"All I'm sayin' is it's a bad habit. That's all I'm saying."
"What the hell are you pontificating about, Buck?" Chris walked in, a grin playing about his lips. Nathan nearly ran into him. "Maybe you can shut him up," the healer mumbled on his way out.
Josiah tilted his chair back and frowned at his coffee cup. "Buck thinks JD is up to something and he's pissed that the kid won't tell him what it is."
"You've got that all wrong," Buck protested. "I am concerned for the boy's well-being."
"No you're not," Chris said. "You just want to know everybody's business and JD ain't talking."
Chris' eyes connected with Josiah's and he sat down, grabbing a biscuit off of Buck's plate.
"Hey, that's mine!" Buck blustered.
"Oh, pipe down. You're so damn busy talking, you won't miss it." Chris popped the oversized bread in his mouth before Buck could grab it. Buck's mouth gaped open in apparent disbelief. "I'm hurt!" he said. "First you accuse me of callousness. Then, you steal my biscuit."
"You'll get over it," Chris said. For a moment, it was the old days. Chris felt comfortable. He settled back in his chair and smiled when Inez brought him a plate of breakfast.
"I haven't ordered yet," Chris said, and he watched as she set the plate on the table. Eggs, steak, biscuits, gravy.
"Every day you come in and order the same thing," Inez said. "Steak and eggs, biscuits and gravy."
Chris frowned. "Maybe today I want flapjacks."
Inez glared at him. "Do you?"
"No ma'am," Chris replied, trying to frown but chuckling instead.
Inez rested a hand on her hip. "I didn't think so."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said, and he nodded politely.
She started to go back to the kitchen, but Buck tapped her arm. "Coffee?"
Inez spun around to face him. "Coffee? What about, 'may I have more coffee, ma'am'?"
"You could ask politely, Senor Buck, without just grunting your order. 'Coffee', 'biscuit'." She mocked him very well.
"Chris didn't even order anything and you just plop a plate in front of him. I didn't hear him ask 'politely'."
"Senor Chris is always a gentleman." Inez said then she bent down and whispered something in Buck's ear.
Buck's fist slammed on the table, nearly toppling his coffee cup. "But I didn't . . . "
"I am delighted to serve breakfast to a *gentleman*. " She moved back over to stand behind Chris, and leaned over to hug his neck from behind. "Senor Chris, perhaps you can remind your friend to mind his manners at the dinner table." With a swish of her skirt, Inez circled back to the bar. Chris kept his expression bland, never looking up. "Mind your manners at the dinner table, Senor Buck."
He couldn't help but chuckle at Buck's reaction. "What is this, 'Pick on Buck Day'? 'Cause if it is, I'm goin' back to bed, thank you very much."
Like a great chief choosing the perfect moment to utter something profound, Josiah opened his mouth. "Buck's just bored, Chris."
Before anyone could answer, a familiar voice said, "Buckboard," and a chuckle followed.
Chris and the others turned to see a half asleep JD pad down the stairs. His unkempt black hair hung in his face, and he could hardly keep his eyes open. He missed a step and stumbled on the next two, catching himself on the banister.
"That step's a killer," Chris said, dryly, then he turned his attention back to his breakfast.
"Nice of you to join us," Buck said sourly. "You might as well eat lunch, 'cause breakfast time is over. How many mornings in a row has it been, Josiah?"
The big man took a bitter sip from his coffee cup. "Ain't been keeping count." Josiah looked over at Inez. He winked at her. "Coffee!" he barked.
"Right away, Senor Sanchez." Inez curtseyed and brought the coffee pot to the table.
"What?" Buck looked around. "Am I doing something wrong here? I was much more gentlemanly than he was."
Inez ignored him and poured Josiah another cup.
JD walked toward the table and stopped. Where could he sit? All the seats at the table were taken. Somehow the concept of pulling up another chair was lost on him, and he stood there, his eyes drifting closed.
Inez set the coffee pot on the table and walked over to the boy. "JD," she said. His eyes popped open. "Huh?" He looked around, embarrassed.
"See?!" Buck said. "Dead on his feet. It's like he ain't slept at all."
"Leave him alone, Buck," Chris said. "Seems like I remember a few mornings you came dragging in."
Inez put an arm around JD and walked him over to another table. She grabbed a chair and set it in the space between Buck and Josiah.
"We aren't talking about me now, are we?" Buck said. "This just ain't like you, son."
"Shut up, Buck." JD yawned. Buck recoiled in mock indignation.
"Well, I like that. A guy shows a little concern over his friend and this is the thanks he gets."
JD sat down and reached over to Buck's plate. Casually he took Buck's last biscuit.
"Oh, that tears it," Buck cried. "Why does everybody think my plate has suddenly become a serving platter?"
JD took a bite of the biscuit and answered with his mouth full. "You just said 'breakfast time is over.' I figured you were through."
Chris swallowed the last of his ill-gotten biscuit. "So did I." He leaned over next to his old friend. "Buckboard."
