JD leaned close and laid a hand on Chriss shoulder. "Take it easy."
"What happened?" he asked hoarsely.
"You passed out and fell off your horse. I tried to catch you " JDs voice trailed off. "I think your hands infected bad."
Chris tried to sit up, and JD helped him, then Chris studied the back of his injured hand. "I kinda thought so."
"So why didnt you have Nathan take care of it?" JD demanded.
Chris managed a weak grin. "Anyone ever tell you youre sounding more like Buck every day."
"A man could do a lot worse."
"Thats right, he could," Chris said softly. He looked around blearily. "He and the others here yet?"
JD shook his head. "And Im thinkin something happened."
Chris rubbed his forehead, and grimaced. "I thought it was a gunshot that started the stampede, and if it was, that means that Connor made his move." Chris began to push himself up. "Give me a hand, JD."
The younger man helped him to his feet and stayed close, a hand on Chriss arm to steady him.
"We gotta get back and find out what happened," Chris said.
"You aint in any shape for hard riding," JD argued. "Ill leave you here, and go back myself."
Chris shook his head. "You cant take all of them on by yourself, JD."
"Maybe not, but I been learnin from you and the others. I can take them down one by one."
"You might be able to, but if Im there, I can help." He awkwardly reached for the saddlehorn and wrapped his fingers around it. "Help me up."
"Youre too sick."
"Damnit, JD! If theyre not dead yet, theyre gonna be soon."
JDs stomach roiled with the thought of the others dead, and he reluctantly helped Chris up into the saddle. He quickly mounted his own tired animal, and the two men left the now-quiet cattle herd behind.
An hour later, they approached a garden of boulders the size of small houses. The shade beckoned, and JD glanced at Chris. The older man was slumped over his horses neck, but he was still conscious. Barely. JD had to get Chris to stop and rest, or hed lose him, too. He didnt want to believe the others were gunned down by Connor, but hope dwindled as time pressed on.
"The horses need to rest," JD spoke up, hoping Chris would accept that excuse.
"No, we got to keep goin," Chris slurred.
"If we keep goin, were gonna lose the horses then well be afoot."
"Dont matter. Gotta get back in time to save them. Theyre alone at the ranch."
JD blinked, and halted his mount, then grabbed Chriss horses bridle to stop him. He studied the older man close, noting his flushed cheeks and fever-hazed eyes. "Were going to rest for a few minutes," JD stated.
"Cant. Gotta get back to Sarah and Adam."
JD swallowed hard, and laid a hand on Chriss shoulder. "Your wife and boy are dead, Chris. And youre gonna be the same if we dont stop."
JDs lungs constricted. "Whats Buck gonna say if I let you die? And what about Vin and Ezra and Josiah and Nathan? Theyre gonna be maddern a stepped on rooster at both of us if you up and die."
Lucidity invaded Chriss green eyes for a moment, and he nodded tiredly. "All right. Well rest."
JD dismounted and led the horses to a sheltered area among the rocks, then helped Chris to the ground. He rolled up his jacket and used it as a pillow for Chriss head.
"Theres whiskey in my saddlebags," Chris said hoarsely. "Pour it over my hand."
JD dug through the bag until he found a flask and returned to Chriss side. After removing the bandanna around the wound, JD unscrewed the flasks cover. He glanced down at Chris and caught his glassy gaze on him.
"This is gonna hurt like hell," JD said, his voice trembling.
"I know, kid, but you gotta do it."
JD stared into Chriss pain-hollowed eyes, his gut twisting. "I"
Chriss sharp command startled JD into action. Keeping his hand as steady as he could, JD poured the liquor across the open, angry gash. Chris hissed and squeezed his eyes shut. His face turned the color of a desert-bleached skeleton, then he slumped limply.
"Chris!" JD cried in alarm.
