Tascosa Rules

by Charlotte C. Hill
Answer to Fara's Friday, January 20, 2012 Mag7Daybook prompt: Buck, OW, Why in the hell was Chris offering to go off to Tascosa?
Tag to the episode, One Day Out West

They'd brought Lucas James back to stand trial, just like Chris had promised the judge. He hadn't expected the work to end in a job offer.

"Where do I sign?" Standish asked, his smile all teeth.

It figured, the man would get himself paid and pardoned, all for less than a day's work and 10 minutes' risk.

Josiah took Judge Travis's bait next, and then Nathan.

Chris already didn't like this town. He didn't like the woman who thought she ran things, and he didn't like the mice who posed as men, the people who'd turned down the judge's request for a jury until people had died--Travis almost had, too.

He glanced at Buck, and barely shook his head no. But you could always count on Buck to be obstinate, and now was no exception. Buck looked up at the afternoon sky and smiled. "A few women around here I'm not acquainted with," he said, which wasn't quite an answer, but it was close enough.

Chris looked away. He had a trip he'd promised and, in all likelihood, the quick finish of a new friendship at the end of a hangman's noose. He wasn't gonna back out on that promise just for a bed and easy liquor money, but maybe it was better if Buck was occupied and out of the way.

"You back there," Judge Travis asked. "Are you interested?"

When Vin said, "I got some things need taking care of, but I guess they'll keep," Chris blinked. What the Hell had changed, when three days ago Tanner had been determined to ride straight into a lynching party?

He glanced over his shoulder and found Buck looking at him, half a smile on his face and the beginnings of warmth in his eyes. That fool had more forgiveness in him than the Mississippi River had water. Chris pursed his lips. "I've got a feeling I'm gonna regret this."

He heard Buck chuckle and felt his neck heat up, but he refused to look back. If Buck thought Chris was being soft-hearted, Buck could just think again. If Chris had to wait a month to keep his promise to Vin, there was no reason at all to turn down the offer of free room and board or just enough money to keep him in whiskey. All he had to do was watch the sheep in this here town and keep the cattle ranchers off 'em.

Buck Wilmington watched the back of Chris's head, saw the flush on his neck, and smiled broadly at his friend for the first time since Chris had threatened him with that razor. Damned fool, he thought fondly. After he and Chris had been so warm with each other at the Seminole village, Buck had been doubly shocked by that stunt, and as soon as he'd had a moment to think about it--and seen the look on the barber's face--he'd been madder than a wet hen. But that was just Chris's way; the man got far too prickly when he felt exposed.

Truth to tell, Buck had been stupid to think they were past all the old pain. Just because Chris had seemed more like his old self when they'd met up this time--both for trying to give Buck a heart attack out of pure old jealousy that women loved Buck so much, and for slipping out into the brush with him out there at that Indian village--didn't mean the man wasn't still suffering. But Buck Wilmington wasn't one to hold a grudge. Chris had too many demons riding his soul for Buck to add another. Maybe they both did.

He swung off his horse and gathered up the reins, tugging the horse's head around so he could get behind Vin's mount and walk him down to the livery. Old Don Juan was going to get a rub down and some extra feed after covering so much ground today, half of it at a gallop.

Vin obligingly kneed his horse a few paces forward, making room just as JD started yammering about his tin star, and whether or not he got to keep his job as sheriff. Buck didn't even know who the kid was talking to: Josiah, maybe. Ezra was on the judge for that pardon like a chick on a June bug, and Buck laughed low, hearing him. If Orrin Travis had to listen to Ezra for too long, he might just change his mind.

Buck wasn't half a dozen steps down the street before he heard Chris's voice, pitched too low for him to make out the words, but Vin's answer was clearer. "If I'm staying on for a while, I got a few things to fetch."

"Not now, you don't," Chris replied. "Everybody," he added louder, "court convenes in 10 minutes. I want you all ready for anything Stuart James might be planning."

Buck kept walking. Ten minutes was plenty of time.

Chris's horse high-stepped up beside him a moment later and Chris drew up while JD, Vin, Josiah, and Nathan trotted by. Chris, still astride, glared down at him. The sun was behind him, back off his right shoulder, but Buck could still make out that look, and he smiled in reply.

