Chris should have seen it coming.
As he, Nathan, Ezra and Buck came back toward Four Corners from Miller's Grove, Chris had decided to make a detour toward Sandstone, to check out an old friend who'd been sick... but he forgot about Laura Beth, or he might have come back another day... without Buck.
Unfortunately, Chris might have forgotten, but Buck hadn't.
Ezra was in a more merry mood this trip, having won nearly $400 gambling
after taking care of business, and he was regaling the others with stories
about some of his wildest card games. Up to a point, Buck had joined in
the laughter, but, the sight of the old lightning-split oak tree got his
attention, and the ruins of the Taylor homestead drove him into a dark
silence. Chris had been grinning like a possum, when he turned to say something
to his life-long buddy, but stopped when he saw Buck's face. Chris wondered
what the problem was, until he looked around, then, he did something he
was unaccustomed to doing: he
apologized. Or, rather, he tried to...
"Buck," he said quietly, leaning in his direction, "I'm sorry. I forgot the old farm was here..."
Buck looked around at Chris, but there was more sadness than anger in his eyes, the kind of sadness made even deeper by the fact that Buck was the happy-go-luckiest, hell-for-leather man Chris ever knew. Chris gulped softly, wondering what personal hell memory was bringing back. But, Buck just closed his eyes and slowly shook his head.
"Ain't yer fault, Chris. It's been... a while," the big man said. Buck stopped his mount, and the others stopped short. Ezra and Nathan had the expectedly puzzled looks on their faces, but Chris shook off any questions they might spill out, warningly. They simply looked at each other and Ezra shrugged lightly.
Buck composed himself, somewhat, then, mustering the best smile he could under the circumstances, he looked back to the others.
"Y'all head on ahead. I'll catch up in a bit, but I have to visit someone
myself, for a spell. I ain't seen her in a while, and I need
to stop by and talk a spell," Buck stated.
Nathan and Ezra might have misunderstood, as they smiled a little at the thought of Buck "talking" with a woman, but Chris knew all too well what his life-long buddy meant, and his smile was more from compassion than anything else.
"Alright, Buck," Chris said, "We'll see you after while."
Buck sat still, watching three of his best friends ride away, waiting until they were out of sight among the trees off to the west before turning back toward the old Taylor place. As he approached, old hurt welled up in him, but he knew he couldn't leave without saying "Hi" to Laura. Beauty rounded the dilapidated structure of the burned homestead, and Buck stopped him just past the old porch. Dismounting, Buck tied Beauty to one of the pickets still standing from the old fence, and walked over to his once-favorite spot under an elm by the creek that ran by. He knelt by a grave marker placed there by him so many years ago, and removed his hat. Sadness nearly overwhelmed him, but something passed his eyes on it's way earthward. A leaf, brown and dead with the swiftly approaching winter, has been dislodged by a breeze, and earth's tug pulled it ground-ward. Buck actually laughed despite himself.
"Ah, Laura Beth... it looks like I kept that promise after all. Just
not the way I meant to..."
"Buck Wilmington, you oughta be ASHAMED!"
Buck, all of 18 years old and full of juice, looked up from the ground, where the elm tree had unkindly deposited him. Of course, had he not been craning for a better view, he might not have strained the branch he was on, which, in turn, might not have broken like it did. But he craned, and the branch broke, and gravity took care of the result.
Now, most women, upon having a man drop in unexpectedly while bathing, might have covered up as best as they could. However, Laura Beth merely stood there with a disapproving frown on her face and her hands placed firmly on her hips. She could ride and fight as hard as any man her age, but she was most definitely a woman, and she wasn't hiding that fact now.
When Buck tried to protest his "innocence", she just shook her head at him, and, when he tried to scold her for her "immodesty", she simply replied: "What? You dang near broke your fool neck trying so hard to get a look-see, who am I to deny ya? Go on, take a good look, Mr. Acts-Like-He-Ain't-Never-Seen-A-Girl-Before!"
So, Buck, given an opportunity, kept right on looking. And Laura kept
right on bathing, as if Buck wasn't even there...
Chris, Nathan and Ezra sat around a table at the Sandstone Saloon, and Chris explained the situation to them.
"Buck's been in love before and since, and... well, you know Buck...flittin'
from one gal to the next like a bee to flowers. But, Laura Beth was his
first real and his best love. They got real close for a while. But,
Laura's Daddy wanted Buck to settle down and be a farmer, and Buck wanted
to roam the open spaces, so he joined a cattle drive. That's how we met..."