The shallow rise and fall of Chriss chest reassured JD, and he heaved a sigh of relief, then put the cap back on the flask. He carefully examined Chriss injured hand, and frowned. The whiskey cleaned the outside, but the poison still needed to be drawn out of the wound. Thinking back, he recalled the cooks son at the house where his ma had worked the boy had gotten blood poisoning and his mother had put tobacco on the cut. It had drawn out the poison and the boy had healed good as new even though hed been even sicker than Chris was.
JD stood and moved back to Chriss saddlebags to replace the flask. He dug around and found three of the smelly cheroots Chris smoked. Wrinkling his nose, JD removed the scarf hed worn since riding herd, and unrolled the little cigars, crumbling the tobacco on to the cloth. He added a little water to create a poultice then wrapped the scarf around Chriss injured hand, the tobacco against the open cut.
Satisfied hed done all he could for him, JD set to work unsaddling the horses and rubbing them down. When he was finished, his own body ached and exhaustion clouded his mind. He sat down across from Chris and rested his back against a rock. Crossing his arms, he closed his eyes.
Although his body craved rest, JD couldnt sleep. Instead, he thought of their five companions and wondered what fate had befallen them. Each one of the men had touched JDs life profoundly in the last eight months: quiet, steadfast Vin; gentle, thoughtful Nathan; generous, selfless Josiah; cunning, educated Ezra; and Buck.
JDs eyelids fluttered open and he squinted in the bright sunlight. What was Buck to him? Brother? Mentor? Tormentor? He pictured the concern in Bucks eyes when JD had been shot a few months ago, and how Buck had been the first one hed seen when hed regained consciousness. The circles beneath Bucks eyes had been testament to the concern he hadnt spoken aloud.
So why was Buck harassing him so much lately? Because he worried about JD? Or was there something else involved? The more JD thought about it, the more confused he became. Since theyre less-than-auspicious meeting at the Seminole village, Buck had taken a special interest in JDs welfare, moreso than any of the other men. The majority of that could probably be explained by their common childhoods boys growing up without their fathers. And Buck had taken it upon himself to become JDs surrogate father. Not that JD minded. Fact was, he admired Buck more than hed ever admit. JD had been so foolish and inexperienced when hed gone to the Seminole village the memory of his enthusiasm in shooting his first man, and his subsequent guilt in Buck taking a sabers blade for him, made his cheeks burn with embarrassment.
If Buck and the others were dead, the guilt would lay squarely on JDs shoulders. Hed gotten them involved with Barkley despite Chris and Bucks warnings to stay out of a situation that didnt concern them.
He turned slightly to study Chriss sleep-slackened features. He appeared vulnerable, so different from the first time hed seen him in that cemetery in Four Corners. JD could picture the scene as if it happened yesterday. Chris could have stepped out of a dime novel, dressed completely in black, from his long duster to the hat pulled low over his clear eyes. And the fact that no bullets touched him or Vin during that gunfight seemed to re-enforce JDs belief that they were the real west. And JD wanted to be just like them.
Only JD had learned that Chris and the others were as human as anyone else. They could be hurt, both physically and emotionally. When Buck had told him about Chriss wife and son with a voice filled with sadness and regrets, JD hadnt wanted to believe him. He couldnt imagine Chris as a family man, yet thats what hed been until circumstances had stolen that life.
Hooking up with the six men had been the best thing that ever happened to JD. Hed learned that life and death werent as clean as the dime novels proclaimed them, and that friends were the only thing a man could count on in this life.
Could he exchange those friendships for a piece of land and a house? If the others were still alive, could he walk away from them knowing they could be killed the next day? Could he say good-bye to Buck not knowing if hed ever see him again?
JD clenched his teeth as his heart thudded against his ribs. Buck better not have up and died before he could explain to JD why the hell hed been acting like such an ass since they signed on with Barkley.
JDs eyes closed once more and exhaustion claimed him in seconds.
A few hours later, JD awakened and he listened intently to what had brought him out of his slumber. The ring of horses hooves on the rocks alerted JD to the approach of some riders. He raised himself slightly to look down to the path about fifty feet away and his palms grew moist when he saw six men riding past their hiding place. He glanced at his and Chriss horses and hoped they would remain silent. Fortunately, they appeared as tired as their owners.