Chris got a few steps ahead and swung down, reins in his hand before Buck caught up to him. "You gonna fight every word I say?" he muttered, quiet and annoyed.

"Wasn't fightin' this one, pard," Buck replied. "If bullets are gonna be flying, I don't see no need to leave my horse in the middle of it." Chris was a natural-born leader, and Buck didn't often argue that fact. But that didn't mean he never did, and it sure as Hell didn't mean he asked "how high" just because Chris said "jump".

Once Buck had saved everybody's hides for them, Chris had looked at him with that barely-there smile of his. Then on the ride back to town he'd stayed in back of the posse with Buck, and eventually that awkward, embarrassed little smile slipped out that could get to Buck as fast as a pretty woman's. It was a heart-felt apology, Chris Larabee style, one Buck had seen more than a few times over the years. But they hadn't exchanged words, not eating dust at a canter with everybody else around.

"You think you're so smart," Chris huffed, annoyed. Ezra's chestnut cantered past and Chris sidestepped close enough that his and Buck's shoulders brushed briefly. "You ain't," he finished.

"Hell, old pard, sometimes I am," Buck countered. "And sometimes, you're as Hell-bent on gettin' yourself killed as a field mouse sleeping in the middle of a road. Thinkin' you could take on everybody at that ranch without even setting a lookout to watch your backs--"

"I had you for that," Chris cut in.

Buck squinted at him, wondering if Chris had really expected him to show up, even for a second. "Horse shit," he decided. "You no more knew I'd come after y'all than you knew the judge was gonna offer us this job."

"But there you were, right where you needed to be," Chris said flatly. A whole lot more quietly he added, "Just like I might've been, in your place."

Buck pretended he hadn't heard, just like Chris wanted him to. Damn, that was two apologies in one day! Buck felt an urge to keep an eye on him now; looked like Chris was getting soft.

"I'm parched," Buck said, changing the subject.

Chris looked grateful, even though the change on his face was barely there and he directed that look toward Buck's horse. Buck resisted a chuckle and shook his head. If they were staying put for a month, Buck aimed to enjoy it, because this month was no different to him than any other. He aimed to appreciate every one he lived through. "I meant what I said about keeping that trial from gettin' rousted again," Chris said firmly.

"I meant what I said about being parched," Buck replied, but when Chris glared at him, Buck grinned and kept grinning until Chris's glare faded to comfortable exasperation.

"Take Pony with you and tell everybody to meet up at the jail, soon as they can," he said. "Lucas James'll need to be escorted to the saloon--"

"Tarnation, they're gonna close my favorite saloon for this again?" After all that hard work on the posse, the least the judge could've done was keep clear of the only place Buck liked to drink in this town.

"You weren't usin' it the last time," Chris sniped.

"Well I could be usin' it now. C'mon, Chris, he can hold a trial at Digger Dan's and it ain't no more trouble to him."

Chris smiled thinly. "Guess he's just out to get in your way. And I want everybody on the street, keeping an eye out for trouble."

Buck smiled at Chris's bellyaching even as he took Pony's reins and led both horses on and Chris turned and headed back up the street. He'd forgotten to ask what was in Tascosa that had Chris so dead-set on riding there with a feller he'd known less than a week.

Time to find that out later. Thirty days, in fact.

The trial was over in half an hour, and that included the time it took Travis to swear out warrants for the men who'd almost killed him busting Lucas James out of court the first time. They put James back in jail, and since JD wasn't willing to part with his tin star, Buck elected him to stay there and keep an eye out. Still, the saloon was off-limits while the jury deliberated, and Chris had followed Judge Travis into the newspaper office to discuss Lord knew what. Buck kept an eye on the street with Vin and Ezra, while Nathan took Josiah back up to his clinic to change some poultice he'd been using on the wound.

Buck found a post to lean against, scratched absently at the bandages covering the cut across his chest, and pushed his coat back, keeping his Colt in easy reach. Ezra dragged a cane-bottom chair back off the edge of the boardwalk, into the shade, and a little ways to their left, putting a few feet between them all. Buck watched curiously as Vin Tanner sneaked wary looks over his shoulder until Ezra sat down.

Only then did Vin park his butt on the edge of the boardwalk halfway between Buck and Ezra, and propped his rifle against his knee. Tanner pulled out a tobacco pouch, even got generous with it after he'd pinched off a wad and tucked it inside his lip, offering the pouch back to Ezra.