Chris looked at the lanky Wilmington with a bemused expression, as he tried to find the right way to say goodbye to Laura Beth Taylor. She WAS a right pretty girl. But, no matter how manly Buck tried to make his farewell speech, he kept fumbling over his tongue. She finally put two fingers over his jabbering lips to shush him. He looked into her loving eyes with his bright blue ones, but, when she saw the determination to go, she said softly, "Your friend is waiting Buck. I don't think he has all day to listen to you say goodbye."
"Dang it, Laura, I do hafta go, but I'll be back for ya. I promise!"
She laughed softly, with sad merriment, not derision. "Yeah... he says that to all his women, Mr. Larabee."
"You know you're the only woman for me, Laura Beth! Ya have been for some time," he protested, shuffling his feet.
Laura merely raised an eyebrow, placing her hands on her hips, and brought back a memory which caused Buck to blush. She smiled at his comical fluster, then gave him a kiss that nearly took him off his feet. Huskily, she whispered in his ear, "If you're gonna come back, I'll be waitin'..." Then, smacking him open-handed on his butt, she added, "But, if you're gonna ever come back, ya hafta git goin' first!"
He hurried on to his horse, laughing. As he mounted, he looked back one last time, and shouted, "When should I come back for ya, Darlin'?"
"Watch for the changing of the seasons, Buck. I'll be looking for ya when the leaves fall!"
He tipped his hat to her, smiling. "When the leaves fall, Darlin'!"
He whipped his horse around, and, with a loud "YEEHAW!" he took off with
Buck sat by the grave, propped up against the old elm, his hat in his
lap. "But, I did make it back that first fall. Oh, Lordy, what a time we
She saw him coming from a distance; she had felt him coming in her bones. The leaves had just started turning red and gold a few weeks back, and, sure enough, Buck Wilmington returned with the changing weather. She ran as hard as she could manage, completely forgetting about her horse, Dusty. He saw her, and sped his steed up. He dismounted in front of her before his horse had even stopped, and he swept her up in his arms, kissing her like he had no tomorrow. They held each other for minutes before either spoke.
Words flowed out of the two, words of excitement, of joy, and of love, and she took her strapping young man with her to a special place down by the creek, and stayed with him the whole afternoon, and most of the night. If her Mom and Dad wondered about the two of them when she showed up with him in tow for dinner, they never said. He was greeted warmly... he might not be a farmer, but he WAS a working man, and Hank Taylor respected that. Sarah Taylor set another place for him, and he joined them for their evening meal.
Afterward, Buck talked with the family for a little while, then he and Laura Beth walked under the stars. Now, Buck Wilmington had grown up around women; his Mom had been a Madam in a "house of ill repute" most of his life, but he grew a certain fondess and respect for women-folk that amazed his Mother. She was always afraid that Buck might try to settle down with one of "the girls", but he never tried to latch on to any in particular... oh, he got an "education" in the oldest art, but no firm commitment. Laura Beth was different in a number of ways.
When he decided to make his own way in the world, he moved over to Sandstone
and tried to find work as best as he could. His first real job was working
for the local grocer. His first assignment had been to take supplies out
to the Taylor farm. He was met at the door by the then tomboyish Laura
Beth, who promptly told her mother that she was gonna marry this "handsome
fella" with the constant grin and the twinkle in his eyes. Since Laura
was still a year away from blossoming into womanhood, Buck just grinned
all the brighter, and simply said, "We'll just have to see about that!"
Winking, he continued unloading his wagon. He came by from time to time,
bringing supplies and checking on the Taylors. He sensed that Laura Beth
was a rare one, and he wanted to see what she would become... and my, oh
my, what she became!...
Chris finished another shot, pausing for a moment. Nathan leaned over the table expectantly, waiting for more of the tale, but Ezra shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Something was clearly bothering him.
"Am I boring you, Ezra?" Chris queried, smiling lightly at the dapper gambler.
Standish locked eyes with Chris, and Larabee regretted saying anything to the man. There was some empathetic pain registering in Ezra, and he was having trouble coming to grips with it. When he finally replied, he was unusually quiet.
"Not at all, Mr. Larabee. Under other circumstances, another's history of good fortune in romance would be cause for celebration. However," Standish coughed softly, "I am quite certain that Mr. Wilmington's tale has no happy ending. I've... never been fond of stories without happy endings"
Chris was very quiet for a moment, thought about his reply as he gazed into his whiskey. Finally, he looked up.
"There IS tragedy, if that's what you mean, Ezra. And, not all stories
end well... but, I can tell you this, love triumphs in the end..."