As the riders passed, JD recognized the leader as Slade, the gunhand whod argued with Barkley in Medino. They were obviously searching for him and Chris. Did that mean theyd already taken care of Buck and the others? JD swallowed hard as his hand inched toward the butt of his revolver. Hed die before he allowed Slade and his fellow outlaws to take him and Chris.
Once the hired guns disappeared out of sight, JD let out his pent-up breath. He doubted they had someone like Vin who might be able to pick out his and Chriss horse tracks amid the cattle hoofprints.
JD remained vigilant although the hot sun tempted him into oblivious slumber. He glanced at Chris from time to time to make sure he remained sleeping. Hopefully Chris would sleep until the early evening when they could continue on in the cooler air.
A couple hours later, Slade and his men returned, again bypassing their shelter. The men rode tiredly, and only Slade seemed to be alert, but he only gave the boulders JD and Chris hid behind a passing glance.
JD returned to his place across from Chris. He, too, needed some sleep and the danger from Connors men seemed to be over for now. For a moment, JD wondered if he shouldve tried to pick off some of the six men himself to cut the odds for later. Mentally shaking his head, he realized hed have only drawn unwanted attention and be forced into a prolonged gun battle. One that he and Chris had little chance of winning even if Chris werent sick.
"You still got that pea gun up your sleeve?" Buck asked close to Ezras ear.
Ezra nodded tightly. "However, trussed as we are, I have no chance of engaging it."
"Maybe youll get your chance iffen I can get these ropes off," Vin whispered hoarsely. He grimaced, the orange glow of the campfire reflecting off his weathered features.
"And when Chris and JD show up," Buck added.
"Theyre dead," Barkley stated in a low-pitched voice. "And if these ropes were any tighter, theyd be cuttin into bone."
Buck shook his head in disgust. "You dont know Chris and JD."
"Connors men said they couldnt find them and they figured they were trampled by the cattle during the stampede," Barkley argued.
Bucks temper notched upward and he clenched his teeth a moment to regain control. "Like I said, you dont know Chris and JD like we do. Aint no cattle gonna get them. Theyre just bidin their time until Connor and his men let down their guard."
Barkley grunted. "They bide their time any longer and they aint gonna find anything but our bodies."
"And here I thought JD would be better off with you than us! Hell, youre willin to write them off before you got any proof."
"After a thousand cattle trample a body, there aint any proof left."
Buck jerked toward Barkley, anger surging through his veins. "Just shut up, Barkley, or ropes or not, Im gonna kill you myself."
"Take it easy, Buck," Nathan said soothingly. "Aint gonna do anyone any good if we start fightin among ourselves."
Buck eased back on the ground, but fury still vibrated through him. He wasnt going to let Barkley convince him that Chris and JD were dead. Hed feel it if they were, and Bucks gut told him their two friends were out there someplace. His only doubt was why they hadnt made their move yet.
"Howre the ropes comin, Vin?" Nathan asked.
Vin shook his head, frustration evident in his furrowed brow. "Theyre tightern a ladys corset."
"Now theres a fine image to ponder," Ezra said with a slight smile. "Wouldnt you say, Buck?"
In spite of his worries and their impending fate, Buck couldnt help but grin. "I aint never met a corset so tight I couldnt handle it."
"That doesnt surprise me," Josiah commented wryly.
Bucks humor faded once more as he surveyed the camp. Even if Vin got loose, and Ezra got his sleeve gun free, the odds werent altogether encouraging. Although Connor had sent half of his men to get Barkleys herd, that still left more than enough when all the firepower he and his friends had was Ezras two-shot derringer.
Of course, that wasnt counting Chris and JD. Provided they were still alive. And they damn well better be!
JD followed Chris across the dark desert as hed been doing for the past four hours. When Chris had awakened at dusk, he had felt better. Hed been surprised by the tobacco poultice, but realized it was working. He hadnt even complained when JD had crumbled three more of his cheroots for a new poultice.
