Hazel '05: Better Days

Buck's hat had a wide brim; he'd chosen it because of the brim, to keep the rain out - which it wasn't doing. Of course the brim used to be a lot stiffer, over the years it had softened and sagged more than a little, so now the rain was running down the back of his neck. He had considered buying a new hat, but finding just the right hat, then spending a year or more breaking it in so that it fitted just right was something he wasn't willing to do until he really had to. In truth the rain was penetrating everywhere his clothing gave it an opening. Running up his sleeve from his gloves, which were soaked through, down his leg from the top of his boots, up under his slicker to soak his knee and thigh through the material of his summer trousers.

"Come on, you poor excuse for glue bait," he growled.

Then he gave a tug on the lead rein of the overburdened mule he was ponying. The ill-tempered creature tossed its head in response. The mule was burdened with one Isaac Jurgan, who was dead. He died when Buck put two bullets from his Colt into his chest. Jurgan was wanted, dead or alive, for the rape and murder of at least four young women and girls in Kansas. Buck hadn't been looking for Jurgan, he'd been sent to a place called Last Chance to deliver mine claim documents. To call Last Chance a town, was to grant it an air of respectability and permanence it didn't deserve. The only buildings that weren't wholly or partly made of canvas were the mine offices. There was no church, no jail, no telegraph, no post office and only one store. There were, however, no less than four saloons, all offering rooms, food, drink and female company. These provided for most of the needs of the town's population of miners, all of whom worked in one of the two silver mines.


The owners of the two mines were in dispute about the mineral rights to the land that lay between their two shafts. There had been fights, sabotage and even a killing, and Judge Travis wanted it sorted out. Now that the dispute had been settled, Buck was sent - much against his will - to deliver the paperwork to back up the Judge's ruling. With papers handed over to the two mine owners, he strode into the nearest saloon, looking for a beer and a meal. He got no more than a few paces into the place, before he stopped in his tracks, his eyes fixed on the man standing at the bar, his back to Buck. He was tall and wiry, with short blond hair and wearing dark clothing. For a moment or two he thought it was Chris, though logically he knew it couldn't be, then the man turned around. The dark, hooded eyes and deep cleft in the chin were unmistakable, it was a wanted poster he had only recently seen and studied closely, they had even joked that from the back, it could be a description of Chris. This man was Isaac Jurgan. Buck could have followed Jurgan out of the saloon when he left, questioned him and arrested him, all nice and quiet. But he was hot, sweaty and very tired, so he just challenged the man there and then.

"Isaac Jurgan?" he called out.

"I'm sorry?" the man replied, his accent sounding European.

"You are Isaac Jurgan, wanted in Kansas."

"I'm sorry sir, my name is Karl Miller, I am a miner."

"No it isn't, you're name is Isaac Jurgan and I'm arresting you."

Jurgan was probably more than a little drunk; it was the only explanation for his next action, which was to go for his gun. He never even cleared leather, before Buck's first shot hit him in the chest. If Buck was expecting the locals to object to him gunning down one of their community, he was mistaken. The bloody demise of Jurgan barely raised an eyebrow among the local populous, who accepted that he'd attempted to draw first and was a wanted man. Buck suspected they wanted him out of town as fast as possible before he recognised anyone else from a wanted poster. Jurgan himself was worth $2000 dead or alive, a sum not to be dismissed easily, Buck's share would be close to $300, almost a year’s wages. They were all aware that there was only so long they could go on doing this job, sooner or later they would be too slow, or too badly injured to carry on. It wasn't something he liked to think about, something he'd never considered when he was JD's age, but something he did think about more often these days. Injuries took longer to heal; it seemed like chopping wood made his backache more quickly, a full day in the saddle seemed longer than it used to. He had to admit, no matter how young he felt, his body was getting older and he needed to start thinking about the future.


The summer heat had been oppressive, the humidity so heavy you could almost see it and Jurgan's corpse was drawing flies even before they were out of town. Buck had used the man's own tent as a source of canvas to wrap the body and his mule for transportation. The stench of death was so strong that after only half a day even Beau, usually the steadiest of horses, was fidgeting and tossing his head, the mule had been uncooperative right from the start. The trip to Four Corners usually took two days, with the mule in tow; it would take three, if all went well. The rain came down on the morning of the third day, announcing itself with an enormous clap of thunder, which at least gave Buck enough warning to pull his slicker on before the heavens opened. Despite the torrential rain, thunder and lightning the worst of the trip was over, all he had to do was cross the river and he'd be on the trail for Four Corners, home, if not particularly dry.

