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When the Leaves Fall
              Continued

Chapter 12

Chris sat at the table with Nathan and Ezra, shadows of the flickering kerosene lamps playing over his face. He still had that strange look in his eyes as he relayed the fate of Jeremiah Corbin, and both of his intently listening friends felt chill in their spines at the telling.

"In honesty, I could see myself gunning Corbin down like a dog, as he sat like a useless bump on a log. Especially after all the man had done, I'd be doin' a service to the community. But..." The black-clad gunfighter was silent for a second, as everything in the bar stilled with anticipation. Then, "...Buck and I were always fast friends, but he ain't like me. He gets mad, gets into fights, sure, but he doesn't hold grudges, and he really doesn't enjoy killin'. But, you shoulda seen the look in his eyes as he pulled that trigger..."
 
 
 

Corbin, in shock, watched the hammer fall. He closed his eyes and held his breath, wondering in that split second between life and death if there were anything on the other side of life's veil. He was still holding his eyes shut several seconds after an audible "clack" sounded on an empty chamber. He opened his eyes slowly, as angry murmmering sounded around him. Buck still held the gun a few inches from Corbin's face, but withdrew it suddenly and holstered it. A grim look of satisfaction played across Buck's features.

"Now you know what Laura feels every day of her life because of you," Buck said quietly.

When two men looked to move in Buck's direction, he pulled the second revolver out, stating, "Now this HERE gun is loaded, fellas. And, believe me, I will use it, if I have to." He aimed this Colt at Corbin, and told him to get up.

The time between Corbin's awareness of Buck and Chris to this point was all of fifteen seconds. Before long, Corbin's men would be out in full force, and some were bound to have found weapons, so, the two lawmen decided the best course of action was taking Corbin now, and leaving...
 
 
 

Buck paced by the edge of the water, humming "Yellow Rose of Texas" and remembering.

"Laura, we planned well. We knew we might have to shoot our way out, but we planned well. We actually got Jeremiah back to lock up with minimal shooting, BECAUSE we planned well. What we DIDN'T plan on was a lilly livered judge..."
 
 
 

Buck and Chris looked in dumbfounded disbelief as Judge Roy McCall released their prisioner and his men. Since no jury could be raised for the trial... everyone in Sandstone was either in cahoots with Corbin or terrified of him... it had to be a bench trial. And,
unfortuantely, it was decided by McCall that Sheriff Stonemason was shot in self-defense... by eight heavily armed assassins. And, since the only "witnesses" were owned by Corbin, there was no one to contradict the "overwhelming evidence" of self defense. Buck and Chris were chided for their "reckless harrassment" of Corbin, and we're told they were "damned lucky" they weren't relieved of their badges.

Corbin grinned slyly as he fetched his hat and headed for the door. He paused briefly to speak to Buck, "I'll be seeing you later... lawman." He laughed as he joined his men and rode away. Buck and Chris looked at each other.

"Well," Buck sighed in resignation, "maybe I shoulda just shot him when I had the chance."

Chris said nothing for a moment, but a knowing look was in his eyes when he did speak, "I have a feeling you might get another one..."
 
 
 

"The vagaries of life never cease to astound me," Ezra exlaimed as he sipped at his whiskey. "Take this libation, for example. A simple liquid made from the essence of grain and water, it gives such pleasure even as it robs a man of his good judgement." He downed the rest of it, then finished his thought, "Yet, when we consider that our careful analysis and hard work can be undone by fools in mere seconds, I wonder why we bother with judgement at all. Therefore, I say it 'tis better to drink, and forget about worry."

Chris smiled, "Do you really believe that Ezra?"

"No," the gambler replied, pouring another shotful, "but it makes as good an excuse as any to drink. And, as you know, next to drawing a straight flush against a large pot, there are few things I enjoy as much as a good drink." He grimmaced as he downed the rot gut. "What an intriguing vintage," he remarked sarcastically, "I MUST add a case to my collection."

The other two men chuckled at Ezra's wit, then Nathan turned back to Chris, "So, what happened then?"

The smile left Chris' face.

"We headed back to the Taylor place. Our advantage of surprise was gone, wasted, and we felt we had to gather Mrs. Taylor and Laura Beth and get them to safety. We'd already seen Corbin's attitude toward folks who crossed him, and we knew it was only a matter of time until he came for us."