"Hold up!" Chris whispered hoarsely, halting his horse.
JD stopped immediately, wondering what Chris had detected. A moment later, JD heard something, then Buck the dog was dancing about them, startling their horses. The dog, however, didnt bark but whined as if wanting them to follow him.
"You think hes tryin to take us to them?" JD asked.
Chris nodded. "Id bet on it. Well have to tie him up out here so he doesnt get in the way."
"Cant we use him?"
Chris turned in his saddle to look at JD. "How?"
JD was silent for a moment, then he smiled widely. "Buck made an awful good wrangler, didnt he?"
Chris frowned, wondering what JD had up his sleeve.
"The sunll be comin up in another hour," Vin said softly. Hed given up on escaping his bonds after deciding the only thing he was doing was soaking the rope with his blood. And now he had very little feeling left in his hands.
"Which means we shall probably become unfortunate victims of some perceived accident," Ezra said.
Barkley turned to Buck. "You still think your friends are gonna show up?"
Buck clenched his teeth and remained silent.
"Talk like that aint doin any good, Mr. Barkley," Vin stated. He didnt add that he had begun to doubt if Chris and JD were still alive. Itd been over twenty-four hours since theyd ridden after the stampeding herd. And a suspicion that something was wrong with Chris kept nagging at him. He had thought Chris was only tired when hed swayed on his feet a few nights ago, but the more Vin chewed on it, the deeper his doubts grew.
Vin looked around at the mostly silent camp. Only a couple hired guns remained awake as they guarded the six men. Mrs. Barkley had lay down beside the wagon and seemed to be dozing restlessly. If Chris and JD were still alive, they shouldve made their move by now.
He glanced at Buck and caught his worried gaze in shadowed eyes. Buck would feel the two mens deaths keener than any of the others since hed known Chris the longest, and had formed a deeper attachment to JD. Still, Vin knew Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan would also grieve for them. Just as Vin himself would in the privacy of a secluded mountainside.
Suddenly a dogs barking broke the silence, and Bucks namesake came dashing into the camp toward the outlaws horses, which were enclosed in a pen erected from a couple strung ropes. The ponies began to whinny and their eyes rolled, revealing the whites. A few reared up, further frightening the others. They surged against the flimsy corral and the rope was pulled free.
The outlaws staggered to their feet blearily, shouting curses at the horses that stampeded through their camp.
"Dont anybody move!" Chriss voice rang across the chaos.
Bucks heart leapt into his throat. Where was JD? Had the fool kid went and got himself killed?
Connor and his hired guns froze at the steely command.
Chris motioned to the two men guarding the prisoners. "Drop your weapons nice and easy like."
Slowly, the men did as they were ordered. As they did, Slades hand inched toward his gun and a bullet into the dirt at his feet startled him into motionless.
Buck looked in the direction the shot came from and JD stepped out of the shadows at the opposite end of the camp. Buck grinned, relief making him giddy. The boy was still among the living.
"Bout time you two showed up," Buck commented. "You mind untyin us?"
Chriss lips quirked upward at one corner. "Go ahead, JD."
JD nodded, but kept his gun in one hand as he cut through the ropes binding Buck, then handed Buck the knife so he could give his full attention to helping Chris ride herd on the outlaws. As soon as Ezra was free, his sleeve gun slid into his palm to aid Chris and JD cover the captives.
"You may have won this round, but you cant hold me," Connor stated, his lips twisted into an ugly sneer.
"Dont bet on it," Barkley replied. "Youre out of your territory here. Im gonna take you and your men to the nearest town and make sure you stand trial for cattle rustling."
Connors face paled, but hatred gleamed in his eyes. "Dont count on it."
"Oh, I think he can," Josiah said, coming up behind Barkley. "Last I heard, this is Sheriff Pat Garretts jurisdiction and hes not going to let someone like you tell him what to do."
An hour later, Connor and his men had traded places with Buck and the others. They sat trussed on the ground as the Barkleys and the seven men caught up on what had happened since the stampede.
