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When the Leaves Fall
             Continued

Chapter 9
 

"He built a WHAT?" Nathan asked. Ezra simply raised an eyebrow and looked at Chris skeptically, as one might view a person claiming to have had a vision.

Chris, rocked back in his chair at the Sandstone Saloon, and grinned at the memory.

"He built Laura Beth a ramp. A gently sloping ramp with special fixtures for fastening a horse," Chris said. "It allowed Laura to get on her horse without exerting herself too much. He planned it, designed it, and built it..."

Ezra chuckled, "I believe Mr. Larabee is understating his role in this construction project... It is highly likely that Mr. Larabee
fabricated the majority of said structure."

Chris grinned, "Nope. Believe it or not, this was all Buck's doing. While I was helping out with a wagonload of other tasks, Buck built Laura a ramp..."
 
 
 

"Oh, Buck!" Laura giggled with delight when she saw the ramp going from her front porch out nearly to the fence. Dusty, her horse, was dutifully tied out there, and she could see how easy it would be to get on him. Easing herself out on the ramp, she eased herself down at the edge into a sitting position, then swung her good leg over Dusty's back, then moved her feet gingerly into the stirrups. Unhitching him from a specially designed peg in the side of the ramp, Laura slowly brought Dusty to a slow trot around the front yard.

Buck was beaming with pride as Laura's smile grew brighter and brighter. She rode up to Buck, and motioned him nearer. As he leaned upward, she leaned over, and, taking his head in her free hand, she kissed him passionately.

After she leaned back upright, he urged her to ride some more. "I want you to be happy, Laura." And, she was!...
 
 
 

Buck smiled at the memory.

"Ah, Sweetheart! You always loved riding, and you had so much joy in your eyes with Dusty," he mused, "I'd have given anything if I could have given ya back what Corbin took from ya, but the pure pleasure of watching you ride was almost enough."

Buck grew somber, as he sat there, however. Not all memories of those days were fond ones...
 
 
 

Buck would not even remember, years later, what the spat was over. All he'd recall was that, in anger, she'd ridden off on Dusty, and was gone for hours. Buck wasn't necessarily worried about her skills; she didn't trust the strength in her legs enough for jumping, but she was now confident that she could still ride hard, if she chose, and enjoy herself.

No, the time elapsed was not what worried Buck... Dusty coming back riderless is what worried him.

It was the first real thunderstorm of the early spring, and it had the makings of a real whopper, having come up unexpectedly, as storms of this type usually did. When he heard the horse run up quickly, outside, he assumed Laura was headed for cover. When he saw Dusty returned alone, his heart stopped in his chest.

Now, in the storm, as it raged, rain and wind obscured vision, and he could barely see over a hundred feet in any direction, but, as also happens sometimes, he could feel Laura in trouble as sure as he was watching her. It was impossible with the whipping gusts to have heard her, but he heard her weakly calling his name as if she were standing right beside him... such was the incredible rapport the two shared. His heart lead him right to her.

About 300 yards from the Taylor's new ramp stood an old oak tree. Alone against the raging elements, it provided scant protection for the figure curled up underneath it. Buck's heart nearly froze when he saw her lying there, drenched and obviously cold in the fierce wind and rain. Lightning crackled among the trees nearby, and Buck knew this spot was too dangerous. He was afraid she might be unconscious, as he approached her, but she seemingly heard him and looked up at him as he came. She lifted her arms to him, and Buck scooped her up into his arms, and hastened back toward the house.

The old oak was one of Laura's favorite places, as the elm by the creek was one of Buck's. She climbed it, wrote under it, even watched stars at night from among its boughs. When she and Buck first professed love one for another, he had carved a heart with their initials within in the tree's bark. So, naturally, when she was thrown fom Dusty's back, she made her way as best as she could manage to her old friend, and waited for her love to come for her. Buck was thankful for the tree, where he shared his first kiss with Laura Beth Taylor. And, he nearly leaped from his skin when lightning split the tree in half after he got no more than 200 feet away from its trunk. He stood slack-jawed for a few seconds, thinking about what might have happened
had he not found Laura, then practically ran for cover.

After he helped her out of her wet clothes and into some dry bed clothes, covering her up in her bed for added warmth, he puzzled over her repeated whispers, "Please be all right... please be all right...", as she clutched her tummy.

"Darling," he asked, no small concern creasing his brow, "who are you asking to be all right? You're fine now, your Mom should be safe at the Sanford's place, and Chris is over in Culverton."