Buck was about to protest when Inez swirled back around and picked up the coffee pot again. "More coffee, Senor Buckboard?"
"Oh, oh, all right," Buck said, trying not to smile. "This is how it's gonna be. Senor Buckboard . . . all right . . . I get it . . . now all the funny's gone out of it. Buckboard . . . ha ha . . . now can you just leave me and my biscuits alone?"
JD reached over to Buck's plate to steal a piece of bacon. Buck slapped his hand and JD laughed. "I don't know, Buck. Your biscuits are kinda cute."
Josiah's voice followed in low, measured tones. "I noticed your biscuits before, and, I believe JD is right. They are cute."
Inez leaned over to Buck and cocked an eyebrow. "I've seen cuter."
"Would you just leave me the hell alone?"
"Where's the fun in that?" Chris said.
Buck took a biscuit off of Chris' plate and took a bite. Inez warmed everyone's coffee and poured JD a cup.
"Thank you, ma'am," JD said.
Buck watched JD wordlessly. For a moment everyone at the table was finally silent--not for long, though. JD looked up from his plate to find Buck frowning at him.
"What?" JD asked. His hand went up to his face, wiping the corners of his mouth. "Do I have jelly on my face or something?" The kid looked at Chris and Josiah. "What?!" He sounded exasperated.
"What's with you these days?" Buck asked. "You partying too much? That's it, isn't it? That's why you can't get up in the morning."
"I'm fine," JD protested.
Buck's furrowed brow looked funny to Chris. He almost intervened, but he decided to wait.
Buck's eyes suddenly widened. "Oh, God . . ."
"What?" JD asked, this time with a mouth full of bacon.
"You're drinking, aren't you? Oh God, kid, don't go down that road. It'll eat you up."
"What makes you say that?" JD asked. "You're talking crazy, Buck."
By now, Josiah and Chris were exchanging amused expressions. Buck frowned again.
"He ain't gonna take the bait, Buck," Chris said. "He's not talking."
JD's sleepy eyes looked at Chris dully. "What bait?"
Chris watched his old friend trying to weasel information from the kid. He'd seen Buck use this ploy many times, except it was usually a woman he was trying to persuade. Chris figured the next step would be a direct question. He felt mildly satisfied when Buck spoke again.
"So why are you sleeping so late?" Buck persisted. JD slammed his fork on the plate.
"It's none of your business, Buck. Just leave it alone, all right?"
Chris watched his men closely. JD was about to explode, and it would only take a push on the right button for Buck to send the kid in a flying rage.
Buck had the good sense to keep his mouth shut, and this time the silence at the table was charged with innuendo and accusation. It occurred to Chris that if Ezra were around, Chris could wager on each move Buck made. He could make a good little profit. Buck's next move would either be one to inspire guilt or to bring out the big guns. Chris wasn't sure which. He chewed very slowly, watching Buck for any clue. Then he realized that Buck was going for the jugular.
Suddenly, Buck's eyes grew wide and he spoke in a very soft voice.
"Are you sick, kid?" Buck asked, dramatically. "That's it, isn't it? You're sick and you don't want to tell anybody."
Oh, this was rich. Chris stifled a laugh and choked on his coffee.
Buck's eyes narrowed at Chris, then they softened as he looked back at JD. "Have you seen Nathan about it?"
JD finally pushed his plate away and stood up. "I'm not sick or hung over. Can't a man just eat his breakfast in peace?" JD took his plate and stormed back up the stairs.
"JD?" Buck called after him.
"Leave him be, Buck," Chris said.
Buck's eyes followed the kid up the stairs, and he took a bite of bacon. "Something's bugging him."
"Yeah," Chris said. "Something about 6'4" with a moustache. That's the only thing bugging JD."
"Oh and I suppose you know what he's up to."
Chris' mocking silence infuriated Buck. Chris knew something . . . and he wasn't telling.
Buck shook off the retort. "Well, it ain't like him. I aim to find out what he's up to.""
After a moment, Buck's eyes grew wide and he grinned. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "What's her name?"
Chris waited before answering. He set his fork down and looked at Buck.
And Chris laughed harder than he had in years.
When Vin Tanner first woke up, he thought he was in Four Corners. He remembered that something was wrong, but he couldn't remember what. The town was too quiet for the morning. Why could he feel the heat of the sun? Wasn't he in a hotel?
He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids felt so heavy. He tried to remember what happened, but he could only remember bits and pieces.
Man, his head hurt. Maybe he'd hit his head. That's why he couldn't think clearly. He was supposed to do something, wasn't he?
Ezra. He had come here with Ezra. Maybe Ezra could tell him what he was supposed to do.
Vin couldn't tell where he was. Where was Ezra? Had they already started back? Why hadn't Ezra waked him up?
Headache. Vin squinted his eyes open. There were light high clouds. He was outside. Why was he outside? He raised a heavy arm over his face to block the blinding sun. His arm was sore. His whole body was sore. Then he remembered what he was supposed to do.