Chris sat back again, then recalled those days, "It's funny, ya know? The Good Book talks about all things in their season... It just wasn't the season for Buck and Laura..."
 
 
 

Buck and Chris left their badges in town, figuring to move on. Corbin won, this time, and they weren't in the mood to fight it any further. Better far to cut loses and move on while they could.

The leaves were falling, as the season passed swiftly toward winter once more. Buck regreted moving Laura from her home, but it was time for living, now. home can be anywhere that love thrived, and a house was just a house without it. But, the two men knew something was wrong when they saw Sarah Tyalor frantically waving at them from the house. As they got closer, Sarah yelled out, "Get the doctor! The baby's coming!"

Chris didn't say anything. he took one quick look at Buck, turned his horse, and galloped off toward Doc Mason's. Buck rushed to the house to be with Laura. She wasn't well, and a complicated delivery was expected.
 
 
 

"Oh, but she was a beautiful girl, Laura. Just like her Momma!" Buck smiled as he knelt by Laura Beth's grave. "She took a lot out of ya, too. We couldn't move either of ya, and we were running out of time..."
 
 
 

Laura was sleeping fitfully as Mrs. Taylor carefully tended to the newborn. Buck and Laura didn't even have time to name her in all the commotion. It HAD been a rough labor, but Sarah helped her through it. Sarah cleaned the baby as Buck lovingly helped Laura get cleaned up and dressed, before carrying her to bed. It was still a half-hour before Chris and Doc Mason were to arrive.

Buck was tired, himself, and adrift in thought. The baby was nearly a month early, and couldn't have come at a worse time. Buck prayed nothing more would go wrong, as he and Chris moved everyone out of Sandstone. But, sometimes, though we might dearly wish otherwise, the answer to prayer is "No".

The sun was beginning to set as Buck cleaned up and headed back into the house. He started to close the door when he heard the unmistakable sound of hooves...
 


Chapter 13
 
 Buck stood at the edge of the creek, tensed, measuring each second in heartbeats, as he did on that fateful day, long ago...
 
 
 

Rain began falling, pretty hard, outside, as Buck rushed back inside. His eyes were wide and wild, like a trapped animal's.

Sarah knew immediately something was wrong. Buck was scared, and Buck didn't get scared easily. Sarah also wasn't stupid... since Buck was never afraid for himself, he could only be afraid for Laura and the baby. That meant trouble was upon them, and it had to be bad.

"Momma Taylor," he said, "take this rifle, and shoot anyone trying to come in here." He locked the doors and barred all the windows, as best as he could.

"W-what about Chris?" she stammered, holding the rifle as if it were a snake that he handed her.

"Trust me, Momma Taylor, he won't be coming through any time soon..."

He looked around. The house was small, and had only two windows. That was the good news. Also, there were only two doors, one on either end of a breezeway, which meant fewer directions to protect, but also meant his head better be pivoting the duration of the upcoming fight.

A voice, deep and male, called from outside, "Sheriff Wilmington!" The snide sarcasm dripped. "We'd like to have a word with you, sir, if'd you'd kindly step outside..."

"I can hear ya fine from right here!" yelled Buck.

"I imagine you can, Buck... but... uh.. me and the boys would prefer not having to yell so much!" the voice responded. The laughter rolling around told Buck what he needed to know. He could count only about seven or eight men laughing, which meant several were already working their way around the house.

He eased down the hall, and said quietly to Mrs. Taylor, "Keep ready, ma'am... they'll be trying to come in soon."

"Come now Buck," the voice returned, "we don't mean to harm the lady folk... we just wanna talk to ya!" Laughter sounded again, but Buck could see the shape of men through the two windows, men moving furtively.

And, the men were armed...

"Be careful, son!" Sarah said, as Laura woke up and looked around at Buck.

"What's wrong, Sweetheart?" she asked quietly.

"We have company, Laura," he said, easing over to pat her on the hand.

"Corbin?" she asked eyebrows arched.

"At least two dozen of his men, anyway," Buck sighed.

"Wilmington! We only want you," the voice outside reasoned, "You and that no good partner of yours. The lady folk are free to go on their way."

Buck fumed, "I'm afraid they can't leave just yet. Come back next week!"

"Sorry, I can't do that. If they can't leave, you just come on outside, and we'll finish things here. We'll leave them in peace!"

Sarah looked at Buck, "Do you believe him, son?"

