right decision, Buck couldnt help but feel a deep abiding sadness at the thought of losing JD. But it was better to lose him this way at least he could visit him now and again at the ranch than lose him to death.
With heavy footsteps, Buck made his way back to the camp.
Continued in Part 5