New Beginnings

by Jackie
Chris and Buck meet up for the first time

The cattle bawled and mooed from where they were crowded together in the holding pens just on the outskirts of town. The railhead was the end of the trail for many worn and weary cowboys. The air was chock full of dust stirred up from thousands of stomping hooves making it so thick a man could hardly breathe.

Chris Larabee joined the other cowboys waiting in line to collect his pay. Pay not near enough for the harsh conditions and back-breaking work he'd endured for the last six weeks though the thought of finally being free of Ella Gaines lightened his mood.

Glancing up the line, Chris snatched his hat off and wiped a grimy sleeve across his brow. His shirt was plastered to him like a second skin and the grit that had worked its way under his collar was irritating his flesh. Money and then a long hot soak, or maybe a drink. Running his fingers through his matted and sweaty hair, he grimaced, imagining how rank he must smell. Something he hadn't given a second thought to until he realized the women folk were giving him a wide berth. Of course they all smelled the same: like cows, horses, and unwashed men all rolled up into one.

"Larabee," the ramrod called, "got your wages here." As Chris stepped up to claim his pay, the man hesitated, looking Chris over. "We should have another drive starting up soon. You interested?"

Pocketing his cash, Chris shook his head. "Hell, no."

"Sorry to hear that. The boss was mighty impressed at your skill with the remuda. Could use a man like you around regular like. Boss man might even be inclined to pay a little more." Holding out a ledger, the ramrod traded Chris's signature for his hard-earned pay.

"Hope you find yourself a good man. Good luck." Chris clamped his hat back on his head, waved, and sauntered off to find the nearest bath house.

"Chris, wait up!" Red called out as he ran to catch up. "Where you headed?"

Pausing, Chris slowly turned to face a cowboy with a shock of wild red hair who looked barely old enough to shave. "Listen kid, you don't have to follow me around anymore."

"Aren't you signing on again?" he asked, shifting from foot to foot, the excitement of the trail's end animating his face. "Me and a couple of the guys are going to."

"Nope, I'm done." Clapping the kid on the back, Chris gave him a genuine smile. "You'll make a good cowboy one day. Your ma'd be proud of you." Turning before he could see the kid's reaction, Chris strode up the street.

"You'll change your mind. You'll see!" the young cowboy shouted and turned to join the others back at the cattle pens.

"Rather be tarred, feathered, and run out on a rail," Chris muttered under his breath.

Today seemed the perfect day to people watch with the cowboys rolling into town from the latest cattle drive. There'd be trouble to deal with later after they'd all been paid and looking to blow off some steam. Glad he'd had the forethought to make use of the bathhouse earlier, Buck Wilmington beamed with the knowledge that next to the grimy, bow-legged cowboys he'd look even better to the ladies. Ambling down Main Street and peeking into storefronts, Buck smiled and waved at anything sporting a skirt. A real ladies man and he was proud of it. He'd been a deputy in town for almost six months and though exciting enough at first, there was too much living left to be done to be on the losing side of a gunfight.

Buck hesitated as he caught sight of a long legged cowboy striding up the street. He didn't have the bow-legged walk of a man who lived most of his life on the back of a horse and he walked tall with confidence. Their gazes locked as the blond looked his way, a cocky grin tilting his lips. Buck could read the tension in his eyes, the pent up excitement wanting to be released. This one would probably be trouble and a few of these cowboys just might follow his lead. Shouting drew his attention away from the heated gaze to a young man, not more than eighteen if he was lucky. The kid seemed awful interested in the blond cowboy and he'd called him Chris. Contemplating the blond Buck figured when they were sure to meet up again tonight he'd at least have a name to go with the face. Turning away Buck continued his walk down the street.

Reaching the jailhouse, Buck ducked inside to escape the heat of the noonday sun. The other deputy was just stepping out of the cell area as Buck shut the door.

"Let the last guy out about an hour ago." Chuck yawned as he stretched. "Thought I might catch a quick nap before we start fillin' 'em up again."

Sitting down behind the desk and propping his feet up, Buck nodded, "Go ahead. Could be busy tonight once these cowboys get liquored up."

Grinning widely, Chuck plopped his hat on his head. "Ain't no 'could be' about it. Be back in a bit."

"I'll be here." Buck waved as Chuck stepped out through the door. Settling more comfortably in his seat Buck pulled out yesterday's newspaper and tried to find a juicy story that didn't revolve around crops or steers to fill his time.

"That'll be five cents if you want water that's slightly used," the bathhouse attendant stated, looking Chris over with a critical eye. "Ten cents for fresh. What'll it be?"

Digging change out of his pocket, Chris threw a quarter on the desk. "Fresh soap too."

Nodding, the attendant slapped a bar of soap on the desk. "There's a free tub toward the back. If you'd waited a little longer you wouldn't have gotten one," he explained as he pointed past Chris's shoulder.

Nodding absently, Chris scooped up his soap and made his way to the back and the first decent bath he'd had in a long while. Dropping his clothes and towel on a nearby stool, Chris ignored the other bathers nearby and stripped down, climbed in the tub and sank into the steaming water. Sighing in pure bliss he relaxed back against the tub rim and closed his eyes, letting the heat soak into his tired muscles.