Laura's breath caught in her chest; she hadn't realized she was speaking out loud, but her breathing slowed, and she looked lovingly at Buck.

"Our baby, Buck... I'm praying that our baby be all right..."
 
 
 
 

Both of Ezra's brows shot skyward. "Baby?"

Nathan seconded Ezra's shocked expression, "Yeah... I thought that doctor said she couldn't have any kids."

Chris shrugged, "The doctor was wrong, in this case. But, that wasn't the whole problem. Laura Beth had suffered because of Corbin's bullet. She might not have been prevented from having a child, but bearing and delivering a young'un was going to be a tough row to hoe... She was weaker than she shoulda been, and falling off that horse probably didn't help anything."

Chris grew dark again as he sat there.

"And," he huffed, "there was a forgotten problem..."

"Corbin?" Nathan guessed.

Chris simply nodded. "He vanished for a while after the shoot out at the Taylors. We found out later that the old man had booted him from the ranch as a collosal failure, and that he took a few men and headed further west, toward California. Old Man Silas wasn't long for the world, however, and Jeremiah didn't plan to lose the family fortune to distant cousins. He bidded his time, returning home when a loyal member of his Daddy's hired hands telegraphed him as his Father's health sank."

Chris looked hard into his friends faces, "he meant business, and he didn't come alone. With the kind of money he had at hand, he was able to hire an impresive array of guns. But, we only imagined the kind of problems the boy would cause. We had no idea how bad things really were..." Chris took a long sip from his drink. "We found out though..." he trailed off.

"How?" blurted Nathan after a lengthy pause.

Chris shook his head slowly, "Remember how much I told you the Sheriff hated Buck and me?"

Ezra smiled, "It seems I recall your dissertation to that effect."

Chris took another sip, "Well, I knew we some serious problems when Stonemason came out to the Taylor place to beg us to become his deputies..."
 


Chapter 10

Chris took a slow draw from his glass, then lost himself in thought, momentarily. He shifted in his seat, as he continued his tale.

"Old Man Silas had a bad heart, and he suffered a terrible pain one day, falling down his stairs. Damn near didn't survive it. But, he did, if barely. One of Corbin's hired hands wasn't stupid, however. He knew it was only a matter of time until the Old Man dropped for good, then he and the others stood a good chance of losing their meal tickets. So," Chris shrugged, "he did what I might have done in his shoes... He telegraphed Jeremiah, out in San Francisco, and told him he needed to come take charge..."
 
 
 

Every hand stopped what they were doing to see Jeremiah and his procession come through the gates. At least 20 hard-looking men rode with him, and he had a stern expression on his face, as a man who had an advantage and planned to press it would. Silas wanted him tossed out on his ears, but Jeremiah just laughed at his father.

"Look around you, Pa. Who's dumb enough to TRY to toss me out of my own home?"

Actually, four men were dumb enough, but their bodies were swinging slowly from an oak tree on the back forty of Corbin land, testament to Jeremiah's foresight, ordering the act done while he was still a day and a half away. The hands who performed the deed were told their necks would do the stretching if orders weren't followed to the tee.

It seems they believed the threat.

Now, Silas' men simply waited for the spade to pat down the dirt over the Old Man's face, to watch as Silas' son took over the operation, to see what direction Silas' pup would take the ranch.

They didn't wait long...
 
 
 

Buck's eyes hardened in the darkness as he thought back on those days. He expressed his thoughts once more to his beloved Laura.

"He might still have been a coward, Laura Beth, but he was a good deal meaner than when he gunned you down. Oh yeah," Buck's voice trailed a bit, then grew again, "You remember Sheriff Stonemason, that pompus ass of a has-been lawman? He was scared stiffer'n a pine board when word got back that Jeremiah was at the Old Man's ranch with twenty new hired guns. I could almost SMELL the fear on him..."
 
 
 

"You want us to WHAT?" Chris asked incredulously, as the sheriff, white and shaking like a leaf, petitioned Chris and Buck, hat in his hand.

"My three dep'i'ties took off for the hills, and I can't say as I blame 'em," the older man said, "But, I can't just up an' leave... the
missus has put too much stock into our small spread to just give it up."

Buck tipped his hat back on his head, and grinned despite the seriousness of the moment, "Well, I don't see why ya don't just lose the badge," he leaned over to look closely on the tin star on Stonemason's vest, mock-reading the lettering there, "Sheriff. Way I see it, you got no reason to get killed over differences of opinion with your owner's son."