"Thank you, no," Ezra said, sounding offended.

Vin shrugged and turned Buck's way, holding the pouch out. "Buck?"

"No thanks."

"Don't like tobacco?" Vin asked.

"No," Ezra said, and Buck realized he sounded more sick than offended. Yep, there was definitely a story there.

"I don't care much about it either way," Buck said. As a kid he'd heard too many women gag and spit after they'd tended a man while he was chewing tobacco. Weren't too many things about their work that they hated more than the taste of tobacco in a feller's mouth, and given some of the things they'd got paid to do, that was saying something. "It's the ladies who don't like it, leastwise most of 'em, and I aim to please."

Buck didn't think his answer'd been particularly lewd, but Vin looked like he disapproved of it just the same. Still, when Vin replied his tone was mild. "I don't use it much anymore, myself. Too easy to track."

Buck frowned. "What?"

Vin turned his head away and spat, then pointed to the dark stain on the dirt. "That," he said. "Men who dip or chew might as well leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind 'em."

Buck hadn't ever considered that, but while he could follow a game trail as well as the next man, the only times he'd hunted men he'd been part of a posse and he'd never been a tracker by trade. "Hey, that's pretty good!" he said, impressed.

Vin looked over at him and smiled, friendly.

"Still, it don't matter if you leave a trail," Buck mused. "Not as long as you're the one does the huntin' and not the one gettin' hunted."

Vin's body went as still as a stone, and Buck waited for a reply that didn't come. He couldn't see why the man would be rattled, but Vin surely was. "Ain't no secret," Buck said. "Chris told Ezra something about--"

"--having you hunt me down so he could make good on his threat to murder me if I 'ran out' on him again," Ezra said, and sniffed his disdain. "That man certainly enjoys being dramatic."

Buck chuckled at the very idea. Chris was just Chris. "I wouldn't say that to his face if I was you, Ezra. Old Chris ain't even sure he likes you yet."

"However shall I survive that uncertainty?" Ezra said.

Buck heard the mockery in the guy's voice and snorted, shaking his head. Ezra Standish accusing anybody of being dramatic damned sure was the pot calling the kettle black. "You ain't really a bounty hunter then, Vin?" Buck asked.

"I'm a bounty hunter," Vin said, his voice low and flat. He had turned his eyes back toward the saloon across the street, but Buck could still see plenty of his face. It looked as smooth and flat as a pond.

"Then why were you sweeping floors for Virgil Watson?" Buck asked, no more than curious. He waited as the silence stretched out, wondering where the man's mind had gone. "Vin?" he prodded.

Finally, a little stiffly, Vin said, "Because I don't bounty hunt no more."

Buck reckoned there was good money in the work for a man who knew how to do it. "What, weren't you any good at it?" he asked.

Vin looked consternated, then he turned his head away. When he didn't turn back Buck decided that was the end of any pleasant conversation, but Vin surprised him.

"When you bounty hunt, you live a whole lot like the men you're chasin'. I'm sick to the bone of feeling like that."

"Huh." Buck looked out at the dusty street, pondering the idea. When he'd been out hunting game, he hadn't ever felt like the food he was after. "Don't seem like hunting down bounties'd make you feel like you had one on your own head."

Vin turned halfway around and looked Buck square in the eye. Buck waited out the scrutiny, wondering what Vin was looking for, then Vin's head jerked ever so slightly back toward Ezra. Buck couldn't see that Ezra was doing anything worth noticing; he wasn't even looking at them. "Drop it, Buck," Vin finally said. Then he muttered, like he was talking to himself, "Ain't no law says you have to repeat every single thing you think you know. Don't know why Chris ever tells you anything."

Buck stiffened in offense. "You're right about one thing; there ain't no law about what I can say or can't," he said tightly. "But that don't mean I jabber on all the time, neither."

"Seems like it," Vin muttered.

Buck eased his weight back against the post, frowning down at Vin Tanner. He'd come to think of the guy as a pretty decent fella, so him getting as prickly as a cactus didn't make no sense. "No cause to get tetchy, Tanner," he warned. This was gonna be a long watch if Vin was gonna get his back up over every little thing. "Now me," he said, changing the subject, "I ride shotgun more'n anything these days. Easy work for a man of my stature."