Run. He should run. They were coming after him. He didn't remember who, but they were trailing him all the same. He knew that if they caught him, they would kill him.
He felt the ground around him. He had no gun, no shirt, no knife.
No water. That would be a real problem. His empty stomach groaned but there was no food. He knew that he could survive once he could think clearly. He tried to make himself focus.
Get up, he ordered himself, and painfully he pulled himself up. He had gotten himself a great hiding place. But he couldn't stay there.
He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. He and Ezra had gone as far as Watertown together. Ezra found a game right away. Vin remembered having something to eat and then heading out to Moody's Gulch. Everything after that was fuzzy. Had he been drugged? Knocked unconscious? How long had it been since he left Watertown? His hand went to his face. He couldn't tell by facial hair. He hadn't been shaving these days--easier to hide his identity that way.
He lay back for a moment. He had to get clear. He had to figure out his next move. That was tough, considering he couldn't remember his last one.
Of the men he rode with, Ezra realized he knew Vin Tanner least. Buck, Josiah, Nathan--they were all rather predictable. Chris was only predictable in his unpredictability. JD . . . well, he was full of himself and the inconsistencies in his life could be attributed to the exuberance of youth. But Vin Tanner was an enigma. Ezra didn't know what "typical" was for him. So he didn't know whether or not to be concerned when Vin didn't show up in Watertown when he was supposed to. On the one hand, Vin was a tracker and Ezra knew he could take care of himself. On the other hand, Vin had a bounty on his head, and he could be in serious trouble.
While weighing the odds, Ezra sat on the porch of the saloon, sipping a drink he hadn't had since moving to Four Corners. He liked this town--especially since he had a wad of Watertown cash tucked away in his boot. Oddly enough, the community didn't seem to be concerned with losing to him in poker. Clearly the residents had resources at home. A loss at poker wasn't even a drop in the bucket. Ezra wouldn't mind staying a few more days. Absently he gazed down the street, not really expecting to see Vin Tanner just then. He would give the tracker one more day before he started worrying. Maybe Vin was getting as lucky Ezra. The gambler grinned to himself. They'd surely have stories to tell on the trip back to Four Corners.
At least Ezra knew he was missing, Vin reasoned, relieved that the gambler would certainly be taking steps to find him. Of all the men he rode with, Ezra was the least predicatable. Just when Vin thought he had him pegged as a self-centered conman, Ezra would suddenly show up and be the hero. But then, when Nettie needed money, Ezra would have been more willing to tear out his kidney and serve it to her on a platter.
He was all fancy talk and fancy clothes, and yet, he helped that girl in Chinatown. Vin wouldn't have even known about that if Nathan hadn't said something.
Come on, Ezra. I could use some help right about now.
Once again, Vin sat up--more easily this time. He really had chosen a wonderful hiding place. Perhaps a better term was "created"--Vin had "created" a place that even someone familiar with the territory would overlook. Vin figured he could stay there for a few days. At least he could hide until the bounty hunters called off the search.
The only problem was that he couldn't go without food or water for much more than a day or two. Vin could tell he hadn't had enough water lately. Maybe he could tell how long he'd been running by figuring out how thirsty he felt.
Why was he lightheaded?
He closed his eyes and tried to collect his thoughts. These were bounty hunters that were after him. He remembered waking up on the ground with five or six men standing around staring at him. A couple laughed. One hooked a toe under his body and rolled him over onto his stomach. He remembered being tied up. He remembered that his jaw hurt. But he didn't know why.
One of them had said that they didn't want to hurt him too much. It would "spoil the fun." They needed him to be able to run.
Why couldn't he remember?
He tried to piece together random thoughts and make sense out of them.
Someone had kicked him. After the others had left, this one had kicked him, in the side of his face. Vin had felt his jaw pop. He touched his jaw gingerly as he recalled the attack. Bits and pieces were coming back to him. Someone had untied him, and once he was freed, a couple of the men came back. He didn't recognize anybody, though. Vin tried to stay focused long enough to remember what they'd said. He squeezed his eyes more tightly and struggled harder to recall.
They were bounty hunters. But something was very different.
The words came back to him.
"We got no concern about whether we take you in dead or alive." There was a sick, throaty laugh. "We're much more interested in the chase."
Vin had protested. "You got me. What more do you want?"
"We're letting you go. You get an hour's lead, then we come after you. We're the hunters and you," the speaker put his foot on Vin's chest and pressed against his breastbone uncomfortably, "you are the quarry."
"What?" Vin probably had not really heard that right. "You can just take me to Tascosa."
"Not until we play the game." One of the men had grabbed a handful of Vin's hair and jerked him up to his feet. For a moment everything was spinning. Vin could still feel the hot breath on his neck.
"I got my money on you, boy. You better make it."
Someone laughed. "Mine's against you. So you're damned if you do and damned if you don't."
Well, at least they hadn't caught up with him.