The sheriff reddened at the implication Buck made, but kept any angry retort to himself. To an annoying degree, Buck was very perceptive, and the over-the-hill peacekeeper had to admit he was bought and paid for with Corbin money.

"I ain't no damned farmer," the man said, without a trace of resentment in his tone.

Now, Silas Corbin was simply a pain-in-the-ass; in most accounts he was fairly honest in his dealings with folks, and, in a heavy-handed way, he was a boon to the community. But, Jeremiah was a powder keg with a lit fuse. It was only a matter of time until people around him started dying. Trouble became apparent the first time Corbin came into town with his roughnecks. Merchants were expected to cut prices for Corbin and his men, drinks were to be on the house at the Saloon for them, women were to be made available for them, and the newspaper, which had never been as "accomodating" to the Corbins, was ordered to sell out and close its doors.

When outrage over the demands began, Corbin's stock response was:

"My father and I have built this town up into what it is on the backs of our efforts and generosity. It's hight time the people here showed a little gratitude!"
 
 
 

"So," Chris mused, "the Sheriff came to see the only men he knew would stand up to Corbin, and asked for help."

"And?" Nathan asked.

Chris looked at the table, then looked up into his two friends' eyes with some regret... but no apologies.

"We told him to go to hell..."
 
 
 

Laura was starting to show when a group of townsfolk came to see Buck and Chris a couple of months later. Of course, despite some hard feelings between Laura and the other locals, the two men were a little more receptive with these emmisaries than they had been Stonemason.

And, the news was indeed grim.

"We buried the sheriff today," the banker said, flatly. Some of Corbin's hands had mistaken Stonemason's daughter, Susannah, for a casual roll in the hay after a night of drunken debauchery. The Sheriff might not have had much guts left, but he was still a father, and he intended to protect his little girl. The men were too drunk to care that Susannah was unwilling, and cared even less that Dad was the local law enforcement officer. They were plastered, and he still had a bit of speed left in him, so he was able to dispatch the five crudest and most dangerous, before the others stumbled away from his wrath.

The Sheriff protected his daughter, but Stonemason would end up paying for it with his life...
 
 
 

Buck was grim as he remembered.

"All he did was protect his little girl. He never provoked a fight; they drew down on HIM... every witness said so, later. It didn't
matter..."
 
 
 

Corbin stood in the Sheriff's office, dark faced and cruel.

"Do you have any idea how hard it is to find quality protection, you dumb bastard? To replace those five, I shall have to pay twice as much."

The sheriff was livid, "They were trying to rape mah daughter, dammit! I wasn't about to stand by..."

"If you had a brain in yer head, your daughter would steer clear of this town. You already know my men expect certain favors, and they will see any skirt as fair game," Corbin continued, "Stupidity on your part is no excuse. As I see it, the deaths of my men were avoidable, and you shall pay for it."

Stonemason stood stiffly, glaring at the younger man.

"What exactly do you mean, Corbin?" he growled.

"That's Mister Corbin to you, Stonemason. And, what I mean is simple... your daughter cost me five good men, so, you shall shall pay the four thousand dollars it'll take to replace them, or, your daughter... and your wife, if need be... will work off the debt."

Meaning sank in slowly as disbelief was hard to overcome.

"You... have G-GOT to be out of yer mind, Corbin," the sheriff stammered in barely contained rage. "Your men b-broke the law, and..."

"Whose law? Let me make myself clear, here. This town is mine..."

"Your father will hear about..."

"You better yell loudly, Sheriff, 'cause the grave is cold and the ears of the dead are deaf to the living."

Stonemason clamped his mouth shut, clear understanding showing in his eyes.

Corbin nodded, "That's right, you insufferable reprobate. Silas is dead and buried. Your precious job-protection is gone, and a reckoning for years of cash wasted on yer sorry hide is now at hand. You owe me, and I mean to collect."

Stonemason gulped, as Corbin's men spread out in his office, revealing their Colts as snarling dogs reveal teeth before a fight. These men, of course, were stone sober.

"Jeremiah... please!" Stonemason pleaded, "Not Susannah, for God's sake..."

Corbin narrowed his eyes, and a humorless smile crossed his face.

"Tell ya what, Sheriff... I'll give you one chance to make good. Killing you in cold blood would only draw trouble, and I suppose having your women-folk dragged off screaming might cause unnecessary problems for me later..."

He paced the office, the Sheriff watching in horrified fascination as the mind of evil worked in front of him.

Corbin stopped, and looked right in Stonemason's eyes.