Vin spat again, widening the drying tobacco stain in the dirt, and when he finally looked back toward Buck his eyes had crinkled toward something that was almost a smile. "Thought you rode the ladies more."

Buck chuckled, satisfied that Vin had shaken off whatever ill mood had stirred in him, and glad to hear that his reputation was intact. "Well, you can't call that work," he said. "There's no money in it. Besides, women like nice things."

"Looked like you got a room out of it, anyway. 'less you've got two names?"

Buck frowned his confusion. "What?"

"Mr. O'Shea?" Vin asked, sly, and Buck guffawed.

"Well now, I don't think you c'n fault the lady for having damned good taste," he said, laughing. "And I'll tell you, Vin--"

Chair legs behind them scraped as Ezra Standish stood abruptly. "Please," he huffed. "The man's pleasure in his own voice is already common knowledge, Mr. Tanner. Must you encourage him for purely prurient reasons?"

Vin was still watching Buck, and his smile broadened. "I might not, Ezra," he said, "if I knew what 'prurient' meant."

"Me too," Buck chimed in. "What's it mean, Ezra?" As it happened, Buck knew the word, but that was because it had to do with carnal interests, and in those he had an unfair advantage.

Ezra's face screwed up like a baked apple, and for a second there he reminded Buck of Chris on a tear. "If you wish to retain my assistance on this monotonous guard duty, for God's sake find something else to talk about."

Vin twisted around then so he was looking at Ezra. "You got any suggestions?" Vin asked.

Ezra flapped his hand. "The weather. The state of the world. The merits of faro over poker. How long this damned jury is going to take to agree on something that was obvious from the start."

"Well then," Buck said, feeding him a line, "what do you think about the merits of faro over poker or this damned jury?" He couldn't care less about the state of the world or the weather.

Ezra started in on a lecture about gambling, probably just to keep Buck from talking. And the man accused him of liking the sound of his own voice.

The jury took close to two hours to convict, and by the time they left the saloon Chris, Josiah, and Nathan had all joined in on watch. The jury'd been in there long enough that Buck had halfway worried someone had lost his backbone, but out they marched late in the afternoon with a guilty verdict. Judge Travis announced that Lucas James would hang tomorrow at nine a.m. sharp, and muttering swept through the townspeople who'd milled around to hear the news.

"Now that's justice," Buck said heartily. "And they've finally cleared out of my favorite saloon--that's worth celebrating all by itself! Come on, let me buy you boys a drink."

"Reckon I've got a soul to see to," Josiah said somberly, and headed toward the jail.

"No thanks," Vin said, the mellower mood he'd had since Ezra started talking about cards gone as fast as it had come on. "Think I'll take a look around, make sure it's quiet out there." He looked to Chris briefly and added, "Be happy to stay outside town in the mornin', watch the road 'til after it's over. Just in case," before he followed after Josiah, his rifle cradled like a baby in his arms.

"Didn't think they'd turn down a drink," Buck mused, watching them go.

"We've got a hanging in the morning," Chris said.

Buck frowned, looking between Chris's face and Vin's back. "So?"

Chris just sighed. "So I'll take you up on that drink."

"What the Hell does a drink have to do with a--"

"Then we'll saddle up and have a look 'round before it gets dark," Chris spoke right over him. "Vin and me, you and Ezra. I want to make sure Stuart James don't get the chance to turn these streets into a shooting gallery again."

"I'll be glad to join you gentlemen for that drink," Ezra said, "but I believe I'll leave the policing to those of you who are clearly better suited for it."

"You took the job, you can do the work," Chris said, hard-voiced. "That pardon don't come through until the judge has filed it and brought back the papers for you to sign," he added.

"If you're suggesting for a moment that I haven't pulled my weight, Mr. Larabee, I'll remind you that I took a greater risk than any of you did today!"

Buck tried and failed to suppress his laughter at Ezra's puffery, and put out a hand to steer Ezra toward the saloon. "He didn't mean nothing by it, Ezra. Come on, let me buy you that drink." Seemed like Buck spent a lot of time and money soothing the feathers Chris ruffled. Of course, there were days it seemed like the only reason Chris talked was just to rile people. It was a good thing for both of them that Chris was generally such a taciturn man.