"So you didnt think for one minute that me and Chris mightve been killed?" JD asked with a quirked eyebrow.
"Hell, no. I knew a bunch of cattle wouldnt have gotten you two," Buck said with a large dose of bravado. He angled a glare at Barkley. "Course, Barkley here, wrote you two off right away."
JD studied Barkley who shifted uncomfortably, then moved his attention back to Buck. His black eye hadnt begun to fade yet, and JD felt more than a little guilt.
"So who came up with the idea of using Buck the dog as a diversion?" Vin asked curiously.
Chris smiled. "JD. If it hadnt been for him, none of us would be alive," he said, gazing at the younger man proudly. He showed them his bandaged hand and described how sick hed been.
Nathan shook his head, either in disgust or tolerance JD wasnt sure which.
"I knew it!" Buck exclaimed. "I taught him everything I know." He grinned mischievously. "Well, maybe theres a few things I still got to teach him about the ladies."
JD didnt rise to the bait like he normally did. It felt too good to sit here among his friends whod all miraculously survived. Ezra, unable to sit still, had a deck of cards in his hand, automatically shuffling and fanning them. Nathan was wrapping Vins bloody wrists, and Josiah had that thoughtful look on his face, like he was ruminating on something JD couldnt even begin to understand.
He looked over at Barkley who was studying him, and JD was reminded of the decision he had yet to make. A ranch or the companionship of his six friends?
Later that day, as Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, and Barkley were escorting the prisoners to the town ten miles away, JD got his nerve up to pull Buck off to the side.
"What is it, JD?" Buck asked, leaning against a boulder and crossing his arms.
JD rubbed his nose, and took a deep breath. "Why didnt you fight me?"
Buck tilted is head slightly. "The other night?"
JD nodded. "You didnt even try to hit me."
"Then whyd you pick a fight?" JD demanded.
"I followed you the other night when Barkley talked to you off by the remuda," Buck admitted in a low voice. "I heard what he offered you."
JD rubbed his palms together nervously. "Then you know I didnt give him an answer."
"Thats why I was pushing you so hard. I figured youd get mad enough at me that youd accept Barkleys offer."
"You want to get rid of me?" JD asked, unable to keep the hurt from his voice.
Buck pushed away from the rock to stand directly in front of the younger man and laid his hands on his shoulders. "No, that wasnt it. I want you to be safe, JD. I want to know that you wont be gunned down by some trigger happy cowboy."
JDs throat clogged and for a moment he couldnt speak. "Youd rather have me be trampled by a stampede?"
Buck snorted. "You know what I mean, kid. Youll live a longer life if youre someplace safe like a ranch and not hanging around with the likes of Chris and me and the others."
Anger sifted through JD. "Dont you think thats for me to decide, Buck?" He stepped away from his friend. "Ever since I joined up with you, you been treating me like a kid. Maybe I deserved it in the beginning, but not anymore. I think Ive proven myself more than a couple times and you never once made any mention of it."
"You have proven yourself," Buck said quietly. "Its just that them kind of words dont come easy to a man like me."
JD paced. "I got to make this decision on my own, Buck, without you tryin to push me one way or the other."
Sorrow rose in Buck, but he nodded slowly. "I understand. And I respect you for that, JD." He turned and walked away, his footsteps heavy.
A couple hours after the men returned from taking the prisoner to town, the rest of Connors men returned driving Barkleys cattle. Not a single shot was fired, and when the gunhands were faced with being shot, thrown in jail like their former boss and associates, or leaving the territory, there was little choice. The hired guns rode away without looking back.
The drive continued without any further trouble, and a few days later, they arrived at Fort Davis. The men split their thirty percent seven ways, then went to wash down the trail dust in the nearest saloon.
Barkley joined them at their table and bought a round of drinks for all of them. "Any of you interested in hiring on for the long term? I know of a place that could use some good men."
"Sorry, Mr. Barkley, but we got other business to take care of," Chris replied, glancing meaningfully at Vin.