"Not for a second, Momma Taylor. Corbin's not in the mercy business..."
 
 
 

Chris grimmaced, himself, as he downed his shot of red eye. "I was on my way back with Doc Mason when the gunfire started in the distance. Since the Taylor spread was the only one in that direction, I knew it could mean only one thing..."
 
 
 

Corbin's men had Buck and the two women pinned down inside, as several volleys were fired into the Taylor homestead. Laura had eased off her bed, and onto the floor with her quilts. She eased the baby out of her crib, to offer more protection. The baby, probably no more scared than the grownups, wailed in fear at the noise.
 
One man tried to knocked the front door in, but Buck shot a rifle through it, punching a hole in the man's chest. The men behind him moved away from Buck's apparent line of fire. With grim purpose, Buck turned the rifle in a steady arc between door and windows, but, desite his pounding heart, did not fire unless he had a clear target. He heard footsteps outside one of the windows, and pointed the barrel of his rifle in that direction. As soon as a body appeared in its frame, Buck shot it out again. Motion caught his eye from the other window and he whipped around in time to gun down another man running from cover toward the house. When another fell at the back door, Corbin's men realized that Buck had a better than average defensive position, and was not panicking. However, they also knew they had better numbers, and more arms. It was just a matter of time.

Staying away from the door frames proper, and out from the front of the two windows, the attackers moved to the house. In a coordinated assault, there should be no way for Buck to counter all of them. On the leader's mark, both door and windows were attacked...
 
 
 

"I knew what they were doing," Buck said softly, back to the marker, his fists clinched, and his head down. "There was just nothing I could do to prevent it..."
 
 
 

It was amazing that Buck did as well as he did. Time slowed to a near standstill in his head as both doors caved in at the same time. He rolled into the breezeway, stretching his arms in both directions, and firing his pistols once, twice... squeezing off the rounds, gritting his teeth... Sarah fired one rifle through a window, while Laura, covering her baby with her body, fired a spare pistol through the other. Men fell like the rain... but, like the rain, kept coming. Sarah was the first of the defenders to fall, taking a round through her right shoulder. Laura wheeled to put a bullet through the face of the man who shot her mother.

Buck fired until he ran out of ammo, then tried to roll back out of the breezeway to fetch his rifle, but took a shot in his left leg, a shot that passed through the flesh, but whose shock pulled him up short. Laura, in desperation, grabbed up the rifle and running to Buck's side... fueled by adrenaline... killed one man, but had another in front of her before she could get the barrel turned on him. In rage, she swung the butt up with enough force that, catching him under the chin, she snapped his neck, then turned to face the man behind him, swinging the rifle around. By this time, several men were in the house, and one of them, behind her, fired, catching her in the back. Two more men shot the gallant Laura Taylor, slamming her into a wall. They watched as she slid with painstaking slowness to the floor.

Through pain-teared eyes, Buck saw this, and tried to reach his love, when a pistol butt cracked him across the back of the skull, rendering him unconscious...
 
 
 

Wind whipped outside the Saloon in mournful tones, as Chris continued to relate what happened next.

"Doc Mason and I arrive at the Taylor place in time to see them drag Buck from the house. With my spyglass, I could see that they had his hands tied behind him, and were forcing him on a horse. One man threw a noose over one of the tree branches out front, as they looked to hang him."

Chris had lightning in his eyes as he sneered, "That wasn't going to happen while I was alive..."
 
 
 

"Doc, you sit tight," Larabee advised the man. "You'll be needed shortly to tend to Buck, and maybe the ladies inside the house."

"What are you about to do, Mr. Larabee?" he asked, visibly shaken.

Chris looked at the man with eyes that chilled the blood even in his youth.

"I'm gonna kill some men," he said with a casual calmness that belied the inferno in his gut.

He moved his steed with deliberation until he got close enough to be noticed, then he spurred his mount to full speed. Holding his bridle in his teeth, he drew his pistols and locked onto his intended victims with heartless eyes.

Corbin's men were so intent on hanging Buck, that they didn't notice Larabee until he was right on them. At full gallop he came, a born killer, and Corbin's men, although outnumbering him thirteen to one, felt fear. But, mercifully, not for long. Six men died in three and a half seconds as Chris mowed them down like winter wheat. Three others actually cleared leather before Chris plowed into them, trampling them under hoof. One man he wiped off a horse with a point blank shot to the chest, and another he defanged with a round to his mouth. The last two made as if to surrender, but he was having none of that, putting both men down with a terse response from his Colts. Buck lolled in the saddle, groggy from his blow and a loss of blood, but Chris eased him down, and, when he was sure no more threat existed, he waved the Doc to come.