"He certainly sounded like he meant something," Ezra huffed under his breath.

"Don't you worry about old Chris. We get him a drink and we get Lucas James took care of in the morning, he'll be just fine. Besides, you ain't even officially worked a whole day yet. That's way too early to be bitching about this job."

"I hardly think I was the one complaining."

Some feathers were harder to soothe than others, but a pint bottle went a long way, especially when Nathan begged off and said something about cleaning up his clinic. Chris, Buck, and Ezra all had a nip or two, enough to empty the pint and put a nice little heat in Buck's belly. Chris pushed his empty glass back across the bar first.

"Let's go," Chris said as he turned toward the door.

Ezra looked ready to complain, but he kept his mouth shut and walked with them down toward livery. Chris was scanning the street all the way, but Buck didn't know what he was looking for until he stopped in front of Nathan's clinic. Nathan was sitting up there on his porch with a book in his lap and Chris paused called up, "Nathan? Come on down."

Nathan ducked inside his place and stepped back out holding his gun belt instead of his book, and got down the stairs right quick.

"You seen Vin?" Chris asked.

Nathan nodded. "Yeah. Don't rightly know where he is now, though."

"Well where was he going?" Chris asked irritably.

Nathan frowned. "I didn't talk to him, Chris. Just saw him from up there, walking out into the brush," he said, pointing past the livery to the open land beyond. "Had his rifle and canteen with him, though, so I figure he's scouting for trouble."

Buck slapped Chris's back. "I'll ride with you, pard. Maybe we'll run across Vin while we're out."

Chris frowned, but he turned toward the livery. "Nathan and Ezra, head out toward the James ranch. Stay off the road to keep the dust down, and keep a close eye out for anybody who shouldn't be riding our way. You run into Vin, tell him Buck and me'll be up on that ridge back there for a better view," he said, pointing over his shoulder.

Ezra looked like he dearly wanted to say something, but managed to keep his mouth shut. Smart guy.

They were saddled up and on their way out of town a few minutes later, and Buck was just glad it was Nathan and Ezra headed west into the lowering sun. He and Chris turned north, riding in comfortable silence for a good quarter mile.

Pony had fallen back a bit, so Buck had to turn in the saddle when he asked, "So where do you think Vin got off to?" Buck asked.

"How would I know?" Chris was surly again, which just reminded Buck of the things he'd forgotten before.

"Think he decided to walk to Tascosa?"

Chris shot him a glare, and it seemed like that was all Buck was going to get out of him.

"Come to think of it, why in the Hell were you going off to Tascosa? I know for a fact you hate Texas."

Chris looked at him again, and this time the glare had mellowed some.


"You never get tired of jawin'?" Chris jibed at him.

Buck was immune to that particular gripe. He and Chris had ridden too many miles over too many years and flattened their hind-ends in too many saloon chairs for Buck to think a little poke like that meant anything. Chris liked listening to his voice even when Chris wasn't paying much attention to the words.

"Now and again," Buck joked, standing up in the stirrups to stretch his legs. "Not too often." He tugged gently on the reins, slowing Don Juan enough to let Chris come up alongside. He was tired of craning his neck around to see Chris's face anyway. "What's goin' on in Tascosa?"

"Vin's got some business there," Chris said.

"What kind of business?"

And here, Chris gave him a hard, warning look. "Business that ain't yours, and that'll resolve itself one way or the other, right quick."

One way or the other? Seemed like Chris was in the mood for riddles, and frankly, Buck wasn't. He didn't like Chris keeping things from him. That habit had only started since the fire, and the loss of his family. "Fine," he grumbled, "you keep your little secrets."

Chris snorted. "All that hair on your face and brass in your balls, you c'n still sound just like a woman."

Buck leaned out to punch him on the arm, but Chris was ready for him and knocked his fist away. He spurred Don ahead of Chris as the trail narrowed and angled up toward the ridge.

The top of the ridge was flatter than he'd expected, and smoother; tufts of grass and mesquite bushes grew among softer sand, still warm from the early evening sun. It was a pretty spot, really, with a nice view of the town below and a wash behind it where the land had slipped away, leaving steep face with rocky outcrops that'd keep interlopers from sneaking up on them from behind.