"You shall call my men out into the street, Stonemason. This time, you will face the sober and decidedly more capable arms I have in my employ. IF you survive," he shrugged, "I'll consider your debt cancelled. If you die, well... I suppose that'll satisfy me that you gave yer best effort to pay up. It's that, or my men will make a workin' girl out of yer woman-child. Choice is yers."
 
 
 

Chris slammed his glass into the table.

"To his credit, Stonemason laid two of Corbin's men low in the street," he said. "There were eight present, however. The remaining six emptied their guns into his prostrate body. They tied him to horses, and dragged him out to his small stake. His wife and daughter were left to tend to digging the six by six by three hole that serves as every man's last home on this earth..."

Ezra and Nathan were silent for a moment, then the gambler spoke up.

"I take it that such a dastardly act of villiany did not go unchallenged."

Chris shook his head in the negative.

"Nope. When the townspeople came, Buck was a farmer, and I was simply a helping hand. When they left, the town had two new lawmen..."

Chris' eyes took on that unearthly blaze his friends had become familiar with, right before the Seven unleashed righteous fury on
their enemies. Both men shivvered a little bit.

"Corbin had it all wrong... there was a debt to pay, but he was the one who owed it. Buck and me..." he smiled that smile that chilled hardened hearts, "We went to collect..."
 
 


Chapter 11
 

Buck leaned back against the elm, eyes drifting out over the slowly moving water of the creek, moonlight playing softly on the surface. He willed backed the memory of his last days with Laura, and the fateful last encounter with the man who marred the center around which Buck and Laura orbited one another.

"Even when Chris and me planned to finish it with Corbin, you were my conscience, Sweetheart," the lonely man said softly into his pain."You kept me whole..."
 
 
 

The badge shined brightly on Buck's chest, and Laura knew without asking what the tin star meant. She had no smile on her face when she looked into Buck's gleaming eyes, but hers were filled with love for her man. From the depths of her love, she spoke to him, and cut straight to his heart.

"Buck," she said quietly, locking his gaze with hers, "Now comes the day you've been dreaming of: to put a bullet in Jeremiah Corbin..."

He said nothing, but the flair of his mostrils told her all she needed to know.

"Don't act innocent with me, Buck Wilmington. We shared more than a bed, and I know you better than you know yourself. You aim to kill Jeremiah, and you want to hide your murder behind that star."

"Don't you want justice, Laura Beth, for the things he's done?" Buck asked, disbelieving accusation coloring his question.

"I can live with or without justice, My Love. But what you want is a far cry from it," she answered flatly. She motioned for him to come closer to where she stood. She put her arms around his neck, and stared into his eyes... into his soul. "Listen to me," she said softly, "He ain't worth the price of your soul."

Buck tried to look away from her, but she damn neared wrestled him to keep his eyes firmly fixed on hers. He muttered, "If not me, then who, Laura? He has to pay..."

"Yes, Buck," she retorted softly, but with iron strength in her words, "And, he will. But, you are good, kind, decent man, a loving man. A man who values honor and justice. And I mean REAL justice. The man I love understands that that badge," nodding at the gleaming metal, "means something more than an excuse to get even on my account."

Buck said nothing, but some of the hatred for Corbin had faded from his eyes.

"Do you love me Buck?" She asked tenderly, touching her nose and forehead to his drooped head.

"You ask that at the damnedest times," he laughed softly.

"No, I ask it at the best times," she responded. He felt her warmth against him, and melted in her arms. He picked her off the floor gently, and kissed her deeply.

"I love you more than life, Laura. Sure as hell, I love you more than myself," he said in a whisper, looking passionately into her face.

She smiled faintly, and nodded. "Then, I want you to remember this. I'm proud of you, My Love. Proud that you think enough of me to be a lawman. But, if you truly love me, respect me enough to do this right. Be a lawman, if you must, but be a GOOD man, first."

He was silent for a moment. Then, he replied, "Laura, I may HAVE to kill him. You know that."

She kissed him. "If you HAVE to kill him, then you have to. But, don't kill Corbin because you WANT to. That is what separates you from the animal HE is..."

"...Be lawman if you must, Buck, but be a GOOD man FIRST!" she exclaimed as she held him fast against herself.
 
 
 

Nathan let out a low whistle.

"So, you and Buck always been fightin' against the odds. Guess you're used to it."

"Pretty much," Chris admitted. "We weren't about to get any help from the townspeople in Sandstone, so we were looking at about ten to one odds, against." He stretched, then paused in contemplation. "When the odds are stacked like that, you better rely on your brains more than your guns..."
 