Inside, Chris found carnage, where several of Corbin's men died. But, hard man that he was, his heart almost stopped when he saw Sarah and Laura Beth.

The baby cooing in her lap, Sarah gently stroked Laura's hair with her still useful arm. Laura was alive, but barely, with labored breathing, as she sat where she had slid. Blood was everywhere. Sarah looked up at Chris with tears in her eyes.

"Buck?" she asked.

"He's alive, ma'am," Chris said softly.

Momma Taylor looked with great pain at her daughter, and said, "You better fetch him, son..."
 
 
 

Buck feel to his knees beside Laura's grave, the old hurt overwhelming him. Head in his hands, he fell earthward, his sobbing robbing him of his voice. He lay by her final resting place remembering...remembering...
 
 
 

"Buck?" she asked looking up into his eyes. Her vision was blurring now, and she could barely speak.

"I'm here, Darling," he managed, holding her in his arms. His leg hurt like hell, but couldn't match the pain in his heart.

"The baby?" she asked, trying to move, to see if her infant daughter was OK, but unable. She was so weak.

"Our little girl's OK, Sweetheart. Fit as a fiddle, and ready for her Momma's milk," he tried to laugh.

Laura closed her eyes briefly, thankful that their child was alright. But Buck's pain was palpable, and, knowing she was not long for this world, she shed her love on him one last time.

"Listen to me, My Love," she said, "I don't want you pining over me."

He shook his head, not wanting to hear what she was trying to say.

"You ain't dying, you AIN'T!" he pleaded with her.

She smiled weakly, "You are a strong man, Buck... but even you can't hold me now." She was quiet for a moment. Then, breathing becoming ever more difficult, she said, "Our baby needs a Momma, Buck. I want you to promise me you'll find one. There's plenty of good women in the world..."

"If it ain't you, I'll never love again," he said softly, looking into her eyes, tears streaming down his face.

"Buck," she said, "don't say that. I'll always be with you in spirit, but don't let my memory rob you of happiness."

"I can't love another woman!" he sobbed.

With fading strength, she reached up and touched his face with her fingertips. He looked down at her.

"Well, then, Sweetheart, if you can't love one, love 'em all," she smiled, "I'd rather share you with the world than see you roam it loveless and alone. Can you promise me that much?"

He looked at her, already feeling her loss.

"Buck? Can you promise me that much?"

"Yeah, Laura... I promise," he said, not really intending to keep it.

Her breath caught, as her heart started to race. She felt so cold. And, she knew she had no time left.

"Come back to see me when... when you can, Buck..."

"I'll always come back, Sweetheart," Buck sniffed. "When shall I return for you?"

She smiled softly as her eyes clouded over, and she whispered, "Watch for the changing of the seasons... come for me when... the leaves..."

Then she was gone.

As the leaves fell in the rain outside, Chris almost swore he heard someone singing "Yellow Rose of Texas"...
 
 
 

Chris was solemn as he spoke, "Buck dug the grave in the rain and buried her by the old elm the two loved so much. I believe he thought he was burying his heart with her, but though it was broken, it could still feel ..."
 
 
 

The Saloon got deathly quiet as the two men entered... two men who should have been dead by now. Corbin's boys made up the patronage this day, as they did most days, since Jeremiah's return. They scanned the two wordlessly. They saw Buck's limp, but they were riveted by his eyes. He and Chris had matching gazes of living rage, and the blood slowly seeped from the onlookers' faces.

Chris half turned toward the barkeep, "You'd best leave."

Cyrus McMillen gulped and tried to reply, but Buck looked at him with clear intentions, "He said leave!"

McMillen never argued, departing with great haste, warning folks away from the front of the Saloon.

Within seconds, the sounds of slapping leather and cracking pistols sounded within. It was over in moments. Two men exited the Saloon... two men who should have been dead, but instead brought death with them. The banker caught them as they mounted their horses, outraged at their audacity.

"What do you think you two are DOING?" he demanded.

"About to deprive you of your gravy train," Buck snarled at him.
 