Buck reined in and looked for the path Nathan and Ezra had taken. He had to stare into the sun to do it, but he could just barely make out the route from the faint line of dust in the air. Looked like they were taking care, but better, it looked like there was nobody from the James ranch headed their way. A quick scan of the valley showed him nothing out of place.

"If Stuart James's boys wait 'til dark to ride in, they'll just about have to use torches or lanterns," Buck mused.

"Moon's almost full," Chris mused back. "Maybe not."

"Well, if the moon gives them enough light to ride by, it'll give us enough light to see 'em coming."

Chris shot him a measuring look. "You suggesting we stay here all night?"

Buck shrugged. "There ain't gonna be a better hawk's nest than right here where we are."

Chris tilted his head to look at him sideways, and Buck didn't have to ask to know what he was thinking. Chris had dragged him behind a rock the first night they'd been at that Seminole village--fast, hard, and silent, it'd been just about as sweet as a quick fumble could get, and Buck had felt so loose and easy after, he hadn't even bothered to pull his suspenders back up or buckle his gun belt back on before they'd strolled back through the camp. Buck knew Chris Larabee, and would swear on a stack of Bibles that right now Chris suspected Buck had more entertaining things on his mind than earning his dollar a day.

"Couldn't start a fire," Chris mused, still eying him narrowly, "and it's gonna get cold once the sun goes down."

Buck grinned. "Good thing I brought my bedroll."

Chris's face tightened in annoyance. "That's what I figured."

Buck gave a little annoyance right back. "You've as much as said we need to keep a good lookout, Chris. You want to think about better things, go right ahead, but I wasn't invitin' nothing."

Chris sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face before finally throwing his leg over and sliding down out of the saddle. "Hard to believe you weren't thinking about it--you being you."

There was no heat in the words, but--Buck being Buck--he didn't even try to resist a reply. "Didn't say I wasn't thinkin' about it," he said, and leered. "Just that I wasn't invitin' it."

Chris chuckled, shook his head, and brushed his fingertips across Buck's belly, right above his belt. "Take care of our horses. I'll take first watch."

Buck might have taken offense at the terse order, if Chris hadn't touched him like that. And if Chris didn't give orders like that to just about everybody.

The sun woke Chris just as it cleared the horizon, hitting their ridgeline before anything else; the town and the valley beyond it were still nestled in pre-dawn shadows. He and Buck had traded off three times through the night, which had left Buck with the last watch about the time the moon had set, and Chris with a bedroll still warm from Buck's body.

When Chris had lain down to sleep that last time and breathed deep of Buck's scent in warm cotton, he'd remembered just how much he trusted the man. When he woke, though, the first thing he remembered was how sleeping in bedclothes that smelled of Buck always made Chris wake up too hard to be able to piss. Before he could invite Buck back over and see what came of it, he remembered what they were doing out here on this ridge, and sighed.

Buck liked to ignore his orders when he didn't think they were worth following or when he thought he knew better. Chris rolled silently to his knees and climbed to his feet, silently walking over to see whether Buck had decided there was nothing to worry about in the wee hours and gone to sleep on him. But Buck was awake, hunched into his coat with the collar turned up against the morning chill, sitting as calm as you please in the concealing shadows of a clump of sagebrush.

Buck glanced up and nodded good morning, then gave a jaw-cracking yawn, covering his mouth with his fist.

Chris nodded back before he turned and walked on stiff legs into the sun, right to the edge of the wash, and watered the ground below. He tucked himself away, still half-hard and annoyed as Hell by his state, then strode back over and settled down in the shade. Buck looked over at him, glanced to his crotch where his pants were tighter than they ought to be, and grinned at him. "Got a problem there, pard?"

"No," Chris growled, wishing for coffee. Not one he wanted to satisfy when they had a hanging to oversee not long from now. "Seen anything?"

Buck got uncharacteristically warm, reaching out a hand and taking up Chris's, then leaning forward to tickle his mustache along Chris's cheek. Against his better judgment Chris tilted his head, letting Buck press gentle lips to his neck. The "no" whispered his skin didn't do a damn thing for Chris's composure, so he pulled back, snorted when Buck smacked his lips in pleasure, and gently tugged his hand away.

"Few more hours and this'll all be over," Buck said quietly. "The hanging's gonna turn that town into a picnic party; everybody close enough to ride in will be there to gawk."