All that winter, Buck and Laura found legendary love for one another. They were together fairly constantly, when he wasn't working, and she was helping out around the farm, or out riding. The two were happy, in way most folks seek, but few find. And, it was the saddest irony that their happiest moment would lead to their most tragic...
It was just a barn dance, like barn dances all over creation, I suppose.
But, Buck delighted in taking his lady love to it, and she
was delighted to go! On this particular night, however, there were other guests, among them Silas Corbin and his son Jeremiah.
The Corbins were a wealthy family, and obnoxiously so. Oh, the folks in those parts forgave them (most) of their annoyances... they were good customers, and generous to boot, in their purchases, and they had never been accused of cheating a soul, but, they were not used to taking "No" for an answer, and such folks, honest or no, are unpleasant when they are balked.
For instance... On the night of the dance, young Jeremiah, decked out in his best suit, could have had his pick of the available women to woo, and there were several mighty fine ladies who had come of age, any of which would have been delighted at his advances. It was sheer misfortune that his eyes rested on Laura, however.
Now, Buck was a bit jealous in those days, but, had Laura chosen to
dance with Jeremiah, Buck would have stepped aside as pleasantly as possible.
Indeed, one might ask now if her affirmative choice might have avoided
tragedy later. However, there was something in his eyes, in his bearing,
that unnerved beautiful Laura, and she refused...graciously at first, then
forcefully when Corbin couldn't take a hint. It was at this point that
Buck stepped in, and trouble began...
Buck sat there by the elm, head in his hands, tears streamming down
his face. "Oh, God! Laura, why didn't I just let YOU handle him? It wasn't
like you weren't able. I just had to be your..." He sought the word, then
spat it: "hero..."
Words, just a few words were all they were... harshly spoken, poorly
taken, but in the end, they were JUST words. Corbin basically told Buck
to butt out, and Buck told Corbin what part part of Hell he could go to.
A shove here, one returned... then Corbin made the mistake of reaching
past Buck and grabbing Laura's right arm. Buck didn't even remember hitting
him later... Jeremiah Corbin remembered though, and his Dad made sure he
Chris shook his head, then looked at the other two.
"I wasn't there that night, or I might coulda helped. But, I was over
in Culverton, harvesting a romance of my own." Chris sighed, then continued,
"You know what's funny? If Buck hadn't have hit Corbin in full view of
everybody, if Laura had slapped him herself, if Corbin's Dad had have intervened...
if, if, if... None of what took place later might have happened. Even so,
for the longest time, Buck and Laura thought that they had seen the end
of it, because Corbin didn't make any overt moves for a while..."
Winter turned to spring, and spring turned slowly toward summer, and love grew. Buck and Laura Beth became nearly inseparable. In fact, wedding plans were being discussed before he and Chris once more hit the cattle trail. It had been pretty much decided that the two would wed when he returned the following fall.
"When the leaves fall again, Laura, we'll be married!" Buck gushed, as he stood holding her for dear life. Chris waited patiently for Buck... again, smiling his little smile. And, just as before, Laura whacked Buck one one the butt to send him on his way.
"When the leaves fall!" he yelled, as the two men rode away.
"When the leaves fall, My Love," she whispered as she waved. She rubbed
her tummy, as he rode off, wondering why for the love of Pete she hadn't
said anything about their pending parenthood? He would not have left, that's
for sure... but, for some reason, she didn't have the heart to keep him
from the open spaces, at least one last time. But, she knew he loved her,
and she knew, if at all possible, he would return...
"I wish I had known, Laura, about the baby. Things might have still
turned out different, if I had stayed. Ol' Jeremiah had a summer to stew,
to make your life, and your Pa and Maw's a living Hell. I might have killed
him if I hada known what was comin'. No, I WOULDA killed him. Him and his
Daddy and his whole cursed family..."
It began oddly, but innocently, enough. Some of the stores in town began charging more for the goods the Taylors bought, and paid less for the goods they produced. That would not have been so bad, if Hank hadn't have found out that he was being treated differently than other folks. When he raised Cain about it, many of the merchants stopped commerce with him all together. Angry, but not yet suspicious of any malice toward him in particular, he began taking his business to Culverton. However, he was robbed and beaten on the way back, once, and he stopped going the same way, or at the same times. Then, he got hat crazy notice that his property had been bought, and he and his family were to vacate immediately. THAT was when Hank Taylor knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone had an interest in hurting him and his family, personally!