 
 

The new deputy in town bragged long and hard at the Sandstone Saloon about the way he and the strapping young sheriff planned to ride right out to the Corbin ranch and drag Jeremiah back to stand trial for the murder of the old sheriff. Nervous glances shifted in his direction as he drunkenly spelled out the gameplan. Some of the patrons that day listened intently to his rambling spiel, and reported back to Corbin, as soon as possible.

The road heading into Corbin's spread was fairly hilly, and one hill in particular held a lot of attraction for the ambush-minded among Corbin's hired guns, as it was covered across the middle with thick brush. Corbin told his hired guns to send a few men out among that brush to provide a real welcome for Wilmington and his loud-mouthed friend.

Of course, that's exactly what Chris suspected Corbin might do, having closely surveyed the road in this direction. Once he was sure Corbin was taking this particular course of action, he and Buck began the first phase of a little war of attrition on Corbin's ranks.
 
 
 
 

Buck smiled as he sat there thinking of that day long ago. He still looked out over the creek, and laughed.

"Oh Laura, I wish you could of seen us. Chris and me gave ol' Jeremiah the pure dee devil that day..."
 
 
 

Corbin's men waited patiently, wondering what the hell was taking so long. There hadn't been any sign of those two wannabe lawmen since they were seen leaving town early that afternoon. The men were hot and tired, growing listless as the afternoon streatched toward evening, but Buck and Chris still failed to show up. They were on the verge on giving up and heading back to the ranch when a thundering sound came from behind the hill they hid upon. Curious they sent one of their group to check on the noise.

Pete Sampson never made it to the top before the answer revealed itself: Corbin cattle driven in a full stampede by two men who were usually paid to stop them. Corbin's hired guns didn't even have time to fire in Buck and Chris' general direction, as a tidal wave of beef swept over them.

Luckily for them, the cattle were reluctant, once they got to the brush, of just running through it, and it proved too high to simply
jump over. However, they crushed in close to the brush before they veered off to the left and right. The tired hands dropped their weapons and ran, when they could, and dropped to the ground trying to protect themselves when they could not. In a matter of seconds, the ambush was routed, and the two young cattle punchers had a few less bad guys to worry about. The group that could walk were rounded up shortly, and force marched back to town for lock up. Those who couldn't walk on their own were carried by embarrassed companions.

After locking up these few, Buck and Chris began the second phase of their plan.

It was well after dark when Corbin's stable caught fire, drawing every available hand to help save it. Most of the men were already tired from having to round up Corbin's scattered cattle. The hands responsible for the herd were nowhere to be found, and Corbin's "welcoming party" was also missing-in-action. It is generally true that tired men will make mistakes, and it is also true that people fighting a fire tend not to take guns to the bucket line. Such was the case this night.

Corbin himself was out helping fight the fire when the bunkhouse blew to kingdom come, carrying the bulk of his hands' pistols and rifles with it. He looked out with stunned disbelief over the panorama of distruction. It didn't take long for an idea to sink into his skull, however, and the pieces of a puzzle that troubled him came together with crystal clarity.

"Wilmington!" he hissed under his breath. Turning to his hired help, he ordered, "Mackey, take half the men, go to my house and find as many weapons as you can lay hands on, and spread out as much as possible. Wilmington and his sidekick are around here somewhere. Find them!"

Mackey wordlessly moved, taking several men with him. Most of the others continued fighting the fire at the stable, as some went to stop the fire from spreading from the bunkhouse. Corbin was irritated to discover that a very few men stood behind him, doing nothing at all but gawking. He turned to give these slackers a piece of his mind...

...and turned into a cocked pistol wielded by a very smug looking Buck Wilmington. Corbin lost strength in his legs as he stumbled and fell on his hind quarters.

"How?" was all he could manage in wide-eyed disbelief, as he stared at his fiery-eyed adversary.

"Best place to hide is out in the open, Jeremiah," Buck smiled, leveling the gun's unfriendly end at Corbin's nose bridge.

Some of the men made to move on Buck, but a rifle-toting Larabee moved out of the shadows and commented, "I wouldn't do that, boys."

Corbin felt bile-spitting hate rise in his throat. "So, Buck," he spat, "you finally get your chance.  Why don't you just shoot me now, and be done with it?"

Buck, glaring at him down the barrel, replied, "Don't think I haven't considered it, Corbin. You just thank your stars I'm not like you."

"You don't have the guts to pull that trigger!" Corbin sneered at him.

"Don't I?" Buck mused, and pulled the trigger...
 

Chapter 12

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