Pulling his collar up one more time, he urged both animals down an increasingly steep trail toward the river. The trail rounded a bluff and the river lay before him, it was running high and fast, too high and fast to let him cross safely, even if he hadn't had to get the mule across. Had the rain stopped he'd just have camped until the flood waters receded, flash floods went as fast as they came, but the rain was still coming down as hard as ever, so he turned away and started riding down the bank, leading the reluctant mule behind him. The relatively flat land beside the river quickly disappeared under floodwater, forcing him to move higher. The valley sides were so steep he had to dismount and lead Beau and the mule. The formally hard-baked ground was now slick as ice, with a thin layer of mud covering still hard ground. More than once he slipped back as he tried to pick a way diagonally up the steep slope. Buy the time he reached the top, he was covered in mud, the material covering one of his knees was ripped and torn, the skin under it grazed and bruised. Both horse and mule were likewise covered in mud, but at least they were now on relatively high ground. Buck was heading for a second crossing point, this one was so wide and shallow he had never known it to be impassable, the trouble was it was half a day’s ride out of his way, even in perfect conditions.

In the end it took all day to reach the ford, the sun was setting as he pulled up. The river was still running fast and full, but here, in this flat meadow, it had simply spread out, getting wider not deeper. It would still take the best part of half an hour to cross, by which time it would be quite dark. Reluctantly he admitted to himself it was just too dangerous to try to cross a fast river in failing light, let alone try to set up camp in the dark on the far side. However much he wanted to get home, it wasn't worth the risk, so he turned away from the water to and began to make camp on the closest bit of high, flat ground. It wasn't the first time he'd slept out in the rain, in all likelihood it wouldn't be the last - but that didn't make it any easier or more pleasant. When the sun was shining he'd deposited the body a good hundred yards from his camp, he would have left it down wind had there been any wind, in the rain it didn't matter. There was no way to make a fire, so he made do with some jerky and apple rings. Then he spread out his bedroll, covered himself in his slicker and tried to sleep. He might have slept a little, but not much. The rain had soaked up through his bedroll and under his slicker in the night. By the time the dawn made a brave attempt to cut through the heavy clouds and still driving rain, he was soaked through, so much so that he didn't bother to try and keep dry any more, he was after all already as wet and muddy as he could get. So as soon as there was enough light to see he set out again, at least the rain had re-filled his canteen.

If there was no other problems he should make it into Four Corners just after dark. By his reckoning there was a full moon, if only the clouds would part. The clouds didn't part, the rain kept falling. He had to 'persuade' the mule to wade through a flooded gulch. As the rain continued to fall, slick surface mud became deep clawing mud and progress slowed to a crawl, and still the rain came down. Darkness was falling and he was still at least four hours from town, but only an hour from Chris' place. They all used to call it a shack, much to Chris annoyance, but in the last two years they'd helped him to add two more rooms and a proper barn for the horses. The original 'shack' now formed the entrance and kitchen, next to it was a newly constructed living room and a bedroom. Already there was barely enough light to see by and much as he wanted to get back home, it was just too dark. With luck he could just make Chris' ranch - as they now had to call it.

He was more than half way there, or so he thought - hoped, because it was it was now too dark to see anything. Beau tossed his head, not unusual, but this time something made Buck lift his head as well, and there it was, like a beacon in the darkness, the small yellow glow, that could only be light in Chris' window, a miracle.


Chris wasn't worried, he knew he wasn't because he kept telling himself he wasn't. Buck had been away six days, it was a two day journey to Last Chance, he probably stayed overnight and then set out for home, the rain would have slowed him up by as much as a day so he wasn't late - yet. He'd left town just before dusk, knowing Buck had to be coming in on the same road that ran past his property. If he didn't meet him before the turn off, it would already be dark and Buck would have made camp some place, he'd spend the night at his place and then set at first light, heading on up the trail until he intercepted his lover.

The rain was still coming down, pounding on the roof, and lashing against the windows. He considered going out on to the porch and closing the shutters, but that meant closing the windows, wet as it was it was still hot and humid, and at least the rain seemed to have kept the moths and bugs from the lamp. He gave the stew on the stove another stir; Inez had put some in a pail for him, as well as butter and bacon for breakfast. He kept coffee, sugar, flour and the like in sealed storage jars at the house. He'd made enough biscuits for supper and breakfast and was looking forward to soaking up Inez's fine gravy with them. He hadn't heard the horse approach, he didn't hear the rider dismount, the first thing he heard were heavy footfalls on the porch floor. His gun was in its holster, hanging on a hook by the door, he just got it and had it aimed on the door as it flew open.

It took him a second or two to recognise the figure that filled the doorway. Buck - soaked to the skin, his boots and most of his legs covered in mud, several days worth of beard growth.

"Ya gonna let me in or shoot me?"

Chris took a breath and put the gun down on the table behind him. "I'd say you look like ten miles of bad road but it looks more like a hundred."

"Some folk just say 'hello'," Buck observed sarcastically.

Chris smiled as stepped closer. "What happened to your slicker, you lose it?"

Buck shrugged. "There comes a time when there's nothing left to keep dry." He made to step into the room.

"Oh no you don't, you take those wet things off out there."

Ever since the 'shack' had become 'the house' Chris had developed a house-proud streak. Buck narrowed his eyes, but began to unbutton his shirt as he toed off his boots.

"Ain't wearing underthings you know," he informed Chris.

"Tempting, but not yet." With that he disappeared into the new bedroom and returned with the patchwork quilt. The quilt had been a house warming present from Ezra, who'd purchased it at an auction in Eagle Bend.