Jerking awake, Chris chuckled self-consciously when he realized he'd drifted off and the once hot water was now lukewarm and his fingertips were pruned. Surprised the attendant hadn't rousted him from the bath, Chris shrugged and grabbed up the soap. Making quick work of the rest of his bath Chris scrubbed the trail dust and sweat from his skin and hair. It wasn't long before he was pulling on his fresh trousers and tucking in his shirt tails. Rubbing at his hair with the towel he contemplated stopping by the barber for a shave and a haircut, but decided he needed a drink first and a little fun. Besides, he'd shaved a couple of days back, and his hair wasn't too long yet, it gave him a kind of rakish appeal.

After stomping into his boots and strapping on his gun, Chris checked his appearance one last time in the mirror, and grinned wolfishly. He was ready for some good old fashioned fun that'd have the town's matrons swooning. Good whiskey, fast cards and even faster women were what he was prowling for tonight and he'd give any young buck in town a run for his money. Look out people, Chris Larabee was in town.

The hour had grown late and the cowboys had grown rowdy as they congregated in the saloon. To Buck's way of thinking this saloon catered to a higher class of customer by serving higher quality liquor and employing the prettiest gals in the territory. He'd staked out his favorite corner of the saloon and kept watch over Chris and a particularly rowdy cowboy. Looking him over once again Buck had to admit he did clean up nicely. The man was well made all the way from his golden wheat colored hair to his scuffed boot tips. Chris was lean in the waist and powerful through the thighs. His tight trousers revealed a neat ass and a nicely displayed package to set the ladies to swooning. Feeling an uncomfortable tightness in his own trousers Buck adjusted his seat in the chair.

"So, anything worth watching in here tonight?" Chuck asked as he sank down into a nearby chair.

Picking up the cooling coffee sitting on the table before him, Buck grunted. "Drinking games started almost an hour ago. It's down to that tall blond and some cowboy named Milt." Squinting through the thick cigar smoke Buck watched as Chris downed another shot and placed the empty glass on the growing pile before him.

Leaning toward Buck, Chuck asked, "Who you think's gonna win?"

"Not sure. Milt's a pretty stocky guy, but the blond's been throwing 'em back like they're water and he ain't swayin' yet." Buck readjusted in the seat and switched to a lazy sprawl. "Could be a long night."

Chuck pushed to his feet and patted Buck on the shoulder. "I'm going to take a stroll around town. Make sure everything's still there."

"I'll be here if you need me," Buck murmured absently as he kept watch on the two 'contestants'. Milt was starting to sway where he stood and he would probably be hitting the floor soon. After watching these men, he was silently rooting for Chris. Though why, he couldn't answer quite yet.

The tinkle of smashing glass drew his attention from the game and Buck twisted around. One of the barmaids was down on her knees picking up a broken mug while a couple of overheated cowboys laughed and poked fun at her. Scowling, Buck set his coffee back on the table and got to his feet. No sooner had he turned his back on Chris and Milt than all Hell broke loose. The air was filled with shouts, curses, and the meaty sounds of fists on flesh.

"What the Hell?" Buck cried as he turned back and barely missed being struck in the head with a flying beer mug. Sending the bar maid to the back room, Buck pushed through the spectators as he tried to get to the center of the melee and break it up.

Buck found Chris and Milt on the floor beating each other to a pulp and it looked like Chris had the advantage. He reached in as Chris drew back to land another blow and managed to catch Chris's forearm, but his victory was short lived as Chris reacted by twisting around and landing a foot in Buck's midsection.

Buck's breath whooshed out and he landed on his ass on the floor. He thought he heard a gunshot over the ringing of his ears but he couldn't be sure. As his vision came back into focus a hand thrust in front of his face. Scowling up into green eyes, Buck grudgingly let the blond pull him to his feet. "Don't pull your punches do you?"

"Sorry," Chris slurred drunkenly around a busted lip as he pulled his hand out of Buck's grasp. "It wasn't your fight."

Straightening his jacket, Buck bent and scraped his hat up off the floor. He took several deep breaths, his midsection protesting his movements. Buck straightened to his full height. "I owe you one."

"You don't owe me nothin'. You stepped into something that wasn't any of your business," Chris snapped, stepping forward.

Buck held his ground, flipped his jacket lapel over to display his badge, and poked Chris in the chest with his finger. "You made it my business when you started a fight in my town."

Slapping Buck's hand away, Chris bit out, "I didn't start it." Turning his back on Buck, Chris scanned the room.

Buck reached out and clamped down on Chris's shoulder, spinning him around. "Well I'm ending it." Grinning at the pissed look on Chris's face, Buck glanced over the crowd, said, "That your buddy over there?" and when Chris tilted his head to look, Buck brought his fist up connecting solidly with the blond's jaw, dropping him to the floor like a ton of bricks. Buck grimaced as his belly again protested when he crouched down and pulled Chris's gun from the holster. "Welcome to my town, cowboy."