Smoke was rising out of chimneys in the town below, cook fires in the restaurant and the hotels gearing up for the morning's business. "The crowd's gonna make it harder to pick out Stuart James's men," Chris replied. It was a problem he'd been gnawing on during his last watch. "I'll get Lucas to the platform. You and Josiah c'n keep an eye out from atop it, 'til Lucas gets that stretch fitted. J.D. and Nathan on a roof, Vin somewhere outside town so--"

"--so he don't have to watch Lucas dance?"

Chris stiffened in surprise.

Buck sighed, but when he spoke again his voice was whisper-soft and slow like it got when he'd been thinking hard about something. "Vin seemed awful queasy about this hanging party we're about to have. Travis himself saw Lucas James gun that shopkeeper down. Seems like Vin would want to see justice done, and he must've brought in plenty of men who swung the day after he got his pay. But I'm thinkin' we wouldn't see hide nor hair of him until Lucas James was in a pine box, if he had his way."

"I'll bet you your first day's pay he's in town when we get back, on a roof and watching the road."

"I ain't taking that bet," Buck said. "I heard him come up last night, so you already know what he's doin'."

Chris blinked in surprise. During Chris's first watch, Vin had walked up with only the light of the moon to guide him, a black shape against the faint watch fires down in the town. Chris had drawn his gun and eased deeper into the shadows before Vin had raised an arm and waved, and had kept it out until Vin was close enough for Chris to be sure. "Why'd you pretend to be asleep if you weren't?" Chris demanded, not quite accusing.

Buck shrugged. "You were quiet. I knew there weren't nothing to worry about, not for us. Vin, though..."

"He said he was checking to make sure Stuart James's people hadn't skinned us," Chris said.

"That's what he said, is it?" Buck replied. "Well, I reckon he wasn't in a sleeping mood, which runs us right back to what I was saying. Unless you gave him a damned good reason, he's gonna be so far away he can't even hear the crowd cheer."

Buck had let his speculation wander too far down that road, but he wasn't wrong that Vin would be just as happy not to watch Lucas James swing. Hell, Vin had implied as much. "I didn't," Chris admitted. He'd told Vin to keep an eye on things in town, to have the boys watching the road in from the James spread until he and Buck got back, and to come up here after, given how good a vantage point this ridge provided.

Buck was right that Vin wasn't interested in watching that hanging. Still, telling him the why of it?

Chris blew out a breath and glanced Buck's way, then tugged at the seam of his pants to ease the discomfort there and draw Buck's gaze to his crotch. "You ever breathe a word of this to anybody?"

Buck looked up from his half-hard shaft to meet his eyes, and frowned. "Haven't seen anybody but you and the rest of the boys since I noticed he was acting funny. Who would I tell?"

Chris glared at him. "No, you fool," he said, and reached out to rub his palm up the inside of Buck's trouser leg, almost to his groin. "This."

Buck looked shocked even as he pulled Chris's hand higher, right over his soft genitals. "Hell, no! Sheeit, Chris, you know me better than that."

Chris squeezed gently, briefly, in acknowledgment. "I know you like to talk people's ears off, and you proved not two days ago that you say shit you oughtn't."

Buck had the gall to look angry--had to be angry, in fact, because he pulled Chris's hand off a place he liked it most and shoved it away. "There's a big difference between saying things you don't like and saying things that don't bear repeating, whether you admit it or not," he growled. "You can't say you've ever known me to say things that can't afford to be said. Not ever."

Damn it all, Chris couldn't. "I want you to keep an eye out for Vin, these next thirty days. Help me watch his back."

Buck made a little 'hmm' sound before he asked, "What're we watching it for?"

"Vin's got a warrant out on him for murder," Chris said. "There's a five hundred dollar bounty riding on his head, dead or alive."

Buck jerked in surprise. "He told you that?"

Chris looked at Buck and nodded. He recognized the huffed breath of Buck's surprise, but turned his face toward the town and the valley before them, watching the straight line of morning sun as it marched across the ground and ate away the shadows. It would be awash in daylight in twenty minutes' time.

"Damnation," Buck breathed. "No wonder he don't want to watch a hanging."

Chris just nodded and waited for Buck to say whatever he would.