"Here." Chris handed over the quilt, as Buck handed him his gun belt.

With his suspenders already at his side, the gun belt was all that was keeping Buck's trousers up, they were already all but past his hips before he undid the first button, which was all I took to send them puddling at his ankles. Chris got the merest tantalising glimpse of the lean, hard body, but enough to notice that it was grimy and battered.

"There's stew on the stove, biscuits on the lid warming." Chris pointed to the stove.

"Chicken and dumplings?" Buck asked hopefully.

"Beef - Inez's."

"Next best thing."

"I'll take care of Beau while you eat." Chris started to pull on his own oilskin.

"Damn it, I forgot about them!"

Chris peered into the darkness, seeing only the shadowy form of Buck's big grey. "Them?"

"There's a mule, ornery cuss, got a body strapped to it."

Chris turned from the doorway. Buck was already juggling hot biscuits on to his plate from the lid of the stew pot.


"Isaac Jurgan, he drew on me."

"Isaac Jurgan?"

"You remember, poster came in from Kansas just before I left? Killed and raped four women and girls."

Chris frowned a second then nodded as he remembered. "Wasn't he worth $2000?"


Chris let out a long low whistle. "I'll put him in the wood store."

By the time Chris got back to the house Buck was slumped over the table, beside the empty strew pot, snoring gently, the quilt hanging off one shoulder. Pulling the quilt back up, Chris set about his next task.

"Come on, time to wake up." He gave Buck a gentle shake.

The little shake had no effect so he tried a little harder.

"Wh't?" Came the groggy question.

"Come on Big Dog, you can't sleep here."

Reluctantly Buck climbed to his feet and followed Chris into the bedroom. There on the floor at the end of the bed, was the tin bath filled with steaming water.

"You need a bath before you're fit company," Chris explained.

Buck let the quilt slip off and looked down at his body. "Guess I've seen better days?"

"Yup and worse."

Buck was about to say the last four days had been about the worse he'd ever known, but it wasn't true, there had been worse, much worse. Days like watching his mother die. Days he'd watched fit, young men destroyed, their limbs blown off, eyes rendered sightless, vibrant young men who became, dribbling, incontinent children. Days when you knew the dead were the lucky ones and days like finding a burnt out cabin with two charred forms in it, the larger curled protectively around the smaller, under what had once been a bed. A bed not unlike the one in the room where he now stood, one built by Chris Larabee.

"Come on, in you get," Chris encouraged.

Buck lowered himself into the warm water with a satisfactory sigh.

Chris gently but methodically washed his lover's tired and battered body. He ran the soap laden rag over those broad shoulders, down and around long arms, he lingered at the wrists were there was tide line of grime. He moved on to the back then the chest, he loved the soft, sparse hair on his lover's chest, so he paid it special attention, eliciting soft murmurs of pleasure from Buck, whose eyes were half closed. Deliberately missing out the relatively small but significant parts of Buck that were actually under the water, he moved to the long legs, which hung out of the bath on both sides. The left knee was a mess of dried blood, torn skin and mud. Buck had been on the point of dozing off, as Chris began his determined ministration.

"Shit!" he yelped as Chris took a nailbrush to the injury.


"Sorry? What the hell are you doing?"

"It's filthy, you know what Nathan's like about dirty wounds."

Buck tried to pull his knee away. "You're not Nathan."

"Oh, quit being a baby, the faster I do this the better."

"Only if you put the brush down."

Chris smiled smugly. "Fair enough, I've got the worst off already."

After a ticklish encounter with Buck's very smelly feet, Chris turned his attention to the beard. He produced Buck's shaving kit, retrieved from his saddlebags.

"Trust me?" he asked, holding up the gleaming blade and the soapy brush.

"Don't I always?"

Chris finished as fast as he safely could, Buck was all but asleep in the tub and he wanted to get him into bed before that happened. When they had started this relationship, or rather re-started it, they had had to make do with Chris’ narrow cot, now they had a real bed, no longer pressed up against a wall, they could move easily around the bed. This bed had tight, fresh ropes beneath it, a well stuffed horse hair mattress, topped by a feather mattress of luxurious depth, an investment that neither of them regretted, despite it taking both their share of the bounty for capturing one Franco Henry - rustler.

Like a child too tired to do more than stand, Buck let Chris help him out of the bath and then stood, motionless, towel in hand, while Chris emptied the bath and put it outside. On his return he took the towel and dried his lover's body, a body he was in love with, a body he desired every time he saw it.

"Come on." Chris pulled the sheets back, having already returned the quilt to the bed.

Buck climbed gratefully on to the bed, closing his eyes as soon as his head hit the pillow. No more than a minute later he was aware of the bed dipping as Chris joined him. As he rolled on to his side, so that Chris could spoon up behind him - the reverse of their normal sleeping position - he could feel his lover’s erection pressing against one buttock.

"Sorry, I don't think I can…" he began to explain.

Chris brushed the gentlest of kisses to the nape of his neck. "I know, don't worry about it, just sleep. Tomorrow 'll be a better day."