Chris groaned as consciousness rushed back. The pounding in his temples made him leery to open his eyes as the distinct possibility of his stomach contents making a reappearance came into question. Taking several deep breaths through his nose seemed to back the nausea off some but he knew from experience it was only a matter of time. As Chris turned his thoughts from his physical aches and pains he realized he was lying on a lumpy mattress and, wondering where he was, risked cracking an eyelid. It didn't help and just made the pounding in his head much worse. With a shallow breath, Chris painfully shifted to his side and dropped his feet to the floor. "Shit," he moaned, cradling his head in shaking hands.

"Good morning, Sunshine!" a voice shouted cheerfully, startling Chris and sending daggers through what was left of his brain as he jerked upright.

Squinting against the bright sunlight streaming into the room, Chris cast a glance in the direction the voice had come from to find the man he'd run into last night smirking down at him. Looking around he realized he was on the wrong side of a closed cell door. "Damn it!"

The dark haired man moved away from the cell and propped his hip on the side of a nearby desk. "You apologize nice and I may just let you out before supper."

Pushing gingerly to his feet, Chris took the two steps needed to reach the cell door. Gripping the bars, Chris's knuckles turned white as he looked at the empty cells on either side of him. "Seems everyone else caught a break."

"Nope. Seems you just can't hold your drink, Cowboy. Everyone else has slept it off and gone on their way."

Glaring at his jailer, Chris growled, "Don't call me Cowboy. Now open this door and let me out."

"Oh no, you got some penance to do first. See, you're not in here for the dustup in the saloon. You're in here for assaulting an officer of the law, Stud." The man chuckled merrily as Chris gnashed his teeth and pushed angrily away from the door.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Chris glared over his shoulder at the man. "You let me out and I'll be happy to do it again."

The tall stranger chuckled, far too amused with himself. "You that anxious to get back to that herd?"

"Hell, no. That was my first time and my last," Chris growled. "Ain't enough money in the world to make me go through that shit again."

"Smart fella," the man said. "I'm Buck Wilmington, by the way. The law around here."

Chris scowled at him. "You said if I apologize you'll let me out, that right?"

"It's that or you wait for the judge to make time for you." Wilmington stepped up to the cell. "What's it to be?"

Chris really didn't want to spend any longer than he had to locked behind bars, but it grated on him to apologize to this cocksure lawman. If the man hadn't stepped into the middle of the fight he wouldn't have gotten kicked in the first place. Hell, Chris had been three sheets to the wind and all he'd been doing was blowing off a little steam.

"Getting old over here," Wilmington called out, interrupting Chris's thoughts.

"Fine!" Chris snapped, moving to stand toe to toe with the lawman. Steeling himself for the apology Chris looked up. His vision had gotten better and for the first time noticed the strong jaw and laughing blue eyes. "You're enjoying this way too much," he griped.

Holding a hand to his ear, Wilmington grinned. "I can't hear you."

"I'm sorry." Chris exhaled heavily. Fine, it was out and over with. "You can let me out now."

Holding the cell door key up, Buck stated, "That's all you had to say, Chris."

Chris frowned slightly at the sound of his name on this stranger's lips as Wilmington turned the key in the lock, opened the door and stood back.

Chris stepped out from the cell and looked around for his hat. Seeing it hanging near the door he rounded on the lawman. "Like to have my rig back."

Pulling the gunbelt from the desk drawer Wilmington held it out and Chris took it. "I don't remember giving you my name," he scowled.

"Hell, Stud. I knew your name yesterday. Who coulda missed that wet behind the ears kid calling your name all the way up the street," Wilmington snickered. "He seemed to have a soft spot for you."

Glowering, Chris settled the gunbelt around his narrow hips and said nothing.

Wilmington said, "Appreciate it if you'd stay out of trouble for the remainder of your visit."

"You don't have to worry about me." Chris yawned and scratched at his stomach. "As soon as I round up my horse I'm getting the hell out of this town."

Striding to the door, Chris grabbed his hat off the hook and settled it onto his head. Wrapping his hand around the doorknob he was about to pull the door open when Wilmington called out.

"There's a town about a day's ride from here that's pretty lively."

Chris shot a look at the lawman. "That right?"

"Women don't come much livelier," Wilmington offered.

Yanking the door open, Chris replied, "Thanks. I'll think about it."

"It'd be a hell of a good time. Been thinkin' of goin' there myself." Wilmington mentioned as he picked at the badge on his jacket, sighed, and pulled it off. At Chris's questioning glance, he dropped it onto the desktop. "I need a change in scenery."

Eyeing Wilmington, Chris asked, "You'd just pick up and leave? Just like that?"

Wilmington shrugged. "Chuck's still here so the town'll be protected."

"But you don't know the first thing about me and I don't know anything about you." Chris pointed out as he leaned against the wall.

"Gotta start somewhere. Like I said earlier, name's Buck Wilmington. You can call me Buck."

Shaking his head, Chris grinned. "Chris Larabee."

"So, Chris, you ready for a good time?" Buck asked

"Yeah, but I'm not much for conversation."

"Not to worry, I've got plenty for both of us." Buck practically skipped across the office. "Come on, daylight's burning and them gals ain't getting any younger."