 

Jeremiah Corbin read by the kerosene lamp on his desk. He waited patiently for the word that Wilmington and Larabee were dead, but felt that word should have reached him by now. He was startled to hear the frantic shouts and the gunfire from outside. There was a crash through a downstairs window, and then the front door gave way to someone's boot. After a second of quiet, footsteps came up the stairs, rounded the corner at the top then stopped at his opened door.

Corbin turned slowly, alarm rising. Wilmington and Larabee stood outside his door. Neither spoke a word. Corbin feigned a bravado he did not feel.

"You men have a lot of gumption walking into my home like this..."

"Stand up," said Buck.

"What?"

"Are you deaf, Corbin? I said stand UP!" Buck barked.

Jeremiah Corbin stood, facing the two gunmen.

"Am I then to be cut down like an animal?" he said.

Buck tossed him a gunbelt. It was the one he wore when he shot Laura Beth.

"They're loaded," Buck stated flatly, "Put 'em on."

"I thought the regular procedure was arrest, followed by a trial..." Corbin began.

"We tried that route, once. Didn't work. You ain't walking away from the death of my Laura. You just ain't," Buck fumed. Chris said nothing.

"But..." Corbin tried to plead, holding the gunbelt in front of him.

"I'm trying to give you a fightin' chance, Corbin. It's more than ya gave my wife. But, I swear before heaven that if ya don't face me like a man, I'll throw you slap over that balcony!"

Corbin stood silently, then challenged, "I don't believe you! You don't have the guts!"

Buck's nostrils flaired, but it was Chris who answered.
 
"Mr. Corbin, let me clue you in on somethin'. I ain't tied to Buck's moral code. And I promise you, that if you DON'T put on that belt, I WILL shoot you like a dog."

Corbin hesitated, trying to gauge Larabee, then decided the man meant it. He put on the belt.

"And," Corbin spat bitterly, "I suppose I have to face the two of you..."

Chris shook his head, "No sir. I'm here to see justice done, and honor upheld. If you win, I'll walk away and leave you be. But, you are going to have to be right to walk, this time." Chris nodded to Buck, then walked into the hallway.

"So..." Corbin said. Buck still seethed within, but he wasn't going to have to murder the man, after all. Justice would be done, one way or another, but it was going to be done.

"Your move, Corbin," Buck said, "you have one chance to live or die like a man, instead of the back shooting son of a bitch who shot Laura Beth."

The two men glared at one another for an indeterminable time. Then Corbin went for his gun. He cleared leather. He even aimed his piece in Buck's direction, and, for one brief instance, when he saw the relief on Buck's face, he thought he was going to send his adversary to be with his beloved Laura. But, the relief was for the fact that it was ended, and honor was upheld. Laura's death had justice, after all, not vengence. When Buck put a shell through Jeremiah Corbin's evil heart, it was not murder, and when the second shell slammed into Corbin's body, spinning him around and flattening him over his desk,
it was over.
 
 
 

Chris swished his drink, and looked over the table at his two friends, "Sarah Taylor got stronger, but didn't want to live in Sandstone any more. She'd lost a daughter and a husband to the west, and she'd lost enough. She persuaded Buck to let her raise Laura Grace Wilmington back east, away from the death she saw here, and even tried to talk Buck into coming east with her. He's been to Charlotte from time to time to visit, and Laura, now that she's a young woman, has written to say she'd like to come west to see her Dad." He shrugged at their startled looks, "Perhaps later this year, when the leaves fall."

Nathan and Ezra decided to retire for the evening, but Chris waited up. Buck paid his respects to his only real love, then mounted Beauty and rode to town. He found Chris sitting alone, with a bottle of whiskey, and two shot glasses.

"Pardner," he nodded, then sat down heavily.

Chris filled a glass, then pushed it across the table to his long-time friend. Buck nodded, then took the glass, starting to drink, but stopped. Chris frowned slightly.

"Somethin' wrong, Buck?"

"Nothin's wrong. I just wanted... to make a toast, Chris."

Larabee's eyebrows went up. "A toast?"

"Yeah," said Buck, as a gentle smile played across his face. "To the women we loved."

Chris smiled and nodded. "To the women we loved, and the lives they changed."

The two men touched glasses then drank down, and smiled silently, knowingly at each other. Outside, in the night air, leaves fell in the wind, and "Yellow Rose of Texas" was whistled merrily by a man returning from visiting his lady true...
 

The End

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