Buck didn't say anything, though, just whistled again, low, pushed up off the dirt, and walked over to their horses. Chris listened to the soft crooning Buck always used on animals, heard the dull clicks of bits on teeth as Buck fed them their bits, and pushed to his feet to go and saddle Pony. The horses needed water after a long night out here.

Buck kept his mouth shut while Chris settled Pony's blanket and hoisted the saddle up, and Chris was bent and reaching under his horse for the cinch when he spoke again.

"Vin don't strike me as stupid at all," Buck said, worrying at the tale.

"He ain't." Chris brought his knee up hard against Pony's barrel to get him to blow out the breath he was holding. The horse had gotten stubborn about the cinch lately, and Chris didn't aim to have his saddle sliding off at a gallop any time soon. He grunted as he pulled the leather tight.

"Well why'd he just come out and tell you there was five hundred dollars waiting for you?" Buck asked. "How'd he know you wouldn't shoot him for it?"

Chris could tell Buck was thinking hard, but since it had taken Chris more than a few seconds to understand and he'd been sitting right there beside Vin, he knew Buck would never get there on his own.

"He's got a sense of humor you're gonna like, if he lives long enough to let you see it," Chris admitted with a grin. "Said if he died out there in that fight against Anderson, he liked the idea of a friend collecting all that money, instead of the man who framed him."

Buck huffed a breath of laughter, and he was still chuckling even after they led their horses back toward the trail that would take them down off this ridge. "I like his sense of humor already," Buck said as he lifted his knee to work his boot into the stirrup and swung astride.

Chris didn't reply, just mounted up and led the way down the narrow trail.

Once the ground evened out and the trail widened, Buck came up alongside him. "So that's what Tascosa's all about?" he asked.

Chris nodded. "Vin thinks the only chance he has of clearing his name is to just ride in and explain things to a sheriff or a judge."

"You think he's gonna get anybody to believe him?"

Chris remembered sitting beside Vin on that ridge, keeping watch as the sun went down. He remembered the wry amusement on Vin's face, and how Vin had seemed to have the same attitude toward death that Chris did. He hawked and spat. "I think he's gonna get himself hung, is what I think," Chris said sourly.

"Then why are you so determined to ride down there with him just to watch it happen?"

"Would you want to die alone, strung up in front of a bunch of fool gawkers for something you didn't even do?"

Buck smoothed his mustache and held the silence long enough to tell Chris he was taking the question seriously. When Buck turned to meet his gaze, Chris was sure. "Truth be told, Chris," he said quietly, "I always figured if you and me didn't kill each other, or get taken out by a bullet in some gunfight, life'd be rosy. Never really thought about it past that."

Chris sighed. "He don't have the luxury."

Buck scratched at the thick growth of morning beard and Chris watched his face twitch, his lips pucker, his eyebrows pull down into a frown. Buck took more time to digest the information than Chris had expected him to, but when he did speak, what came out was a surprise. "I thought you liked him, Chris."

Chris frowned. "What?"

Buck just shrugged and leaned forward, resting some of his weight on his saddle horn. "I thought you liked him enough to want to keep him from killing himself, anyway. You should've talked him out of it, instead of offering to go along with him."

Chris felt his innards tighten, and for the longest time he didn't know how to answer the question Buck wasn't quite asking. Finally though he turned his head to meet Buck's eyes. "Tried to talk him out of it already. He's doing it whether I go along or not. So I'm gonna go, and I'm gonna make sure he gets to the sheriff's office or the courtroom alive, and gets to say his piece. He's already proved to me he deserves that."

Buck reached his hand out between them and Chris stared at it there, waiting for his. They were careful not to touch much, not like what Buck was offering, but out here with nothing but scorpions to witness, Chris reached back, taking Buck's hand and squeezing. Holding it until the natural movement of their horses tugged their hands apart.

"I'd've rode with y'all, you know," Buck said. "Wouldn't have minded helping to get him there safe."

Chris snorted and stared fondly over at Buck. "I wasn't about to make him suffer you on a trail for his last days on earth."

Buck tried to look offended, but the amusement showed through on his handsome face. "Look on the bright side," Buck finally said. "He took this job. Maybe you talked him out of it after all, and he just don't know it yet."

Chris grunted at that, but Vin had taken this job with Travis, and that was 30 days more than Vin had said he had to spare, when they'd last spoken of it.

Maybe he had.