Oh, Hank got the mess about his property sorted out, but not before
he had a heated argument with the sheriff and the bank president. For all
the good it did him... By the time he returned home, his farmhouse was
in full blaze, his wife terrified, and his daughter missing. Raiders had
struck his home about an hour after he left. They had scared Sarah half
out of her wits, and had set everything on fire. Laura had been out on
a ride when she saw the smoke, and had returned, trying to stop the men
from doing more harm. She had been ripped from her saddle by one of the
men, and the group left, Laura screaming angrily at the top of her lungs
in their midst...
Chris shook with the memory of what he had been told later.
"I won't go into details. They hurt her, and that was enough. She returned home... what was left, anyway... staggering, in her bare feet. Bloodied." Chris grew quiet. "She lost the baby."
Ezra was stunned, "You call that a triumph of love, Mr. Larabee? I shall seek another's opinion when you claim all is roses in the future..."
Chris looked at Ezra, then smiled, "Ezra, the story hasn't ended here, and I want you to know... she saved Buck's life, in more ways than one. She was one of the finest women... Hell, one of the finest PEOPLE... I ever knew. Short of my own wife, I never knew a better soul..."
"Kinda makes ya wonder what sort of character bad things bring out in
people," Chris said softly, sipping his whiskey. Nathan and Ezra gave each
other a knowing look... if ANYONE would know such an answer, it would be
Chris, but the two simply listened. Chris added to his thought, "The Taylors
could have packed it in, just left... nobody would have thought the worst
of them for it. But, they stayed, and Laura Beth gave as good as she got..."
Some folks think that money will buy anything... or anyone. Certainly, the Corbins must have thought it. Imagine Jeremiah's surprise when he next met Laura...
It was four weeks after her assault, and she was in town as if nothing had happened. Most of her (visible) bruises had faded away. She was in town to buy a few supplies, as Culverton was too far just to save a couple of dollars. As she came out of the general store, she ran into Jeremiah and three of his ranch hands.
"Well! Afternoon, Laura Beth," he began. He still had that air of menace about him that had bothered her at the dance, but, she simply frowned at him, as she replied, "Good to see nothing's wrong with yer time piece, at least."
This puzzled him. "I beg your pardon?"
She looked at him as one might gaze at a child slow to grasp a fundamental truth about life, patiently, but with some annoyance.
"You said 'afternoon', which is a fact. I thought maybe you were showing off your knack for time," she remarked as she tried to move past him. However, he stepped in front of her.
Smiling without any of the friendliness he was affecting, he quipped, "You are indeed a clever woman. But, cleverness is not always enough in a harsh world."
She glared into his eyes, feigning no friendliness at all, "What do you want, Mr. Corbin?"
He hesitated a fraction of a second under her glare, but his taught arrogance resurfaced swiftly.
"It is not necessarily what I want, but what YOU need, that concerns me, Laura Beth," he said through teeth more clinched than grinning.
She snorted, "And what, pray tell, would you have that I'd ever need, Mr. Corbin?"
"Protection, Miss Taylor,"
She lay her groceries in the back of the wagon, and turned slowly to face him, face darkening, "What was that? Protection? From what, Mr.Corbin? Outside of you and your hired goons, I have nothin' to fear at all!"
The volume of her voice grew, and a crowd, curious about the commotion, started to form.
"Keep your voice down!" He hissed.
"For what? I WANT them to know what you really are Jeremiah Corbin, that you and your family have bought and paid for them, so that they do your dirty work for you!"
The sheriff arrived at that moment.
"What's going on here, Miss Taylor?"
"Why don't you tell me?" she snarled at him.
"Now, lady or not, you cause trouble, and I'll have to lock you up!" he smiled grimly.
She got very quiet, and very close to him, eyes blazing.
"So you can have another go at me?"
He was taken aback, and moved away a pace.
She pursued him that step.
"You have a very identifiable birthmark, Sheriff, should I ever have to identify you in court!" she hissed at him. Then she whirled and climbed on board her wagon.
Corbin drew close, "You should be with me, Laura Beth, for your own good. Pray you do not incur my wrath..."
She gazed levelly into his eyes, and replied, "Pray I keep standing between you and the grave, Mr. Corbin, for, if Buck finds out what you've done to me, he will most certainly kill you."
Corbin snorted, "Wilmington? What can one man do?"
She calmed down, gazing off to the north, in Buck's direction, and said
softly, "I've seen all sides of him, Mr. Corbin... he's as sweet as honey
and as gentle of spirit as a lamb, but that is balanced by a ragin' force
of nature." She looked in his eyes one last time. "He's one man, true,
but he has thunder in his eyes and lightning in his hands. YOU'D best pray
his storm don't come for you!"...
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