Vin grinned sardonically, and held up his whiskey glass in a salute to Chris then downed the gutwarmer.
Barkley took a deep breath and sighed. "I figured so, but I had to ask. Fact is, I wasnt sure about you, but you all proved yourselves and Im grateful to everything you did." He raised his gaze to Josiah. "That includes you, Sanchez. I can never forget that you shot the bullet that killed my son, but it was a fair fight, not cold-blooded murder like I kept trying to tell myself. Jeff is gone because of the choices he made. If it hadnt been you, it wouldve been someone else sooner or later."
Josiah nodded reverently. "Thank you, Mr. Barkley. Your words mean a lot to me."
He held out his hand and, after a moment, Barkley grasped it firmly.
Chris noted the exchange silently, knowing Josiah had been given a gift Chris might never receive. He swallowed hard, banishing the images of the men hed killed in self-defense. Although he hoped never to have to do so again, Chris knew the impossibility of his wish. Men like him attracted trouble like a dog attracted fleas.
Barkley turned to JD, and Chriss gut tightened. JD had been particularly quiet ever since theyd gotten rid of Connor. Even Buck hadnt been able to draw him out of his uncharacteristic reveries, and Chris was afraid JD was beginning the process of pulling away from all of them. Hed gotten used to JD and his exuberance, and would miss him. Chris could only imagine what Bucks reaction would be.
"Well, son, have you thought about my proposal?" Barkley asked, his voice husky.
JD nodded slowly. "Thats all I been doin. To have a ranch and raise cattle and horses has been a dream of mine."
Buck dropped his gaze to the tabletop and Vin tugged at the brim of his hat as if to hide his expression. Chriss fingers curled into his palms. This was it.
"But I cant accept," JD finished.
Buck whooped loudly, startling the other saloon patrons, and causing Ezra to glance up from his poker game a table over. Ezra smiled widely and nodded at Chris, then returned to his cards.
"Im offering you a home," Barkley argued. "A place to call your own."
JDs cheeks flushed slightly. "I know and Im grateful, but I cant. Theres too many things I want to do before I settle down." A grin tugged at his youthful features. "Besides, somebodys got to look out for Buck."
Buck tried to muster some outraged indignation but failed, and he slapped JDs back, raising a cloud of dust. "I think you got that backwards there, kid."
"And who rescued who from Connor?" JD demanded, though his dark eyes twinkled.
Buck sobered and said, "You did, JD, and Im damn proud of you."
JDs expression slipped. "Thanks, Buck. That means a lot comin from you," he replied.
"Were all proud of you, JD," Josiah added.
"Youve become a man without us even noticing," Chris said.
JD didnt speak, but Chris noticed his shoulders became a little straighter.
Barkley stood. "I guess theres nothing left for me here. The offer still stands, JD, so if you ever change your mind, youre always welcome."
"Thank you, sir," JD said, shaking Barkleys hand.
The older man turned to leave, then paused. "By the way, whats your Christian name?"
JD grinned. "Lets just say that I prefer JD."
Barkley smiled, then walked out of the saloon.
"Cmon, JD, were your friends. You can tell us," Buck said.
"Aint nobody that close of friend," JD retorted. "I dont know about you, but I cant live with my smell no more. Im headed to the bath house."
He stood, and Buck, Nathan, and Josiah joined him. As they left, Buck put an arm around JDs shoulders, and Chris could hear him trying to cajole JD into revealing his secret.
"You think JDll tell him?" Vin asked, his blue eyes dancing.
"Only if he wants the rest of the world to know," Chris replied with a smile. He filled his and Vins whiskey glasses, then raised his. "To Tascosa and clearing your name."
Vin lifted his shot glass and grinned. "And to every adventure along the way. As long as it aint driving cattle."
Then they tossed back their drinks. For today, theyd enjoy the comfortable companionship of friends, the quiet of a dim saloon, and the soothing burn of the whiskey. Tomorrow was soon enough for the next adventure to begin.
The Trail to Tascosa #4: Chains of the Past
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